Violent Behavior – Learned or Genetic?

Caught this in Sharon Begley’s column in Friday’s Wall St. Journal. (click here for full article, available for a few days). Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky has observed that when the most aggressive, dominant members of a baboon clan are removed, the culture of the remaining baboons changes to become more peaceful. These changes persist even as new generations come into the clan either from birth or from other clans.

The most recent evidence of culture among animals comes from studies of olive baboons. It stands out because the learned behavior is so at odds with how badly baboons customarily behave.

Baboons tend to be fierce and aggressive, and the “Forest Troop” in Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve fits the mold. Males fought over everything (grub, girls …) and nothing. But in 1982, the aggressive males began raiding the garbage pit of a nearby tourist lodge, gorging on rotten meat. Almost half of the troop’s males — and all the aggressive ones — died of tuberculosis, leaving, as Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky puts it, “a cohort of atypically unaggressive survivors.”


When he and his colleague and wife, Lisa Share, returned to the troop in 1993, they found a peaceable kingdom. The males better tolerated their social inferiors and groomed females more than those in the 1980s had. They were also less likely to harass females or terrorize subordinates. There were fewer aggressive encounters between troop members, and less angst, as measured by stress-hormone levels, among low-ranking males.

The reason had nothing to do with the non-aggressive males who survived the TB epidemic. They had all died off. And because males leave their natal troop and join a new one at adolescence, the 1990s males didn’t even include any offspring of the peaceful dads. Although young males joining the troop at first threatened and lunged at their new neighbors, they picked up the local customs quickly.

“To anyone who believes that behavior is hard-wired by evolution,” says Prof. Sapolsky, “this finding is problematic. It seems like there is not one best or most adaptive way to behave.”

When I lived in Japan, I was astounded by the lack of violence and the lack of fear of violence that goes with it. I could actually walk down a city street at night, alone, and not feel afraid. Coming back home it was so disheartening to read of more violent crimes in one day of a local newspaper in San Francisco than of the violent crimes reported in Japan at a national level for an entire year. My conclusion at the time was that we as a culture here had just accepted a certain level of violence as a given, something that just was, and not anything we could do much about.

4 thoughts on “Violent Behavior – Learned or Genetic?

  1. hmm…interesting theory. so if we can eliminate all the violent people in our society, then our next generations would lead a more peace ful life. but every human is violent to some extent. unless we know the extent of violence a person should have to eliminate him from society, we would be eliminating the whole human species…:huh:

  2. My goodness. I don’t think anyone here is proposing that we eliminate violent people. My take away from this is that to a certain degree the amount of violence we have in our society is there because we tolerate it. To a certain extent violence is cultural, not genetic.

  3. It is our tolerance of violence and violent behaviour that is the problem.

    For humans my belief is that this violence is an acting out of deep deep inner turmoil…and what this amounts to is we don’t like and love ourselves enough and we are taught not to, as children, by criticism and negative feedback in all its forms from derogatory comments to abuse.

    Next time you bitch about someone or they about you..why not try turning it around by finding something positive about them instead. Next time you run yourself down, try building yourself up instead… Look for ways to reduce violence in yourself, and your actions and behaviour. Of course you may want to discard this as self rightious, and it has that quality…but take from the core of what I am trying to communicate and realise we cannot change others easily, but we can easily change ourselves and as we change others reactions to us will change.

    Violence is a major problem, enough intellectualising, I hope we can take repsonsibility for some of what is happening and I hope responsibility for reducing and stopping it..

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