Where violence takes place, children crop up over and over again. Stags fight for the right to have them. Humans declare wars to make the world safe for them. Strange as it sounds, children–and the genes they carry–are one key to the mystery of violence.
An adult male langur who’s become the head of the establishment ensconces himself at the center of his group looking ever-so-regal. He has every reason for sitting pretty. If you take a closer look at the cluster of langurs milling around him, you’ll discover that all of them are either his wives or his children. The females do his bidding, and offer their bodies only to him. If they attempt a romance with some dashing bachelor, they are severely punished. So is the hopeful seducer. No wonder the central male looks so lordly. He is surrounded by a tribe devoted to one primary purpose–having and raising his kids.
As we saw several chapters ago, not every member of the langur society is happy about this state of affairs. In the jungle nearby roams a gang of post-pubertal hooligans who have left home permanently to hang with toughs their own age. Their newly spurting sexual hormones have triggered the growth of horniness, muscle and a cocky aggression. Periodically, the gang of youthful thugs advances on the territory where the well-fixed elder statesman sits in the midst of his massive family. The hoodlums try to get his attention. They mock and challenge the patriarch. He sometimes sits aloof, refusing to dignify their taunts with a response. On other occasions, he ambles over to the periphery of the harem, then rears up and puts on a display of outrage that chases the young Turks away. But from time to time, the massed delinquents continue their challenge, starting a fight that can be brutal indeed. If they are lucky, the upstarts trounce their dignified superior thoroughly, chasing him from his comfortable home.
Then the newly triumphant members of the younger generation execute an atrocity. They wade into the screaming females, grabbing babies left and right. They swing the infants against the trees, smash them against the ground, bite their heads and crush their skulls. They kill and kill. When the orgy of bloodlust is over, not an infant remains. Yet the females in their sexual prime are completely unhurt.
The mass murder is anything but random. Like Effie’s infanticide, it has a simple goal. This cluster of wives was raising the children of the old man who just fled. As long as the ladies continued to suckle infants, they would be tied to the children of the toppled authority figure. A natural birth-control device called lactational amenorrhea would keep them uninterested in sex, preventing them from entering estrus, and blocking the females from carrying the seed of the new conquerors. When a mother’s baby is killed and her suckling stops, however, the whole game changes. Her biochemistry shifts, resurrecting her sexual interest. She becomes an empty womb waiting to have another child. And this time, the child will not belong to the deposed monarch–it will carry the legacy of one of the invaders.
But surely humans don’t indulge in such barbarities. Or do they? In the rain forests near the Amazon live a people called the Yanomamo. Their ethnographer, Napoleon Chagnon, calls them “the fierce people.” They pride themselves on their cruelty, glorying in it so enthusiastically that they make a great show of beating their wives. And the wives are as much a part of this viciousness as the husbands. A spouse who does not carry enough scars from her husband’s blows feels rejected and complains miserably about her unbruised condition. It is a sign, she is certain, that her husband does not love her.
Yanomamo men have two great sports–hunting and war. The patterns of their warfare bear a strange resemblance to those of the langur. Yanomamo men sneak up on a neighboring village and attack. If they are successful, they kill or chase away the men. They leave the sexually-capable young women unharmed. But they move methodically through the lean-to-like homes, grabbing babies from the screaming captives. Like the langurs, the Yanomamo men beat these infants against the ground, bash their brains out on the rocks, and make the footpaths wet with babies’ blood. They spear the older children with the sharp ends of their bows, pinning their quivering bodies to the ground. Others they simply throw from the edge of a cliff.
To the Yanomamo, this is an exhilarating entertainment. They brag and boast as they smash fresh newborns against the stones. When the winning warriors have finished, not a single suckling child remains. Then the triumphant Yanomamo men lead the captured women back to a new life as secondary wives. No wonder the Yanomamo word for marriage means “dragging something away.”
What have the Yanomamo victors accomplished? The same thing the langurs did. They have freed the females from the biochemical birth control device that keeps a suckling woman from bearing new progeny. The Yanomamo fighters have made the wombs of their captured consorts available to carry fresh children…their children. The Yanomamo are not some strange aberration dragged out of the jungle to illustrate a far-fetched point. In the early fourth century, Eusebius –the first historian of the Christian Church– summarized what the study of history had focused on until his time: war, slaughters for the sake of country and children. Hugo Grotius in 1625 published De Jure Bellis ac Pacis (Concerning The Law of War and Peace), a book that tried to make Christian war more humane. In it, Grotius justified killing children. He cited the 137th psalm, which said, “Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” So Grotius was well aware of two things. That killing the children of the people you’d attacked was common in the days of the Old Testament. And that it remained as common as ever in the Europe of the 1600s.
In fact, the restless effort of human males to find more wombs that will carry their seed has been dignified by the forefathers of western civilization. The rape of the Sabine women, a bit of Roman history anyone with a modest classical education can recount, was a stunt very similar to those frequently pulled off by the Yanomamo. The heros of the tale–a gang of early Romans–invited the neighboring tribesmen and their wives over for dinner and entertainment. The entertainment turned out to be a display of Roman weapons. The hosts pulled their swords, grabbed the girls, then attacked and chased away the husbands. There was a high time among the Roman founding fathers as they indulged merrily in sex with the weeping captives. And nine months later, there was more weeping as the kidnapped ladies gave birth to a fresh crop of infants–the babies of the banquet hosts.
The Trojan War also ended with a scene that any Yanomamo warrior would have understood. It started as a battle over one woman, a lovely creature who behaved very much like Konrad Lorenz’ female duck. You remember, the aquatic female who triggered a fight, then ran back to her mate and tried to get him to join in. The instigator, in the case of the human conflict, was Helen of Troy. When the fighting was over, the winning Greeks were rewarded with a Yanomama-esque bonanza–captured plunder and conquered Trojan females. The warriors took the women home and ravished them. But you can be sure they didn’t bother to carry many Trojan infants on the trip back across the Aegean Sea. (As Troy was going down in defeat, Andromache, one of the Trojan wives, told her baby that the odds were good “some Achaean will take you by the hand and hurl you from the tower into horrible death….”) Less than a year later, the fresh crop of babies from the Trojan captives fattened the Greek bloodline.
The Yanomamo, the langurs, the Romans and the Greeks were all driven by the same force. They were hungry for sex. And that hunger translated into something else–the desire to populate the world with their own offspring. But the men were not alone. Effie the cannibalistic gorilla and Livia the Roman schemer were out for the same thing. Under the impulse toward violence often lies the simple urge to have kids. Which leads us to one of the fundamental forces behind The Lucifer Principle: the greed of genes.