The Murderer Next Door: Why Our Minds are Designed to Kill – A Book Review

“We foist evil onto other things, too frightened to admit it is within us.” – C.G. Jung

In this riveting summary of his scientific findings, evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss asserts, quite convincingly, that previous theories on murder “simply don’t hold up.” I’m sure you’ve heard interviews on the news discussing the motive for a murderer’s crime: some claim it’s violent video games, a disconnect with religion, insanity, poor parenting, and so on and so forth. Those who claim murder has its origins in violent television shows, movies, and video games cannot explain why cultures void of such things also have staggering murder rates; those who claim it’s poor parenting and child abuse cannot explain the many thousands of murderers who were healthy, raised in good families, and well-respected; those who claim it’s the product of mental faults cannot explain why over 90% of everyday people admit to fantasizing about murder. As the quote above states, so frightened of admitting the evil inherent in humans are we that we foist it upon anything but ourselves.

Such single-variable theories as those shown above have a long history of failure. The world is complex, as are people, and limited theories such as these fail to come close to the truth, being riddled with biases and fallacies of thought. So, what should we believe? Why is murder such a magnetic concept–displayed in our media, our fantasies, and our fears? David M. Buss has a brilliant answer.

THE REVIEW

“We must come to grips with the unpleasant reality that murder has been a remarkably effective solution to many of the challenges we’ve faced in the evolutionary trials of survival and reproductive competition: ascending social hierarchies, creating a reputation that deters encroachersprotecting and keeping familiesescaping from violently abusive relationships, gaining access to new lovers, and many others we’ve encountered along the way in this book.” – David M. Buss, The Murderer Next Door (p. 231)

An evolutionary approach to a sensitive issue tends only to stoke existing controversy; the claims of these scientists are often misappropriated or misunderstood as justification for acts such as rape, murder, and infidelity–but such critics couldn’t be further from the truth. As Buss states, “critics confuse what is with what ought to be.” Keep in mind that evolution is a happenstance, moralless system. In such a system, acts of rape, murder, and infidelity have been extremely profitable in furthering the species. By no means does that make them desirable. One must ask the question: if humans are not consistently magnetized to murder, rape, and infidelity, why did we have to create punishments to ensure that the consequence of such crimes outweighs the benefits?

Buss claims, just as evolutionary arms races occur with physical armaments (such as slow prey dying at the hands of fast predators, increasing pressure for faster predators, thus faster prey, and so on) they, too, occur in cognitive mechanisms. Our “stranger anxiety,” fear of being alone in what we deem “dangerous” areas, and our enduring hypervigilance after tragedies (think of the effect on foreign and domestic people in America after 9/11) are examples of these mechanisms. Even the most sacred relationship to evolution includes pro-homicide and anti-homicide arms races: that between a mother and her offspring–the mother’s body enacts spontaneous abortion on unhealthy or mentally/physically faulted fetuses. It does so by reading the presence of the HCG hormone, which a healthy baby releases in large quantities into the mother’s bloodstream. If HCG is too low, the fetus is aborted (often before the mother even knows she was pregnant). Unhealthy fetuses with a mutation that allows them to overproduce HCG bypasses their mother’s body allowing them to live. Here, an arms race was born between a fetus vying for life and a mother’s body for death.

Murder shaped us; it is how humans evolved to become what they are today. Just because we have “civilized” much of the world does not mean we have escaped our ancestral instincts.

IN SUMMARY

If these topics interest you, I cannot recommend Buss’ book enough. He explains trends seen cross-culturally that murder is male dominated and begins precisely as sexual competition begins;  he explains how our brains evolved for a very different environment than we live in today, and how that affects us in modernity, stating “We have, as it were, one foot in the ancient past and another in the modern present.” It may sound like a journey into the macabre truths of our species, and in many ways it is, but it is also an enlightening journey which searches for solutions. After all, inherent in humans are nasty things, but inherent, too, is altruism, cooperation, and self-sacrifice. Human nature, then, is both “the problem and the key to the solution.”

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