SYMPOSIUM ON THE QUESTION "HOW IS CULTURE BIOLOGICAL?" ~ Six Essays with Discussions: Essay # 2, by Anja Mueller-Wood and John Carter Wood, "How Is Culture Biological? Violence: Real and Imagined"


Our article addresses the question “How is culture biological?” by considering violence. Historians of violence have focused on issues such as foresight, self-control, sympathy and inequality without sufficiently considering the psychological underpinnings of the social and cultural factors they emphasise. At the same time, an approach to the issue of violence that takes into account evolutionary and biological perspectives also draws attention to the connection between real and imagined violence. We argue that scholars from different disciplines in the humanities have much to gain from a greater engagement with biological and evolutionary approaches to human behaviour and thought.

Responses by Joseph Carroll, Diana Kornbrot, John Price, and Robert Stonjek

Rejoinder by Anja Müller-Wood and John Carter Wood


Anja Müller-Wood and John Carter Wood

How Is Culture Biological? Violence: Real and Imagined

Our immediate response to the question “how is culture biological?” is “how can it not be?”; if “culture” refers to identifiable regularities in the ways that a specific group of people thinks and acts, where else is it to be found other than in their minds (and, thus, their brains)? Behaviour is a product of psychology (whether conscious or unconscious) combined with the dynamics of a particular social environment, and no cultural production (whether material or not) has meaning except when someone produces or interacts with (that is, thinks about) it. We have, ultimately, only the culture that nature allows. Recognising the biological basis of culture thus means to give it a location: in the mind. Although such statements seem obvious enough, it is a challenge to explain the biological basis of culture in a less abstract manner, and we will address it with reference to a single topic. Violence—in this context the deliberate infliction of non-consensual physical harm on human beings—is present in all societies, but its prevalence varies widely. Both factors make it useful for examining continuity (and universality) as well as change (and difference). Violence has been related to differential rates of survival and reproduction across history and pre-history, and throughout the human past many forms of it have been seen as broadly socially legitimate. These facts suggest that the potential for physical aggression is a normal part of our species-typical psychology rather than a psychological aberration (Eisner 2009). But historical studies of violence have emphasised the variability of this behaviour: in Europe, for example, everyday forms of interpersonal violence declined significantly between the sixteenth and mid-twentieth centuries (Eisner 2001), which itself might be only the tail-end of a much longer (and even more profound) decline (Pinker 2007). Nonetheless, violence remains a prominent social fear, even in comparatively pacified societies. It also plays a significant role not only in our real but also our imagined lives, in fictional forms from theatre and literature to film and video games, where its representation can inspire strong emotions: from pleasure and fascination to disgust and horror (and often some more ambiguous mixture thereof). The same psychology that generates real violence influences the ways it is imagined—and imaginatively enjoyed. Our joint contribution addresses both topics, combining the views of a historian and a literature scholar.

Historical studies of violence have tended to focus on its social and cultural causes and have addressed the specific codes that have provided motives for violence (such as responding to injuries to “honour” or maintaining “discipline” in the family or workplace) and prescribed the legitimate forms that it should take (such as a duel, fight or ritualised punishment). In other words, they have emphasised “cultures of violence” (Carroll 2007). These explanations have accompanied (and sometimes overlapped with) diachronic analyses positing a “process of civilisation” that has encouraged greater self-control and heightened degrees of empathy toward the suffering of others (Fletcher 1997; Spierenburg 2008). We have learned a great deal, but biology (with some important exceptions) has so far had little influence on historians, partly since some assume that Darwinian approaches consider only continuity and ‘universals’, thereby ignoring the stock-in-trade of most historians: particularity and change (Adler and Gallant 2000; Adler 2003). Some have even sought to position history as a site of resistance to biology, driven by a conviction that its methods are “essentially at cross purposes” or “deeply incommensurable”
with the interests of historians (Hesse 2004, 207). There are signs, however, of an increasing openness to evolutionary psychology among historians interested in violence (e.g.; Hanlon 2007; Wood 2007; Eisner 2009), who suggest that a common psychological (and thus “biological”) basis underneath—and driving—cultural change is signalled by violence’s universal features as well as its tendency to vary in similar ways (and for similar reasons).

One “universal” that has preoccupied historians of violence is the greater participation of men in physical aggression (Wiener 2004; Emsley 2005). Men are not only far more likely to engage in physical violence, they do so in distinctive ways: male violence toward other men—whether individually or in groups—far exceeds women’s violence against other women (Daly and Wilson 1988; Campbell 1999). Violence rates change (and differ across cultures), but the almost mind-numbing regularity of male violence aimed at gaining resources, increasing status, deterring rivals and responding to public humiliation makes a strong prima facie case that some kind of underlying human constant is involved. Evolutionary psychologists have suggested many specific adaptive problems that violence has likely contributed to solving (Buss and Shackelford 1997). Across species, the sex that invests less in reproduction and parental care is under greater competitive pressure to gain access to the sex that invests more: greater male competition leads to greater male aggression and risk-taking, apparent in sex differences in impulsivity, sensation-seeking, jealousy, fear and empathy, which are mediated through innate psychological mechanisms and endocrine functions (Archer 2009). (Women, of course, compete actively as well, although usually in less overtly aggressive and risky ways [Campbell 1999].) The convincing cross-species, cross-cultural and long-term historical (and pre-historical) evidence of the higher violent potential of males suggests that solely cultural explanations of violence must be incomplete. Rather than cultures of violence coming into existence ex nihilo and teaching men to fight, they have emerged out of pre-cultural predispositions. And as men are—by nature—the more dangerous sex, the bulk of cultural violence codes have concerned them, both enabling violence—to enact revenge and enforce social discipline—and limiting it.

