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The Origins of Violence

The Origins Project at Arizona State University presents this innovative archive of materials about the origins of violence. Inspired by one of our exclusive academic workshops and informed by leading experts, scholars, and researchers around the world, this interactive website contains an exclusive curated collection of videos, articles, and facts that are aimed to increase the public's understanding of critical issues in science, beginning with the origins of violence.

To begin exploring, scroll down to select a section from The Origins of Violence thumbnails. You'll find expert discussions on violence organized chronologically and thematically, from the evolutionary and biological basis of violence in primates and humans, to modern war and terrorism, hate crimes, racism, and sexual and gender based violence. In the tabs below, select About to learn more about our initial Origins of Violence Workshop led by Steven Pinker in 2014, or Outline to view an outline of The Origins of Violence content.

Help us prevent future violence. Share the information from this site on social media, use the statistics and expert analyses in reports and websites, write your congressperson, and most importantly, engage those around you in conversation about the origins and future of violence.

 

The History of Violence: An Overview

Steven Pinker: The surprising decline in violence

Steven Pinker. The Surprising Decline in Violence. TED Talks

What do we know about the history of violence? What can we do to prevent violence in the future?

The history of violence in humans and animals can be traced back as far as humankind has kept records. This page will guide you through a brief overview of the larger issue of violence, beginning from a biological basis through the possibilities of preventing future violence.

According to Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, violence of all types has progressively decreased over time, most notably with the creation of the Leviathan. For the full story, see his award-winning book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, or watch The Origins Project Great Debate he co-led, Transcending Our Origins: Violence, Humanity and the Future.

As you progress through each section of The Origins of Violence, you’ll see a sample of some of the biggest names in science and public policy present relevant information on violence. In each section, be sure to check out Additional Reading for other important literature on the topic, and the Glossary for relevant terms.These expert readings, reports, videos, and interactive graphics will provide insight into the following topics:

Biological Basis Primates

Violence in America

Biological Basis Humans

Violence in Gender and Sexuality

Modern War and Terrorism

Where Do We Go From Here?

The Origins of Violence Workshop

On April 5, 2014, The Origins Project convened an intimate transdisciplinary workshop at Arizona State University to discuss the nature, origins, and future of violence. Led by Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, this workshop featured the world's top scholars in deep discussion about the socio-cultural and neuro-biological forms of violence. Topics ranged from its evolutionary utility in primates and early humans to the success of nonviolent protests propelling wide scale social change. This private workshop was followed by a Great Debate public event at ASU Gammage Auditorium, Transcending Our Origins: Violence, Humanity, and the Future.

Acknowledgements

We would like to extend our gratitude to everyone who contributed to the success of this educational experience, especially each writer, scholar, artist, and workshop participant whose work we have relied upon to assemble an overview of violence. Special recognition goes to Steven Pinker whose book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and the subsequent workshop, served as a basis and inspiration for the creation of this public archive.

We would also like to thank our research assistants, Nicole Perrone, Emily Colón, Ryan Casey, and Zachary Fraedrich, our postdoctoral researcher Jessica Cook, and design artists Tessa Menken and Jena Sprau for their dedication and insight in the construction of the History of Violence module. Finally, thank you to the readers and reviewers who volunteered their time to thoroughly engage with this important work.

--Michelle Iwen

Dedication

To those who continue to experience interpersonal violence.

Steven Pinker at the Origins of Violence Workshop with the Origins Project

Steven Pinker and Erica Chenoweth discuss civil resistance at Great Debate Transcending Our Origins.

The Origins of Violence Workshop with the Origins Project

Richard Wrangham, Sarah Mathew, and Adrian Raine talk biology at Great Debate Transcending Our Origins.

Biological Basis in Primate Populations

  • Why do chimpanzees, one of our closest genetic matches, commit vicious attacks against other weak or isolated chimpanzees?
  • Why do bonobos and other animals show kindness and empathy to each other?
  • Can violence and empathy co-exist for primates and early modern humans?
  • What does evidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder found in primates and humans suggest about how our early modern ancestors may  have dealt with violence?

Biological Basis in Human Populations

  • Why do some modern tribes engage in high-risk, high-mortality violent acts?
  • How do close neighbors turn on each other in order to commit violence?
  • What does the neuroscience of criminal brains tell us about a biological basis of violence?

Modern War and Terrorism

  • Why do scholars suggest that traditional war has disappeared?
  • Is terrorism really an effective form of social change?
  • Why do some citizens of Western nations cross the globe to engage in terrorism and guerrilla warfare?
  • What is the narrative of terrorism in and about the United States?
  • What is the real risk of terrorism for the United States?
  • What is the role of women in battling the growth of radicalism and terrorism?

Violence in America

  • What is the top threat to safety in the United States: terrorism or violent extremism?
  • What is a hate crime and what are common motivations for perpetrators?
  • What hate groups currently operate in the United States and in your state?
  • How did hatred function on an institutional level for African Americans during Jim Crow laws?
  • What role does racism play in modern hate crimes?
  • What is the astronomic cost and consequence of gun violence in the US?
  • What legislation changes could be implemented to curb this epidemic of gun violence?

