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March 31, 2004


Steven Pinker has written on the subject of vengeance in his book “The Blank Slate”, noting that in a primitive society a reputation for insane vengeance can help maintain the social order, by making people fearful of stealing other people’s property or spouses. As Pinker notes, vengeance seems to be an innate behavior that mostly just causes trouble in modern society, where it makes for a good percentage of police calls. I think vengeance has yet another role to play, which we may have seen in operation in Fallujah today.

Evolutionary psychologists have recognized that certain human behaviors are innate, and few doubt that a fear of spiders and snakes is instinctive. Some people are plagued with a fear of spiders to such a degree that they are almost immobilized with fear and revulsion. In an environment where the bite of certain spiders is fatal, especially to children, this only makes sound evolutionary sense. Children who avoid potentially fatal encounters die far less often than those that don’t. But spiders also crawl around, so an even greater loathing of them would motivate people to make sure that their dwellings and sleeping areas remain cleared of such latent threats. Even in countries where no fatal species of arachnids exist, many people are still terrified of them.

They have also noted that humans seem to have some innate reactions to large predatory animals. Children in Chicago still say that one of their biggest fears is of big cats. Lions, Tigers, and Pumas haunt their thoughts. Obviously there’s no logical reason they’d be afraid of big cats, other than the fact that humans grew up being afraid of big cats, and that fear stayed with us. We have some other common behaviors regarding animal attacks, such as a propensity to group together and make the loudest noises possible, screaming at the animal to distract it if it’s attacking someone else. Park rangers have always noticed this behavior in parks like Yellowstone, and it seems to be another thing that humans just know to do. I think we might have another behavior left over from our brutal relationship with big predators, and that’s what I’ll write about here.

Big cats present an interesting problem for primitive man. If you have big cats in the area you or your loved ones might end up being eaten for lunch. The trouble is, once you get good enough to be able to kill the occassional cat you still don’t seem to accomplish much. Managing to kill a cat buys you a temporary respite, but then it just gets replaced by another big cat which moves into the newly vacated territory. So trying to fight the cats would seem about as useful as what the liberals hold about fighting terrorism, which is that it’s always been and always will be, and trying to reduce it is futile. Fighting cats probably seemed that way for a long time.

Yet cats can be fought, and we’ve mostly eliminated them as a potential threat of any statistical significance. But until your cat killing abilities are good enough to pretty much wipe them out, which wasn’t until fairly recently, merely killing the cat isn’t the most productive strategy to follow. What would be a better solution would be to keep your local cats alive to defend their territory from intruders, while also making them very, very afraid of your tribe of humans. If you can teach them the lesson to stay away from you and yours, while also keeping the other cats away from you and yours, then you’ve got the ideal solution. You’re no longer game for them, and a large pressure is removed from your tribe.

The question is now how to get a large predator terrified of people. Obviously just doing a good job defending from attack won’t exactly inspire fear. It will just teach the cat that we are rather smart and wiley prey, sometimes dangerous, but still a rather tasty snack if you can sneak up on one of us. No, the lesson the cats need to learn is our pencheant for absolutely insane, unending vengeance. That we will track them down and make them suffer. Unlike a heard of animals, we have this innate desire to hunt the murdering bastards down and make them pay, however long it takes. Note that this behavior isn’t really seen elsewhere. It’s just us, and it’s in all of us, because it worked.

But there’s another trick to using this desire for vengeance to advantage. As I stated earlier, if you just hunt down and kill all the offending cats they will just get replaced by another pack or pride. What you’re trying to do is teach the cats a very harsh lesson about even thinking of attacking humans. The best way to teach this lesson is not to kill all the cats, but to kill only some of them, and possible most of their cubs, in the most brutal, public, and spectacular manner possible. Cats aren’t horribly bright, so you really need to overdramatize the lesson. Kill them slowly, making them scream and cry, then crush their skulls. Don’t stop there, either, because cats don’t have really long attention spans. Keep beating the broken corpses and then burn them. Then string the body parts up in the trees as a clear reminder about how humans respond when one of their own gets killed.

