The ROBA Hypothesis has benefited greatly from the support of Adam Eccleshall, Eric Gans, and Adam Katz. I also want to extend my gratitude to my team at SuperAlloy Interactive for their assistance in producing and proof-reading the hypothesis.
For centuries, since humans have been put chisel to rock, pen to paper, and words to WordPress, we’ve tried to answer two basic questions of human violence: 1) what is the root of human violence? and 2) what do we do about it?
Every great thinker proposed a theory. To Hobbes, violence originated in man, and the state, his Leviathan, could keep it in check. To Rousseau, civilization caused human violence, and it could be stopped by release of the human passions and restoration of equality1. Freud believed violence stemmed from the Death Instinct, which could be mitigated, or redirected, through psychoanalysis2.
Madmen proposed their theories too. Hitler thought he would do the world a service by restoring the Aryan order, the breakdown of which, he claimed, was the source of human violence3. Mao believed human violence was due to inequality, and he resolved it first with collectivization, and later with the firing squad4. Ted Kaczynski believed that violence came from the self-propelling nature of technology, which could only by stopped with bombs5.
Recent mainstream theories on violence can be summarized as two competing camps. In the behaviorist camp are the likes of John Dollard6 and B.F. Skinner7 who believe human violence stems from frustration, and by removing frustration, we can remove violence.
On the other side of the aisle, in the innate aggressionist camp, are those like Raymond Dart8, Konrad Lorenz9, and Anthony Storr10 who believe that violence is a natural sort of energy we inherit from our chimpanzee ancestors, which must be channeled productively into endeavors like sports, art, and contracts.
Other theories on human violence will say that humans fight for status and belonging11, for the best mating rights12, because we don’t speak a common language13, because we aren’t evolving quickly enough with technology14.
Some of these theories are true to some extent, but they can also be applied to animal violence. None of them differentiate human and animal violence, and so they leave us assuming human and animal violence differ only in degree, not in kind. Thinking like this does not resolve our crisis.
If we don’t take human violence seriously, as its own, unique phenomenon, then we will continue grasping in the dark, attempting to wrangle what we think is mere chimp violence, and always being shocked when it blows up in our faces.
We can’t afford to ignore reality any longer: human violence is different and we need to understand it.
And so, I’m presenting a novel hypothesis on human violence called the ROBA Hypothesis. The first priority: differentiating human violence from animal violence.
I. How Is Human Violence Different?
All theories (unless there’s one I’m unaware of) describe human violence essentially the same as animal violence, particularly chimpanzee violence. Jane Goodall’s research of chimpanzees at the Gombe National Park seemed to confirm this suspicion: chimps are brutal, and since humans are brutal, we should study chimps to understand human violence15.
But no theory has attempted to differentiate human violence from that of chimps, or any other animal. Having done a fairly rigorous examination of the data, here are the clear differences.
1. Humans use object-based aggression (OBA)
Objects suitable for violence can be found in the environment such as rocks or steep cliffs (for pushing an opponent off), or in the form of tools that are hand-made. Most animals are unable to do this.
Chimps, however, utilize object-based aggression (OBA) by shaking sticks, throwing rocks, and rolling boulders. In Through a Window Jane Goodall describes a chimp named Figan who began practicing with cans he found, which when kicked made him more intimidating. Nobody bothered copying his object-based techniques, though. Such is the limitation of even the smartest simian16.
Crows, otters, and various other animals also fashion tools for hunting or aggression17. The fact that humans and animals both use OBA instilled the belief in the scientific community that human violence was on a spectrum of animal violence. Chimps kill each other with weapons, and humans just do it more often. Many chided humans as lower than apes for this reason, a callback to the animalitarianism of Ovid18. Richard Wrangham believes that weapon usage among humans is merely an extension of empty handed aggression19.
But there is a crucial difference between human and chimp OBA: recursion.
2. Human OBA Is Recursive
According to Wikipedia, “recursion… occurs when a thing is defined in terms of itself or of its type. … The most common application of recursion is in mathematics and computer science, where a function being defined is applied within its own definition.”20 In other words, if you want to commit armed robbery, and you live in a place where concealed weapons are permitted, you might think twice before using your weapons on another person, who might have a weapon as well. Recursive object-based aggression (ROBA) impels you to apply your own potential for violence to all other people.
Animals also use recursion. The ibex, when in combat with another of its kind, uses specific maneuvers meant to both attack and defend21. When a cat attacks a snake, the cat also anticipates the snake’s attacks and responds with cautious footwork.
However, animals don’t combine object-based aggression with recursion. Apes do not hide objects in order to perform sneak attacks, nor do not cautiously approach other apes for fear that they might have an object. In 5 million years, either no chimp has acquired ROBA, or if they have, no chimps have managed to mimic it. If they did, chimps would heighten their aggression by hiding rocks and sticks behind their backs.
