The evolutionary psychology of Genocide

by Abhishek Bhatnagar

Our species is capable of abominable crimes, the very worst of which we call ‘Genocide’. Though the media has repeatedly confused ‘mass killings’ with ‘genocide’, in actuality there is an orthogonal difference between the two. ‘Mass Killings’ can refer to an act which led to a significant loss of human lives regardless of the composition of its victims. ‘Genocide’, refers to an act in which there was a discrete intent to eradicate a group based on its race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion (while often implying mass killings). (Note 1)

When studying genocide, we ask questions of how, when and where, but rarely address that of why. Perhaps this is because the answer is controversial and can touch upon the hotly-debated subject of Nature v. Nurture. I strongly believe the reason that we are capable of genocide unlike any other creature is written within our circuitry, and hence comes from within us. This article is an attempt at explaining why.

Not long ago, I met a Nazi apologist who didn’t deny that the Jewish Holocaust had occurred but believed that it did so at a much smaller scale than what is generally accepted. His reasoning behind this had no basis in historic documents or testimonies (surprised?) but in the belief that the individual soldiers and guards who were charged so, were not capable of killing children in the way that Nazis are believed to have done so. When I pointed out the many examples of what Humans have done and continue to do to children in moments of the hell that is war, he said that it didn’t matter because even though other races might be capable of committing such acts, the Europeans are/were not. Reacting to the change in my countenance, he swiftly rephrased his sentence opting the word ‘culture’ for ‘race’ – it was European culture that was not capable of such barbarity apparently.

I’ll leave the thoughts of what makes a culture sophisticated or barbaric to you (does wearing fancy uniforms and hats make you cultured regardless of what your beliefs might be?), but let’s indulge our friend for a few minutes and try to answer his question – Are Humans capable of killing children? If so, why? If conflict and war is about killing the enemy and raping their women, what purpose does killing children serve? Why must we completely and throughly exterminate the enemy rather than just militarily defeating them? Like a former Nazi guard lamented in a recent interview “Why did we have to kill the children? What fault of it was theres?”

In popular culture, questions like this are attributed to the single word ‘Evil‘, but let’s try to go beyond that. The word ‘evil’ actually means very little, if anything, and paints only a black & white and overly simplistic picture of the complex psyche of Human Beings. Mass conflicts and genocides of the past were not freak-accidents of history that occurred when the concentration of psychopaths in a given population reached an imaginary threshold; instead they happened for predictable, and repeatable reasons. As sad as it is, the ability to participate in genocide lies within most of us.

Let’s take a look at two examples:

The Murambi Massacre: Rwandan Genocide (Note 2)
The Wikipedia article of this massacre is terribly incomplete, so let’s start with a brief background. It occurred when anywhere between 30,000 to 60,000 Tutsis were fleeing from their houses as IDPs in April of 1994. As it is with all IDPs, decisions on where to travel and where to stay are made by a hive-mind using information acquired largely through gossip and rumours. The people involved in this episode fell for such misinformation when they were tricked into believing that the Murambi Technical School would be a refuge for them. They were tricked by clergy, who under normal circumstances would be a trusted source of communal data. Instead, after making the large but empty buildings of the school their home for a few hours, the genocidiares arrived. Finding their targets in an enclosure surrounded by metal gates and concrete, they found their task simple.

The killing began, initially with grenades and automatic weapons. These weapons were rare as many of the killers were civilians and could only afford machetes. After round one, in which only a minority of the IDPs were killed, started round two – the massacre-by-hand. The attackers went in and after two days had killed 99-100% of those trapped within the school. To be sure, the victims outnumbered the genocidiares by a significant magnitude. I’ll leave the grim arithmetic of how many people were killed per hour and how many screams were heard in those nights to you, but just for a moment try to place yourself in the shoes of one of the killers – one of those equipped only with a machete, who lived the untrained life of a civilian. As one of these people described after the genocide – killing is hard. Cutting bone with a blunt and overused blade requires strength and commitment. These murderers were not doing the killing for the joy of it, as psychopaths do; to them it was actual work that needed to be done. To finish their work, they sacrificed sleep and food and exerted themselves until they sweat. Yes, they actually laboured for their beliefs.

Extermination of the Tutsis was a duty for these people and in their minds, they must have been heroes who are serving the parent cause of a “true Rwanda, the motherland”. Monstrous, I know, but we must recognize that the root cause behind the labour and sacrifice of the civilian genocidiares was not psychopathia or an inherent evilness, but their perverted desire for a pure state. The end goal was not violence or blood-lust; those were just the intermediary necessities to achieve the end goal. This left them with only one option, extermination.

The Yanomamo (also spelled Yanoamo) are a group of indigenous Amazonian people who have been subjected to decades of disruptive anthropological studies. Whatever your thoughts about that maybe, we have learned a lot about traditional hunter/gatherer type societies through them. After having read about a couple of similar groups from regions as unrelated as Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, and India, I have learned that the concept of genocide (read extermination of the enemy) was extremely common in “tribal” rivalries.

One of the best pieces of documentation on such life comes from a book titled ‘Yanoama: The narrative of a white girl kidnapped by Amazonian Indians‘. The book is the story of Helena Valero, a Chilean 12-year-old who led a life with some Yanoama groups for some thirty years after being kidnapped. She emerged from the forest to tell her story to anthropologist Ettore Biocca, who recorded her experiences in that book.

