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Science Behind the Fiction: If The Purge was real, would humans really participate?

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Sep 5, 2018, 12:00 PM EDT

In 2013, James DeMonaco introduced the world to The Purge, a modestly budgeted horror film with an intriguing premise — what if, for one night a year, all crime was legal? The film went on to make almost $90 million on a $3 million dollar budget and, in the ensuing five years, launched a franchise including three additional movies and, as of this week, a television series on USA and SYFY.

Set in a near-future alternate United States, The Purge explores the notion of obedience through delayed gratification. The idea is that everyone will play by the rules if, once every year, the tension within the system is allowed to vent itself. It's one of those ideas so primal it immediately earned itself a spot within our collective consciousness, it's even been parodied in an episode of Rick and Morty.

Surely, none of us would actually want to live within a purge society. The shift from lawless animals to cooperative, empathetic collective was hard-won over millennia. But there's a reason the idea is so fascinating. Those animal instincts still exist. The reptile brain still peeks out its head every now and again to remind us of what we might do if only all those pesky rules and personal conscience didn't get in the way.

Which causes one to wonder, how, exactly, did we make the switch? What did it take to so effectively suppress our most violent urges, and how easily might we slip back into our old, more violent, ways?

Early Human Behavior

It's common knowledge that life for the average human being in the Paleolithic era was one of violence and early death. And it stands to reason that our long-ago forefathers were at the mercy of predators, the elements, microscopic threats, and ourselves.

Surely, the lack of developed society, of moral rules and expectations, meant that many more early humans were killed at the hands of their compatriots than at later times, right?

Not so fast. A 2016 paper in the journal Nature investigates rates of intra-species violence among more than a thousand animal populations, including early humans.

The study found that peer violence accounted for roughly 0.3 percent of deaths, on average, in mammal populations, but the rate was more than six times higher, roughly two percent, among primates, including humans.

The paper, authored by Jose Maria Gomez of the University of Granada and colleagues, suggests that human beings inherited a relatively higher rate of violence from our primate ancestors. When early human beings first stepped into the sun, two out of every hundred could expect a violent death at the hands of a neighbor.

While two percent odds at a violent death are bad enough, the truly awe-inspiring numbers of violence come much later in the human story, well after the emergence of societies, flying in the face of the popular notion that civilization means safety.

From roughly 1,500 to 500 years ago, the rate of violent death at the hands of other humans spiked to approximately ten percent. And things really ratcheted up around the end of that period when one in four people alive at the time could expect to be killed by another person.

All of this suggests a couple of frightening conclusions, first that humans are hard-wired through evolution, with a certain propensity for violence against one another. More importantly, social circumstances can heavily influence the likelihood of that inherent violence being expressed. If our history is any indicator, all we're really looking for is a half-decent excuse to be horrible to one another.

The good news is the opposite is also true. Societal pressures can also work to suppress our natural violent urges, as evidenced by recent statistics. By all measures, right now is the safest time to be alive we've ever experienced. While the nightly news cycle might paint a different picture, violence is at record lows and most of the other things that threatened our lives back when we first came down from the trees (germs, predators, exposure to the elements) have been beaten into submission.

For the last hundred years, that natural rate of violence suggested by the Gomez paper has been cut in half, overall. With some areas enjoying murder rates in the range of 0.01 percent. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, only about one out of 100,000 people in the UK should expect to be the victim of intentional homicide. Though, that still puts us above about 60% of all mammal species who show no incidents of violence against their own species. Even famous predators like lions have a lower rate of deadly violence against their peers than humans.

The simple fact of the matter is that a certain amount of violence seems to have been evolutionarily advantageous to our predecessors, which means we've been saddled with reaping the genetic crops they sewed.

What is Morality and Where Did it Come From?

It's probably safe to guess, assuming you're not suffering from some psychopathic tendencies dear reader, that you consider yourself a moral person. You likely have varying definitions of what living a moral life means, but you have a personal definition and strive to live up to it.

This is, according to some scientists, what separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom, the ability to reason about our moral choices as opposed to acting purely on instinct. In short, it's what's allowed us, finally, to get below that two percent propensity for violence against one another, the logical pursuit toward a greater good. But how did that happen?

Evolution, at its base, favors the individual over all else. The game is to find the best way to pass on your genes as effectively as possible, all else be damned. Behaviors like empathy and altruism seemingly don't jive with those sorts of natural pressures, especially when such behaviors might come at the cost of your own survival or the survival of your immediate family. So what gives?

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According to Christopher Boehm, an evolutionary anthropologist and director of the Jane Goodall Research Center, the process was fairly simple - with the advent of big-game hunting you either learned to cooperate, or you died.

"My hypothesis is that when they started large game hunting, they had to start really punishing alpha males and holding them down. That set up a selection pressure in the sense that, if you couldn't control your alpha tendencies, you were going to get killed or run out of the group, which was about the same as getting killed. Therefore, self-control became an important feature for individuals who were reproductively successful. And self-control translates into conscience," Boehm said, in an interview with Smithsonian.

As the specifics of human life changed over time, the type of person you needed to be to survive and thrive changed as well. In a manner of speaking, we domesticated ourselves, selecting for those individuals willing to cooperate and weeding out those who were out for themselves. And there's some evidence for this sort of transition, when looking at humans over time and comparing with other contemporaneous hominid species, we see changes in our physiology that matches what we know about domestication.

Questions remain, however, about how morality and altruism work within the individual. Are these surface level judgments being made by the individual or simply the result of a complex set of instincts hammered in by evolution?

In a review published in the journal Science, Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, suggest that morality is more primal than we might like. He breaks our moral behavior down to three principles; gut feelings and emotions, a desire to persuade others of our virtue and gain their support, and the desire to bond with our peers.

"Putting these three principles together forces us to re-evaluate many of our most cherished notions about ourselves. Since the time of the Enlightenment, many philosophers have celebrated the power and virtue of cool, dispassionate reasoning. Unfortunately, few people other than philosophers can engage in such cool, honest reasoning when moral issues are at stake. The rest of us behave more like lawyers, using any arguments we can find to make our case, rather than like judges or scientists searching for the truth. This doesn't mean we are doomed to be immoral; it just means that we should look for the roots of our considerable virtue elsewhere -- in the emotions and intuitions that make us so generally decent and cooperative, yet also sometimes willing to hurt or kill in defense of a principle, a person or a place," Haidt said.

Haidt goes on to suggest that morality is a cultural construct and that most of us learn only a subset of our inherent moral capacity based on our individual beliefs. This, he says, explains the gulf between opposed factions. We're all operating with the same evolutionary software but, based on social pressures, are only running parts of the program.

All of us are, according to the evidence, at the mercy of evolutionary and societal pressures which define our ability to be good, moral people. Which makes the notion of The Purge all the more frightening. What would happen to the good among us, should those societal pressures change?

The Purge aired its first of ten episodes September 4.