Contrary to a frequent misunderstanding (e.g., Jones 2000, 33-34), there is nothing in biological or evolutionary reasoning that would predict violence to be constant and unchanging; indeed, scholars who have studied violence from an evolutionary perspective have always emphasised its ‘context-specific’ nature. For example, environments with an elevated  ratio of sexually active men to fertile women have been found to heighten male competition and its accompanying physical aggression (Courtwright 1996; Archer 2009, 257-58). High rates of social inequality or local mortality have had a similar effect (Wilson and Daly 1997). Key roles have been posited in evolutionary psychology for both ‘evoked’ cultures emerging from innate, context-dependent mechanisms as well as ‘transmitted’ cultures passed on through learning (Cosmides and Tooby 1992). Indeed, it is on precisely the issue of historical change that evolutionary psychologists and historians have, perhaps, had the most in common. As historians have turned to examining the steep decline in everyday violence in Europe over the last several centuries, they have focused on varying social norms (regarding self-control or the acceptability of physical harm), the development of institutions (courts and the police) and changing relations between the classes and sexes (Ruff 2001; Wiener 2004; Wood 2004; Godfrey and Lawrence 2005; Emsley 2005; Spierenburg 2008).

However, all of these phenomena are related to underlying psychological mechanisms. The “rule of law,” for instance, is an abstract cultural concept; however, the development of justice systems has provided means for dealing with social transgressions that, while they avoid the need for personal vengeance seeking, nevertheless satisfy the underlying (and emotionally charged) mental calculus of revenge (Frijda 1994, 265; Miller 1998, 168-69; Solomon 1994). Apart from the obvious fact that we possess an innate cognitive apparatus that allows us to (selectively) recognise and absorb social norms, the rising social cost (i.e., loss of status) for using inappropriate violence generated pressure for self-control. Not only anger and vengeance are rooted in emotional and psychological mechanisms, so are relevant factors such as empathy and forgiveness (Singer 1982; McCullough 2008). Disentangling the interactions among changing demographic, economic, normative, technological, institutional and other social factors is a complex matter: homicide rates go up and down, some cultures tolerate violence more than others, dominant notions of masculinity and femininity vary, and people are, ultimately, ‘flexible’, a fact that has been pointed to in asserting social role theory as an alternative to evolutionary psychology (Eagly and Wood 2009, 276). There is, however, no contradiction between such social variation and an underlying evolved psychology (Barkow 2006).

This latter observation also allows us to reflect upon fictional representations of violence, which—while illustrating changing views and attitudes towards violence—also indicate underlying continuities in human culture that point to its biological roots. Because violence is a central, seemingly inexorable feature of human behaviour and interaction, it has provided a literary topic of enduring fascination. And as most literature is to a greater or lesser extent modelled on real-life experience, it is plausible to interpret literary representations of violence with the aid of the same biological explanations that help us understand actual behaviour. In fact, some critics see literature as an anthropological database, which confirms the sociobiological formula that human beings are fitness-maximisers acting according to the evolutionary logic of reproductive success. In this vein, representations of violence in the Iliad have been considered in light of an underlying struggle for ‘resources, social status and power’ (Gottschall 2008, 3) and acts of vengeance in Shakespearean tragedy as expressing an interrelated ‘concern for our kind and unconcern for others’ (Boyd 2004, 66).

Investigations along these lines by literary Darwinists have offered intriguing insights into literature; however, despite their unflinching view of human nature, they seem to tell only part of the story. By turning the literary critic into an anthropologist gathering data about Homo sapiens, they tend to leave her or him at a distance from what actually happens in the process of reading and untouched by the emotional reactions called forth by fictional texts. Such content-focused interpretations also tend to skirt the question of how violence is represented in literature, an issue that is no less telling about our violent capacities than the data we can gather by skimming the content. In reading fiction, or in watching a play, we are not simply emotionally detached anthropologists observing our objects of enquiry: we are partners in a bilateral pragmatic encounter (Phelan 2003, 132) that relies upon our evolved, cognitive and emotional capacities. If literature aims to achieve particular aesthetic and emotional effects, then their scope is demarcated by what its human recipients are capable of feeling.

It is not very difficult to see how imaginations of violence might be related to the ways that we react to and think about violence in real circumstances, despite the fact that the contexts are different. There is evidence that violence offers ‘intrinsic’ rewards to its perpetrators in the form of enjoyment, whether this derives from the essential thrill of undertaking a risky activity or the pleasure of demonstrating one’s dominance (Eisner 2009, 51-53). By removing the actual risk of harm or injury, fictional violence can tap into this source of intense psychological gratification (Miller 1998, 164-65). Hence our deep-seated desire to seek revenge for personal wrongs can still be triggered even when it is addressed, in a sense, at second hand and even if we ultimately refrain from acting upon this desire.

