Origins of Violence: Religion, History and Genocide

Origins of Violence: Religion, History and Genocide

by John Docker


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Shows that genocide has been present throughout history, and assesses why it persists in the modern age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745325439
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 08/28/2008
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

John Docker is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University. He is the author of 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora (2001), Postmodernism and Popular Culture (1994) and (with Ann Curthoys) Is History Fiction? (2005).

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Since warfare involves conflict between groups of people, rather than between individuals, it has, through genocide, played a major role in group selection.

(Jane Goodall, The Chimpanzees of Gombe)

Genocide has been part of our human and prehuman heritage for millions of years.

(Jared Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee)

Plato himself suggested that human beings and animals once lived a life in common, and even conversed on philosophical questions.

(Paola Cavalieri, 'The Animal Debate')

Differences between hunting and gathering and agriculture are at the heart of history.

(Hugh Brody, The Other Side of Eden)

In History, Memory and Mass Atrocity (2006), the Holocaust historian Dan Stone argues against approaches that suggest the mass murder of the Jews was carried out in a bureaucratic spirit without passion or emotion, thus distinguishing its mass murder from other mass killing, or that the Nazis were bestial and psychopathic in a way that set them apart from those who inhabit modern, rational, liberal, postwar societies. What is involved here, Stone observes, is a false distinction between the modern and the pre-modern. Because of this false distinction, we have failed to recognize, Stone contends, that the perpetrators, even in the use of technology for industrial-like mass killing, acted primarily with their hearts, in passion and emotion. In this failure to recognize our common humanity, we have tried to 'conceal from view the unnerving similarity of the perpetrators to ourselves'.

In this spirit, I explore here intergroup violence like genocide in relation to the common history of humanity, a history shared in its early stages between humans and other primates, and which also includes the coming of agricultural societies and their impact on hunter-gatherer communities worldwide.


I'll begin with Raphaël Lemkin's view of human history as the history of genocide. Given how much genocide will feature in this and other chapters, it is very important to emphasize that Lemkin's originating definition of genocide was very wide-ranging. I stress this, because many later definitions of genocide, in the light of the horror of the Holocaust as it was recognized in the 1960s and 1970s, narrow 'genocide' down to state-directed mass killing. Lemkin conceived his definition, expressed most fully in the now famous Chapter 9 of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), in the midst of the Second World War, when he himself had had to flee Poland in 1939 and during which most of his European family died. Lemkin arrived as an exile in the United States in 1941, and revealed remarkable energy and dedication in writing what became Axis Rule in Occupied Europe and in agitating in fledgling UN committees to have the notion of genocide legally recognized and proscribed; he was the prime mover in the discussions that led to the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Convention, while it represented a narrowing of Lemkin's definition in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, was nevertheless still wide-ranging and was certainly not confined to mass murder.

When Lemkin in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe proposed his new concept of 'genocide', deriving the term from the Greek word genos (tribe, race) and Latin cide (as in tyrannicide, homicide, fratricide), he took great care to define genocide as composite and manifold. Not only is genocide for Lemkin not confined to mass killing – though it certainly includes mass killing – it is also not necessarily directed by a state body or power. In Lemkin's view, genocide signifies a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of life of a group. Such actions involve considerations that are cultural, political, social, legal, intellectual, spiritual, economic, biological, physiological, religious, psychological and moral. Such actions involve considerations of health, food and nourishment, of family life and care of children, and of birth as well as death. Such actions involve consideration of the honour and dignity of peoples, and the future of humanity as a world community.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Lemkin wrote many essays in manuscript form, and kept research notes and cards for a book he was writing on the history of genocide, a project that kept expanding, taking in examples from antiquity to modernity, and sadly remained unpublished when he died in 1959. When, with Ann Curthoys, I read this archival material at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York in December 2003, what I felt particularly stood out were the many ways Lemkin was expanding on his linking of genocide with colonization made in Chapter 9 of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In the manuscript essays and notes he deploys genocide as a framework by which to understand and illuminate European colonizing around the world, including of the Americas, by the Spanish from 1492 and later in North America by the English, French and post-independence Americans. He is highly critical of Columbus as an egregious genocidist (Lemkin's own term) who set the historical example for the future of Spanish colonization in the Americas, instituting slavery and catastrophic loss of life. He develops a sophisticated methodology that permits the possibility of multifaceted analyses of settler-colonial histories in relation to genocide: in Lemkin's formulations, 'genocide' as concept and method is certainly not, as it used often to be considered, merely a blunt instrument. He carefully distinguishes between cultural change and cultural genocide, and believes cultural genocide to be very important in the processes of genocide. He points out that the relationship between oppressor and victim in history is always unstable, and that in world history there are many examples of genocidal victims transforming into genocidists, the formerly persecuted into the persecutors of others. He outlines recurring features in historical genocides: mass mutilations; deportations under harsh conditions often involving forced marches; attacks on family life, with separation of males and females and taking away of the opportunity of procreation; removal and transfer of children; destruction of political leadership; death from illness, hunger and disease through overcrowding on reserves and in concentration camps.

