The Right Coast

August 09, 2005
People, who kill people
By Tom Smith

are the normalist people/ in the worrrllllllld . . . That corny song is probably before your time, lucky you. But, according to David Buss's new book, just about everybody has fantasized seriously about killing somebody sometime (oops! another corny song!). His thesis is that we all have highly developed killer instincts, and that killing can be a very effective way to deal with rivals, threats and inconveniences. That's why killers prospered and the instinct got passed on. We should not think that people who kill are sick. We all would, or would probably, under the right circumstances. Which are, getting a serious benefit, and getting away with it.

My 13 year old snatched the book up and read most of it before I did. He dismissed it, saying he thought Buss had a twisted and overdark view of human nature. He made one pretty powerful point. He noted that most police officers and the like who do kill people typically find it an extremely unpleasant, even traumatic experience, even when the victim had it coming. Police departments routinely provide counseling to officers who have killed to help them deal with the psychological consequences.

Buss would say, I suppose, that this shows we also have an instinctive aversion to killing, which also was evolutionarily valuable. But this treads pretty close to unfalsifiability. Unlike some, I don't think this shows evolutionary psych is pseudo-science, just very hard to do.

That said, the book is enlightening. Buss makes it sound as if the vast majority of people have fantasized in detail the plans for killing somebody. How they would do it, how they would try to get away with it. I find that rather shocking. On the other hand, I'm not sure how much fantasies mean. He asked people as well how close they came to actually killing. But when a respondant says, eighty percent, what does that mean? Is killing someone like sliding down a slope, or climbing up a steep hill? The last twenty percent in each case is very different. I also think actually killing a human is a lot different from thinking about it. I think people can be desensitized to it, and this happens in war, but for most of us, the actual, bloody business of it would be an enormity. I'm not a hunter, but I was once required to cut a cow's throat before it was butchered. It was shot, but not dead. I thought little of it until the critter looked deep into my eyes and we both knew it was about to die, and I was about to kill it. It was a strange, intimate and not pleasant experience. Not to mention a complete, bloody mess. Having to kill a human would be many times worse for most people who are not total psychos.

I think it's interesting as well that people generally don't admit that they have or do fantasize about killing someone, except apparently on confidential questionnaires. Some strong social inhibitions there. Yet much popular entertainment seems little more than catering to that desire, or instinct.