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The most deadly species of them all! October 1, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

That’d be us, of course – humans> A point made in no end of Science Fiction films. And it’s true and on many different levels. No other species has the ability to destroy the planet, or itself.

Still, while this story in the Guardian from during the week is thought provoking:

The results revealed that for the ancestor of all mammals, around 1 in every 300 deaths was down to lethal violence between members of the same species. But, the authors note, for evolutionary ancestors of the primates and apes, the figures were higher.
Around 1.8% of deaths are thought to have been down to lethal violence for the ancestor of the great apes, and around 2% for the first humans – a figure more than six times higher than at the origin of mammals.


“We cannot tell that 2% of violence is due to genetic factors,” said Gómez. “Not only genes are inherited from ancestors, also environmental conditions and ecological constraints. Those are also probably influencing the human lethal violence in our evolutionary past.”


But Pagel believes it is important to emphasise that genetic adaptations could be at play. “Humans emerged from a very long lineage of species – great apes and before them the primates – that all expressed relatively high levels of lethal violence,” he said. “When you immerse an animal in a particular environment, it evolves genetic-based strategies for dealing with that environment. There is good reason to believe this reflects a real genetic or innate tendency to solve problems with violence.”

Of course this can be overstated. And intriguingly the study suggests that lethality has ‘fluctuated’ across time…

While the figure was around 2% for prehistoric man, matching the expected level from the calculations, the proportion of deaths down to such violence rose during other eras such as the iron age and the post-classic period (around 800-500 years ago), falling in contemporary times to below 2%.

Some disagree.

Douglas Fry of the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the US, disagreed, saying that: “Gómez and colleagues demonstrate that recent assertions by Steven Pinker and others that violent death in the Paleolithic was shockingly high are greatly exaggerated. To the contrary, the findings show that social organization is critically important in affecting human violence.”

I think most of us would agree with that last. And so does Gomez:

“The main message of our study is that no matter how violent or pacific we were in the origin, we can modulate the level of interpersonal violence by changing our social environment,”he said. “We can build a more pacific society if we wish.”

Perhaps it is important to note the fascination that violence holds for humans. I’m not alone, I suspect, in being a fan of Justified, or Law and Order, and one has to note the centrality of death and violence in fictions like those. Again let’s not overstate it. An hour of television, isn’t an hour of murder and mayhem, or at least not usually. But the manner in which murder and mayhem drives fictional narratives is stunning. I once tried to work out whether Foyles War, which I quite like too, was representative of the murder rates in the UK during the war period. Just about. Just about. Perhaps a fraction higher than the actual one. Here’s an interesting piece from the BBC on murder on television.

The latest series of tongue-in-cheek detective show Midsomer Murders is drawing to a close. The murder rate in the fictional county of Midsomer has been estimated at 32 per million, in excess of the England and Wales figures.
In Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher’s sleepy home town of Cabot Cove has a rate of 1,490 murders per million.


The kind of “whodunit” type of murder shown on television is not the norm.
Shows like Dexter, Wire in the Blood, Cracker, Messiah and even CSI depict serial killers and “stranger” murders generally with a regularity far from reality.
“There is a huge fear of stranger murders, which is completely wrong and unrepresentative of real life,” says Strachan.
“The other thing is that fictional detectives let the bodies rack up. Morse once allowed six murders to take place in the time he was investigating one – if that was real life he would have been replaced by someone who could actually do the job.”

It would be interesting too to discover what the statistics were in relation to the US beyond Murder She Wrote. My suspicion is that the television fictional murder rate outstrips the reality by quite some distance. Any additional data appreciated.

Why the fascination though? Perhaps there’s no one answer, but… is it possible that it serves a similar function to telling ghost tales around the fire – that curious dissonance between the known and comfortable and safe and the narrative outline of its opposite?

Opinions differ on Orwell but I think this paragraph hits the nail on the head perfectly:

“It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?

Naturally, about a murder.


1. gendjinn - October 1, 2016

Yeah that study looks really suspicious. Especially when the lead author is saying something ridiculous like “We cannot tell that 2% of violence is due to genetic factors,”

The error bars on the data sources they are using are more significant than the variations between the data sets.

Remember the famous Mitochondrial Eve paper was published in Nature. Even though the evolution software they used to get their “tree” was used in a manner that the short, clearly stated instructions said it could not be used in such a situation. And still got published in Nature.

This study is likely another one.

Besides it is leaving out contemporary gorilla and orangutan data which don’t fit with their “sensational” findings.


WorldbyStorm - October 1, 2016

+1. I’m like you, I’m deeply suspicious of these sort of findings. I tend to think humans are vastly more complex than that.


gendjinn - October 2, 2016

Bonobos, Chimps, Homo Habilis & discovery of fire.

I need to go read the paper because I’m wondering if the journalist didn’t mangle the research entirely.


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