How Evolutionary Theory Explains Gun Violence in America

Humans like to believe evolution implies progress. As Stephen Jay Gould notes, Darwin warned of this misunderstanding. We may be better at adapting to our present, regrettable circumstances.

Shock, dismay, anger, sadness, confusion: the numerous circulated emotions over the last week, all with their place in the minds of those expressing them. Yet there is one other—surprise—out of place. To be caught unaware is to admit one’s ignorance of modern American politics.


Impetus for this bewilderment appears similar across the board: it’s 2016, how are we as a nation still racist/violent/xenophobic/hateful? Rather than entertain specifics in Dallas or Louisiana, or even of race in America, let’s first unpack the notion that evolution is always for the better, something inherent in the current attitude toward these recent tragedies (and life in general).

The neuroscientist Sam Harris often reminds readers that the word ‘atheism’ does not appear in his book, The End of Faith, the very work that kicked off the New Atheist movement. Charles Darwin is victim to an equivalent rewriting. In On the Origin of Species he does not discuss evolution, but natural selection. Species adapt to their environment; there is nothing moral to this process, especially no text claiming the process leads to ‘better.’

As Stephen Jay Gould notes, during Darwin’s time the term ‘evolution’ did have an escalating feel to it. Traced to a poem from 1647, evolution “embodied a concept of progressive development.” Darwin did in fact use the word, once, the very last in his book. Yet,

Darwin explicitly rejected the common equation of what we now call evolution with any notion of progress.

Darwin was careful with his language choices, never using ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ to describe species. He knew the dangers such adjectives created in the human mind, given that no animal has ever thought more highly of itself. Gould continues,

The father of evolutionary theory stood almost alone in insisting that organic change led only to increasing adaptation between organisms and their own environment and not to an abstract ideal of progress defined by structural complexity or increasing heterogeneity.

Humans are moral creatures that like to believe that only we embody morality. Just what that entails is, and most likely forever will be, debated among bickering factions. Affixing to evolution a preconceived intent misses the point of the theory.

Still human beings, in this specific case Americans, emit “global arrogance,” in Gould’s words. The catalyst behind recent shootings resides in decades of a targeted marketing campaign by the NRA as well as a continually growing economic divide enabled by a government catering to lobbyists. Unaddressed racial strife simmers; it does not dissipate of its own accord. Dwindling options combined with easy armament exploit our inherent penchant for violence.

And violent animals we are. Certainly, we can be better, if the conditions are right. At the moment, though, we’re living through rather unsettling conditions. Just because you have not adapted in the same manner as others does not mean that they have not adapted in their own way. Tragic, heartbreaking, instigating, all true. Surprising, not so much.

Add to this a fanatical attachment to freedom. As comedian Jim Jefferies comments in his Netflix special, Freedumb, Americans cling to this word as if no other country enjoys democracy. There are ninety-two democratic nations, he notes, and, in some ways, America is dead last—we imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other ‘free’ country. You can claim we’re the freest, but the data do not support your argument.

As long as this continues an escalation in violence should not surprise. Along with increased aggression concordant with climate change, there’s a possibility of even more, soon. For quite some time humans have thought themselves above the environment, ignorant how the world and our biology interact. As one friend put it, violence is not increasing; more people just have cameras now. We are the product of our environment; our social media reflects what we see.

It is possible to write a different story moving forward, but the conditions have to change, drastically at that. Imagined utopias are useless without substantial initiatives in the present. We can use this wellspring of emotions to our advantage or continue to be baffled, striking out at whatever moves. Surprised, though, we cannot be.

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Image: Laura Buckman / Getty Images

Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch @derekberes.

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