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The Primate Diaries


Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo.
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The Joker’s Wild: On the Ecology of Gun Violence in America

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The United States is the deadliest wealthy country in the world. Can science help us explain, or even solve, our national crisis?

"Joker" by Nathaniel Gold

"Joker" by Nathaniel Gold

His tortured and sadistic grin beamed like a full moon on that dark night. “Madness, as you know, is like gravity,” he cackled. “All it takes is a little push.” But once the house lights rose, the terror was lifted for most of us. Few imagined that the fictive evil on screen back in 2008 would later inspire a depraved act of mass murder by a young man sitting with us in the audience, a student of neuroscience whose mind was teetering on the edge. What was it that pushed him over?

In the wake of the tragedy that struck Aurora, Colorado last Friday there remain more questions than answers. Just like last time–in January, 2011 when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot in Tucson, Arizona or before that in April, 2007 when a deranged gunman attacked students and staff at Virginia Tech–this senseless mass shooting has given rise to a national conversation as we struggle to find meaning in the madness.

While everyone agrees the blame should ultimately be placed on the perpetrator of this violence, the fact remains that the United States has one of the highest murder rates in the industrialized world. Of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks fifth in homicides just behind Brazil (highest), Mexico, Russia, and Estonia. Our nation also holds the dubious honor of being responsible for half of the worst mass shootings in the last 30 years. How can we explain why the United States has nearly three times more murders per capita than neighboring Canada and ten times more than Japan? What makes the land of the free such a dangerous place to live?

Diagnosing Murder

There have been hundreds of thoughtful explorations of this problem in the last week, though three in particular have encapsulated the major issues. Could it be, as science writer David Dobbs argues at Wired, that “an American culture that fetishizes violence,” such as the Batman franchise itself, has contributed to our fall? “Culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction,” Dobbs writes, “just as it does other traits.”

Perhaps the push arrived with the collision of other factors, as veteran journalist Bill Moyers maintains, when the dark side of human nature encountered political allies who nurture our destructive impulses? “Violence is our alter ego, wired into our Stone Age brains,” he says. “The NRA is the best friend a killer’s instinct ever had.”

But then again maybe there is an economic explanation, as my Scientific American colleague John Horgan believes, citing a hypothesis by McMaster University evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and his late wife Margo Wilson. “Daly and Wilson found a strong correlation between high Gini scores [a measure of inequality] and high homicide rates in Canadian provinces and U.S. counties,” Horgan writes, “blaming homicides not on poverty per se but on the collision of poverty and affluence, the ancient tug-of-war between haves and have-nots.”

In all three cases, as it was with other culprits such as the lack of religion in public schools or the popularity of violent video games (both of which are found in other wealthy countries and can be dismissed), commentators are looking at our society as a whole rather than specific details of the murderer’s background. The hope is that, if we can isolate the factor which pushes some people to murder their fellow citizens, perhaps we can alter our social environment and reduce the likelihood that these terrible acts will be repeated in the future. The only problem is, which one could it be?

To Err is Non-Human

Just as it is with so many other issues in our species–infanticide, sexual coercion, or collective violence–I believe we can most successfully pinpoint the broad patterns in our behavior by thinking like a primate. In most social primates (including humans) males frequently engage in aggressive competition over status with other males in their group, maiming and sometimes even killing in the process. Naturally, there is a good reason for this: sex.

In chimpanzees, for example, Cristina Gomes and Christophe Boesch have documented that the two most common reasons females will choose to have sex with a male is if that male had shared meat with them in the past or if they were high-ranking. In some species, such as hamadryas baboons, the male obsession with status has taken an extreme form. Males of this species are nearly twice the size of females because, over evolutionary time, those males that were slightly larger than others had a competitive advantage and passed on more copies of their genes as a result. Of course, all of this male-male aggression comes at a price.

“The social life of a male baboon can be pretty stressful,” writes Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “you get beaten up as a victim of displaced aggression; you carefully search for some tuber to eat and clean it off, only to have it stolen by someone of higher rank; and so on.” Over time the build up of stress hormones, known as glucocorticoids, can cause serious physiological damage and the development of stress-related illnesses. But the most common result whenever a male loses a fight, or is harassed by a higher-ranking male, is to displace that aggression elsewhere (typically on someone smaller). “Stress-induced displacement of aggression,” Sapolsky writes, “works wonders at minimizing the stressfulness of a stressor. It’s a real primate specialty as well.”

