Jared Diamond on vengeance and human nature:

This question of state government’s recent origins, and, conversely, of its long failure to originate throughout most of human history, is a fundamental concern for social scientists. Until fifty-five hundred years ago, there were no state governments anywhere in the world. Even as late as 1492, all of North America, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, New Guinea, and the Pacific islands, and most of Central and South America didn’t have states and instead operated under simpler forms of societal organization (chiefdoms, tribes, and bands). Today, though, the whole world map is divided into states. Of course, most of that extension of state government has involved existing states from elsewhere imposing their government on stateless societies, as happened in New Guinea. But the first state in world history, at least, must have arisen de novo, and we now know that states arose independently in many parts of the world. How did it happen?


…anthropologists, historians, and archeologists tell us that state governments have arisen independently under one of two sets of circumstances. Sometimes external pressure from an encroaching state has placed a people under such duress that it ceded individual rights to a government of its own that would be capable of offering effective resistance. For instance, about two centuries ago, the formerly separate Cherokee chiefdoms gradually formed a unified Cherokee government in a desperate attempt to resist pressure from whites. More frequently, chronic competition among warring non-state entities has ended when one gained a military advantage over the others by developing proto-state institutions: one example is the formation of the Zulu state by a particularly talented chief named Dingiswayo, in the early nineteenth century, out of an assortment of chiefdoms fighting each other.


We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend.

There is no doubt that state acceptance of every individual’s right to exact personal vengeance would make it impossible for us to coexist peacefully as fellow-citizens of the same state. Otherwise, we, too, would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing in non-state societies like those of the New Guinea Highlands.

Posted on May 29, 2008 at 1:07 PM34 Comments


Pat Cahalan May 29, 2008 1:30 PM

I thought that was an interesting article, myself.

Something that some of the more left-leaning crew miss out in their evaluation of how the justice system works…

GlenO May 29, 2008 2:13 PM

In game theory, cooperation is only possible if there is a way to punish cheaters. Revenge is the social manifestation of this, not just some flaw of human nature. Modern judicial institutions add a patina of civilization to this, but the underlying motive remains the same.

Pat Cahalan May 29, 2008 2:14 PM

An interesting position, Mr. S 🙂

Personally, I agree that vengeance is primarily barbaric. On the other hand, I also think that it’s something that is part of human nature.

Building a justice system that fails to account for this, while highly ethical, will probably fail in the long run. If wronged parties don’t feel that justice is done (and many wronged parties do indeed consider “vengeance” part of justice), then your judicial system is likely going to fail.

But this is probably a better discussion to have over beer and peanuts than on a blog 🙂

Timm Murray May 29, 2008 2:21 PM

I’m not so sure it removes (or suppresses) vengeance, but rather moves from a personal motivation to a state one. In some ways, the United States felt it need to avenge 9/11. What many in the United States don’t understand is that a big part of Osama Bin Laden’s motivations is to get revenge for America’s support of Israel in various wars against the local Muslim nations. As long as they both remain ignorant of the fact that they both feed each other’s revenge, neither side is likely to stop unless one side is completely wiped out.

Andrew Garland May 29, 2008 3:14 PM

Evolution and game theory may be what determines the strength of revenge.

Humans evolved from hunter-gatherer social groups over the last 2 million years. There was a fierce competition for resources, mates, and wealth. Wealth was anything that a tribe could accumulate, such as food, tools, and weapons.

Game theory experiments show that the strategy Tit-for-Tat gives the best outcome when there is a mix of cooperators and cheaters, no overall restrictions, and a memory limited to what happened the last time when dealing with each other member, or with other tribes.

Tit-for-Tat means to deal fairly with a counterpart that was fair with you the last time, and cheat a counterpart that cheated you the last time. This gives the greatest opportunity for cooperation, and denies consistent benefits to cheaters. In fact, a cheater is under pressure to cooperate and allow himself to be cheated (at least once) as the price of gaining future cooperation.

Evolution is a tough master, and doesn’t require that the participants understand what is going on. Thousands of generations of interaction would favor hard-wiring Tit-for-Tat into human behavior. This wires in revenge as a trait that has been selected over millennia. Clearly there are costs to this strategy, shown in the long running feuds between tribes. It seems that the benefits from the strategy outweigh the costs when it comes to long-term survival.

Having a ruling State seems to be more efficient than Tit-for-Tat between individuals. There are also costs, as States now relate to each other under Tit-for-Tat.

Jules Bonnot May 29, 2008 3:14 PM

A couple of thoughts:

1) Tell the 7.2 million people in jail and on parole that they are not living in a constant state of warfare. The difference is that, unlike stateless societies, one side of this conflict has a complete monopoly on violence.

2) Conflict in itself is probably not a bad thing, and in itself tends to represent critical thinking and diversity of opinion. The way that conflict is dealt with in many stateless societies is incredibly interesting.

