The Myth of Man the Killer

(An updated version of this essay lives here.)

One of the most dangerous errors of our time is the belief that human beings are uniquely violent animals, barely restrained from committing atrocities on each other by the constraints of ethics, religion, and the state.

It may seem odd to some to dispute this, given the apparently ceaseless flow of atrocity reports from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon and Los Angeles that we suffer every day. But, in fact, a very little study of animal ethology (and some application of ethological methods to human behavior) suffices to show the unbiased mind that human beings are not especially violent animals.

Desmond Morris, in his fascinating book Manwatching’, for example, shows that the instinctive fighting style of human beings seems to be rather carefully optimized to keep us from injuring one another. Films of street scuffles show that “instinctive” fighting consists largely of shoving and overhand blows to the head/shoulders/ribcage area.

It is remarkably difficult to seriously injure a human being this way; the preferred target areas are mostly bone, and the instinctive striking style delivers rather little force for given effort. It is enlightening to compare this fumbling behavior to the focussed soft-tissue strike of a martial artist, who (having learned to override instinct) can easily kill with one blow.

It is also a fact, well-known to military planners, that somewhere around 70% of troops in their first combat-fire situation find themselves frozen, unable to trigger lethal weapons at a live enemy. It takes training and intense re-socialization to make soldiers out of raw recruits. And it is a notable point, to which we shall return later, that said socialization has to concentrate on getting a trainee to obey orders and identify with the group. (Major David Pierson of the U.S. Army wrote an illuminating essay on this topic in the June 1999 Military Review).

Criminal violence is strongly correlated with overcrowding and stress, conditions that any biologist knows can make even a laboratory mouse crazy. To see the contrast clearly, compare an urban riot with post-hurricane or -flood responses in rural areas. Faced with common disaster, it is more typical of humans to pull together than pull apart.

Individual human beings, outside of a tiny minority of sociopaths and psychopaths, are simply not natural killers. Why, then, is the belief in innate human viciousness so pervasive in our culture? And what is this belief costing us?


The historical roots of this belief are not hard to trace. The Judeo-Christian creation story claims that human beings exist in a fallen, sinful state; and Genesis narrates two great acts of revolt against God, the second of which is the first murder. Cain kills Abel, and we inherit the “mark of Cain”, and the myth of Cain — the belief that we are all somehow murderers at bottom.

Until the twentieth century, Judeo-Christianity tended to focus on the first one; the Serpent’s apple, popularly if not theologically equated with the discovery of sexuality. But as sexual taboos have lost their old forbidding force, the “mark of Cain” has become relatively more important in the Judeo-Christian idea of “original sin”. The same churches and synagogues that blessed “just wars” in former centuries have become strongholds
of ideological pacifism.

But there is a second, possibly more important source of the man-as-killer myth in the philosophy of the Enlightenment — Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature as a “warre of all against all”, and the reactionary naturism of Rousseau and the post-Enlightenment Romantics. Today these originally opposing worldviews have become fused into a view of nature and humanity that combines the worst (and least factual) of both.

Hobbes, writing a rationalization of the system of absolute monarchy under the Stuart kings of England, constructed an argument that in a state of nature without government the conflicting desires of human beings would pit every man against his neighbor in a bloodbath without end. Hobbes referred to and assumed “wild violence” as the normal state of humans in what anthropologists now call “pre-state” societies; that very term, in fact, reflects the Hobbesian myth,

The obvious flaw in Hobbes’s argument is that he mistook a sufficient condition for suppressing the “warre” (the existence of a strong central state) for a necessary one. He underestimated the innate sociability of human beings. The anthropological and historical record affords numerous examples of “pre-state” societies (even quite large multiethnic/multilingual populations) which, while violent against outsiders, successfully maintained internal peace.

If Hobbes underestimated the sociability of man, Rousseau and his followers overestimated it; or, at least, they overestimated the sociability of primitive man. By contrasting the nobility and tranquility they claimed to see in rural nature and the Noble Savage with the all-too-evident filth, poverty and crowding in the booming cities of the Industrial Revolution, they secularized the Fall of Man. As their spiritual descendants today
still do, they overlooked the fact that the urban poor had unanimously voted with their feet to escape an even nastier rural poverty.

The Rousseauian myth of technological Man as an ugly scab on the face of pristine Nature has become so pervasive in Western culture as to largely drive out the older opposing image of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” from the popular mind. Perhaps this was inevitable as humans achieved more and more control over their environment; protection from famine, plague, foul weather, predators, and other inconveniences of nature encouraged the fond delusion that only human nastiness makes the world a hard place.

Until the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the Rousseauian view of man and nature was a luxury confined to intellectuals and the idle rich. Only as increases in urbanization and average wealth isolated most of society from nature did it become an unarticulated and unexamined basic of popular and academic belief. (In his book “War Before Civilization”, Lawrence Keeley has given us a trenchant analysis of the way in which the Rousseauian myth reduced large swathes of cultural anthropology to uttering blinkered nonsense.)

