Your Greatest Threat Is From Your Own Species: The Science of Animal Murder and Disney Delusions
By Heath Shive
Spring has arrived. The birds are singing. But it isn't peaceful.
Bird song is a declaration of territory, a warning to competitors, an announcement of virility, a call to feeding, a warning of danger, and a cry of anger.
Species can always threaten another species.
But in Nature, the greatest threat comes from your own species.
To the gruesome science of when animals kill their own kind.
In a Disney movie, animals talk to each other. They enjoy profound conversations. They save their friends.
Humans are bad. Humans are sinful and wicked…unless they have animal friends.
Humans have destroyed a lot of animal habitat - forests cleared for farming, rivers dammed for electricity. Humans could – and must – do this constructively.
But the greatest threat to any animal's life (including human life) comes from your own species.
Because you all eat from the same bowl, so to speak.
Red in Tooth and Claw
Researchers up to the 1960s thought that primates (except humans) were benign, social, and harmless.
But the more anthropologists were in the field, the more they witnessed how ultraviolent primates can be. Follow this link to learn more of the Gombe Chimpanzee War.
Infanticide occurs in half of all mammal species. For example, new alpha lions will kill all the cubs of the pride’s predecessor – while the mother lionesses watch.
But among primates, infanticide happens with horrific frequency. Infanticide could be as high as 37% among mountain gorillas, 44% in chacma baboons, 47% in blue monkeys, and 71% among red howler monkeys.
Baby chimps are not killed by leopards or poachers nearly as much as they killed by other chimpanzees.
Adult animals "murder" adults too. For example, a study of 155 wolf corpses in Yellowstone Park over 12 years revealed that 37% of the wolves had been killed by other wolves.
Not all species have these kind of intra-species “homicide” rates – but they are found particularly in social carnivores (packs) and primates.
Now compare these rates with humans. How often do babies die by infanticide? Is it even 1%?
What is the murder rate of human beings? Is it near the 40% mark of wolves?
The Goodness Paradox
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham wrote a remarkable book entitled The Goodness Paradox.
Wrangham points out that humans have a profound capacity for good and compassion, but how do we reconcile that with humanity’s equally profound appetite for destruction?
Wragham argues that there are 2 forms of violence: reactive violence (violence in response to an immediate threat or perceived threat) and proactive violence (planned, strategic, and intentional).
Two men fighting in a bar is reactive violence. Two nations going to war is proactive violence.
Wrangham remarks that humans are unique in the animal world – because humans are phenomenally low in reactive violence while being extremely high in proactive violence.
It’s the exact opposite in the animal world.
Wrangham’s central hypothesis in the book is this: humans evolved uniquely from other primates because we found a way to “self-domesticate.”
Put 300 chimpanzees on an airplane and when the plane lands, you’ll find dead chimps.
But humans ride airplanes all the time without incident. That explains how humans can form large groups, whereas other animal species cannot.
This is how humans can build civilization, whereas primates and wolves cannot.
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Cubaynes, Sarah,Daniel R. MacNulty, Daniel R. Stahler, Kira A. Quimby, Douglas W. Smith, and Tim Coulson. 2014. “Density-dependent intraspecific aggression regulates survival in northern Yellowstone wolves (Canis lupus).” Journal of Animal Ecology 83: 1344-56.
Infanticide data from Watt 1989; Henzi et al. 2003; Butynski 1982; Crockett and Sekulic 1984.
Butynski, T. M. 1982. “Harem-male replacement and infanticide in the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanni) in the Kibale Forest, Uganda.” American Journal of Primatology 3: 1-22.
Crockett, Caroline M., and Ranka Sekulic. 1984. “Infanticide in red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus).” In Infanticide: comparative and evolutionary perspectives, edited by G. Hausfater and S. B. Hrdy, pp. 173-91. New York: Aldine.
Watts, David P. 1989. “Infanticide in mountain gorillas: new cases and a reconsideration of the evidence.” Ethology 81: 1-18.
Wrangham, Richard. The Goodness Paradox. Pantheon Books, 2019.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.