While I was watching the Super Bowl with some friends last night, I heard one friend remark something to the effect of “OK, enough testosterone already!” She was commenting on what she perceived to be the pervasive nature of violent or combative images throughout the evening – and not merely the sight of very large, very athletic men hitting each other as hard as they could on the playing field. She was speaking more about the commercials, and the ceremonial flyover of fighter jets, and the sideline antics. My initial response to her was essentially, “But we're an inherently violent society, what do you expect?”
Upon further reflection, of course, I find my words to have been inaccurate. It's not so much our society that's inherently violent; rather, it seems that violence is inherent in our species, and not just ours. Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously noted that nature is “red in tooth and claw”, and proponents of evolution later used the phrase to describe the describe the behavior of members of a species struggling to prevail in the “survival of the fittest”. Over time evolutionary theory has itself evolved, and now many scientists support a theory popularized by Richard Dawkins (in his book The Selfish Gene) known as the gene-centered theory. In brief, this theory holds that natural selection operates not merely on the macro level of individual members of a species, but on the micro genetic level whereby genes themselves are engaged in a competition of differential survival.
That's perhaps more of an aside than necessary. The main point I'm trying to make is that throughout the history of our species, those individuals with the genetic makeup that allows them to succeed in situations of direct competition (and often violent competition) over and against other individuals of our species or other species have been the individuals most likely to reproduce and have their genes continue on for generations. Conversely, those individuals who did not succeed in (violently) competitive situations did not have the opportunity to pass along their genes to the next generation (or have the opportunity to see the sun rise the next day, for that matter). A quick note: It's not only our species that has this history. If you've ever seen video of some of our closest evolutionary cousins, chimpanzees, committing infanticide against members of other unrelated chimpanzee clans, you'll have had a chilling reminder of this.
So that's how we got to where we are today: The genes that encourage success in violent competition are the ones that have had the most success in reproducing themselves and finding expression in members of our species (i.e., people). At the same time, however, religion and other elements of society have had some success in delimiting the acceptable boundaries of violence. Thus, we consider murder to be wrong, as opposed to other instances of injuring or killing another human being that much of society considers acceptable such as self-defense or defense of others. On a societal level, that notion of self-defense can manifest itself in police or military members using deadly force in ways that are generally acceptable to the vast majority of society. And for other people who are highly skilled at violent competition, there are outlets such as football. Yes, I know I'm painting with some broad strokes here.
Along with the evolutionary theories of competition and differential survival, some theorists propose ideas that fall under the broad heading of epigenetics. One line of thought in epigenetics (literally, over genetics) is that societies can influence which adaptations are rewarded by influencing which members of a species are allowed to prosper and reproduce, which could in turn effect the genetic makeup of the population. In essence, the environment winds up influencing heredity. [It's at this point that I look to my mates who are experts in evolutionary psychology and philosophy of science to step in and correct where necessary my descriptions of all of these theories in my last few paragraphs!]
In the same book, Dawkins coined the term meme (rhyming with gene) as something that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” Now, there are books and articles galore about the concept of memes, and I won't even attempt to scratch the surface of those here. Suffice it to say that subsequent meme theorists have posited the notion that religions, political doctrines, and other systems of ideological thought are memetic in nature, being memeplexes or clusters of memes.
One problem with memeplexes is that they don't necessarily have to benefit genes in order to replicate and spread. However, it intuitively makes sense that if a particular memeplex is such that its replication will eventually wipe out all members of a species that carry it, it will eventually fall by the wayside. Here's where I'm going to take a bit of a leap. Is it possible that we as a species, or as individual members of our species, have now reached the point in our evolutionary history that we can consciously effect changes in our evolutionary future? Can we begin to choose memeplexes that will be for “the greater good”, benefiting more members of our species – and for that matter, other species as well and even the planet as a whole? Many religions and other philosophical systems contain memeplexes that call on their members to act with compassion toward others, to love one's neighbors, and to live in peace. Can we really embrace those in the fact of our genetic impulses toward violent competition? Can we consciously become more inherently loving and peaceful creatures? And by doing so, can we thus begin to consciously effect our own evolution as a species? I'm not yet convinced of the answers to those questions, but I think they are vital if we are to have any future as a species or a planet.