There are distinct personality styles in baboons that influence how they will react to this form of social stress. Some males are what are called “high-reactors” and see potential threats everywhere whereas others, even if they lose a struggle over status, are able to shake it off and contentedly groom another member in their troop. High-reactors can further be divided into those who externalize this stress by attacking at every opportunity and those who internalize, nervously withdrawing from others or even displaying behaviors that, if they were human, would be indications of neuropathology.

Similar results have been found in rhesus macaques by Stephen Suomi at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, who determined that approximately 20 percent of these monkeys were high-reactors. What’s more, he found that infant monkeys were likely to share this trait with their fathers even when the father wasn’t around to influence their behavior, suggesting a genetic component to highly reactive personalities. But there was an equally strong case to be made for environmental factors. When the sons of highly reactive males were placed with unusually nurturant mothers this personality trait was completely prevented. This means that borderline personalities in primates are formed by a combination of nature as well as nurture.

Stress-Related Physiology and Behavior

Figure 1. Stress-Related Physiology and Behavior in Forest Troop. A) Before the tuberculosis outbreak low-ranking males had significantly higher levels of stress hormone. B) The number of stress-related behaviors was significantly lower among low-ranking males in Forest Troop than Talek troop. Reproduced from Sapolsky and Share (2004). Click image to enlarge.

This influence that the social environment can have on primate behavior was dramatically demonstrated by Sapolsky in his 2004 paper co-authored with Lisa Share in the journal PLoS Biology. In a unique natural experiment a group of baboons known as Forest Troop began feeding at the contaminated dump site of a Western safari lodge. As had occurred elsewhere, the largest and most aggressive males dominated the food source. But this time their despotic behavior resulted in untimely death after they all contracted tuberculosis. In the intervening years Forest Troop developed a culture in which cooperation was rewarded more than aggression and adolescent males who migrated into the troop adopted this culture themselves. Remarkably, the level of stress and stress-related behaviors in low-ranking males were dramatically reduced after the outbreak (and remained significantly lower than the nearby Talek Troop that retained its most aggressive males).

“Males had high rates of affiliative behaviors, and low-ranking males were subject to low rates of aggressive attack and subordination by high-ranking males,” wrote the authors. “Precedent for this unexpected implication comes from the social epidemiology literature concerning ‘social capital,’ in which health and life expectancy increase in a community as a function of communitywide attributes that transcend the level of the individual or individual social networks.”

In other words, a culture emphasizing less aggression and with closer bonds between individuals throughout the community formed the basis for a more egalitarian society.

The Exceptionalism of American Violence

As it turns out, the “social capital” Sapolsky found that made the Forest Troop baboons so peaceful is an important missing factor that can explain our high homicide rate in the United States. In 1999 Ichiro Kawachi at the Harvard School of Public Health led a study investigating the factors in American homicide for the journal Social Science and Medicine (pdf here). His diagnosis was dire.

“If the level of crime is an indicator of the health of society,” Kawachi wrote, “then the US provides an illustrative case study as one of the most unhealthy of modern industrialized nations.” The paper outlined what the most significant causal factors were for this exaggerated level of violence by developing what was called “an ecological theory of crime.” Whereas many other analyses of homicide take a criminal justice approach to the problem–such as the number of cops on the beat, harshness of prison sentences, or adoption of the death penalty–Kawachi used a public health perspective that emphasized social relations.

In all 50 states and the District of Columbia data were collected using the General Social Survey that measured social capital (defined as interpersonal trust that promotes cooperation between citizens for mutual benefit), along with measures of poverty and relative income inequality, homicide rates, incidence of other crimes–rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft–unemployment, percentage of high school graduates, and average alcohol consumption. By using a statistical method known as principal component analysis Kawachi was then able to identify which ecologic variables were most associated with particular types of crime.

Homicide and Global Inequality

Figure 2. Homicide and Global Inequality. Greater income inequality is associated with increased homicide rates around the world. Reproduced from Fajnzylber et al. (2002). Click image to enlarge.

The results were unambiguous: when income inequality was higher, so was the rate of homicide. Income inequality alone explained 74% of the variance in murder rates and half of the aggravated assaults. However, social capital had an even stronger association and, by itself, accounted for 82% of homicides and 61% of assaults. Other factors such as unemployment, poverty, or number of high school graduates were only weakly associated and alcohol consumption had no connection to violent crime at all. A World Bank sponsored study subsequently confirmed these results on income inequality concluding that, worldwide, homicide and the unequal distribution of resources are inextricably tied. (see Figure 2). However, the World Bank study didn’t measure social capital. According to Kawachi it is this factor that should be considered primary; when the ties that bind a community together are severed inequality is allowed to run free, and with deadly consequences.

But what about guns? Multiple studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of guns and the number of homicides. The United States is the most heavily armed country in the world with 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Doesn’t this over-saturation of American firepower explain our exaggerated homicide rate? Maybe not. In a follow-up study in 2001 Kawachi looked specifically at firearm prevalence and social capital among U.S. states. The results showed that when social capital and community involvement declined, gun ownership increased (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Social Capital and Gun Ownership

Figure 3. Social Capital and Gun Ownership. Between 48 US states, gun ownership increases as community involvement goes down. Reproduced from Hemenway et al. (2001). Click image to enlarge.

Kawachi points out that it is impossible to prove whether one factor caused the other, but the most reasonable interpretation is that people who don’t trust their neighbors are more likely to think guns will provide security. In this way the number of guns and the number of homicides both stem from the same root, suggesting that guns don’t cause murders anymore than cars cause fatal accidents. This was also the conclusion of a policy paper conducted by the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research in 2005 that found no support for the argument that more guns cause more homicides. “The appearance of such an effect in past research,” wrote the authors, “appears to be the product of methodological flaws.” Unfortunately, gun control may not save us after all.

The same can also be said for violent movies as a cause of violence, according to Texas A&M University psychologist Christopher Ferguson in his 2009 book Violent Crime: Clinical and Social Implications. “Does violent media availability and exposure in a culture relate to levels of violence in that culture?” he asks. “If so, then removing violent media would appear to be an easy way to reduce societal violence. Disappointingly, the answer is clearly no.”

University of California economists Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna go even further and conclude that violent movies actually decrease the amount of violent crime. Because those who are more violence prone are more likely to seek out violent entertainment as a substitute, “violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend.” Furthermore, since Hollywood films make up to three times more money internationally than they do at home, it’s hard to understand how these movies would only influence violence in the United States. Anyway, despite the clear increase in violent entertainment during the last forty years, the level of violent crime in the United States has decreased (though it still remains high compared to other countries). It would appear that Batman is not to blame either.

Rebuilding Gotham

The clear implication is that social capital followed by income inequality are the primary factors that influence the rate of homicidal aggression. Does this mean that John Horgan’s “modest proposal” of state-sponsored socialism is the answer? Is aggression caused by inequality, and can we reduce its prevalence by imposing a level playing field?

“My tendency would be to reverse the causality,” said Frans de Waal, C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, via e-mail. “In order to have a highly skewed distribution of resources or reproductive privileges you will need a lot of aggression to maintain it. So, it’s not the inequality that causes aggression, but the other way around.” As primates we don’t simply respond to our environment; we actively build it through our interactions with others and the shared culture we create in a process known as niche construction, to use the technical jargon. And, as any baboon can tell you, what we construct isn’t always good for the least among us. Fortunately, as Forest Troop has demonstrated, there is no law of nature forcing things to stay that way.

The high level of inequality, both within the United States as well as between countries globally, was constructed through a process of social interactions. It can be deconstructed the same way. If the interpretation from social capital is correct, it suggests that building relationships through our schools, labor unions, farmers’ markets, and gun ranges, at City Hall and the State House, or active participation in our churches, temples, and mosques, can ultimately make us all more secure. But at the same time it means collectively challenging the policies of those high-ranking members in our society whose obsession with status leaves the rest of us completely stressed out.

Remarkably, this kind of social activism is the single most important factor associated with reduced violence for any neighborhood in the world. According to University of Washington sociologists Blaine Robbins and David Pettinicchio, in the first global study to examine social capital and homicide, only social activism consistently predicts homicide at the national, neighborhood, and individual levels.

This is because politically oriented individuals are also more likely to serve the needs of their community and assist in collective endeavors aimed at reducing crime. All of which follows the classic Tocquevillian premise: a willingness to take part in political affairs generates a willingness to contribute to the common good, including the production and maintenance of a safe and secure society.