Apart from being a repository of vital information about real life (Scalise Sugiyama 2001), literature can be thought of as a “dummy” (Mellmann 2006, 42-43) that elicits and exploits the same emotions that we experience in real life while preventing us from taking action. That we have the ability to imaginatively place ourselves in particular situations and to experience emotions that we would feel in those circumstances is itself likely to be a biological phenomenon. With John Tooby and Leda Cosmides we might explain our restrained responsiveness to fiction in terms of the distinction between the “functional” mode of behaviour—which leads us to act upon environmental information according to fixed, functional and universal programmes—and its “organisational” counterpart, in which such responses are merely triggered in order to train, maintain and refine our cognitive capacities (Tooby and Cosmides 2001). This distinction is related to what Tooby and Cosmides call “scope syntax” (2000), our evolved ability to “tag” information, identify its source, assess its relevance and reliability, and adjust our responses accordingly: information tagged as fictional will not activate the functional mode.

The significance of this cognitive ability for representational art is obvious: it enables the development of a whole range of sophisticated aesthetic and narrative features, from free indirect discourse to dramatic irony, that render literary representation complex and worth our attention. Most important for the topic of violence, however, is that it allows us to experience real emotions within the safe confines of fiction and without the risk that we will act upon them. This capacity affirms the enduring relevance of emotional responses even as it helps to stop them short.

To consider the biological dimensions of literature from the perspective of the reader’s emotional responses unsettles the detachment established by purely thematic, plot-based interpretations. It testifies to our continuing fascination with violence and thereby subtly shifts the balance in the relationship between text and reader/audience. It is not merely that authors depict fictional violence in order to manipulate their readers’ responses; more fundamentally, it is the reader’s pre-existing psychology of violence that explains why its fictional depiction can be meaningful at all (as well as, it must be added, enjoyable). Just as with real-world cultures of violence, these capacities are context-dependent and mediated in different ways in different times and places. Still, they are supported and enabled by a psychological potential for violence that a civilising process might modify but not obliterate. On the back of this knowledge, we realise how paradoxical the question of how culture is biological actually is. It is by engaging in activities usually considered to be entirely cultural, such as reading a novel or watching a play, that human animals reveal themselves to be at their most natural.


Adler, Jeffrey S. 2003. ‘On the border of Snakeland’: Evolutionary psychology and plebeian violence in industrial Chicago, 1875-1920. Journal of Social History 36: 541-60.

Adler Jeffrey S. and Thomas W. Gallant. 2000. What do historians have to say about violence? The HFG Review of Research, 4, no. 1 (Spring), (accessed 1 January 2010).

Archer, John. 2009. Does sexual selection explain human sex differences in aggression? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 249-311.

Barkow, Jerome H. 2006. Introduction: Sometimes the bus does wait. In Missing the Revolution: Darwinism for Social Scientists, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, 3-59. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boyd, Brian. 2004. Kind and unkindness: Aaron in Titus Andronicus. In Words that count: Essays in honor of MacDonald P. Jackson, ed. Brian Boyd, 51-77. Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press.

Buss, David M. and Todd K. Shackelford. 1997. Human aggression in evolutionary psychological perspective. Clinical Psychology Review 17: 605-19.

Campbell, Anne. 1999. Staying alive: Evolution, culture, and women’s intrasexual aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22: 203-52.

Carroll, Stuart, ed. 2007. Cultures of violence: Interpersonal violence in historical perspective. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby. 1992. Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. In The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, 163-228. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Courtwright, David T. 1996. Violent land: Single men and social disorder from the frontier to the inner city. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Daly, Martin and Margo Wilson. 1988. Homicide. Hawthorne: Aldine de Gruyter.

Eagly, Alice H. and Wendy Wood. 2009. Sexual selection does not provide an adequate theory of sex differences in aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 276-77.

Eisner, Manuel. 2001. Modernization, self-control and lethal violence: The long-term dynamics of European homicide rates in theoretical perspective. British Journal of Criminology 41: 618-38.

—. 2009. The uses of violence: An examination of some cross-cutting issues. International Journal of Conflict and Violence 3: 40-59.

Emsley, Clive. 2005. Hard men: Violence in England since 1750. London: Hambledon and London.

Fletcher, Jonathan. 1997. Violence and civilization: An introduction to the work of Norbert Elias. Cambridge, Polity.

Frijda, Nico H. 1994. The lex talionis: On vengeance. In Emotions: Essays on emotion theory, ed. Stephanie H. M. Van Goozen, Nanne E. Van de Poll and Joseph A. Sergeant, 263-89. Hillsdale, NJ, Hove: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

Godfrey, Barry and Paul Lawrence. 2005. Crime and justice 1750-1950. Cullompton: Willan.

Gottschall, Jonathan. 2008. The Rape of Troy: Evolution, violence, and the world of Homer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hanlon, Gregory. 2007. Human nature in rural Tuscany: An early modern history. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Hesse, Carla. 2004. The new empiricism. Cultural and Social History 1: 201-7.

Jones, Stephen. 2000. Understanding violent crime. Buckingham: Open University Press.

McCullough, Michael E. 2008. Beyond revenge: The evolution of the forgiveness instinct. Chichester: John Wiley.

Mellmann, Katja. 2006. Emotionalisierung – Von der Nebenstundenpoesie zum Buch als Freund: Eine emotionspsychologische Analyse der Literatur der Aufklärungsepoche. Mentis, Paderborn.

