Ongoing selection against violent behaviour

From Mark Pagel, author of Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind, in a RSA podcast:

Cultural evolution and genetic evolution are still going on. We’re still evolving. Our societies are strongly selecting against violence and antisocial behaviour at a genetic level. People who knock you over the head and steal your wallet get thrown in jail, and it’s hard to have reproductive success in jail. And some societies even kill people who do those things, and so we are still selecting against antisocial behaviour very strongly in our societies. And so we’re still evolving. There’s hope.

10 comments

  1. That would be a nice explenation of Steven Pinkers thesis of diminishing violence. On the other hand, I guess alot of violent people manage to reproduce before the get thrown in jail.

  2. Yes, culturally speaking, I agree that we’re (attempting) to select against antisocial behaviour (but even here there are counter forces that encourage antisocial behaviour). Still, I’m highly sceptical that it’ll have a significant effect on reproductive success: they only need to reproduce either before or after they get out of prison. In the most extreme situations, where said offender is killed for his crimes, then we might merely see a pressure on potential criminals (e.g. those in gangs) to have children at an earlier age. This is without going into issues concerning how they might be more inclined to be more indiscriminate in their mating patterns than non-offenders e.g. mate with many different women. It’s an interesting question though.

    1. As a baseline, my instinct is that the reproductive success of criminals reflects their financial success. They likely do slightly better (on average) than if they pursued alternatives, but there is little compensation for the risk premium. I expect many would like to be more indiscriminate in their mating patterns, but willing parters (rather than prison) is the constraint.

      As for the effect of prison, I would expect it must be possible to collect some data on this (if someone hasn’t already), but who are the control group you compare the prisoners to? Is there enough variation in prison sentences across states to see the effect on fertility?

    1. What I meant to add – what sorts of behaviors are defined as ‘cheating’? The overt behaviors such as interpersonal violence, or the more sophisticated sorts of things like cronyism and corruption?

  3. This seems like something that could be estimated empirically. My sense is that, even if one assumes that variation in human violence is largely due to genetic variation, that selection on genes due to imprisonment would be strong enough over the time-frame of Pinker’s thesis to make much of a difference.

    Also, from what I understand socially-sanctioned killing of the most violent people is not a recent invention. From what I understand, it is pretty pervasive in small-scale societies..

  4. There is a fallacy in that argument.

    1. Humans are endowed with natural reflexes not to harm other members of the same species. By the way all mammals are. People who train martial art have to make great efforts to overrule those reflexes, so there is no need to biological evolve that trait.

    2. The most serious crimes in history have been committed by men in behalf of the society they were a member of. There are only few examples, and those of course exist, where men or women killed or tortured other people for sheer pleasure. Those instances are so rare that we safely may call them pathologic and not normal human behavior.

    To solve the question why people commit crimes despite their inborn reflexes, you have to apply fauceir theory: As biological beings humans are slave fauceirs to societies they live with, and those societies in early human history acquired (evolved) the capability to overrun the inborn human reflexes. Social fauceirs evolved that trait because it was beneficial, a selectional advantage. If a primeval group was able to kill members of an other group, their chances to survive on limited resources increased. Later on, societies evolved ideologies to mobilize ever more people to kill ever more other people. The holocaust and WW2 that killed millions of people were initiated in behalf of social interests justified by a specific ideology. But even less serious crimes have had their origin in societies, gangs or murderous families, that taught their members to pursue group interests and not to be too merciful against others.

    Now what about the the selection against anti-social behavior. That exists of course since the advent of human societies, so I cannot agree more. That tendency is a typical evolutionary one (the fauceir rule of increasing enslavement), but I disagree that this means reduced crime rates. Josef Mengele for instance, exhibited perfect social behavior in his society, Nazi Germany, whereas an other persom from the same period, Claus von Stauffenberg, showed typical anti-social behavior, which would have saved many human lives but regrettably failed.

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