Animals might also think recursively about human weapons. If a group of chimps is hunted by humans, then it’s likely the chimps will also fear unarmed humans for fear they might have such devastating weapons. But this is merely recursion, and not ROBA, since this fear doesn’t stem from the chimps’ understanding of using those same weapons for aggression. If the chimps utilized ROBA, then we’d expect them to raid camps (as often happens) and use the weapons against the humans, and then possibly against other chimps. There’s no record of chimps ever doing this.
Recursive object-based aggression (ROBA) is unique to humans.
3. Universality of ROBA
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to speculate when or how ROBA began in human civilization. If one were to cross the Rubicon between chimp violence and ROBA, they would have to explain how recursion and object-based aggression became 1. merged in humans and 2. shared among all homo sapiens.
Eric Gans’ Originary Hypothesis posits that a moment of sufficient danger, shared in a community of hostile humans, pushed us out of the simple, alpha-beta relations of animals into the egalitarian relations of humans22. I submit that the first instance of ROBA would provide the necessary “push” for this sea change in early human communities.
There can be no gradual shift from animal violence to ROBA, since anything short of ROBA is simply animal violence.
II. Emergence of Language
Language is unique to humans and is shared by no animals. Even the smartest apes, after learning basic sign language, quickly abandon it when communicating with other apes. As Chomsky states, animal communication systems (ACSs) are already optimized23. Chomsky struggled to hypothesize a moment when human language would have emerged from a chimp ACS24. Derek Bickerton hypothesizes that the slow evolution of hunting for distant food sources produced this shift25. Richard Wrangham claims that human language slowly evolved as our brain size increased26.
(When talking about language, we are including sign language, simple gestures, and any other non-verbal communication that animals do not utilize in their own ACSs.)
These gradual hypotheses of language were adopted by early linguists and anthropologists who, during their ethnological research in the 18th and 19th centuries, implied that relatively “simple” tribal languages were, from an evolutionary standpoint, less developed than the more “complex” languages of their own societies.
But the gradual hypothesis of language development breaks down when, all things equal, children of these “underdeveloped” tribes such as the Arunta or the Bushmen pick up the English (or colonial) language as easily as anyone else. Chomsky proposed that, since all human languages are recursive, a universal grammar (UG) must be present in all human brains27.
ROBA, like human language, is also universal across humanity. And if both language and ROBA are universal, then they might utilize the same underlying structures. This means that the neurological mechanism responsible for making a person think twice about attacking another person for fear they might be armed, is also responsible for the language that averts or defers human violence. The simple act of raising one’s hands to hold off aggression is linguistic in that it signals, “I don’t want to fight.” But it bears the marks of violence as well, since it also signals, “I’m willing to if I have to.”
When language breaks down, violence breaks out. This might imply that ROBA is more primal than language, and that the first instance of ROBA might have been what necessitated language to avert the threat of apocalyptic violence. ROBA produces widespread anxiety in all human societies – fear of feuds, civil wars, and nuclear war that could end life as we know it. This sets off a desperate attempt to defer violence with language.
If language gradually evolved, slowly producing ROBA, then we no longer have an event when language was crucial. Most scientists think that hunting and gathering produced language28, while the role of human violence is ignored.
The ROBA Hypothesis proposes that the first hypothetical moment of ROBA produced human language. All linguistic development is therefore a continued effort to defer ROBA.
III. The ROBA Definition of the Human29
The ROBA Hypothesis could help us to better understand what it means to be human.
Richard Wrangham hypothesizes that we became human when we cooked meat with fire, allowing our brains to grow large enough to become smart enough30 to conspire and take down alpha males, which kicked off the egalitarian social model that defines ancient society. This social environment was a self-domestication process whereby, during the embryonic stage, neural-crest cells in humans became more concentrated in the brain to aid our cognitive development, and reached our extremities less and less. This resulted in our losing our body hair, pigment in our extremities, and other signs of domestication that we also see in animals31.
Such gradual hypotheses of human speciation, standard in the scientific literature, produce a major problem: we now have dozens of different species of humans based on skull size, teeth and jaw shapes, and other physiological traits. Homo Neanderthalis is characterized as a separate species from Homo Sapiens, and yet the genetic makeup of Homo Sapiens is 1-3% Neanderthal, begging the question of what even defines a species, something Darwin left rather vague32. Worse, ethnologists once used this same logic to claim that groups of contemporary humans who happened to bear the marks of Homo Neanderthalis or any other different “species” were less worthy of reproduction33.
While Wrangham’s neural-crest cell research is critical to the ROBA Hypothesis, he and the gradual theorists are putting the cart before the horse, as both gradual physiological changes and gradual development of language are vectors which must meet at some vague intersection to create “Homo Sapien.” Such qualifications for “humanity” are moving targets and can be easily manipulated for political reasons.
The ROBA Hypothesis simplifies this problem by proposing an event-based model: the first instance of ROBA produces the first instance of language, without which ROBA would have destroyed the community. After we acquire language, self-domestication kicks in immediately and we then can acquire fire usage, increased brain size, changes in teeth, weapon development, etc.