Are we up to the challenge? In case anyone doubts it just consider the selfless acts of heroism that were on display at around 12:20am Friday morning. With smoke filling the air and bullets flying, Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves all sacrificed their lives to protect the people who were most important to them. Each reacted instantly by covering their loved ones with their own bodies and taking the bullets that were otherwise intended for the person beneath.

It is this capacity for altruism that distinguishes us from nearly all other primates. How many of these lone and deranged gunmen, quietly secluded from the world like brutalized baboons, could have been redirected along a different path if there had been a community that made them feel secure? Our species is uniquely qualified to engage in activities that promote the public good; all we need is a little push.

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jswilkins 9:01 am 07/26/2012

    By far the most measured and careful discussion of this I have seen. Thanks.

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  2. 2. leafwarbler 11:45 am 07/26/2012

    Very insightful analysis going past the same-old tired arguments that are made every time this happens – thank you for this, Eric. I found myself welling up by the end of your essay. As an (irrational, perhaps) optimist, I would like to think that we have the capacity to give ourselves that push, and begin reconstructing society in a different way. The example of the Forest Troop is a great one to illustrate that it is not simply a matter of what’s in our “nature” – but their culture changed when they moved into a new toxic habitat and an epidemic killed off the aggressive dominant males. Hopefully Americans can find a gentler way to make the transition!

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  3. 3. awells002 1:42 pm 07/26/2012

    “Unfortunately, gun control may not save us after all.” Maybe not from deliberate mass shootings, but what about
    gun accidents? Certainly there would be fewer accidental shootings if there were fewer guns.

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  4. 4. lancegmorton 8:23 pm 07/26/2012

    I was impressed until the last paragraph…. “It is this capacity for altruism that distinguishes us from nearly all other primates.” Huh? You’re clearly not up to date on the latest data. Most animals, including primates, exhibit altruism in one form or another. Rather egocentric of you to think otherwise. Course, you waffled between science and opinion throughout. Nice attempt. Polish up for your oral defense, though.

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  5. 5. aurelia.agnesi 9:03 pm 07/26/2012

    It’s too bad that what these spree killers are doing is only making the situation worse.

    If we really want to discourage these events, this is what news coverage of any shooting spree should look like:

    “Another shill for corporate greed contributed to the support of the hierarchical rule of the rich over the masses today, by shooting several people in Anytown, USA. Both local and national news stations have been showing up to the minute 24 hour coverage of the event, and public interest has encouraged advertisers to rush to increase their advertisement spots on the station, even as the television stations severely raise the price of the commercial spots available. Corporations have reported a large increase in sales and the television companies are enjoying even wider profit margins.

    As a result, the economy has benefited the wealthy, which in turn keeps our strong governmental system in power. Interviews with the alleged shooter’s friends say that he claims that he is an anarchist, however, our consulting psychologist says that this clearly shows that the young man suffers from severe delusions, as his actions are in complete opposition to the majority of anarchist ideals. A Fox News executive was reportedly heard as saying that he wishes he could have given the bright young man an internship in the company. “He would fit right in”, said the executive, “Too bad he shot himself in the head. Oh well”.

    And now for the weather”.

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  6. 6. cccampbell38 10:56 pm 07/26/2012

    No matter the mental state or social status, a person without a gun cannot shoot anyone.

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  7. 7. BuckSkinMan 11:33 pm 07/26/2012

    Interesting: that omitted from the article is any mention of the absence of any physical security for the theater audience whatsoever. This is the reason some victims’ families are filing law suits against the theater owners. The U.S. has developed a strong system of fire safety codes – but only after a few thousand people died over a period of 50+ years. Now, the U.S. enjoys one of the best fire safety records. (This isn’t rocket science or even “primate science.”) The shooter (Holmes) left through an unsecured rear door to collect his weapons and returned (after crossing an open unsecured parking lot) to open fire on 200 unarmed, helpless people. The police: arrived long after they could have prevented any crime, even this protracted shooting incident. So if there had been laws to enforce physical security: this lone individual would either have been long-delayed or prevented from re-entering the theater while heavily armed.

    Solution #2: when you live in a violent environment, humans don’t follow the same profile as weaponless chimps and baboons. They get themselves equalized – neutralizing the advantage of bullies or any kind of violent criminal.

    Japan became militaristic during the 1930s and was easily able to subdue the far more numerous (disarmed) Chinese on their home ground. It took a heavily armed United States to “solve” that inequality problem.

