The Vengeful Animal

anger3.jpgAristotle 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.

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2 Responses to “The Vengeful Animal”

  1. Dan Weinreb Says:

    I think other primates also exhibit revenge behavior. E.g. see “Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), by Frans B. M. de Waal. And there is behavior among orang-outans that has been interpreted as laughter by some researchers.

    I would guess that our ancestors were “better off” with revenge than without it, in the sense of “evolutionary success”. And I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing even in modern life. Knowing that someone else is vengeful can deter misbehavior before it happens, thus encouraging everybody to be nice to everybody else.

    What you have to avoid is endless cycles of revenge. Have you ever read (about) the Eddas, the great epic Old Norse poems? Apparently, they can be interpreted as an argument for zoning laws! 🙂 That is, their ultimate message is that we’re all just going to keep fighting one another forever until we figure out how to agree on who owns what land. (This is from a review in The New Republic.)

  2. Kahlahron Says:

    Animals are vengeful, its been scientifically observed…

    Most obvious one is the chimpanzee.

    There is a true story of an elephant that killed two men because years ago, they were taunting and poking it when it was a baby in a cage.

    Elephants that lost their mothers have also been observed to charge at poachers, but generally not humans in a larger scale as much.

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