Are we genetically predisposed to conflict and violence?

Are we genetically predisposed to conflict and violence?

By Richard Althouse, Ph.D.
August 1, 2021 - Last updated: August 2, 2021


Genetics research long ago revealed that genes fundamentally determine the structures, functions and behaviors of all living things to ensure their survival and that genetics determines the structure and function of our brains. Neuroscience research has well established that our brains determine our individual responses to our environments and are programmed by epigenetic experiences that culminate in our personalities. These experiences can, in turn, influence genetic changes that are passed on to future generations, eventually defining their individual personalities.

Nonetheless, “genetics” and “neuroscience” have remained relatively uninspiring words that most of us relegate to the esoteric arenas of complex science.

It is likely that most of us did not associate the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capital building on Jan. 6 or the recent landing of Perseverance on Mars with either genetics, modern-day brain function or personalities.

But it was the interplay of precisely those two influences that explains both our ability to engineer the landing on Mars and the violent and lawless individual behaviors of some participants in the insurrection (e.g., The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers) that resulted in five deaths and many injuries. Most of us were likely more emotionally captivated by the violence of the insurrection than by the Mars landing.

Why?

The answer is informing. Today’s species of homo sapiens, currently 7.8 billion of us humans, is the only remaining genetically related human species on the planet. Despite superficial differences of outward appearances often used to define race, we have been virtually genetically identical to each other for about 20,000 years.

Some anthropologists and historians believe that we are the only remaining human species because our species has a genetically-driven evolutionary history of being intolerant and violent. That history may have included eliminating all other existing human species, as well as other animal and plant species, as we migrated to different areas and competed with or utilized them for survival resources.

As a result of our competitive success, we eventually rose to the top of the food chain, a rise some historians believe resulted in us becoming both dangerous and cruel to compete for survival in an increasingly complex world of resource competitors, social and ecological challenge and environmental resource limits.

A good deal of our species’ survival success can be attributed to the enlargement of our brains beginning about 2 million years ago. That eventually facilitated the development of language, tool-making, critical thinking, factual analysis and the problem-solving abilities we enjoy today. But neuroscience research has shown that our brains also retained and integrated the earlier-evolved rapid-threat avoidance responses of our initially smaller brain that facilitated our ability to quickly respond to perceived survival threats, often referred to as our “fight or flight” response.

Why is understanding this evolutionary quirk important? Because these ancient, rapid threat-response networks neurologically inhibit the parts of our brains that later evolved to facilitate our critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

That is why we find it difficult to “think straight” or objectively when emotionally stressed by events perceived to be threats to our survival interests. And we find it easier to rationalize the imposition of destructive, cruel and violent responses to avoid or minimize such threats.

The ironic outcome is that when our real survival might benefit from evidence-based critical analysis, that ability is neurologically minimized. This often means we create and respond to imagined survival threats with fear and anger-based behaviors and resist evidence or fact-based information that is contrary to our suspicions and beliefs.
Historically, this developmental quirk has had serious social consequences.

It contributed to our beliefs that some religions were worth killing for, that witches should be burned or hanged and that communism was pervasive in our country. It also helped us believe that some groups of individuals who rationalized killing or being brutal to others were in different categories because they were inferior or posed a threat to racial purity. Finally, it made us think that we needed to militarize the public to keep our government from being taken over, resulting in the recent violent and illegal insurrection at the U.S. Capital to “stop the steal.”

The psychological implications of both genetic and neuroscience research for better conflict intervention and resolution strategies are there to be explored and developed. But I believe that combining the knowledge derived from genetic and neuroscience research allows for a different and more complete understanding of human emotions, cognitions, behavior and personality development that goes beyond labeling each other as terrorists, criminals, cowards or mentally demented when interpersonal or international conflicts and violence arise.

Are we blaming each other for behaviors rooted in our genetic inheritance over which we have no control?

After all, our individual actions today are the result of thousands of years of inherited homo sapiens genes that determine each of our brain’s structures, functions and response potential. Epigenetic circumstances that included parenting, education and social experiences collectively determined our emotional, cognitive and behavioral responses these functions enable.

Consequently, in a moment of behavioral opportunity, we can do nothing else than what our brains determine we do. For better or worse, in a world ostensibly made safer by the threat of nuclear weapons, the only question is whether or not we homo sapiens are able to overcome the enduring gravitational pull of our own violent genetic heritage to secure our future.

I believe that incorporating information from both genetics and neuroscience will better enable us to do so.

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Richard Althouse, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with 37 years of clinical experience in correctional and forensic settings in both staff and supervisory capacities. He has published and provided training in mental health standards of care in correctional settings. Retired from state service, he remains active in the field of corrections with an interest in genetics and neuroscience as they relate to criminal behavior. He contributes to the International Association for Correctional Psychology newsletter and is secretary of the executive board of that association. His e-mail is: goldmine123.a@gmail.com

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