Lemkin's views on humanity and violence were doubleedged, both pessimistic and optimistic. He did not regard human history as a narrative of progress, since he saw genocide as following humanity through history. Yet he also hoped that international law could restrain or prevent genocide. It may be worth at this point reminding ourselves of the key clauses of the 1948 UN Convention definition, set out in Article II, which constitute a narrower version of Lemkin's definition:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

Killing members of the group;
Genocide, the concept unhappily conceived by Lemkin as necessary to comprehend the wide sweep of human history and in the hope of international agreement to prevent or at least punish its occurrence, has proven increasingly influential as a perspective and frame story for our species from its beginnings; a concept that inspires thought at the limits of what humanity might be and become.


Lemkin's insight into human history, that genocide between groups, as with homicide between individuals, has always occurred and will probably keep occurring, finds support in primatology, with its interest in shared ancestors between humans and other primates. I'll focus on a celebrated text of primatology, Jane Goodall's The Chimpanzees of Gombe (1986), which at one point mentions genocide, as I record in my opening epigraphs above, though Goodall seems unaware of Lemkin's definition. Goodall doesn't define what she means by genocide and is more interested in the question of warfare and its relation to the activities and thinking of both chimpanzees and humans. For many decades, Goodall has been the worldwide 'face' of primate studies in Africa, though her work has not escaped questioning and criticism. In Primate Visions (1989), Donna Haraway sceptically probes the complex interplay between gender, science and race, and especially the curious prominence of Western white women like Goodall and Dian Fossey in the conduct and shaping of primate research in Africa amidst pressing contexts of imperialism and colonialism, and, from the early 1960s, decolonization; contexts where their writings have been marked by their own histories and cultures and an overarching narrative of relating primate behaviour to humanity conceived as ultimately Western. Haraway is critical of Goodall's claim, in the Introduction to The Chimpanzees of Gombe, that the spirit of her research is similar to that of Colombus discovering America, as if Colombus were to be considered an innocent and disinterested figure in world history. Here, Haraway suggests, Goodall appears to be naively disowning any situating contexts of colonialism and decolonization. Haraway doesn't, however, discuss in detail The Chimpanzees of Gombe as a text, which is what I will do here, especially the chapter 'Territoriality'. My perspective will be that of genocide scholarship.

The Chimpanzees of Gombe is an engaging and beautifully written study, not least because Goodall conversationally introduces her own life story, research experience and uncertainties and speculations as vital to her analyses of chimpanzee behaviour. In her Introduction, Goodall tells us how she came to be in Gombe in Tanzania on the forested shores of Lake Tanganyika for 25 years studying the chimpanzees of the Kasakela Valley. It had, she confides, been a childhood dream of hers to study animals in Africa, and she finally was enabled to do so by Louis Leakey, who found funding for her expedition: 'And so it was that in July 1960 (accompanied by my mother and an African cook) I set foot, for the first time, on the sandy beach of Gombe on Lake Tanganyika.' Goodall says Leakey was interested in her research because he was particularly curious about chimpanzees, our closest living relatives today in biochemical terms, brain anatomy and uncanny similarities in social behaviour. Leakey asked Goodall to consider, in a sustained longitudinal examination, the evolutionary argument that since 'man' and chimpanzee once diverged from common stock, behaviour patterns that exist in modern humans and modern chimpanzees were probably present in that common ancestor, and therefore in 'early man' as well. Leakey's evolutionary argument and vision, Goodall contends, has been 'more than justified', and indeed Goodall believes that the argument can be taken a step further, particularly if we are to understand the place of aggression in both chimpanzees and humans.

Leakey had anticipated, Goodall recalls, that her study might last for ten years, but, given that chimpanzees may live for as long as 50 years, even 25 years is, she feels, not long enough. Because Goodall and her fellow field observers continued beyond the initial decade of research, they could, she is able to say, document many remarkable things about chimpanzees: there may be enduring, affectionate bonds between family members, sometimes lifelong; close kin will aid and support each other; adult males cooperate in hunting, patrolling territorial boundaries, and protecting their females and young. Above all, Goodall believes, observation over many years revealed that the chimpanzees have advanced cognitive abilities accompanied by sophisticated social interactions, the development of cultural traditions, and individuality. Yet sustained longitudinal study also revealed disturbing aspects of chimpanzee behaviour in terms of relations between groups, including the 'violent aggression' that broke out when the Kasakela community, the particular social group she is studying (who are habituated to human presence), divided into two groups: 'We discovered that in certain circumstances the chimpanzees may kill and even cannibalize individuals of their own kind'.