The ROBA Hypothesis proposes a simple question to resolve the problem of homo- speciation: is there evidence of ROBA-styled warfare using objects? If yes, the remains are those of a human. If no, they are animal remains.
IV. A New Understanding of Human Violence
The ROBA Hypothesis rejects the view that the threat of human violence can be measured by statistics. Many theorists measure this threat level of human violence based on body count. Steven Pinker used such reasoning to claim that the 20th century was one of the least violent centuries in recorded history since it had fewer homicides per capita than previous centuries34.
Such reasoning negates the layman’s anxiety over potential violence. Let’s compare 3 different societies. A) A medieval society, where 1 in 1,000 people are killed yearly, and the homicides are mostly restricted to men killed in duels of honor. B) A modern society, where 1 in 10,000 people are killed each year due to street violence, and its victims tend to be the physically weaker members of society. C) A nuclear society, where 1 in 100,000 is killed in a random act of terrorism or a nuclear bomb. The homicide rate decreases tenfold from society A to B, and then B to C, and the body-counting statistician sees this as evidence of decreasing violence.
But the ROBA Hypothesis asks a different question: how does a person avoid potential violence? In the honor-based, medieval society (A), language is relatively fruitful, and one might be able to avoid violence by negotiating, apologizing, deescalating, etc. In the crime-ridden, urban society (B), negotiating with attackers is less fruitful, especially when the victim is caught in crossfire, so people will use their language to vote for governors and petition their police departments for better enforcement. They’ve used language to outsource protection. In a society where people live in fear of terrorism or nuclear war (C), an individual can say little to mitigate violence in their own lives. Not only do their votes mean less, if anything, on the international stage, but international politics will also often erupt in “preventative” acts of warfare in weaker nations, with corresponding guerrilla responses, proxy fights across the world in response to those responses, and exacerbated social relations.
A Note on Mass Media
One major factor in the increasing anxiety over violence is the prevalence of mass media, particularly news journalism and social media. The pejorative term “sensationalism” has no real weight; journalism has always been sensational, and now that all people are journalists on social media, all violence is sensationalized. This doesn’t make the violence any less real, but it makes it more visible than ever. But it also causes a feedback loop, as we saw with street protests and racial tensions in response to the broadcast of Vietnam War footage. The ROBA Hypothesis would say that mass media is an electronic deferral of violence itself, which opens up new pathways for violence that must be, as always, mitigated through language.
Modern Anxiety Over Violence Is Not Irrational
The modern homicide rate might be lower today than that of the 18th century Navajo or 10th century Iceland, but the public’s sense of hopelessness is not irrational. We inherently understand the ability of human language to help us avoid violence, but language does us little good in today’s environment. Each successive stage of society outlined above further separates the individual from the ability to mitigate violence. This vector always heads toward a kind of authoritarianism where we outsource violence completely to people who are not accountable to anybody.
The ROBA Hypothesis therefore places emphasis on the ability to avoid violence through language. As avoidability decreases, then anxiety will increase. The homicide rate has little bearing on this.
V. Mitigating ROBA with Language
Even during times of peace, humans still live in fear of the prospect of violence. The threat of violence is lurking around the corner. When a weaponsmith first forged an iron sword during the bronze age, when gunpowder was first packed into a cannon during the iron age, and when a nuclear bomb was first developed in the firearms age, nobody needed to be harmed or killed for everyone to understood that this represented a new threat level. The danger of human violence is not measured by body count as Steven Pinker claimed; it’s measured by potential violence. We can translate that potential violence into language through sanctioned combat, sports, debates, art, contracts, international law, and countless other institutions.
Through most of human history, we’ve succeeded in translating ROBA into language.
It’s frightening to imagine what will happen if we fail.
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men.
- Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principal, 1922.
- Hitler, Adolph. Mein Kampf.
- Fairbank, John. China: A New History.
- Kaczynski, Ted. The Unabomber Manifesto.
- Dollard, John. Frustration and Aggression.
- Skinner, B. F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity.
- Ardry, Robert. African Genesis.
- Lorenz, Konrad. On Aggression.
- Storr, Anthony. Human Aggression.
- Martin, Mike. Why We Fight.
- Darwin, Charles. Descent of Man.
- Gaerard, Albert Leon. A Short History of the International Language Movement.
- Delgado, Jose. Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society.
- Goodall, Jane. Through A Window.
- Goodall, Jane. Through A Window.
- Boas & Lovejoy. Primitivism in Antiquity.
- Gans, Eric. The Mimetic Origins of Generative Anthropology.
- Chomsky, Noam. The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature.
- Bickerton, Derek. Adam’s Tongue.
- Wrangham, Richard. Demonic Males.
- Chomsky, Noam. A Minimalist Program.
- Bickerton, Derek. Adam’s Tongue.
- Added 1/6/2023
- Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire.
- Wrangham, Richard. The Goodness Paradox.
- Darwin, Charles. Origin of Species.
- Galton, Francis. Inquiries Into Human Faculty.
- Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature.