Natural Born Killers?

David Trend

“Confessions of a Drone Warrior,” is one of hundreds of articles on the military’s use of Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAV), which began in the early 2000s. In many ways this new form of combat embodies the psychological distancing that typifies killing in the twenty-first century. The story about Airman First Class Brandon Bryant recounts his first day in a Nevada bunker, when the 22-year fired on two presumed Afghani insurgents on the other side of the world. An early recruit in this new kind of warfare, Bryant “hunted top terrorists, but always from afar” –– killing enemies in countless numbers, but not always sure what he was hitting. “Meet the 21stcentury American killing machine,” the story concluded.[i]

Of course, notions of aversion to fighting don’t sit well with either military doctrine or public belief. Behind America’s infatuation with high-tech weapons lie long-cultivated attitudes toward violence itself. In a class I teach on this, students often will express common sense views that fighting is “natural,” deriving from humanity’s animalistic origins, and often the only way of resolving conflicts. One sees this kind of thinking evident in permissive attitudes toward everything from boyish rough-housing to violent sports. The gendered aspects of violence receive less attention than they should, and will be addressed at length in Chapter 9. Suffice to say that aggression often is expected of men and boys, while also reflected in popular culture. Along with political partisanship, these attitudes help explain the deep divisions within the U.S. electorate over gun control and so-called “stand your ground” laws. Since even scholars often disagree over the issue of human violence, it helps to break the question into subcategories –– and to also point out how knowledge has changed over time in the fields of biology, psychology, and cultural analyses of violent behavior.

Biological explanations for violent behavior first gained public credence the nineteenth century, when scientists began comparing human beings to other living species. Historians sometimes trace this to the theories of Thomas Malthus, first published in a 1798 article entitled “Essay on the Principle of Population.”[iv]  Malthus speculated that because plants and animals produced far more offspring than could survive, humanity someday might do the same. He famously said that food multiplies arithmetically and populations geometrically. In an age when most people died before 50 from disease, Malthus viewed violence and war as “positive” checks on potential overpopulation. While criticized by social reformers, Malthus’s ideas appealed to British aristocrats, publishers, and scientists.  After reading Malthus in 1838, Charles Darwin began working on hisOn the Origin of the Species. Darwin’s breakthrough came in seeing “natural selection”dealing with overpopulation, writing that through “continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under certain circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed.”[v]He counted fighting aptitudes among such helpful variations.[vi]

Headlines say a lot in this evolving discourse, seen in stories with titles like “Killing at a Distance” and “Obliterated in 15 Seconds.”[ii]Embedded in these stories is a compendium of American views on violence as a natural outgrowth of human conflict, a way of exercising power in one’s own interests, and a method for eliminating undesirables when necessary –– but also (and this is very important) a very difficult thing to bring oneself to do. While on one hand the mythology that has grown around military drone operators conforms neatly to notions of video game-like detachment from reality, drones also represent a solution to long recognized military problem: that most recruits don’t want to kill.[iii]   

“Natural” explanations for violent behavior got more complicated in the late 1800s, as Darwin’s ideas became generalized in the name of public health and population management. “Social Darwinists” like Sir Francis Galton (Darwin’s half-cousin) set forth natural selection as an explanation and justification for human competition and free-market economics. By the early twentieth century, some social Darwinists had begun linking natural selection to social hierarchies based on class, gender, and race –– with efforts to redress inequities cast as improper interventions. Instead, Galton introduced a concept he called “eugenics” for what he saw as scientific enhancement of nature’s evolutionary tendencies. While today seen as a retrograde concept associated with the Nazi Holocaust, eugenics rode a wave of mainstream scientific excitement in its day, even embraced by intellectuals and leaders like Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger, Theodore Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.

The twentieth century saw two new schools of thought, both of which challenged biological explanations for violent behavior. Psychoanalysis practiced by figures like Sigmund Freud saw violence as a tendency heavily influenced by people’s upbringing and socialization. While all people might find aggressive impulses within themselves, they also possessed abilities to redirect them in productive ways. Gaining popularity between 1900 and 1940, psychoanalysis suggested that human behavior was partially instinctive but also acquired. Paralleling psychoanalysis, social scientists set forth constructionist theories of behavior as something learned from others –– whether family, friends, or the broader culture. Anthropologist Ashley Montague was an important early proponent of the social construction of violence –– taking issue with evolution as an “excuse” for misbehavior. People needed to take responsibility for violence, Montagu wrote in The Nature of Human Aggression, especially in light of the horrors of ongoing wars.[vii]In more philosophical terms, Hannah Arendt argued in her book On Violencethat people were not ruled by violent instincts because human beings possessed the capacity of reason.[viii]  Arendt also contradicted the popular belief that the anger resulting from poverty and inequity naturally caused violent reactions. And in a final point for which she would become known, Arendt also said that violence was rarely an end in itself, but rather a toolused by violent perpetuators to exercise power over some individual or group.