Now you could try to kill the parent cats in front of their cubs, but this really isn’t a successful strategy. That would require that the cubs manage to grow up without the protection of their parents, choose to remain in the area, and also manage to hold their territory against rivals, which is unlikely considering their immaturity. So you really want to target the weakest and youngest members of the pack when you dish out unholy savage butchery. You want the big ones to both get the message loud and clear, yet still manage to hold off any rival prides. If they lose, you’ve likely got a new pack of cats and have to start all over again, especially when the population density of humans was extremely low. During our early days, most cats probably hadn’t encountered us that often, and even if they had they likely hadn’t been taught some brutal lessons.

So let’s say the optimal behavior for a bunch of primitive humans is to react viscerally and violently to any cat attack, becoming blinded by vengeance and a desire to seek out and kill the cat’s cubs in the most brutal manner possible, in full view of the cub’s mother. With early applications the local predators learn to not only be wary of humans, but would eventually learn that attacking them is a pretty bad idea, at least if they’re in groups. You’ll note that while almost all cats will attack a heard of animals, almost none will attack anyone in a group of people. It’s not unlikely that we’ve burned a new behavior into them.

There are a couple more points worth considering. The desire for vengeance may burn bright, but it would be stupid not to restrain it until you’ve got a good chance of pulling off a raid on the cats. So a few more trigger mechanisms would be a wise thing to have in place, like being amongst a large number of equally enraged tribe mates, all raring to go. For example, I think people who had a predilection for single-handedly attacking a pride of lions would be removed from the gene pool in short order. But people who grouped together to badly outnumber the predator would do fine. Numbers count.

So you end up with humans who have a pencheant for insane vengeance, a quirk that makes them want to target the vulnerable or young, and a trigger to band together and attack while the target is badly outnumbered and vulnerable. Along with this behavior we also indulge in the butchery, burning, corpse beating and mutilation, dragging the corpse around so the “enemy” can get a good view, and then stringing up the remains for all to see. Sound like Fallujah? Mogadishu? Palestine? There’s one problem with this behavior, so great for using against wild animals. It sucks when we use it against people.

It sucks for several reasons. When we get attacked, or feel we are, these emotions and drives can be easily triggered, as if under a threat from a man-eating tiger or rogue bear. We get flushed with the feeling that “it’s the thing to do” and are certain it will have the intended effect. We’re probably certain it will work because it always worked, back when the target was a rather dim-witted predator that just knows enough to tally a cost-benefit analysis. After Fallujah many are burning to go in a string the citizens up from lamp-posts so they “get the message”. The trouble is, the message doesn’t work on people very well at all. If it did we would all be cowering in fear right now, wouldn’t we? Instead we’re just thinking of the appropriate strategy for a response, and our emotions are certainly indicating a far, far more violent strategy than our brains would judge prudent.

Look at the flip side of this behavior. When can you recall ever being cowed by fear of someone who can kill and butcher a baby? We don’t respond like a predator would, by readjusting our menu. We deem the perpetrators of such vengeance driven attacks as mere animals deserving of extermination. If we let our emotions take charge we don’t back off, we often want to attack with even more brutal efficiency than our enemies did in the first place. And then of course they strike back at us and we can end up in a tit-for-tat game of atrocity. Unless of course we have the calmness, strength, and organization to carefully target the actual perpetrators, either killing or arresting them, as opposed to doing something as stupid and counterproductive as blowing up a pre-school.

So here’s the question. We all seem convinced that such a response, hanging people from lamp posts and burning their children in fire will teach the enemy a lesson, and that they’ll just go away and be afraid of us from then on. Yet when we imagine someone doing the exact same thing to us we know we’d just vow to fight them to the last man. Our mental model of our own behavior in such situations seems flawed. The Palestinians have spent decades convinced that if they can just kill enough Israeli toddlers then the Israelis will tremble in fear and jump in boats and flee for their lives. It’s never going to happen. It’s so unlikely to ever happen that you’d think the Palestinians would note the evidence before them and change tactics. Yet they don’t. They’re already too caught up in a primitive behavior to break out. They target babies because something deep down in their brains is saying “This will work! You will strike fear and terror into your enemies and they will no longer eat anyone from your tribe!” Meanwhile, in the real world, Israel continues to try and carefully target the ring-leaders, dealing with far more restraint that is often warranted, considering that at least half the Palestinian population now thinks suicide bomb attacks against Israeli civilians is a good idea.

We often accuse the Palestinians of acting like it was still the seventh century, but in regard to this conviction that killing babies is going to accomplish anything, I’d say we’re looking at a trait from 70,000 BC. Trouble is, we easily feel the same emotions, but we just refrain from letting them lead us beating and burning the corpses of innocent civilians while on live TV. The Arab world has been so twisted by the terrorists and their supporters that this kind of behavior is seen as normal, if not laudable. Maybe if they can be made to realize that even though if feels like striking terror into the heart of your enemy by killing innocent babies will work, it’s not a bit true. Maybe then the cycle of violence can start to wind down.

March 31, 2004 in Science | Permalink


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I think it is much more likely that this behavior developed in response to human tribes living in close proximity to each other. Unlike lions, humans are intelligent enough to understand that "if I rape a woman from that village they will come here with sticks and kill my children".

Although the instinct to "gather together and kill all the lions" is most likely a related instinct.

Posted by: sleepy at Apr 1, 2004 5:04:51 PM

Yes, but sneaking up and raiding the other village used to be a very common practice, mostly with males in their mid to late teens who are looking to establish a reputation. Then they run home to their own village with war stories.

I'm thinking the emotions are probably closely related, possibly piggy-backed to an extent. But with normal vengeance you don't necessarily seek to form a large group, you just want to doggedly hunt down and kill the particular offender who stole your favorite clay pot or ran off with your wife. What we saw in Fallujah has elements of attacking a few isolated anonymous enemies (ie. as far as the particular targets go, it wasn't actually personal), and the intent was to graphically "scare" your enemies. They're certainly trying to do it to scare and intimidate "tribal enemies", but since it doesn't work very well I'm suspecting this particular tactic that our guts urge us to use might be a misapplication.

Even Clinton didn't pull out of Somalia because he was "intimidated". He pulled out because he was looking at poll numbers, PR, costs, morale, blame, etc. But to the people dragging the corpses it probably looked like they had frightened the Americans away, despite the 50 or so to one kill ratio in the actual fight.

Posted by: George Turner at Apr 1, 2004 6:44:17 PM

I'm not sure about the evolutionary causation, but the theory does describe reality very well.

Posted by: Raymond at Apr 1, 2004 10:00:27 PM

On a small scale "insane vengeance" doesn't work. On a large scale I'm afraid it's rather effective. The bombs dropped on Japan are a case in point.

Posted by: John T. at Apr 3, 2004 12:27:14 PM

The atomic bombs dropped on Japan weren't vengeance, per se, nor do they quite fit the model here elucidated (which I find persuasive, if not quite convincing). The vengeance was waiting on Luzon -- my father and a whole host of American soldiers, meaning to put the Japanese population to the sword. No, I know, not really, but that was the effect.

Vengeance has to be personal, and if there's anything less personal than an A-bomb I have a hard time imagining it. The function of the atomic bombs was as a demonstration -- "We can kill you at leisure. Would you like to try a different strategy?"

That's because humans are time-binders, as cats are not, and from that flows the concept of deterrence -- which is, at the end, nothing more nor less than establishing in the other person's mind that they can be killed with relative impunity at the time of our choosing. Deterrence must be a fairly new invention in evolutionary terms. It doesn't work very well except when it's fairly drastic.

Many, if not most, of our problems with Islamicists go back to the fact that we have not established an effective deterrent -- our responses have been (from their point of view) ineffective, weak, and aimed at targets far from the core of the ideology. Reading their pronouncements, it's clear that from their standpoint the WTC wasn't an attack at all. It was a pursuit in the military sense of the term -- we've got 'em on the run; "keep up the skeer." The same is true of the latest intifada, which resulted directly from the Oslo accords and the perception of the Palestinian leadership that such concessions would not have been offered if the West weren't frightened by their actions. Considered in that light the actions are rational. It's only from our point of view that they look insane -- so insane that the Left cannot accept their rationale as stated by the actors themselves, and so tries to bend them into rationality by projecting its stale concepts of "revolution" and "oppression" on a situation that fits them like tube-socks on a goose.

If this theory is correct, the proper response to Fallujah would be to display overwhelming force. The problem with that is to do it within the concepts of the West, which abandoned vengeance as a motivator of large social actions long ago. My own suggestion would be to surround the city with Marines, then have them move inwards a hundred yards per day, letting no one in or out and searching, by force, every structure within the annulus thus covered. Assaults, massed or otherwise, would be responded to in the most unrestrained fashion possible -- I wonder if there are miniguns (high-speed Gatling derivatives) light enough to mount on a humvee? such a wonderful street sweeper... But if not attacked the soldiers should be businesslike and neutral, never showing rage or even anger, and treat people with efficiency just short of brutal. They should confiscate all weapons, all explosives and similar devices, and all money (giving a receipt that grants the loser the right to reclaim it, if they can prove their bona fides.)