Miller, William Ian. 1998. Clint Eastwood and equity: Popular culture’s theory of revenge. In Law in the domains of culture, ed. Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns, 161-202. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Phelan, James. 2003. Dual focalization, retrospective fictional autobiography, and the ethics of Lolita. In Narrative and consciousness: Literature, psychology, and the brain, ed. Gary D. Fireman, Ted E. McVay, jr. and Owen J. Flanagan, 129-45. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2007. ‘A History of Violence.’ (accessed 1 January 2010).

Ruff, Julius R. 2001. Violence in early modern Europe, 1500-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scalise Sugiyama, Michelle. 2001. Food, foragers, and folklore: The role of narrative in human subsistence. Evolution and human behaviour, 22: 221-40.

Singer, Peter. 1982. The expanding circle: Ethics and socio-biology. Oxford: Clarendon.

Solomon, Robert C. 1994. Sympathy and vengeance: The role of the emotions in justice. In Emotions: Essays on emotion theory, ed. Stephanie H. M. van Goozen, Nanne E. van de Poll and Joseph A. Sergeant, 291-311. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Spierenburg, Pieter. 2008. A history of murder: personal violence in Europe from the middle ages to the present. Cambridge: Polity.

Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides. 2001. Does beauty build adapted minds? Towards an evolutionary theory of aesthetics, fiction, and the arts. SubStance 30: 6-27.

—. 2000. Consider the source: The evolution of adaptations for decoupling and metarepresentation. In Metarepresentation: A multidisciplinary perspective, ed. Dan Sperber, 53-116. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wiener, Martin. 2004. Men of blood: Violence, manliness, and criminal justice in Victorian England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, Margo and Martin Daly. 1997. Life expectancy, economic inequality, homicide, and reproductive timing in Chicago neighbourhoods. British Medical Journal 314: 1271-74.

Wood, J. Carter. 2004. Violence and crime in nineteenth-century England: The shadow of our refinement. London: Routledge, 2004.

—. 2007. The limits of culture? Society, evolutionary psychology and the history of violence. Cultural and Social History 4: 95-114.



to Anja Müller-Wood and John Carter Wood

1. Joseph Carroll’s Response to Müller-Wood & Wood

Taking literary depictions of violence as their theme, Anja Müller-Wood and John Carter Wood (M-W & W) give a good example of the basic principle that culture articulates genetically transmitted dispositions. They also offer a salutary admonition that analyzing literary meaning and effect should not be limited to considering depicted content. The best evolutionary literary criticism has at least indirectly also registered the emotional responses of readers.

I would add one further dimension to the model implicit in the M-W & W exposition: the implied author. To get at the mental event involved in reading a novel, for instance, the critic should envision the implied author as a personality and a set of beliefs, attitudes, and emotional responses. We can call that whole complex the “point of view” of the author. By that term, I don’t mean to signify just the formal narrative concept with distinctions such as omniscient, third-person, first-person, etc.. I mean rather to signify the total identity of the author, everything the author brings to bear on the depicted subject to invest it with meaning. Another word frequently used in this context, along with point of view, is “stance.” The author has a point of view and takes a stance toward depicted characters, who also have points of view and take stances toward the depicted events (which, inside the depiction, for them, are real events).

One main thing we do when we read depicted events, deciphering implications, is to assess the distance and quality of relations between the point of view of depicted characters and the point of view of implied authors. Thus, for instance, when Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, tells us that Becky Sharp is a “heroine” because she heartlessly exploits the opportunities made available during the confusion surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, we assess both Becky’s point of view and also Thackeray’s ambivalent and ironic relation to her. And finally, of course, as M-W & W rightly point out, the reader also has a point of view, a whole set of beliefs and attitudes that are activated emotionally by the depicted scene and also by the stimulating force of the author’s identity.

In company with M-W & W, I think Darwinist critics need to make a conscious, explicit point of getting past “content-based” criticism. They need always to be operating in the range of the interplay of points of view, because that’s where the action is; that’s where meaning and effect take place. They also of course need to take full account of the formal means by which authors produce meaning and effect. They need to have at hand the whole tool kit of standard interpretive concepts from basic literary criticism, independently of theoretical school. As evolutionists, though, they also need to locate all such basic literary concepts in contexts of progressive, empirical knowledge—hence evolutionary psychology and cognitive and affective neuroscience.

Here’s a question that might startle some of us: if meaning and effect take place in the interaction of points of view, why do we need to bother with the biological substrate at all? Is it not irrelevant to our central concern, which is the interplay of “images,” of “mental events,” of “scenarios”? Someone asked me this question nearly twenty years ago, and it has preyed on my mind ever since. The major strength of poststructuralist cultural critique is that poststructuralist cultural critics keep their eyes firmly fixed on the manipulation of “cultural representations.” They have erroneously felt that doing that also necessarily disconnects images from underlying biological causes. M-W & W convincingly argue that such is not the case. Cultural representations vary, but they are nonetheless “related to underlying psychological mechanisms.” Are those mechanisms relevant to literary and cultural criticism? If so, how?

I think they are relevant, for several related reasons. I’ll lay them out one by one.

