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Published: November 6, 2019

Can we prevent violence? Looking back on human evolution can give us some insights

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By Meredith Moore, Founder and CEO Greylake Training Solutions

When we know the root causes of why people commit violence, we can better anticipate and prevent events from occurring. We can learn to recognise signs and warnings; we can train people to be able to prepare and respond better.

But understanding these root causes means looking across our history. Our behaviours are the result of many years of evolution, which have allowed us to become who we are today. According to evolutionary psychologists, the mind is shaped by the pressure to survive and reproduce; emotions, communication skills, and language ability are adaptations that enabled ancestors to thrive. This ‘programming of the mind’ is tied to our everyday behaviours — for example, public speaking. ‘One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing, a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get the hell off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in a predator’s eye.’ Knowing where our behaviours come from can help us form new perspectives about violence prevention, risk management, and safety.

And so, back to our premise – when we know the root causes of why people commit violence, we can better anticipate and prevent events from occurring. For example, most modern violence stems from desire and competition for resources (money, power, status, sex etc.). This originated from a long history when humans needed to compete with others for basic needs like food, water, reproductive advantages and shelter. Although it might not seem like it, modern technology has made us much safer, reducing the need for billions across the world to fight for basic needs – although there most definitely are many across the globe facing poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Life is less dangerous than it was 10,000, 5000, or even 100 years ago.  We are fortunate to be alive in today’s modern world. Humans are safer as a species, but how can we apply our understanding of where our behaviours arise to guard our personal safety in today’s modern world?

According to the Great Britain Office for National Statistics, ‘Women were far more likely to be killed by partners or ex-partners (50% of female victims aged 16 and over compared with 3% of male victims aged 16 and over), whereas men were more likely to be killed by friends or acquaintances (32% of male victims aged 16 and over compared with 10% of female victims aged 16 and over).’ We are most likely to be harmed by someone we know (a spouse, sibling, parent, neighbour, acquaintance, co-worker or a lover). Since we often know those who perpetrate violence against us, we have an opportunity to gain insights into their behaviours, desires, motivations, and feelings. If we sense some internal struggles within those around us (jealousy, anger, revenge, etc.), we can better understand where it is coming from. Early intervention and prevention can stop violence from occurring, keeping us safer, and get help for those in crisis.  Of course, there are many circumstance and factors in everyone’s unique situation. Speaking up, acting, and seeking interventions for those in despair is not easy; and not even possible for those who are most vulnerable.  This is why we need to advocate for the protection of all. There are psychological barriers to action that prevent us from ever addressing the fears, anxiety and uncomfortable feelings we face when confronted with the reality that someone we know could do us harm. I’ll dive into how you – and leaders, in particular – can address that in the next article.

Until next time.


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