The following is the basic pattern of hunter/gatherer life as that lived in forests as described by Valero:
– If you are a girl, you grow up learning the basics of cooking, “gathering”, cleaning, in preparation to be sold as a wife into a polygamous family post-puberty.
– If you are a boy, you grow up learning hunting and warfare until you become a “man” in your mid-teenages and begin to acquire wives.
– A new village would consist of 10 – 30 people all closely related.
– As the village would reach carrying capacity (between 50 to 200 depending on availability of resources), feuds would begin to break out over family or resource matters, causing some to leave and form another village of close kins.
– As the two villages would spend more time apart and interact with other villages, alliances and warfare would eventually break out regarding “ethnic” (ie kinship) lines.

In a war scenario, the attacking party would almost always seek to exterminate the enemy. This would mean killing every one of their men, regardless of personal culpability. It would also mean most of their older women would be killed or acquired as slaves, and that their young girls would be kidnapped to be “converted” into the new ethnicity. As for the children, well, the girls would also be kidnapped and incubated until puberty, and the boys would be instantly killed.

Echoing the words of the former Nazi guard I mentioned above, Valero confirms that the men she lived with would cite a baby boy’s propensity for future vengeance as the reason to kill him. In this way, the enemy’s ethnicity would be exterminated, in that their genetic lineage would either be diluted through the women, or eradicated through the men. This exact pattern is seen in other forest based hunter/gatherer societies of the past.

Purity and Spirit

Romeo and Juliet

Two blood-lines that would not mix: the Montagues and Capulets

So what does all this mean for genocide? It means that genocide is not an act caused by some “evil” entity or by accident, but through Human propensity for recognition of the concepts of purity and spirit. The people who kill babies and children in order to exterminate their ethnicity implicitly believe that a certain irreducible “spirit” lies within them which naturally makes them impure. Whether this concept really did evolve into our psyches to prevent future vengeance is certainly up for debate but it seems likely.

More evidence for this can be found in one of the best known literary works in the western world – Romeo and Juliet. Being ever the crowd pleaser, Shakespeare doesn’t spare use of the drama sauce and pits the Capulets against an ancient grudge – the Montagues. Both family lineages are influential, and though the patriarchs of the two families, Montague and Capulet, have not had personal disagreements just yet, they see each other as mortal enemies. The grudge for which they hate each other and are willing to disown their children over has been inherited. They have fallen into an infinite loop of a Hobbesian trap (as governments often do), and are not making their decisions rationally. Capulet does not see Romeo for the intelligent and sensitive pacifist he is who represents a modern Verona, but rather, as another thorn that has grown on the Montagues vine. Romeo’s personal traits are irrelevant, and little he could say or do would make him acceptable to Capulet. Montague sees Juliet similarly – she is not a sum of her experiences, her beliefs, her naïveté, or even her eternal love for Romeo – she is simply a continuation of the enemy blood line, and must be eliminated to appease this ancient grudge.

Similarly go all humans, or at least are capable of going. By definition, we are social animals – as creatures, we are not built to chase a desperate glory of altruism and logic, but rather the affirmation and adornments of our friends, regardless of their moral compass. As Peter Singer demonstrates in his book The Expanding Circle, we simultaneously have the ability to be vastly humane to some, but discompassionaite and merciless to others. Who falls inside, or outside the circle of altruism depends on our social setting, and on how empathetic we are able to be of those around us. It is this principle that allows the dual nature within even first-world soliders who are willing to give their lives for their countrymen, but are also able to rape, and torture innocent civilians as long as they look like the enemy. This same principle is often exploited by military leaders to make their men and women more vicious in the battlefield, but in doing so, they are more likely to commit human rights abuses.

Warsaw 1939

A Jewish man having his beard cut-off in 1939 Warsaw


Once we are able to dehumanize, we instantly become capable of committing atrocities. A person that is dehumanized has no wife or husband to feel bad for, no father or mother who are going to miss them, no inherent ability to rehabilitate and become “better”, and supposedly deserve everything that is coming to them and more. We see attempts made at dehumanization every day in the news (Dick Cheney justifying torture, leader of the Jobbik political party in Hungary re-raising the ‘Jewish Question’ (and then finding out that he himself comes from Jewish ancestry), Netanyahu trying to group all Palestinians as terrorists, etc). But one of my personal favourite examples can be seen in just the image above. In it, we see German soldiers toying with a Jewish man, because they can, and because they will meet no resistance. They are snipping off his beard, something sacred to him, as a crowd has gathered around to witness it, as if watching a circus. The poor man can do nothing, and patiently waits, while any sense of humanity he has left is probably being crushed inside. In the eyes of the German soldier facing the camera, we see a cruel tyrant, a person who probably has a family at home whom he loves and friends he is civil to, but to his unfortunate victim, is a madman.



1. There are several definitions of Genocide, and the one that I cited belongs to the CPPCG. There are several other modern definitions (which the UN will probably get around to adopting a few centuries from now) which include groups based on sexuality, political beliefs, and class.

2. Massacre at Murambi