    Are mass shootings even a problem? Given that Holmes and all
    his forebear killers were one part in 200 million adults: it appears not. Such incidents are heavily publicized – which creates a misperception regarding the size of the problem.

    U.S. homicide rates (contrary to the claim in this article) have dropped significantly over the past 10 years. During that same 10 years: there’s been a drastic increase in the availability of concealed carry licenses and corresponding rise in handgun ownership. Government has recognized the individual’s right to self defense.

    The Michigan State Police maintain a website which (monthly) reports on the total number (ever increasing) of those earning Concealed Pistol Licenses (as they’re called in that state) and the crime rates by county of permit holders. Michigan’s adult population is about 7 million- of which 5% currently hold CPLs. The crime rate among these 350,000 adults is negligible compared to the rest of the population. In other words: ordinary people are arming themselves to equal the imbalance of force enjoyed by the criminal-minded.

    Shortcut to a solution: mandate physical security (i.e. guard the perimeters with electronic security) for public gathering places – just as fire safety equipment in public buildings is mandated. And: stop prohibiting people who are licensed from carrying their self defense handguns (concealed so that no one becomes alarmed) in these places (i.e., movie theaters, malls, stores, etc.). If the Cinemark Theater audience had just 5% of attendees carrying their self defense handguns, Holmes would have faced ten armed “victims” who could have drastically interfered with his “effectiveness.”

    It’s easier to equalize the imbalance for the majority versus the very few who are somehow made crazy by a shortage of “social capital” than it is to identify, track and control the one in 200 million individuals who decide they’re going to “even the score” by killing innocents.

    Since we cannot kill off the more aggressive members of our society (let alone wait for them to die off from tuberculosis), we’ll just have to either wait a few decades until we’ve become more pacific – or adopt the practical solutions of improved physical security and armed self defense.

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  8. 8. tate0774 4:41 am 07/27/2012

    It might be worthwile to study the relationship between the behavior routines of police in different countries vs. violence rates.

    In the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland), police never place handcuffs on apprehended drivers or misbehaving persons nor force them to put their hands on the car roof or against a wall.

    Instead, all people are treated rather kindly, interviewed using common and relaxing phrases before taking them to further procedures in the police car/van.

    Obviously, there is a certain lower limit of gun violence in any country having free posession of arms, how controlled whatsoever. Yet, the confidence of people on the unbiased attitude of police contributes to the relative feeling of security on the streets and in public occasions.

    It might be useful for US gun control lawmakers to pay a visit to, e.g., Finland, to verify that it is still possible to find a place on the earth (in addition to Japan and Canada), where doors can be left unlocked, lost wallets are returned at a 90 % probability to a community-held office and no knives (bar no guns) are allowed to be carried by individuals walking on the streets of Helsinki.

    This comment is based on my memories from New York City in 1969. Firstly, I was charged $50 by a “gipsy” taxi 5 AM for a trip from JFK airport to the center. (By an entirely improbable coincidence, I found the same taxi one month later on the 42th Street overcharging another turist group late in the evening 1 AM. When reporting the incidence, the officer at the police station said: are you stupid, gipsy taxies are everywhere, you should have checked the taxi license. As a Finn, I was stunned.

    Secondly, in Chicago, I was ignorant enough to walk through the blocks of coloured inhabitants to see the local environment. A window frame was intentionally dropped from the 3rd floor just behind me as warning. It took many year for me to understand the message.

    Taisto Leinonen, M.Sc.(electronics)
    Helsinki, Finland
    (Editor-in-Chief in Electronics News Finland, 1969-1975)

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  9. 9. David Marjanović 6:07 am 07/27/2012

    Government has recognized the individual’s right to self defense.

    Yeah, because it has failed to provide that defense itself. I’m told that in the USA, if it’s a “good neighborhood”, the police come 30 minutes after you call them, and if it’s a “bad neighborhood”, they never show up at all. Where I come from, the police arrive within 5 minutes.

    Having a police is one of the few reasons for having an organized state at all.

    If the Cinemark Theater audience had just 5% of attendees carrying their self defense handguns, Holmes would have faced ten armed “victims” who could have drastically interfered with his “effectiveness.”

    In the dark, with tear gas around, in such a crowded place?

    You know full well what would have happened: they’d all have shot each other, plus anyone who happened to be between them!