Chapter 17, 'Territoriality', is devoted to the aggression and violence that occurred when a group from the Kasakela community split away and began to live in a different valley, raising issues of desire for land and territory, genocide, warfare and violence towards stranger females and, sometimes, their infants. Goodall tells us the premise of this unsettling chapter: that a group is best studied not in isolation but in its interactions with other groups. She also regards certain facets of chimpanzee social organization as relevant to what occurred when the Kasakela group divided, with the remaining Kasakela community retaining a larger number of warrior males, while the new Kahama community to the south, now their neighbours, had fewer males. Unlike many primate groups (such as the baboons of Gombe), chimpanzees do not travel in stable groups nor do they follow predictable paths, so that a lone male may suddenly encounter several males of a neighbouring group, or a party of males may surprise a single female. While male chimpanzees remain in their natal group, females may transfer out, though young immigrant females may face violent hostility from resident females. And females may also travel relatively often in the overlap zones between communities, in a situation where there are no well-defined boundaries. In general, Goodall feels that observation has established that interactions between males of neighbouring communities are typically hostile. She also observes, and remains puzzled by, severe attacks on older females, leaving them badly injured, to the point where they might disappear and presumably die. Chimpanzees may even hunt a stranger female. Female chimpanzees may also join in attacks on stranger females and cause considerable injury.

In the 1970s Goodall and her fellow field workers recorded the assaults on and dispersal of the breakaway Kahama Valley community by the Kasakela group, their relatives, with whom they had had affectionate relationships. It was in 1972 that Goodall's observers recognized that a new community, the Kahama group, had come into existence at Gombe, but it would only last for five years. In 1974 the Kasakela males initiated a southward movement of violent aggression that culminated in the complete destruction of the Kahama community and annexation of the Kahama community range. Goodall describes in detail the ' consistently brutal and protracted' attacks on members of the Kahama group: the vicious attacks on Godi, then De (with the female Gigi joining in the attack), Goliath (one of the attackers being Jomeo, who had been friendly with Goliath in the past – there is a photo of Goliath being groomed by Jomeo), Charlie and finally Sniff, the only remaining Kahama male. The crippled older Kahama female Madam Bee and her daughters Little Bee and Honey Bee were subject during 1974-75 to a series of attacks by the Kasakela males and also Gigi, though only the mother, Goodall records, was hurt. In mid 1975 Madam Bee was fatally attacked by Kasakela males, watched by four Kasakela females, including Little Bee, who had by this time transferred into the Kasakela group. Goodall is sure that two other Kahama females, Mandy and Wanda, also suffered fatal attacks. In 1978 the Kasakela community then began to sleep as well as feed in what had been Kahama territory, though they themselves soon had to retreat when the powerful Kalande community further to the south of the Kahama Valley began to push northwards, the Kahama group no longer being a buffer between the Kalande and Kasakela groups.

In a concluding discussion to this chapter, Goodall ponders the meaning and possible purposes of such aggressive intergroup violence in Gombe's chimpanzees. Goodall is especially puzzled by assaults on older stranger females, at times accompanied by the death of their infants, including by being cannibalistically eaten or partially eaten. Goodall reflects, however, that the aggression was clearly directed at the mothers, not the infants, who are at other times not harmed; infanticide, that is, was not the object of the assaults. It is noteworthy, Goodall suggests, given chimpanzees' characteristic aversion to strangers, that the victims were all members of neighbouring communities, usually encountered in overlap zones where the chimpanzees, aware that neighbouring males might be nearby, are nervous. She also wonders if those older females who are mothers travelling with daughters are attacked as a way of weakening mother-daughter bonds, which are very strong, so that the daughters can be recruited into the community. Nevertheless, Goodall remains unsure of the adequacy of these explanations: 'For the present, this whole area must remain speculative. More facts are badly needed.'


Excerpted from "The Origins of Violence"
by .
Copyright © 2008 John Docker.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Dedication: this book is dedicated to Ned Curthoys
Preface, Acknowledgements, and Contents Page
1. Genocide as Ancient Practice: Chimpanzees, Humans, Agricultural Society
2. Genocide, and Questioning of Genocide, in Classical Greece: Herodotus and Thucydides
3. Genocide, Trauma, and World Upside Down in Ancient Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus and Euripides
4. Utopia and Dystopia: Plato and Cicero's Republics
5. Victimology and Genocide: The Bible's Exodus, Virgil's Aeneid
6. Roman Settler Imperialism in Britain: Narrative and Counter Narrative in Tacitus' Agricola and Germania
7. The Honourable Colonizer
8. Was the Enlightenment the origin of the Holocaust?
Conclusion: Can there be an end to violence?

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