Mass Killings: An Evolutionary Perspective

Robert J. King in Psychology Today:

(Typically, I wait until our work has gone through peer review before blogging about it. This work is technically in review at the moment, but several people (including journalists) have asked about it for reasons that will shortly become obvious.)

Age_distribution_of_spree_killersMass killings are unusual events but devastating when they occur. Although the absolute risk of dying at the hands of such a killer is low, people stubbornly refuse statisticians’ earnest assurances of relative safety. This should not surprise us. Mass killings are, among many other things, a deliberate attempt to drive a wedge into the existing social order. That is why they are public, and why the killer seeks to maximise attention, and rarely seeks to escape. Some of these motives are obviously political—the intent is to sow fear and destabilize government–and I am not going to have anything much to say about those. What about people with more individual motives?

Attention to our evolved natures can cast some light on this. (1) Notice I say some light. The evolutionary perspective adds depth to existing accounts—it is an “added value” aspect of psychology, not a replacement for other—more local—explanations such as individual pathology, or why a location or victim was chosen.

I’ve likened the evolutionary account of a trait, to knowing the etymology of a word. For instance, knowing that the origin of the word “lemur” (those beautiful dark-eyed primates) comes from the Latin for “spirits of the dead” adds something to our understanding of the word. Not everything. Something. Sorry to have to keep saying this but, well, apparently I have to keep saying this. Let’s move on.

More here.