(1) Underlying psycho-biological mechanisms are largely responsible for the emotional quality of our experience. We understand depicted scenes of violence because we have felt violent passions. As we watch Clint Eastwood or Terminator doing what they do best, we feel stirrings inside, of excitement, unease, horror, disgust, delight—the whole mixed panoply. If we didn’t feel it, we would not be able to track the story. The story never consists in a sequence of simple physical actions. It consists in a sequence, partly declared, partly implicit, of emotions, states of mind, intentions. The shared basis of our experience—the similarity in our neuro-chemically activated passions and perceptions—is what makes communication possible; it’s what makes it possible for us to participate in the storied lives of imaginary people, the emotionally and morally charged stance of an implied author, and the sense of participating in the shared responses of our reading or viewing community. (Ian McEwan’s essay in The Literary Animal, edited by Gottschall and Wilson, is good on this subject—the universality of Ekman’s “basic emotions” as the precondition for shared understandings in literary experience.)

(2) Authors frequently refer to “human nature.” When they do that, they are making appeal to a substrate of common motives, emotions, features of personality, cognitive dispositions, and intuitive moral principles. By making this appeal, they automatically invoke a context wider, more basic, and more general than the context of values and attitudes that distinguish specific cultures or classes within a culture. They are appealing to our common humanity, and they very frequently use that appeal to launch a satiric attack on the narrow conventionality in the attitudes of some depicted set of characters. Unless we understand what human nature is, and can assess an author’s implicit concept of it, we have no basis for evaluating the author’s relation to conventional beliefs and values.

(3) “Folk psychology”—an intuitive insight into human nature—is the shared medium that makes possible the interplay of perspectives—hence, makes possible literature itself. Understanding human nature, the bio-psychological substrate of cultural representations, is the necessary theoretical context for understanding meaning in literature.

(4) All interpretation is “reduction.” Literary critics necessarily reduce depicted characters and events to underlying thematic, tonal, and generic terms. Interpretation is allegorical. The explanatory systems used for this purpose are now most commonly versions of Freudian psychology, Marxist sociology, deconstructive semiotics, and feminist conceptions of patriarchy and gender. All these explanatory systems get at some aspect of underlying forces, but insofar as they depart from or neglect an evolutionary understanding of human nature, they are pre-scientific, incomplete, inadequate, and distorted.

We have yet to grasp fully that the basic elements of human nature—basic motives, basic emotions, personality factors, cognitive biases, basic evolved dispositions for social dynamics, and basic moral intuitions—are ultimate explanatory terms, on a level with terms such as Class Struggle, the Phallus, the Mirror Stage, Compulsory Heterosexuality, and all the rest.

Part of our problem in grasping this idea is that in using basic elements of human nature as our chief terms for allegorical reduction, we worry about limiting ourselves to mere summary in common language using common-sense ideas from folk psychology. We fear being obvious. We yearn for the counterintuitive. (Such yearnings are a chief motive for poststructuralist theory, which consists in a systematic assault on common sense or folk psychological concepts; see Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory, A Very Short Introduction.) I understand this fear and live with it myself.

But we can get past this problem. All we have to do is (1) register adequately that meaning takes place in the interplay of perspectives, not in depicted events raw; (2) understand the systemic character of the relations among all the elements of human nature; (3) realize that these elements combine in different ways in different cultural ecologies to produce dramatically different forms of imaginative experience; and (4) register that every literary event (every interaction among points of view centering on an imaginative depiction) can be fully comprehended, hypothetically, within a total explanation that accounts for all the relations among (a) evolved, universal dispositions, (b) the peculiarities of a given set of cultural conditions and potentials, (c) the individuality of a given author, (d) the characteristics of implied and actual audiences, (e) a set of depicted events, and (f) the formal means through which an author organizes those depicted events in order to produce distinct and determinate meanings and effects on implied readers.

2. Diana Kornbrot’s Response to Müller-Wood and Wood

Diana Kornbrot is Emeritus Professor of Mathematical Psychology and Senor research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire. Her publications include mathematical models of decision making, potentially of evolutionary significance. She is a former President of the International Society for Psychophysics and Associate Editor of British Journal of Mathematical & Statistical Psychology.

This contribution produces an interesting account of human violence in fact and fiction. It makes several points. Male to male violence is more common than female to female violence. There is enormous variability both within and between societies. However, disentangling the environmental and cultural dimensions is not easy. That is how do factors such as population density and resource availability, which also mediate violence in our primate cousins, interact with cultural factors such as an ‘family honour’ or pacifism There is nothing new in this account. The standard plausible reasons in terms of biological reproduction are provided. Male to female violence is barely discussed. Nor is the moderation of male to male violence by genetic relatedness. It is clear why a husband might kill his unfaithful wife. It is a lot less clear why any male should kill a sister or daughter who shares his genes, and may be about to give birth to the child of a dominant male. Similarly, fratricide and fraternal alliances are both prevalent in human societies. How does this compare with non-related male-male alliances and murders?  Some of these issues are reviewed in the recent BBS debate, e.g. (Archer, 2009; Buss, 2009). Violence towards genetic relatives does not seem to loom large in this debate. Bit weird that. A biological account of the culture of violence needs to address such questions.


Archer, J. (2009). Does sexual selection explain human sex differences in aggression? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(3-4), 249-266.

Buss, D. M. (2009). The multiple adaptive problems solved by human aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(3-4), 271-272.