3) When individuals in the ruling class of state societies come into conflict, workers die. For instance, what the fuck was WWI about, and why did so many workers die for it?

Dueling Answer May 29, 2008 3:30 PM

How is the CEO/Lawyer other “professional” liar any different from the person who dislikes someone and claims they are having an affair with the wife only to be able to kill him in a duel?

Who judges the right to duel?

It is no different then a court room– only difference is the guilty don’t always die.

Puro Psnej May 29, 2008 3:48 PM

Why Duelling Should Be Legalized

You want to dispense with the idea of determining right/wrong in favor of who is a faster draw?

anti-state May 29, 2008 3:57 PM

The creation of a State is about giving those in charge a monopoly on vengeance/justice/violence/etc. That vengeance always flows down the hierarchy and never up. Compare what happens when a police officer is killed vs when police officers kill people. This monopoly is about keeping the masses in line and not fighting the hierarchical system and represents a huge loss of freedom for those lower on the hierarchy. I’m not so sure I would refer to that as “peaceful coexistance”.

Ann Arkey May 29, 2008 4:03 PM

The question is whether or not it’s ethical.

I guess that depends on your ethics.

But it seems to me that when our societal values clash with our biological wiring, sometimes something’s gonna give. Our mental health suffers, we hide behaviors, we act hypocritically, and generally give ourselves ulcers.

I think most of us need some sort of concession to our passions.

In the case of vengeance, justice served is a pretty good proxy.

Petréa Mitchell May 29, 2008 4:20 PM

“Game theory experiments show that the strategy Tit-for-Tat gives the best outcome…”

Not so! It was the champion for a long time, but several years ago, introducing occasional forgiveness into the strategy was found to improve it even more. IIRC, the ideal fixed strategy was to forgive 1/3rd of the time, but as the competing strategies come closer and closer to yours, it becomes beneficial to forgive more and more.

I read about this in Science News, but sadly the article is not available online.

Anonymous May 29, 2008 4:49 PM

we, too, would be living under
the conditions of constant warfare

Hang on, isn’t the USA living under the conditions of constnat warfare. I thought Warfare (& warefare equipment) was USA’s foremost export product.

Ipse vigilo May 29, 2008 5:39 PM


“The question is whether or not it’s ethical.”

A better question is, once you determine that it’s not ethical, are you going to go ahead and do it anyway, because being ethical would be inconvenient?

So many are high on preaching ethics, and then bury their heads in the sand whilst they engage in behaviour they themselves would condemn.

Much more convenient to pay lip service to ethics, and then rationalize pursuing your unethical agenda.

Jeremy May 29, 2008 7:30 PM

Why Duelling Should Be Legalized

I do not think this essay is intended seriously. Notice:

1) It espouses a comically extreme position;
2) It justifies its proposal by calling out a premise with which most readers can be expected to disagree;
3) It presents extremely idealized examples of its proposal at work;
4) It gives precisely zero consideration to drawbacks, potential abuses, alternate proposals, or conflicting views, not even bothering to summarize and dismiss them;
5) It becomes progressively more far-fetched as you near its conclusion

I thought it was a rather amusing read, myself.

Davi Ottenheimer May 29, 2008 7:45 PM

“My conversations with Daniel made me understand what we have given up by leaving justice to the state. In order to induce us to do so, state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad.”

Whoa, I disagree with the author completely. State societies et al simply try to enforce or regulate a more uniform direction of revenge. State leaders seek revenge all the time, as do corporate leaders, group leaders, club leaders…it’s no surprise that individuals within a structure would be asked to abide by the rules and traditions.

The formation of a state, or a nation for that matter, or a nation-state, is a discussion regarding unity. I think it naive to believe no revenge is allowed by a “uniform” group (no pun intended) simply because they disagree with some individual plan.

Bob May 29, 2008 9:43 PM

I read and enjoyed the article weeks ago, but Diamond’s historical remarks are a load of crap.

He says: “Even as late as 1492, all of North America, sub-Saharan Africa,… and most of Central and South America didn’t have states and instead operated under simpler forms of societal organization (chiefdoms, tribes, and bands).”

I’m not sure what he’d call a “state”, but here are a few direct counterexamples:

  • The Mutapa Empire existed in modern-day Zimbabwe and Mozambique, 1250-1629
  • The Ghana Empire (750-1076), Mali Empire (c. 1235 to c. 1600), and Songhai Empire (early 15th to the late 16th century) all existed in sub-Saharan West Africa. Wikipedia remarks of the Mali Empire, “At its height, it was, according to some experts, the wealthiest civilization in the world. The Mali empire extended over an area larger than western Europe and consisted of numerous vassal kingdoms and provinces.”
  • The populace of the North American Mississippian civilization built cities like Cahokia (population 10,000-15,000 ca. 1050 AD, about the same size as contemporary London). As one anthropologist on the net observes, “at several Mississippian centers (such as Cahokia and Moundville) their [sic] is evidence that a state organization had emerged.”
  • I’m not sure how he managed to miss the Aztec, Toltec, and Mayan civilizations, which pretty much covered central America, and the Incas, whose empire encompassed South America west of the Andes.