In reality, Nature is a violent arena of intra- and inter-species competition in which murder for gain is an everyday event and ecological fluctuations commonly lead to mass death. Human societies, outside of wartime, are almost miraculously stable and nonviolent by contrast. But the unconscious prejudice of even educated Westerners today is likely to be that the opposite is true. The Hobbesian view of the “warre of all against all” has survived only as a description of human behavior, not of the wider state of nature. Pop ecology has replaced pop theology; the new myth is of man the killer ape.

Another, darker kind of romanticism is at work as well. To a person who feels fundamentally powerless, the belief that one is somehow intrinsically deadly can be a cherished illusion. Its marketers know full well that violence fantasy sells not to the accomplished, the wealthy and the wise, but rather to working stiffs trapped in dead-end jobs, to frustrated adolescents, to retirees — the marginalized, the lonely and the lost.

To these people, the killer-ape myth is consolation. If all else fails, it offers the dark promise of a final berserkergang, unleashing the mythic murderer inside to express all those aggravations in a gory and vengeful catharsis. But if seven out of ten humans can’t pull the trigger on an enemy they have every reason to believe is trying to kill them, it seems unlikely that ninety-seven out of a hundred could make themselves murder.

And, in fact, less than one half of one percent of the present human population ever kills in peacetime; murders are more than an order of magnitude less common than fatal household accidents. Furthermore, all but a vanishingly small number of murders are performed by males between the ages of 15 and 25, and the overwhelming majority of those by unmarried males. One’s odds of being killed by a human outside that demographic bracket are comparable to one’s chances of being killed by a lightning strike.


War is the great exception, the great legitimizer of murder, the one arena in which ordinary humans routinely become killers. The special prevalence of the killer-ape myth in our time doubtless owes something to the horror and visibility of 20th-century war.

Campaigns of genocide and repressions such as the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin’s engineered famines, the Ankha massacres in Cambodia, and “ethnic cleansing” in Yugoslavia loom even larger in the popular mind than war as support for the myth of man the killer. But they should not; such atrocities are invariably conceived and planned by selected, tiny minorities far fewer than .5% of the population.

We have seen that in normal circumstances, human beings are not killers; and, in fact, most have instincts which make it extremely difficult for them to engage in lethal violence. How do we reconcile this with the continuing pattern of human violence in war? And, to restate to one of our original questions, what is belief in the myth of man the killer doing to us?

We shall soon see that the answers to these two questions are intimately related — because there is a crucial commonality between war and genocide, one not shared with the comparatively negligible lethalities of criminals and the individually insane. Both war and genocide depend, critically, on the habit of
killing on orders
. Pierson observes, tellingly, that atrocities “are generally initiated by overcontrolled personality types in second-in-command positions, not by undercontrolled personality types.” Terrorism, too, depends on the habit of obedience; it is not Osama bin Laden who died in the 9/11 attack but his minions.

This is part of what Hannah Arendt was describing when, after the Nuremberg trials, she penned her unforgettable phrase “the banality of evil”. The instinct that facilitated the atrocities at Belsen-Bergen and Treblinka and Dachau was not a red-handed delight in murder, but rather uncritical submission to the orders of alpha males — even when those orders were for horror and death.

Human beings are social primates with social instincts. One of those instincts is docility, a predisposition to obey the tribe leader and other dominant males. This was originally adaptive; fewer status fights meant more able bodies in the tribe or hunting band. It was especially important that bachelor males, unmarried 15-to-25 year-old men, obey orders even when those orders involved risk and killing. These bachelors were the tribe’s hunters, warriors, scouts, and risk-takers; a band would flourish best if they were both aggressive towards outsiders and amenable to social control.

Over most of human evolutionary history, the multiplier effect of docility was limited by the small size (250 or less, usually much less) of human social units. But when a single alpha male or cooperating group of alpha males could command the aggressive bachelor males of a large city or entire nation, the rules changed. Warfare and genocide became possible.

Actually, neither war nor genocide needs more than a comparative handful of murderers — not much larger a cohort than the half-percent to percent that commits lethal violence in peacetime. Both, however, require the obedience of a large supporting population. Factories must work overtime. Ammunition trucks must be driven where the bullets are needed. People must agree not to see, not to hear, not to notice certain things. Orders must be obeyed.

The experiments described in Stanley Milgram’s 1974 book “The Perils of Obedience” demonstrated how otherwise ethical people could be induced to actively torture another person by the presence of an authority figure commanding and legitimizing the violence. They remain among the most powerful and disturbing results in experimental psychology.

Human beings are not natural killers; very, very few ever learn to enjoy murder or torture. Human beings, however, are sufficiently docile that many can eventually be taught to kill, to support killing, or to consent to killing on the command of an alpha male, entirely dissociating themselves from responsibility for the act. Our original sin is not murderousness — it is obedience.