    Interesting: that omitted from the article is any mention of the absence of any physical security for the theater audience whatsoever. This is the reason some victims’ families are filing law suits against the theater owners.

    If cinemas, let alone parking lots, need to be secured like airports, the USA has failed as a country.

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  10. 10. biggus56 8:17 am 07/27/2012

    “Are mass shootings even a problem?”

    Chilling.

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  11. 11. Gman93 8:47 am 07/27/2012

    Eric, I enjoyed your post. I’m 58 and have studied violence for most of my adult life, as perpetrator (military and martial arts) and preventor (counselor and law enforcement). The causes are complex, but I think the relationship between social capital and violence is important and not yet widely recognized. You didn’t mention the meta-data contained in “The Spirit Level” but I believe that is another valuable resource. Additionally I think Dr. James Gilligan’s prison inmate experience, related in “Violence: Reflections On A National Epidemic,” is also insightful. I also think self-directed violence (suicide) statistics need to be included with other-directed violence (assault and homicide) to have a more complete picture of the relationships between societal structures, firearms and violence.

    All my best,
    Eric Mosley

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  12. 12. Daniel Cohen 11:40 am 07/27/2012

    Johnson’s essay is interesting and important, and should be required reading. But I don’t think it applies to the Aurora mass shooting.

    The essay discusses “the social life of male baboons”. Well maybe my buddies and I do that, sometimes. And maybe we have a lot of experience with that strategy and its benefits. But it’s important to remember that the Baboon Strategy is practiced on a regular basis, between guys who are closely connected by tribal or economic factors, such as the supply of food or sex. So when a male baboon enters my space, I know that a struggle for status is underway, and I am ready for action.

    There never was a direct, close relationship between Holmes and the theater audience. There was no attempt to take any guy’s popcorn or girlfriend. There was no warning to action — in fact it wouldn’t matter how anybody responded to his aggression, he was there to shoot people, not to establish dominance over them.

    More abstractly: The Male Baboon Strategy is normal, every-day, expected behavior (for a baboon). The mass killings are very definitely abnormal, rare, pathological, and not wanted. Also the Baboon Strategy is social interaction, whereas the Holmes shooting was certainly personal, selfish, and one-sided.

    Also,

    These mass killings have nothing to do with gun control. It’s easy for our civic leaders to make noises about gun control, or getting tough on crime, or security in a crowd. That kind of discussion allows our own male baboons to hoot and howl and beat their chests. But the noise cannot address the issue of the sick, pathological, lone mass killer.

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  13. 13. mdub3000 1:40 pm 07/27/2012

    I thought the article was well reasoned and informative, but framed incorrectly. Johnson presents behavior as the result of a singular cause-social inequality. But the truth is that the things we do are a consequence of several factors. Genes, the environment within the womb, diet, severity and duration of disease exposure, family, peers, education, access to resources, and yes, feelings of inequality.

    I did appreciate the primatological perspective, however, and I think more people need to think “evolutionarily” when it comes to behavioral explanations.

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  14. 14. JasonAntrosio 11:39 am 07/28/2012

    I am sympathetic to many of the arguments here, and see social inequality as more the “root cause.” However, the latter part of this sentence seems at least strange if not irresponsible:

    “In this way the number of guns and the number of homicides both stem from the same root, suggesting that guns don’t cause murders anymore than cars cause fatal accidents.”

    Cars may not cause fatal accidents, but that does not prevent us from putting in place a whole series of safety measures, speed limits, annual inspections, driver licensing programs, and mitigating what used to be truly terrible car design.

    I do see a diagnosis of “gun culture” as an issue and a recommendation of specific mitigation measures as important: http://www.livinganthropologically.com/2012/07/21/gun-culture-anthropology/

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  15. 15. danarel 3:13 pm 07/29/2012

    i am shocked by all the negativity in these comments.

    what we have here is a very well written piece that discusses a major problem in our country. i appreciate the that someone is trying to look at this problem scientifically, and looking at if science can help here.

    i see complaints of people saying this is opinion mixed with science. well, welcome to science. Eric is using the most available science to him to form an opinion on this matter, what else can we ask of him?

    also, a comment stating that other animals show altruism like humans is wrong. yes, other animals show altruistic behavior, this is not being argued here, but our level of altruism surpasses all other species on so many amazing levels. I dont think Eric was trying to state we are the only altruistic species, and if you have read his other works you would know how up to date on this research he actually is.

    overall, i think this is a great piece and i was happy that someone wrote something I could share with family and friends that not only gave this tragedy a look scientifically, but also gives us hope that maybe, the scientific community can find a way to help reduce such tragedy in the future. Sure right now all it is is hope, but what more can we ask for? It starts here, now its time for us to all do something.