Violence in Gender and Sexuality

  • What types of gender based violence exist around the world?
  • Does gendered violence impact both women and men?
  • Why is rape still used as a weapon of war?
  • What is female feticide and how is it causing catastrophic sex ratio imbalances in countries like India and China?
  • How does intimate partner violence affect both men and women?
  • What unique challenges does the transgender community face in combating violent crimes?
  • What impact does digital, online stalking and harassment have upon its victims emotional and financial health?

Where Do We Go From Here?

  • How can nonviolent resistance effectively promote social and governmental change?
  • How does the spread of violence act like an infectious disease and can we treat it as a public health epidemic?
  • What is something that you can do to promote peace in your relationships and in your community?

The History of Violence

Center for Terrorism and Security Studies. Recommended News and Information

Cock, Gareth. History and the Decline of Human Violence

Johnson, Eric Michael. Freedom to Riot: On the Evolution of Collective Violence

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

University of Cambridge. Violence Research Centre

 

Biological Basis in Primate Populations

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

Boot, Max. The Guerrilla Myth

de Waal, Frans. Evolutionary Ethics, Aggression, and Violence: Lessons from Primate Research

de Waal, Frans. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes

Peterson, Dale and Richard Wrangham. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence

 

Biological Basis in Human Populations

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

Eisner, Manuel. What Causes Large Scale Variation in Homicide Rates?

Fry, Douglas and Patrik Soderberg. Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War

Gat, Azar. Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism

Raine, Adrian. The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime

Silk, Joan. Practice Random Acts of Aggression and Senseless Acts of Intimidation: The Logic of Status Contests in Social Groups

Wilson, Margo and Martin Daly. Homicide

 

Modern War and Terrorism

Jerry Bowen and the BBC. The Birth of Israel Documentary

Chenoweth, Erica and Adria Lawrence. Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict

Chomsky, Noam. Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire

Fettweis, Christopher. The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory, and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy

Gat, Azar. The Arabs' 1848

Gat, Azar. Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism

Global Terrorism Database. Information on More Than 125,000 Attacks

Goldstein, Joshua. Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict World Wide

Gura, David. Crisis in Congo: NPR's Talk of the Nation

Horgan, George and Audrey Hamilton. Speaking of Psychology: Getting into a Terrorist’s Mind

Institute for Economics and Peace. Global Terrorism Index 2014

Lankford, Adam. The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers

Mueller, John. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them

Mueller, John and Mark Stewart. Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security

Spataro, Armando. Why Do People Become Terrorists?

 

Violence in America

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness

Harris, Frederick and Robert Lieberman. Racial Inequality After Racism

Human Rights Campaign. Hate Crimes and Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People

Metzl, Jonathan. Structural Competency Meets Structural Racism: Race, Politics, and the Structure of Medical Knowledge

National Crime Prevention Council. Putting a Stop to Hate Crime: For Adults and Young People

NPR's Code Switch. A Black Mississippi Judge's Breathtaking Speech to Three White Murderers

O'Toole, Laura, Jessica Schiffman, and Margie Kiter Edwards. Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Ryan, Matt E. and Peter T. Leeson. Hate Groups and Hate Crime

Swanson, Jeffrey, et al. Guns, Impulsive Angry Behavior, and Mental Disorders: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication

Williams, Chad. Charleston Syllabus.
Recommended reading about racial violence in response to the Charleston shooting

 

Violence in Gender and Sexuality

Center for Disease Control. Sexual Violence Surveillance

Courtwright, David. Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City

Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

Hudson, Valerie and Andrea Den Boer. A Surplus of Men, A Deficit of Peace

Muller, Martin and Richard Wrangam. Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans

Potts, Malcom and Thomas Hayden. Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World

The Girl Effect. Girls are the Most Powerful Force for Change on the Planet

The Melissa Harris-Perry Show. LGBT Activists Gear Up for the Next Battle

United Nations. Violence Against Women and Millennium Development Goals

United Nations. Ending Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People

United Nations. UNiTE to End Violence Against Women

 

Where Do we Go From Here?

Against Violent Extremism. A Network Connecting Former Violent Extremists and Survivors to Push Back Against Extremist Recruiting

Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria Stephan. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict

CeaseFire Illinois. Cure Violence

Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation. Peace Within. Between. Among

Eisner, Manuel. How to Reduce Homicide by 50% in the Next 30 Years

Gandhi, Mohandas. On Non-violence

Institute for Economics and Peace. Global Peace Index Report 2015

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women World Wide

Life After Hate.  A Non-Profit Founded by Former Members of Radicalized, Far-Right Hate Groups

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Support and Resources

The International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict. 10 Actions You Can Take

The History of Violence

Leviathan, the: government or central authority with a monopoly on the use of force. Steven Pinker

Biological Basis in Primate Populations

Adaptive Behavior: physical traits or behavior produced by natural selection. For an adaptation to persist and spread in a population it must be beneficial. Dept. of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia   

Amygdala: in the brain, one of the integrative centers for emotions, emotional behavior and learning, motivation, and fear-related memory. It also regulates additional cognitive processes, such as memory or attention The Amygdala and Emotion

Other: the condition or quality of being different, particularly if the differences in question are strange, bizarre, or exotic. The concept of 'othering' creates opportunities for designating others as sub-human in order to justify hate crimes. Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods

Pre-Frontal Cortex: an area in the brain that regulates problem solving, emotions, and complex thought. New York Academy of Sciences

PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Mayo Clinic

Biological Basis in Human Populations

Adaptive Behavior: physical traits or behavior produced by natural selection. For an adaptation to persist and spread in a population it must be beneficial. Dept. of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia   

Amygdala: in the brain, one of the integrative centers for emotions, emotional behavior and learning, motivation, and fear-related memory. It also regulates additional cognitive processes, such as memory or attention The Amygdala and Emotion

Other: the condition or quality of being different, particularly if the differences in question are strange, bizarre, or exotic. The concept of 'othering' creates opportunities for designating others as sub-human in order to justify hate crimes. Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods

Pre-Frontal Cortex: an area in the brain that regulates problem solving, emotions, and complex thought. New York Academy of Sciences

PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Mayo Clinic 

Modern War and Terrorism

Ethnic Cleansing: the expulsion of an "undesirable" population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these. Foreign Affairs

Genocide: any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. United Nations   

ISIS or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: A militant radical group working to establish a caliphate, a state governed in accordance with Islamic law, or Sharia, by God's deputy on Earth, or caliph. BBC

Narrative: a basic human strategy for coming to terms with fundamental elements of our experience, such as time, process, and change. OSU Project Narrative     

Pathology: mistaken or incorrect beliefs that inspire irrational action. Threat and Anxiety in US Foreign Policy

PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Mayo Clinic

Terrorism: the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence against persons, societies, cultures or governments in order to create a desired change. The change sought may be political, religious or social in nature. State of Maine Information and Analysis Center

Resolution 1325: urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts. It also calls on all parties in conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict. United Nations   

Resolution 2178: requires countries to take certain steps to address the Foreign Terror Fighter (FTF) threat. This includes calls upon states to enhance Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts and take steps to decrease the risk of radicalization to terrorism in their societies, such as engaging relevant local communities, empowering concerned groups of civil society, and adopting tailored approaches to countering FTF recruitment. United States Mission to the UN

War: an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Violence in America

Apartheid: Name given in South Africa to the segregation of the inhabitants of European descent from the non-European; applied also to any similar movement elsewhere; also, to other forms of racial separation (social, educational, etc.). Oxford English Dictionary   

Domestic Terrorism: violence against the civilian population or infrastructure of a nation—often but not always by citizens of that nation and often with the intent to intimidate, coerce, or influence national policy. RAND     

Hate Crimes: the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability.  The purveyors of hate use explosives, arson, weapons, vandalism, physical violence, and verbal threats of violence to instill fear in their victims, leaving them vulnerable to more attacks and feeling alienated, helpless, suspicious and fearful. US Department of Justice

Ideology: a set of beliefs, opinions, and values that exhibit a recurring pattern, are held by significant groups, compete over providing and controlling plans for public policy, and do so with the aim of justifying, contesting or changing the social and political arrangements and processes of a political community. Ideology: A Very Short Introduction

Jim Crow Laws: legalized racial segregation in the South dating from just after Reconstruction to 1965. Also known by the phrase 'Separate but Equal.' Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Lynching: violent and public acts of torture and murder that traumatized African Americans throughout the country which were largely tolerated by state and public officials. Equal Justice Initiative 

Reconstruction: The period from the end of the Civil War to 1877, a time of fundamental social, economic, and political change as former slaves worked to breathe full meaning into their newly acquired freedom and to claim their rights as citizens. America's Reconstruction

Right-wing, Anti-government Extremism: can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration. Dept. of Homeland Security Left-wing, anti-government extremism exists, yet is not considered as much a threat to national security because of the infrequency of violence.

Violence in Gender and Sexuality

Cyberbullying: bullying that takes place using electronic technology. Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles. StopBullying.gov 

Ethnic Cleansing: the expulsion of an "undesirable" population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these. Foreign Affairs

Genocide: any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. United Nations

Intimate Partner Violence: a pattern of assaultive or coercive behavior that may include physical injury, psychological abuse, sexual assault, progressive isolation, stalking, deprivation, intimidation, and reproductive coercion. ACOG

Rape: unwanted sexual contact including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration. CDC NISVS Report

Transgender: a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex the doctor marked on their birth certificate. GLAAD

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