And this brings us to the final reason for the prevalence of the myth of man the killer; that it encourages obedience and legitimizes social control of the individual. The man who fears Hobbes’s “warre”, who sees every one of his neighbors as a potential murderer, will surrender nearly anything to be protected from them. He will call for a strong hand from above; he will become a willing instrument in the oppression of his fellows. He may even allow himself to be turned into a killer in fact. Society will be atomized into millions of fearful fragments, each reacting to the fear of fantasied individual violence by sponsoring the political conditions for real violence on a large scale.

Even when the fear of violence is less acute, the myth of man the killer well serves power elites of all kinds. To define the central problem of society as the repression of a universal individual tendency to violence is to imply an authoritarian solution; it is to deny without examination the proposition that individual self-interest and voluntary cooperation are sufficient for civil order. (To cite one current example, the myth of man the killer is a major unexamined premise behind the drive for gun control.)

In sum, the myth of man the killer degrades and ultimately disempowers the individual, and unhelpfully deflects attention from the social mechanisms and social instincts that actually underlie virtually all violence. If we are all innately killers, no one is responsible; the sporadic violence of crime and terrorism and the more systematic violence of governments (whether in “state” or “pre-state” societies, and in wartime or otherwise) is as inevitable as sex.

On the other hand, if we recognize that most violence (and all large-scale violence) arises from obedience, and especially from the commission of aggressive violence by bachelor males at the command of alpha male pack leaders, then we can begin to ask more fruitful questions. Like: what can we do, culturally, to disrupt this causal chain?

First, we must recognize the primary locus and scope of the problem. By any measure, the pre-eminent form of aggressive pack violence is violence by governments, in either its explicit form as warfare and genocide or in more or less disguised peacetime versions. Take as one indicator the most pessimistic estimate of the 20th-century death toll from private aggression and set it against the low-end figures for deaths by government-sponsored violence (that is, count only war casualties, deliberate genocides, and extra-legal violence by organs of government; do not count the deaths incurred in the enforcement of even the most dubious and oppressive laws). Even with these assumptions biasing the ratio to the low side, the ratio is clearly 1000:1 or worse.

Readers skeptical of this ratio should reflect tha government-directed genocides alone (excluding warfare entirely) are estimated to have accounted for more than 250,000,000 deaths between the massacre of the Armenians in 1915 and the “ethic cleansings” of Bosnia and Rwanda-Burundi in the late 1990s. Even the 9/11 atrocity and other acts of terrorism, grim as they have been, are mere droplets besides the oceans of blood spilled by state action.

In fact, the domination of total pack violence by government aggression reaches even further than that 1000:1 ratio would indicate. Pack violence by governments serves as a model and a legitimizing excuse not merely for government violence, but for private violence as well. The one thing all tyrants have in common is their belief that in their special cause, aggression is justified; private criminals learn and profit by that example. The contagion of mass violence is spread by the very institutions which ground their legitimacy in the mission of suppressing it — even as they perpetrate most of it.

And that is ultimately why the myth of man the killer ape is most dangerous. Because when we tremble in fear before the specter of individual violence, we excuse or encourage social violence; we feed the authoritarian myths and self-justifications that built the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulags.

There is no near-term hope that we can edit either aggression or docility out of the human genome. And the individual small-scale violence of criminals and the insane is a mere distraction from the horrific and vast reality that is government-sanctioned murder and the government-sanctioned threat of murder.

To address the real problem in an effective way, we must therefore change our cultures so that either alpha males calling themselves “government” cease giving orders to perform aggression, or our bachelor males cease following those orders. Neither Hobbes’s counsel of obedience to the state nor Rousseau’s idolization of the primitive can address the central violence of the modern era — state-sponsored mass death.

To end that scourge, we must get beyond the myth of man the killer and learn to trust and empower the individual conscience once again; to recognize and affirm the individual predisposition to make peaceful choices in the non-sociopathic 97% of the population; and to recognize what Stanley Milgram showed us; that our signpost on the path away from mass violence reads “I shall not obey!”

Blogspot comments

2 thoughts on “The Myth of Man the Killer

  1. Funny, since this line of reasoning is the same that Communists and Socialists use. If people were really that good, and not animals, Communism would have work. Sad to say, since that experiment failed, so would any experiment in Libertarianism or Anarchy. People simply cannot be trusted to treat others right, and you are a fool if you believe that they can.

  2. Did you even read the essay? ESR isn’t saying, “such-and-such is how my favored form of government would function”. Instead, he is saying, “this is how all modern totalizing government functions”, which certainly includes your communist and socialist bogeymen. Do you contend that if the cultural incentives that lead to death-obedience are lessened, all of our young men will become socialists? What about young men in socialist countries? Without death-obedience, would they all become Republicans?

    The fact you read this essay as an argument for a different form of government, rather than as the argument for a changed culture that it is, indicates the size of the freedom-shaped hole in your mind. Actually, the “cannot be trusted” line is the really diagnostic comment. You don’t trust the people around you, whom you can see, with whom you can converse and trade, against whom you can act, if necessary. But you do trust the unseen civics-class-mythological enforcer state to protect you from them and not to include you and yours in the ever-growing group of people whose lives it randomly decides to ruin. That is delusional.

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