Seeing violence as a tool is helpful when thinking about weapons as prosthetic extensions.  Following Arendt, one can say that violent actions and weapons can serve as instruments for achieving particular objectives, rather than isolated phenomena. If fact, most people would rather not use a weapon on another human being if it can be avoided. Former Army Lt. Col. David Grossman wrote extensively about this in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which drew on his work as trainer of military recruits.[ix] At the heart of combat preparation is the challenge of overcoming the trainee’s reluctance to pulling the trigger against another human being. “There is in most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.”[x]This same resistance to shooting another person is seen in civilian crimes and disputes, where guns more often are used to threaten or deter than fired.[xi]According to Grossman, there are two basic ways of overcoming this resistance: distance and conditioning.

“The link between distance and ease of aggression is not a new discovery,” Grossman wrote, adding that “from a distance you don’t look anything like a friend.”[xii]Hence, while solders might shrink way from shooting a nearby enemy, bomber pilots don’t hesitate to wipe out villages. Over time, ever-more sophisticated development of prosthetic extensions of the body has enabled humans to kill from further away, with more deadliness, while also feeling less guilt –– as the earlier drone story illustrated. Hesitation to kill also can be overcome through deliberate conditioning on the part of the military trainer. Over the years this has been accomplished by training troops in ever-more-realistic training simulations. During World War II, recruits practiced shooting at paper bulls-eye targets and only shot directly at the enemy 10-15 percent of the time. With the use of human cut-outs and pop-up targets this grew to 55 percent in Korea and to 90 percent in the Vietnam War. Nowadays troops are trained on videogame simulations. All of this augers against “natural” views of human aggression and in favor of arguments that conditioning, learning, and culture may be the real culprits.

Even in historical terms, a growing body of recent research has begun to contest age-old beliefs in violence by early humans. Dozens of studies and books from historians, anthropologists and ethnographers have taken issue with war and group-to-group fighting as eternal human traits. One significant summery of this work appeared in a Scientific Americanfeature entitled “War is NotPart of Human Nature,” which argued against innate propensities toward collective violence.[xiii]“The world ‘collective is key,” the article states: “People fight and kill for personal reasons, but homicide is not war. War is social.”[xiv]Scholars analyzed such evidence as skeletal remains, cave drawings, and  types of housing in reaching the conclusion that until roughly 10,000 years ago groups conflicts were relatively non-existent. Many factors worked against war-making, including cross-group kinship and marriage, cooperation in hunting and food gathering, flexibility in social arrangements, stigmas against killing, and tribal means for non-lethal conflict resolution. 

Aggression, violence, and war may not be “natural,” but obviously they do happen. Antiquated theories of humanity’s animalistic predilections have been disproven by science and through decades of observation by law enforcement and the military. While individuals sometimes are moved to act against each other, instances of extreme violence are extremely rare and often motivated by interpersonal conflict, family disagreement, or mental illness. Even accounting for crime, the FBI reports less than 10 percent of homicide victims are unknown to assailants.[xv]The capacity for deliberate lethal violence requires sustained conditioning to overcome resistance to harming another person.    

[i]Matthew Power, “Confessions of a Drone Warrior,” GQ Magazine(Oct. 23, 2013)  (accessed Jun. 1, 2019).

[ii]Derek Gregory, “Theory of Drone: Killing at a Distance,” Geographical Imaginations(Sep. 15, 2013)  (accessed Jun. 1, 2019); Vivek Chaudhary, “Obliterated in 15 seconds: Jihadi John was killed by US drone strike in Raqqa after his ‘walk’ and the angle of his BEARD gave him away,” Daily Mail( (May 17, 2019) (accessed Jun. 1, 2019); Ed Pilkington, “Life as a drone operator: ‘Ever step on ants and never give it another thought?’” The Guardian(Nov. 19, 2015) (accessed Jun. 1, 2019); Tim Wright, “Do Gamers Make Better Drone Operators?” (Aug. 17, 2019) (accessed Jun. 1, 2019).

[iii]David Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society(London and New York: Little Brown: 1995). 

[iv]David Victor Glass, Introduction to Malthus(New York: Wiley, 1953). 

[v]Francis Darwin, ed., Charles Darwin, Autobiography And Selected Letters(New York, Dover Publications 1958).  

[vi]Charles Darwin, The origin of species by means of natural selection; or, The preservation of favored races in the struggle for life and The descent of man and selection in relation to sex(New York: The Modern Library, 1936).

[vii]Ashley Montagu, The Nature of Human Aggression(Oxford and New York: Oxford, 1976).

[viii]Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1969).

[ix]David Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society(1995) (London and New York: Little Brown, 2009).

[x]On Killing, p. 4

[xi]Gary Black and Karen McEllrath, “The Effects of Weapons on Human violence,” Social Forces, 69, no. 3 (Mar. 1991):669-692.

[xii]On Killing, p. 97.

[xiii]R. Brian Ferguson, “”War is NotPart of Human Nature,” Scientific American(Sep. 1, 2018) (accessed Jun. 4, 2019).


[xv]“Expanded Homicide Table 10,” FBI (2018) (accessed Jun. 25, 2019).

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