The Origin of the Self-Destructive Species (with apologies to Charles Darwin)

A couple of months ago I saw the movie the “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and published a review of it. In that review, I noted that among the levels on which the movie could be seen was as an essay in paleo-anthropology.  In the movie, a group of great apes (collectively known as the “Simians”) and a group of Homo sapiens are survivors of a world-wide, highly fatal infectious disease epidemic which the humans conveniently name the “Simian flu” (even though its origin was of human manufacture, to be experimented with on apes.)

The Simian population leads a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, in a communal setting.  One outstanding feature of that society is that while they have one acknowledged political leader, Caesar, no one appears to have either a) any control over the hunting-gathering processes or b) any material advantages over anyone else.  They also appear to not engage in intra-Simian violence, as a routine.  When one episode of that sort does occur, an attack on Caesar, when the latter wins and condemns the perpetrator to death, before he does so Caesar pronounces the profound words: “You are not an ape.”

The Homo sapiens population is, well, classically Homo sapien.  They have guns aplenty and with few exceptions are ready to use them at a moment’s notice.  Violence, against other species and within their own, is both commonplace and for the most part fully accepted.  But of course they are members of one of the very few species of animal on the planet that kills, indeed slaughters, each other in numbers that have grown ever larger in the geologically microscopically brief period of time that the species has existed in its so-called “civilized” mode of organization.

They are devious, both with each other and with the Simians.  Most importantly, unlike the Simians, the Homo sapiens cannot exist for very long without converting one or more elements that they find in their environment into one or more other goods and services.  In the movie the central struggle between the Simians and the Homo sapiens over the need of the latter to physically get to an abandoned dam that lies to the north of where the Simians live.  The Homo sapiens need to do this so that they can have the electricity they require on an ongoing basis to power a variety of resource conversion processes.  Otherwise they will run out of power as the fuel supply for the electrical generators they are currently using runs out.

So what we see here is a fundamental conflict between an apparently economically egalitarian society of hunter-gatherers which, among other things rejects the use of use of intra-species (actually in this case intra-genus) violence, and the classic Homo sapiens society.  An essential characteristic of that society (ours, of course) is that, as noted, in order to survive, uniquely among the species on Earth, conversion-of-resources is essential.  Of course those processes have become ever more complex over time. As I have discussed elsewhere, what has happened in Homo sapiens history is that apparently from pretty close to the beginning of communities organized at any level, then societies, the ownership means of production that converts elements found in the environment into those goods and services needed/used for individual and species survival has for the most part been in private hands.  It is precisely that mode of ownership, and the means the owners have used over time to protect their ownership, that eventually leads to violence within and between societies on a larger and larger scale.

In one way “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” can be seen as a parable of the apparent conflict that took place tens thousands of years ago, over many thousands of years, between the Homo sapiens species and the one that we call “Neanderthal.”  Apparently, the Neanderthals were hunter-gatherers and there is no evidence, at least not yet, that they engaged in intra-species violence.  Neanderthals apparently did have larger brain cases than ourselves.  Whether or not that indicates that they were more intelligent has been the subject of great debate.  Whether or not Homo sapiens and Neanderthals fought each other, as species, with ours eventually eliminating theirs, presumably through violent means, is also the subject of debate, as is the matter of whether or not there was inter-species breeding.  What are not subjects of debate is that we are here and they are not, and that we survive only through the means of conversion-of-resources, once again in modern terms known as the “means of production.”

Since just about the earliest of times, human society has been characterized by intra-species violence.  As “Live Science” put it:

“Compared with most animals, we humans engage in a host of behaviors that are destructive to our own kind and to ourselves. We lie, cheat and steal, carve ornamentations into our own bodies, stress out and kill ourselves, and of course kill others.” 

That then raises the question of whether from just about the beginning of our version of the genus Homo (and of course there were many others before us): is there a gene or genes for intra-species violence in Homo sapiens that exists in few other species?  (If they are to survive, all animal species need to have one or more violence genes directing activities at one or more other species.)  Or is it simply a behavioral manifestation arising out of the necessity of conversion-of-resources-for-survival that would naturally arise as the means of production were arrogated into private hands.

Either way, behavioral or genetic (and it might have been/be a combination of both), it is most likely that it was the private ownership of the means of production that has, over time, selected for intra-species violence.  This pattern may have started even before the organization of communities around agriculture

“Now, analyses of archaeological sites as well as ethnographies of traditional societies are etching a more complex picture, suggesting that some ancient hunter-gatherers may have accumulated wealth and political clout by taking control of concentrated patches of wild foods. In this view, it is the ownership of small, resource-rich areas—and the ease of bestowing them on descendants—that fosters inequality, rather than agriculture itself.”  

And how better to preserve the private ownership of the means of production than through intra-species violence, on the part of the owners and those non-owners who they engage to protect their ownership.  Certainly, in known historical times it hasn’t been done through the use of reason.

Thus it would appear that it has been, since the earliest times of the organization into communities of Homo sapiens, the private ownership of those necessary-for-species-survival-means-of-conversion that has promoted, and indeed may have even selected for, the use of intra-species violence and the gene or genes that may underlie it.  Since this is most likely the case, and the species has developed ever more violent and massive means of intra-species destruction, the future does not look too healthy, does it.  At least as long as the ownership of the means of production remains in private hands, that is.

This column was previously published on The Greanville Post.

About the Author
Senior Editor Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a senior editor for The Greanville Post , he is a columnist for BuzzFlash/Truthout, and he is the Editorial Director and a Contributing Author to   His latest book is The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right Took Control of the U.S., 1981-2022: A Futuristic Novel, Brewster, NY, Trepper & Katz Impact Books, Punto Press Publishing, 2013,  and available on Amazon.