Weapons have long been part of human evolutionary history—hafted spear points have been dated as far back as 500,000 years in South Africa—but killing instruments that can fire up to 30 or 100 bullets without reloading have not been part of our species’ evolutionary heritage. According to recent coverage from the Hartford Courant, the December 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School expended 151 bullets in less than five minutes from a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle with 30-round extended magazines. Of course, there have been more destructive sudden events that enacted a higher death toll at human hands; the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki come immediately to mind. Generally these sudden events of intentional mass carnage have state sponsorship and derive from the consolidated efforts of many people in orchestrating the attack. Even as the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 lacked conventional state support, they emerged from the collective action of many individuals with significant financial backing. In contrast, a sudden mass shooting in a crowded theater can leave upwards of 70 shot and dozens dead in a matter of minutes, for a cost of about $1,000 for a legally acquired assault rifle and ammunition, and with a lone shooter as the agent of destruction. From Colorado to Connecticut, recent US mass shooting events have required far less organization and coordination than larger-scale tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the bombing of the USS Cole that now feel like history lessons to our undergraduate students.
Problem of Novel Environments
In moving from grief to policy amendments in addressing such tragic losses, it may be helpful to consider a lesson from evolutionary theory. The problem of novel environments is a central concern of evolutionary approaches to understanding behavior, reflecting the concept that one cannot expect an organism to behave adaptively once removed from the environment in which that species has evolved. Just as our bodies and behaviors may not be ideally adapted to the environments in which we currently find ourselves, those very environments may present hazards for public safety that would have been unfathomable in our evolutionary past. Lee Cronk (Rutgers U) explains that the problem of novel environments is the reason why we find so many dead armadillos littered along interstates in the US South. Cars weren’t part of the ancestral environment for armadillos, but coyotes and other predators were. Jumping straight into the air might distract a coyote from his appointed meal, but it would have no effect on an onrushing Volkswagen. In evolutionary medicine, the problem of novel environments is exemplified by the thrifty gene hypothesis of James Neel, whereby having a phenotype that stores excess nutrients as fat may be advantageous in a landscape of periodic food shortages but may contribute to obesity and Type 2 Diabetes in an environment of plentiful Twinkies. In both of these examples, we can see a clear disjuncture between current and ancestral environments, with disastrous effects.
Mass shooting events are a highly visible manifestation of this conflict between the contemporary environments in which we live and the environments in which humans have spent much of our evolutionary history. We may have evolved defenses to acts of aggression or retaliation by bands of allied individuals, but there is no clear analogue in our defensive toolkit for sudden violent acts by lone individuals that can swiftly lead to the deaths of a dozen or more bystanders.
The use of violent force has been documented across many human cultures and in our closest primate relatives, but the form it takes varies over space and time. Humans are social creatures, and much of our violence, too, is social—not simply in the obvious sense of being inflicted upon other people, but also to the extent that it often involves the formations of coalitions to wreak revenge, show strength or seize resources. Our coalitions have their roots in non-human primates; both savanna baboons and common chimpanzees, for example, are well known for forming fighting coalitions. These coalitions enable attackers to be more successful than they would have been as lone combatants.
Coalitions are also often key in warfare among forager-horticulturalist and pastoralist societies. Among the Yanomamö of South America, Napoleon Chagnon (U Missouri) has noted that revenge killings often occur in the context of group raids of villages that may require as much as five days of travel to reach. Among the Turkana of East Africa, killing raids may consist of small groups of less than 20 to large parties of over 1,000 individuals. Sarah Mathew (Stony Brook U) and Robert Boyd (Arizona State U) contend that cooperation among such large coalitions involved in violence against other groups is sustained by punishing those who defect or who claim more than their fair share of the spoils. In contrast, contemporary mass shooting events usually do not emerge from coalitions. Where those idiosyncratic exceptions occur, such as in the partnership behind the Columbine shootings in 1999, the coalitions are generally dyads.
In addition to the social context of murder being different in contemporary US mass shooting events from warfare in pre-state societies, the motivations seem to be different as well. Many historical and cross-cultural analyses of violence link aggressive acts to signaling dominance, seizing resources or retaliating for past harms. In contrast, mass murder is not well understood from a psychological standpoint—and is presumably not a unitary phenomenon—but may be connected to a desire for notoriety. This notoriety does not accrue benefits to the killers in life, as indeed many mass murderers commit suicide at the end of the killing spree, either as a final coda to the act or to avoid incarceration. In pre-state societies, revenge killings may often be meted against any member of the same lineage or tribe, rather than to the initial offending party. To the extent to which mass shootings have been linked to retaliatory motivations, the retaliation has been generalized with victim pools stretching beyond and not always including the antagonists by whom the shooter believes that he has been harmed.
Reacting to Tragic Crimes
Steven Pinker (Harvard U) argues persuasively in The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence has declined over time. Despite this heartening general trend, the evolutionary novelty of powerful firearms and high-capacity ammunition magazines in the hands of individual citizens should be considered within the context of cross-cultural expressions of violence in shaping public policy. Anthropologists have a voice to weigh in on this issue. In studying how to respond to events of mass carnage perpetrated by private citizens—and, more to the point—in preventing future incidents, we should consider the evolutionary significance of violence, its contemporary manifestations in small-scale societies, and how the manifestations of violent acts in mass murder are shaped by unprecedented access to powerful weaponry.
The reaction to events of mass murder stirs up deep-seated psychological responses and motivates public action. In psychological terms, the dread effect can in part illuminate the emotional response to mass tragedies and its impacts on our subsequent behavior. The dread effect influences how we perceive potential harms and benefits related to particularly fearsome stimuli that we can visualize, and which are often very rare sources of human calamity. It has been interpreted as the reason why we fear shark attacks despite sharks only accounting for about 4.2 annual deaths worldwide, according to the conservation organization Oceana. The dread effect has also been linked to terrorism: according to Peter Ayton (City U), excess bicycling deaths in the month subsequent to the 2005 tube and bus bombings in London can likely be attributed to greater numbers of people avoiding subway transit due to fear of a repeat occurrence.
Our visceral reaction to these killings is in part attributable to their sheer evolutionary novelty. We do not have cultural adaptations that enable us to best defend against these, or to make sense of them when they do occur. Further, they spur us to action when disconnected killings that go on every day do not. In the days following the Sandy Hook shooting, massive shipments of donated toys began filling warehouses in Newtown, CT, while individual homicides across the country did not receive the same media coverage as their cumulative numbers eclipsed the death toll from Sandy Hook. Meanwhile, restrictions on assault weapons and ammunition have been legislatively proposed by the left and vociferously opposed by the right.
Because contemporary shooting sprees depart from what most of our anthropological data suggest about violence, it is worthwhile to consider how our culturally-evolved responses to violence and risk may be ill-equipped to respond to these modern threats. We can consider these differences in forming policy to prevent or reduce the devastation of further acts, while also keeping in mind their relative rarity in terms of not shifting our daily behaviors such as to place us at greater risk of individual tragedies. Such public health and urban planning considerations caution against greater defensive gun ownership and concealed carry in crowded settings in the hopes of thwarting a future attack, which hearkens to the role of the dread effect in contributing to the increased London bicycling fatalities in the summer of 2005. While the nation’s attention is still focused on gun control policy in the wake of recent tragedies, policymakers could well attend to the insights that can be offered by cultural and evolutionary anthropologists who work on topics related to violence and aggression.
Bria Dunham is assistant professor of global health and anthropology at Mercer University. She is interested in how insights from evolutionary anthropology can inform global health policy and practice, and she is also the webmaster for the Evolutionary Anthropology Society.