A hundred yards a day. What would it take to meet in the middle? Ten days? The point would be made when Alpha of the 21st met with Charley of the 103rd, the two lieutenants shook hands, and all the soldiers formed up and headed back for the caserne, with waves for the unfortunates who had to rebuild the city, should they care to do so.


Posted by: Ric Locke at Apr 3, 2004 9:19:21 PM

The A-bomb? Oh it was very personal. Don't kid yourself about that.

Posted by: Milt.. at Apr 3, 2004 10:34:43 PM

Well, Pape's book Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War" makes a fairly good case that theatre airpower matters more than strategic unless it becomes nuclear and strategic.

One of its points is that if you dismantle cities the people become even more dependent on the state you're trying to destroy, not less.

All in all, a very good read, though some think Kosovo might be a somewhat of a counter to his argument, though we did use a great deal of tactical interdiction in that war.

Posted by: George Turner at Apr 3, 2004 10:47:32 PM

Great post. The rationale seems very plausible to me, especially as my first reaction was to go kill all their kids in front of them. It didn't take more than a few minutes to realise how stone dumb that was, but it is nice to have an explantion of why that was my initial reaction. I explained it to myself by thinking of historical parallels, most of which were not successful.

Haven't read all your posts yet, but I may have to after the ones I have read so far

Posted by: Oscar at Apr 3, 2004 10:56:24 PM

Thanks Oscar,

I just stuck up some links on the upper left sidebar that links to some of my better posts. The one on "Disgust" generated traffic for a month.

Posted by: George Turner at Apr 4, 2004 12:59:07 AM

SOmething else occured to me upon further reflection: the role of the sense of smell. Probably very important with pure predators like lions etc, and still effective on humans, the stench of burned flesh tends to stay with anyone unfortunate enough to experience it. Maybe seeing this stuff on TV reduces that part of the impact?

Posted by: Oscar at Apr 4, 2004 6:29:44 PM

Oooo... Good point Oscar. Burned flesh is not something they'd naturally encounter, except in relation to brush fires, in which case it might be a fear signal. Not sure if that's the case, but animals normally shy away from people's campfires. Might be related, as burned flesh might scare them while just making us hungry.

Posted by: George Turner at Apr 4, 2004 8:05:35 PM

On the other hand, are we not all descended from groups who were not prone to suffer murderers in their midst? Might not vengeance have actually had a civilizing effect, by removing individuals with zero impulse control from the gene pool?

Posted by: Don Dixon at Jun 25, 2005 7:53:18 PM

The solutions is to open New Car dealerships in the enemies city. Shiney high performance cars like the Mustang Mach IIII. Zero to 60 in 3 seconds. At that speed no one could get out of the way. Top speed is 260 on the freeway. Their death rate on the Highway would exceed ours by at least 5 times. 250,000 killed on the highway yearly. Thus keeping the cat population in check or even decreasing their growth. In the mean time our economy grows with the sale of Automobiles. Their high performance cars use up all of the oil reserves. They go broke. Dispare sets in, suicide, they beat their wives, kill their own children. End of War. They can't take revenge cause they don't know who the enemy is. Cars can't be evil, they are so beautiful and fun to drive. Besides you drive at your own risk, no one else's fault.

Posted by: Melanie Stefine at Oct 17, 2007 12:56:42 PM

Killing people never solves anything. They just keep on making new babies. Then they teach them to hate and take revenge. Just like the hillbilly fueds in the South. The MaCoys and the Calhouns fued.

Posted by: Melanie Stefine at Oct 17, 2007 1:08:16 PM

I never know Vengeance like this before I started to get interest when I watch Spartacus Season 2 on MEGAVIDEO and as I continue my journey this will belong to a unity, to a one pulse vision wherein you need to give a chance for others, learn the perfect timing for Vengeance as you watch all episodes online on January 27, 2012.

Posted by: Spartacus Vengeance at Dec 6, 2011 7:22:00 AM