Aristotle wrote that man is “the only animal that laughs.” I think man is also the only animal with a thirst for revenge.
I got to thinking about this while reading Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of how humans created civilization—beginning with the domestication of plants and animals at the end of the last glacial period (12,000 years ago).
In one passage about how centralized authorities arise as populations increase, Diamond writes, “Each murder in band and tribal societies usually leads to an attempted revenge killing, starting one more unending cycle of murder and countermurder…” Apparently, you just can’t put more than 200 people together in a group without a police force, or they will all kill each other!
What other animal has this problem? For example, could you imagine dogs acting like that? Dogs can definitely love. And if you kill a dog’s loved one, he will mourn. But will his grief drive him to kill to get even? I don’t think so.
I am used to thinking of revenge as a primitive impulse. It is uncivilized, right? We are supposed to suppress it. It is scary to think that this revenge trait is not some reptile-brain thing that our intelligence helps us to suppress. On the contrary, revenge is unique to our advanced brains. And, ironically, it is one of the factors that promoted our “civilization” in the first place.
Whether we got this vengeful trait through evolution or whether it was designed into us by God, I can’t help feeling that it was a mistake. Wouldn’t we be better off without it? Oh well, at least we got the sense of humor to go with it.