3. John Price’s Response Müller-Wood and Wood

John Scott Price is retired from psychiatric practice in the UK National Health Service. Previously he worked for the Medical Research Council, in the Psychiatric Genetics Research Unit and in the Clinical Research Centre. For many years he was European Editor of the ASCAP (Across Species Comparisons and Psychopathology) Newsletter. He is co-author with Anthony Stevens of Evolutionary Psychiatry (Routledge 1996, 2000). He is interested in conflict and reconciliation, especially as depicted in literature, such as in the Indian epic story The Mahabharata. Visit

Violence as an unacceptable, unilateral definition of a relationship

As a psychiatrist, I am more interested in the effect of violence on the recipient than in the violence itself.  Throughout the animal kingdom violence (aggression) is ritualised so that the bared teeth stand for the bite, and the raised fist for the punch.  In human beings the ritual of day-to-day violence is verbal (or by e-mail or blog postings).  It is often said that unritualised violence takes the victim to the casualty department of the hospital, whereas ritualised violence takes them to the psychiatric clinic.  Sometimes to both.

After over 40 years of contemplation of this problem (Price, 1969, 2009), I hold the provisional view that the best definition of violence is the invitation to accept a unilateral definition of a relationship.  This view is based on the work of Gregory Bateson and his team in Palo Alto in the 1960s (Sluzki & Beavin 1965; Bateson, 1972).  They pointed out that every human communication contains an informational component and a definitional (or command) component.  The definitional component defines the relationship.  For instance, if you say to me, “Carry my briefcase”, this not only gives me the information that you want me to carry your briefcase, but it defines our relationship as one in which you have the right to command me to carry your briefcase.  And it implies that I do not have the right to ask you to carry my briefcase.  In other words, it defines our relationship as complementary in terms of power.  If I carry your briefcase, I have accepted your definition.  Probably I always carry your briefcase, in which case the definition component is redundant.  But if we had an equal (symmetrical) relationship, and I then agreed to carry your briefcase, it would mean a loss of status for me and might make me depressed.  But if I replied, “Carry your own sodding briefcase!” I would have offered my own definition of the relationship, and symmetry would be maintained.

Bateson’s definition of violence applies to all the situations I can think of, animal and human.  It extends from killing (‘our relationship is such that I have the right to kill you’) to the mildest put-down.  It also includes the use of questions or even praise when they framed in a way which is usual from a senior to a junior person, but used to a person who is supposed to be equal, since it implies seniority.  It even applies to the grief which follows death, as we define a relationship in such a way that we are both alive, and death is an offer of an unacceptable unilateral definition.

The receipt of violence activates the strategy set of escalation and de-escalation.  If escalation is chosen, an opposing definition is offered.  If de-escalation s chosen, the unilateral definition of the other person is accepted.  The situation is complex because the strategy set of escalation/de-escalation is deployed relatively independently at three levels of the forebrain.  Escalation at the highest level involves the offer of a counter-definition whereas de-escalation is characterized by acceptance and recognised as humility.  At the middle level there is an emotional response of either anger or a feeling of being chastened.  At the lowest (reptilian) level of the forebrain escalation takes the form of elevated mood and de-escalation takes the form of depressed mood (and may be recognised by me and my colleagues as Major Depressive Disorder).

These remarks suggest that human intercourse is a minefield of potential violence, and, indeed, Brown and Levinson have pointed out the extreme lengths we go to to avoid causing loss of “face” in the people we talk to.  However, redundancy comes to our aid, because the definitional component of most communications is redundant, in that it defines the relationship in a way that has already been accepted by both parties.

Many authors have described episodes of depression following the receipt of violence, whether verbal or physical, and whether to themselves or a loved one.  I can think of Daphne Du Maurier, Charlotte Bronte, John Braine, Dick Francis and Homer, but I am an illiterate psychiatrist and others could do this job far better.

I should point out that these ideas have been developed by myself and a few colleagues (Stevens & Price, 2000; Price et al., 2007), and are not generally accepted by psychiatrists or evolutionary psychologists.  In fact, to use the current terminology, we are defined by them indirectly as “lax adaptationists” (Troisi, 2008) or just non-existent (Dunbar & Barrett, 2009; Nesse, 2009); and to other scientists we are regarded as armchair theorists and the purveyors of “just-so stories”.  To them we reassert our own definition of things, and claim that our ideas are useful in both research and in therapy, and we define them as blind to obvious facts, and untutored in the relevant basic disciplines of comparative ethology and behavioral ecology.  Time will tell whose definition is right.


Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books

Dunbar, R.I.M. and Barrett, L. (eds) (2009) Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Nesse RM (2009)  Evolution at 150: time for a truly biological psychiatry.  British Journal of Psychiatry, 195, 471-472.

Price JS. (1969) The ritualisation of agonistic behaviour as a determinant of variation along the neuroticism/stability dimension of personality. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 62, pp. 1107-1111.

Price JS. (2009) Darwinian Dynamics of Depression. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 43, pp. 1-9.

Price, J.S. (In press) The Negotiation of social asymmetry and the evolution of the capacity for mood change: A tribute to Gregory Bateson. In: Darwin and Psychiatry: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by Adrien de Block and Pieter Adriaens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Price JS, Gardner R, Wilson DR, Sloman L, Rohde P, Erickson M. (2007)  Territory, rank and mental health: The history of an idea. Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 531-554.

