Looking For The Patterns Behind Human Violence

HOMICIDE Martin Daly and Margo Wilson Aldine de Gruyter; New York, 328 pages; $42.95 (hardback), $18.95 (paperback) A characteristic common to good science and good literary criticism is that both are alert to subtext. Both can reveal that what you see is not what you get. Both can offer the excitement of discovering an unexpected pattern in a phenomenon of nature or in the behavior of a protagonist in a play. For a number of years, the authors of Homicide have been studying human behavior b

Jun 13, 1988
Lionel Tiger
HOMICIDE
Martin Daly and Margo Wilson
Aldine de Gruyter; New York, 328 pages; $42.95 (hardback),
$18.95 (paperback)

A characteristic common to good science and good literary criticism is that both are alert to subtext. Both can reveal that what you see is not what you get. Both can offer the excitement of discovering an unexpected pattern in a phenomenon of nature or in the behavior of a protagonist in a play.

For a number of years, the authors of Homicide have been studying human behavior by searching beyond what people say about their actions, and often beyond what social scientists say. Their work rests on a sophisticated amalgam of biology and psychology which they teach at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. With an almost fierce empiricism, they have sought to evaluate theories about the biology of behavior.

For example, it was Daly and Wilson who so ingeniously explored the theory of paternity uncertainty—that men are much less sure than women are of genetic connection with offspring and hence need more reassurance. The researchers studied what women said to husbands about their newborns: “It looks just like you” was the favored utterance. This team also drew together the forbidding data about child abuse to demonstrate that “the father” who mercilessly beat the child was often—with stunning disproportion—the. stepfather. Now they have turned to the various forms of homicide.

The result is a book of both substance and verve, bibliographically up to the minute and yet committed to social explanation within classical biosociology. In essence, the authors have sought to relate various forms of homicide to the core concepts of the last two decades’ efforts to unite the social and natural sciences. They treat extremely seriously the impact of the fact that humans, as well as other animals, frequently interact as if they knew what genetic relatedness is. Of course, even humans don’t necessarily understand genetic calculus. Daly and Wilson, however, show that, for example, homicides are 11 times more likely to occur between unrelated cohabitants than blood kin. With children under five, those living with a stepparent are 40 times more likely to suffer abuses than children living with natural parents.

Also, the authors convincingly show how the huge differential between males and females across all cultures in committing and suffering homicide is linked not to amorphous notions of sex roles, media images, and the like, but to gripping issues of sexual competition—patterns that occur even in species without kung fu movies. With all due respect to Freud’s scientific genius, Daly and Wilson demonstrate the final inanity of Oedipal theories about patricide: no archetypical species-wide pattern could have remained selected if the predictable consequence of parenthood was being bumped off by offspring.

At the methodological level, the authors raise very serious questions about the statistical categories employed by virtually all governments in monitoring violent behavior, and they challenge the category systems used to assign motives to murders, in particular, insanity.

Lionel Tiger is a professor of
anthropology at Rutgers University,
New Brunswick, NJ.