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  16. 16. Nichol 6:53 pm 07/29/2012

    A very interesting view on this problem. Now that we know that gun control will not reduce gun killings, it seems there is no reason to limit gun ownership to adults. They can now be handed out to all children. Or at least those above 6 years old.

    One detail not dealt with in this article are the numbers dead or injured due to accidents. Or maybe overly rash suicides. Could gun control make sense for this issue? Or is social darwinism the american way in a country where belief in real darwinism is still exceptionally low?

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  17. 17. sstarfury 1:18 am 07/30/2012

    Very interesting article. I would like to read more information with different point of views. Is it really about our socioeconomic status? or The belief that we as Americans can do whatever we want with no consequences? Or is it about or perception about the way we view life and our neighbours?

    I would love to read more on this topic.

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  18. 18. Bobbip 2:23 pm 07/31/2012

    Thankfully, this is not another misguided attempt at gun control! People all too often fail to realize that shooting people is already against the law, and that such criminals could care less about gun legislation, thus only law-abiding people are disarmed.

    But, a key point to our collective violence in the U.S. is that we are a melting pot! This diversity, while offering many benefits of creative thinking, also raises suspicions. Christians and Jews are suspicious of Muslims, whites are suspicious of Hispanics and Blacks, and so on. Our diversity and different ethnic and national backgrounds brings with it, different cultures, expectations, and values. Put together, there is greater paranoia, greater need for self defense, and the disparity in wealth mentioned by the author, greater need for guns, both real and perceived. Put a bunch of males of most species together– especially from different tribes/herds/species– and you will have increased violence.

    Gun legislation is mostly misguided, with the basic fact that only law-abiding people (who are NOT the problem) adhere to laws, while criminals– who ARE the problem– do not. If legislation works, we would have no drug problems, would we? And, as one person suggested that if guns were banned there would be fewer gun-acccidents, they should consider that if cars were banned, there would be fewer traffic accidents. And, with a disarmed populace, fewer gun accidents would also mean more intentional shootings by criminals.

    If you REALLY want to reduce violence, castrate all males, ban alcohol, promote marijuana– is THAT what we want? I don’t think the ends justify the means, but do realize that the choice of weapon does not create the motive for crime. Rather, the weapon is simply a tool to accomplish another purpose, whether for committing robberies and murder, or for self-defense or police work.

    Remember, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.

    Link to this
  19. 19. O Bloody Hell 9:42 am 08/23/2013

    Carefully cherry-picked statistics do not a reliable source make.

    “The homicide rate (the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants) is a more reliable measure of a country’s safety level because, unlike other crimes, murders are usually always reported to the police.”

    Because this happens to make the USA look BAD, as opposed to the VIOLENT CRIME RATE which is much worse for all those “OECD” nations. Getting raped strikes me as on the same par as murder, at the least. And the notion that there are substantially MORE unreported assaults per capita in one nation as opposed to another is a rather dubious claim unsupported by evidence but clearly at the heart of this notion.

    In the UK, 80% of all home-invasion robberies occur when the resident is home. In the USA, it’s the other way around — 80% of all HIR occur when the owner is AWAY. This is because burglars in the USA know they have a good chance of getting their asses shot off if they break in when the owner is home. In the UK, burglars, usually young, tough thugs with a tire iron or bat, can overpower their commonly elderly and/or female victims and force them to reveal where the “goodies” are. Bad as coming home to a burgled house may be, I think having someone beating the crap out of you (or threatening to) to force you to tell them where everything valuable is is quite a bit worse.

    The UK, by the way, ranks AT THE TOP of all nations for violent crime per capita. The USA doesn’t even make the TOP 25…

    In fact, despite the plethora of guns around, indeed, guns per capita increasing — the rates for ALL varieties of violent crime have been dropping steadily in the USA. The same cannot be said for the UK, where violent crime of ALL FORMS has been steadily increasing for most of the last THREE DECADES.

    Link to this

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