Sluzki, C.E. and Beavin, J. (1965). Symmetry and complementarity: an operational definition and a typology of dyads. Acta psichiatrica y psicologica de America Latina, 11, 321-330. Reprinted in P. Watzlawick and J.H. Weakland (ed.) The Interactional View pp. 71-87 (New York: W.W.Norton, 1977)

Stevens A & Price JS. (2000) Evolutionary Psychiatry: A New Beginning, (second edition). Routledge, London.

Troisi A.  (2008) Psychopathology and mental illness. In: Crawford C, Krebs D, eds. Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology.  New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 453-476.

4. Robert Stonjek’s Response Müller-Wood and Wood

Robert Karl Stonjek is Owner and/or Moderator of several academic discussion forums (total membership of over 7,000) including Evolutionary Psychology; Evolutionary Psychology News; Cognitive Neuroscience, Mind and Brain, Consciousness; Psychiatry Research, Physical Sciences and Climate Change Forum.

Species wide traits that are also seen spontaneously occurring in precursory forms can not be attributed to culture, therefore violence can not be trivially assumed to be a cultural adaptation.  Indeed, it is cultural pressure that suppresses innate violent tendencies in favour of other forms of mediation between aggrieved or rivalling parties.

The utility of culture with regard to suppression of violent acts is immediately obvious in the number of conspecifics that survive to reproductive maturity, but the downside is that those with which a group is competing for resources will also undergo population increases if violence resulting in death is curbed.

Natural selection effectively allocates resources to those individuals, groups or species that are most likely to successfully breed.  Competition between males is a further selection process and in all mammals this involves violent competition that may result in the death, ostracism or loss of breeding opportunities for the losing males.

The effect of cultural suppression or regulation of aggression has effectively allowed larger groups to exist.  Old Testament law, for instance, banned murder within one’s tribal group and suggested laws that replaced the dominance of larger, stronger males over weaker rivals.  Later national administrations tried to control violence between tribes, between religious groups and even between states or countries.  The later processes continue on to this day.

Suppression of violent confrontation as a method of addressing injustice does nothing to address the remaining innate desire for violence for this purpose in both male and female.  By allowing this innate desire to be addressed vicariously (esp via the mirror neuron system), individuals can placate the innate predisposition and so participate in non-violent social interaction.  But the same mechanisms can also stimulate innate violent predispositions from an otherwise inactive mode.

Thus psychologists wonder if violent depictions in the media, especially movies and computer games, may be the source of stimulation of violent behaviour in some individuals or whether otherwise violent individuals may be satisfied with vicariously stimulated violent expression.

Müller-Wood and Wood’s essay does touch on the above points but fails to focus the various observations and facts into a single model of violence and culture by considering what violence exists in non-human species and how human culture subsequently impacted on that natural predisposition to result in the societies we observe today.



by Anja Müller-Wood and John Carter Wood

We thank our respondents for their comments on our essay on culture, literature, biology and violence. We would like to make a few general observations about John Price’s and Robert Stonjek’s responses (which focus mostly on aspects of real-world violence) before turning to Joseph Carroll’s largely positive elaboration of some points we have been trying to make.

We have found no direct references to our specific arguments in John Price’s response, but we find his emphasis on the impact of violence on the victim to be absolutely appropriate in his context (as a psychiatrist) and certainly acknowledge his long-term clinical experience. If anything, our main analytical difference would be to more strongly distinguish physical from non-physical aggression. From the point of view of the victim, the effect of either might be comparable; however, as several studies have shown, there is good reason to think that there are important differences in the evolutionary origins of (and social factors involved in) different kinds of aggression, whether with regard to victim-perpetrator relationships or degree of force used (as described and cited in, e.g., Daly and Wilson 1988 and Archer 2009). More precise and differentiated definitions are also, we think, especially helpful when trying to analyse more general patterns in violence, whether in contemporary or historical social contexts.

Robert Stonjek argues that violence cannot be “trivially assumed” to be a “cultural adaptation” because it is “also seen spontaneously occurring in precursory forms” among non-humans. If this is offered as a criticism, we find it difficult to respond, as we did not suggest that violence arises as a specifically “cultural” phenomenon, trivially or otherwise. As we described, acts of physical aggression emerge from a variety of emotional and cognitive adaptations (and side-effects thereof) in response to certain kinds of cues and social relationships: “culture,” in our essay, is employed as a description of the behaviour and thinking that results, rather than a separate causal force divorced from biology. (Undermining any strict distinction between culture and biology is, after all, one of our central aims in our essay.) In this, we agree with those evolutionary analyses that have emphasised an important role for “evoked culture,” i.e., the local behavioural similarities that emerge directly from the action of context-dependent evolved psychological mechanisms (Cosmides and Tooby 1992). That we locate the source of these mechanisms in human evolution also implies, of course, that they build upon a longer and continuous process of human and pre-human development.

Nonetheless, while we agree with Stonjek that insight into the patterns of aggression in other species (particularly the closest relations to Homo sapiens) is a valuable resource for understanding them in our own, they can never be a complete explanation without attention to distinctively human factors: notably, our unique dependence on “transmitted” culture, passed along from generation to generation through social learning. There are “species-typical” aspects to human violence (just as with the physically aggressive behaviour of any other animal); however, there are also wide variations in the prevalence of violence across geography and time. As our essay discussed, historians have tended to treat these variations as solely the product of “transmitted” culture; based upon our reading of evolutionary psychology, we suggest that this is short-sighted. In a discussion of cultural variation, Gangestad, Hasleton and Buss (2006) have convincingly argued that both “evoked” as well as “transmitted” culture—both of which are, as we discussed, based on evolved capabilities—are necessary to explain cultural variations, including those in homicide rates (90-91).

