A Natural History of Violence: 5th Muséum Manifesto

Echoing current debates about violence, the manifesto “A Natural History of Violence” convenes specialists in biology, animal behaviour and human sciences to investigate the expressions and causes of violence both in nature and in human societies. The manifesto takes a distanced scientific viewpoint which does not aim to impose judgements or rules, but to understand the mechanisms involved.

Dessin de deux coucous mâles en combat

Male Cuckoos fighting before the arrival of a female, par George Edward Lodge et Henrik Grønwald (1920)

© Smithsonian Library

Aggression, intimidation, coercion or killing occur in many species, between congeners. These forms of violence have a common function: conquering or preserving territories and resources, fighting to procreate, protecting offspring or the group.

Among animals and humans alike, violence can be part of the social organisation. A dominant individual or group reduces the average level of mutual aggression through the maintenance of a hierarchy. The silver-back mountain gorilla for example puts an end to individual quarrels by threatening the protagonists.

Ritualised violence is a means of staging it (for example during intimidation rituals with no exchange of blows) while also serving to control it. In humans, such ritualised violence is also part of some initiation rites that serve to strengthen internal cohesion.

In a human society, this violence for a social purpose can also be symbolic and institutionalised. Regardless of its form, the members concerned generally submit to it in order to perpetuate the overall organisation and sometimes even internalise it.

Dessin d'une arène de corrida avec des hommes et des taureaux blessés par des banderilles

Corrida dans l'arène divisée, par Francisco de Goya (1825)

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

War, which is also observed in chimpanzees, shares this unifying function. It also helps to channel violence outside of society. In Europe, the disarmament of civilian populations during the birth of States and the penalisation of domestic violence and homicides drastically reduced deadly civil violence, while such violence was diverted to external wars controlled by the States.

Thus, although humans are one of the species that kill each other the most (alongside primates, rodents and carnivores), they are also the species that has reduced this lethal violence the most since their origins.

Dessin de Caïn tuant Abel

Caïn et Abel, par Odilon Redon (1886)

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another fact we share with other primates is that our violence is inherited. It is maintained by imitating aggressive role models — family or peers — particularly if these individuals are valued within the group. On a larger time scale, violence is inherited through the genealogy of mammals: the higher the rates of ancestral lethal violence in a species, the higher its chances of exercising this lethal violence (marmots, wolves, chimpanzees, humans...).

Specific contexts also favour violence, for example a demographic or environmental pressure leading to a scarcity of food resources or territories. In humans, there are also social and economic inequalities which cause poverty and frustration. In the countries with the greatest economic inequalities, the rate of fatal assaults is also the highest.

How violence is perceived depends on many factors, in particular the point of view from which it is observed and its context. From the anthropological point of view, violence is defined as an attack against the body, the person, dignity and values.

Its degree of acceptability is regulated by codes. Individuals in each society thus set the limits to violence that allow them to live together. Although it is the role of Natural History and science generally to explain violence while withholding judgement, it is up to societies to channel it.

Scène de cannibalisme où des enfants, des adultes mangent des morceaux humains cuits sur un grill.

Scène de cannibalisme au Brésil au XVIe siècle, par Théodore de Bry (1557)

© Collection privée
Couverture du livre Manifeste du Muséum Histoire naturelle de la violence

Muséum Manifesto. A Natural History of Violence

  • Co-publishing: Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle / Reliefs Éditions
  • Authors : committee chaired by Guillaume Lecointre, zoologist, systematist and professor of the Muséum
  • Bilingual english / french
  • 96 pages
  • €7,50