Friday, July 27, 2012

Human nature and the Aurora shootings.

Time Ideas has published an opinion piece on mass murder being the result of an essential male nature, “The Overwhelming Maleness of Mass Homicide.” The author, Erica Christakis writes
We’ve been down this path so many times, yet we keep missing the elephant in the room: How many of the worst mass murderers in American history were women? None [presumably Christakis is counting women mass murderers among the "best" mass murderers]. This is not to suggest that women are never violent, and there are even the rare cases of female serial killers. But why aren’t we talking about the glaring reality that acts of mass murder (and, indeed, every single kind of violence) are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men? Pointing out that fact may seem politically incorrect or irrelevant, but our silence about the huge gender disparity of such violence may be costing lives.
She goes on to approvingly quote Steven Pinker and his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, and then, unsurprisingly, to argue that the tendency to mass murder is part of male human nature.
We shouldn’t need Steven Pinker, one of the world’s leading psychologists and the author of the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, to tell us the obvious: “Though the exact ratios vary, in every society, it is the males more than the females who play-fight, bully, fight for real, kill for real, rape, start wars and fight in wars.”
I don't know if Christakis considers herself an evolutionary psychologist or if she just likes the basic argument of evolutionary psychology, that of a cultureless human nature. She seems to share their fascination with sex differences. And shares many of the problems with that approach.

One problem is the tendency to leap to sweeping conclusions about human nature on the basis of poorly-understood data and minuscule statistical effects. Another is that we end up with vacuous, ahistorical explanations that do not contribute to our understanding.

In this piece she uses sex and gender interchangeably, but what she is talking about is sex--biology; not society, not culture, and not gender. She is arguing that mass murder is a biological part of male nature, and always has been (citing Pinker here). Besides the quote from Better Angels, her evidence is the fact (and it is a fact) that in the US, most mass murderers are men. The problem is, while that tells us something significant about mass-murderers, it tells us very little about men.

If Christakis is interested in the relationship between mass-murder and male nature, the relevant question is not “what percentage of mass murders are committed by men?”, but “what percentage of men commit mass murders?” I don’t know the answer to the second question, but my offhand answer would be “very small, several decimal places very small.” If you think of that number, then obviously not committing mass murder is a part of male nature, (and always has been). Being male is in no way a predictor of being a mass-murderer. Now, one could argue that it is male nature to have a 0.00whatever% chance of being a mass-murderer. That might be true, but with those numbers it is little better than saying everything some male does is part of male biology. Even assuming it’s true, it’s true in a trivial and uninteresting way, and we are right back at seeing mass murder as a random event. Something else is going on besides human nature.

If Christakis wants to talk about males and mass-murder, she needs to consider gender rather than just sex. I have no background in mass-murder research. But there is research on it. I did a quick skim. There are different kinds of mass-murder, there are different psychological make-ups, and there are a variety of social and historical conditions. In brief, it’s complicated. Blowing off this research and the complexity and variation of the phenomenon for a simplistic appeal to human nature gets us nowhere.

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