Stonjek, however, seems to suggest that culture is only relevant to violence with regard to its “suppression.” This seems rather close to the notion that desires for physical aggression are “natural” and those factors that work against it “cultural” (a point that seems confirmed by Stonjek’s contention in his essay in this issue that the human development of culture has made them less instinctual). However, we think that it is clear that both the propensity toward and the restraint of physical aggression are based upon context-dependent innate psychological mechanisms.

Physically aggressive behaviour does indeed begin during early individual development and much of childhood socialisation involves encouraging restraint in this regard (Archer 2009, 255-56); however, seeing culture as solely or primarily involved only in the “suppression of violent confrontation” ignores the extent to which violence has been useful to—and, indeed, fundamental for—the maintenance of social order and group cohesion (Eisner 2009). Cultural forms are not only aimed at suppressing violence, but—in some contexts—encouraging it for specific purposes.

Somewhat curiously, given his emphasis on the suppressive effects of culture, Stonjek also seems to underestimate the latter’s impact. The important role that the provision of mediation and legal alternatives to physically aggressive personal vengeance appear to have played in substantially reducing European homicide rates since the late Middle Ages (Spierenburg 2008; see also Gallant 2002, 140-47 and Wood 2007) would seem to contradict the idea that the suppression of violence does “nothing” to address the desire for vengeance: that such alternatives to personal revenge might remain in some way unsatisfactory in many cases does not deny their essential effectiveness (Pinker 2002, 320-1 and 329-36).

Several of the points that we raised are compatible with or to some extent implied by Stonjek’s other comments about inter-male competition, group solidarity and competition as well as the underpinnings of justice. However, we are somewhat mystified by Stonjek’s critique of our ‘failure’ to create a “single model of violence and culture”: we would respond that the various aspects of our analysis are mutually compatible and based on the principle of “vertical” or “conceptual” integration (Cosmides, Tooby and Barkow 1992). With Manuel Eisner (2009), we think not only that a “general theory of violence” is possible (as a “meta-theoretical framework”) but also that evolutionary psychology will play an essential role in its development, even if “local” theories explaining particular kinds or scales of violence will remain valuable. Given that we are still in the relatively early stages of bringing together historical, literary and evolutionary perspectives on a complex topic such as violence (and face, as we noted, a continuing lack of engagement across relevant fields), this is a “failure” we can live with, though we hope, of course, to have moved the discussion forward in some way.

In an extended sense, literary representations of violence may be seen as such local, particular contexts that can be nevertheless fruitfully integrated “conceptually” or “vertically” with the aid of evolutionary psychology. In this way, culturally specific representations of human behaviour might not only be explained as the product of particular historical circumstances, but also—across time and culture—in the light of what Carroll refers to as “conventional beliefs and values.” He worries that attending to the conventional may leave one vulnerable to the charge of stating the obvious. But there is no reason to fear the obvious. In fact, establishing what conventional beliefs and values are is essential to understanding how people deviate from them in particular times and places—or indeed how writers challenge them in particular texts.

This is where the concept of the implied author comes in, which Carroll usefully introduces in his response, emphasising its role as an evaluating instance in literature. Knowledge derived from evolutionary psychology (and related fields) allows us to ground our understanding of the implied author’s evaluations (as well as the expectations of the reader implicit in them) more firmly. Exploring the intricate interactions between authors (implied and real) and their readerly counterparts within the aid of an evolutionary framework promises to lead to fruitful results, especially when we, as Carroll suggests at the end of his response, turn our attention to the formal means by which literary texts achieve particular effects. A biological take on literature (as one manifestation of culture), by encouraging such a “rhetorical” or “pragmatic” understanding of literature, may therefore in the long run result in a renewed and more sophisticated engagement with the essentials of literary scholarship.


Archer, John. 2009. Does sexual selection explain human sex differences in aggression? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 249-311.

Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby. 1992. Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. In The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, 163-228. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cosmides, Leda, John Tooby and Jerome H. Barkow. 1992. Introduction: Evolutionary psychology and conceptual integration. In The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, 3-15. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daly, Martin and Margo Wilson. 1988. Homicide. Hawthorne: Aldine de Gruyter.

Eisner, Manuel. 2009. The uses of violence: An examination of some cross-cutting issues. International Journal of Conflict and Violence 3: 40-59.

Gallant, Thomas W. 2002. Experiencing dominion: Culture, identity and power in the British Mediterranean. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Gangestad, Steven W., Martie G. Haselton and David M. Buss. 2006. Evolutionary foundations of cultural variation: Evoked culture and mate preferences. Psychological Inquiry 17: 75-95.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. London: Penguin.

Spierenburg, Pieter. 2008. A history of murder: personal violence in Europe from the middle ages to the present. Cambridge: Polity.

Wood, J. Carter. 2007. Conceptualising cultures of violence and cultural change. In Cultures of violence: Interpersonal violence in historical perspective, ed. Stuart Carroll, 79-96. London: Macmillan.

This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues