Looking for a Biological Basis for Violence

Gautam Naik provides an interesting and cleverly written piece on the search for a biological basis of violent behavior.

If you want to have fodder for controversial cocktail conversation, take a look also at an old book by James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein on the biology of criminal behavior.

(Hat tip: Daniel Lippman)


Shouldn't the Italian court have increased the penalty to someone with a "disposition" to violence? If prison is to rehabilitate it seems like it would take longer. If it is to deter crime it would need to be harsher to overcome the bias. Finally, if it is to protect society then keeping someone more likely to commit violent acts locked up would seem prudent.


Interested readers might also want to know about some related research on the biological basis of large-scale human violence; see Stephen P. Rosen, War and Human Nature (Princeton University Press, 2004), http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=war+and+human+nature&x=0&y=0


Eric raises an interesting point. Should someone with a disposition to commit crime be given a lighter or a heavier sentence. A related discussion is whether someone who has had a rough childhood should get off easy. I tend to take the conservative view that each of us is responsible for his own actions. But it is hard not to feel sympathy for a kid who gets involved in a gang (and ultimately crime) because he feels physically threatened if he does not. It's easy to point fingers if you haven't had to deal with those kind of pressures.


Just to stir the pot a little, Larry Arnhart wrote a book, "Darwinian Natural Right", that takes this a bit further, arguing that there are at least twenty natural desires that are universal to all human societies because they are based in human biology, the need for war/violence being just one...


Even if Dr. Fallon's study showed conclusive evidence of biological and physical factors which directly correlate to the predisposition or tendency of a person to want to kill people, (or commit violent acts on others) it does not address the issue of choice.

Generally, a serial killer chooses his or her victims. After the choice is made, the killer generally commits the crime outside the view of others, then hides evidence of the crime. Serial killers (with some exceptions, of course) do not kill every person they meet. They often maintain a job, a family, and church or community ties. They even choose to hide the desire to kill.

So my question is, why should evidence of a tendency merit consideration in the punishment of the crime if the killer (or violent offender) has the capacity to choose NOT to commit a crime? When we reduce a sentence or absolve a person of a crime it is often because a person was so gravely affected by a defect, disease or situation that they are incapable of rational choice.

Understanding the critical factors which may contribute to a person's tendency to want to stalk, torture, and kill people is an important endeavor. However, evidence of the tendency does not seem to merit absolution or sentence reduction.


Eric M. Jones

Ask any farmer why they castrate all the male animals and order semen by mail. Male Testosterone poisoning explains it all.

No woman ever said, "Watch this; hold my beer."

a daughter and sociologist

Dear Eric;

You have a point except, we humans are not cattle. if you read Max Weber carefully- it's the women who are the more aggressive ones--not towards sons, but daughters-

When I got the strap as a kid- my father performed the deed, but my mom told him to do it. Go figure. So as far as I am concerned, the existence of a biological basis for human behavior is not a matter of fate. With some understanding, we can alter our fate. My dad did.


Sociobiology is a very interesting topic with large ramifications. I agree with a daughter and socioligist--the point of sociobiology is to create self-awareness. If you become more aware of the motivating factors that cause you to want to behave in a certain way, it allows you the ability to make a more conscious choice.

---a past anthropologist and current law researcher


CAM @5:

You assert this notion of "choosing", but there is little or no evidence to support the claim that we choose at all. In fact, the data before you undermines the notion of a free choice. If a group of people with a certain gene or set of genes tend to make one choice more often than another group with different genes, it starts to look less like a free choice. Further, even environmental effects (like how you were raised) do not suggest choice. That is, you don't choose who raised you or how and you don't choose your genes. Thus, when those two factors predict your behavior (even if not perfectly), why would you claim the resultant outcome is the result of anything we would recognize as choice?

hu kebi

I would recommend Randall Collin's microsociological study, On Violence. Yes, there is a genetic component; it's what makes for naturally talented killers such as Mafia hitmen and Alvin York (WWI pacifist war hero). But in ordinary life, it's social situations and human agency that has a much bigger impact on whether an interaction devolves into violence.


This is an outdated theory first proposed by Lombroso. It is nice to see that modern shamans play same games.

Bubba Nicholson

The biological basis for violent behavior is pheromone deficiency. Criminal behavior, delinquency, borderline personality disorder, even sexual perversions and, amazingly, drug addictions are all alleviated by oral intake of 1/4th gram of healthy adult male facial skin surface lipid. The pheromone takes effect immediately and the benefits are perfect.
Nicholson, B. Exocrinology the Science of Love Amazon digital books