Okay, fine, maybe there weren’t any nation-states in the Amazon rainforest or the Argentinian pampas. There also weren’t any in the Great Plains – in fact, there pretty much weren’t any people there until the Spaniards lost some horses and some native Americans learned to ride them.

Anyway, his premise is flawed regarding formation of states. One could argue equally well that states form spontaneously when enough people congregate in a small enough area to require an organized government.

Eric Forste May 29, 2008 11:50 PM

“But the first state in world history, at least, must have arisen de novo…”

I guess that would have been in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the early Bronze Age. Presumably this would be more like the Zulu than the Cherokee example Diamond gives.

@Petréa Mitchell: Very interesting about how more forgiving strategies do better in more forgiving environments. I too am sorry that your Science News article is not available online, but I think I will be trying to look up more information on this.

Sejanus May 30, 2008 12:56 AM

A really good book on vengeance (among other things) is Steven Pinkers “How the Mind Works”. I strongly recomend it to those interested.

bob May 30, 2008 7:12 AM

@Puro Psnej: There exists somewhere in the world a system which determines right/wrong??? Holy shit, how come its been kept a secret!?!

We should bring that to the USA and throw out the POS system we have here where the side with the most money to buy lawyers (and judges and senators…) and survive endless meaningless motia to delay automatically triumphs (and the only parties that actually WIN lawsuits are the attorneys).

I’d rather just duel; net national suffering would decrease by 99.9%. And lawyers would have to find something to do that benefitted society instead of being lawyers. Or they could starve, which would be good too.

clvrmnky May 30, 2008 8:01 AM

Ah, /that/ Jared Diamond.

I’m a bit conflicted, because he does have a talent for making connections and discussing the long view, which is something you don’t see a lot, even in science/social writing. He, by and large, makes cogent arguments, building on concepts until he spins a wonderful framework that is so obviously /correct/.

Until you look closely, and then you realize there are have been some selective jumps and clever “externalities” that have been ignored in order to get there.

An engaging, clever writer who has a tendency to bend things a little so they fit into is idee fixe du jour. Most folks with any sort of anthropological background cringe at his methods, which are (in a word) unsound.

Chris Walsh May 30, 2008 12:55 PM

An accessible discussion of how human notions of justice and fairness may have emerged via evolutionary pressure, and allowed a social contract to be sustained among a collection of goal-oriented actors of limited rationality is Ken Binmore’s Natural Justice.

As an aside, Axelrodian tournaments showing that TFT is “best” or whatever are a distraction if the payoff matrix itself is wrong. In the case of “forming a state”, I would argue that the payoffs are more like an assurance game than a prisoners’ dilemma.

Click above for the Amazon page to Binmore’s book.

Chris Walsh May 30, 2008 2:43 PM

An accessible discussion of how human notions of justice and fairness may have emerged via evolutionary pressure, and allowed a social contract to be sustained among a collection of goal-oriented actors of limited rationality is Ken Binmore’s Natural Justice.

As an aside, Axelrodian tournaments showing that TFT is “best” or whatever depend on the payoff matrix. In the case of “forming a state”, I would argue that the payoffs are more like an assurance game than a prisoners’ dilemma.

Click above for the Amazon page to Binmore’s book.

Tom Welsh June 1, 2008 4:37 AM

“There is no doubt that state acceptance of every individual’s right to exact personal vengeance would make it impossible for us to coexist peacefully as fellow-citizens of the same state”.

But the state often compensates by taking collective vengeance on behalf of its citizens. Witness Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the US government has brought about the deaths of over 1 million foreigners in revenge for the fewer than 3000 deaths on 9/11. That’s something like 350 foreigners for every American; a slightly worrying fact, given that the vast majority of the dead foreigners had no responsibility whatsoever for 9/11.

moo June 1, 2008 10:26 PM

Before legal systems existed, the most common way to punish offenders was commit violence back at them, a self-perpetuating cycle that led to bloody and long-lasting feuds. The Germanic tribes tried to defuse this by codifying laws that specified a monetary compensation for each type of injury or wrong.

Human beings know what’s fair and what isn’t. When they or their loved ones are wronged, they want to see the perpetrators punished. This is called “justice”. The legal system is supposed to deliver justice for the victims and their families (and society as a whole), and this is thought to be more “civilized” than the personal, violent, vigilante brand of justice.

It may be morally better to “turn the other cheek” to a small wrong. But I think that for serious and malicious wrongs, vengeance is a morally and ethically appropriate response. Serious wrongs need to be punished, both to appease our need for fairness and justice, and to protect the fabric of civilized society that we all belong to. I believe that if society/government fails to pursue vengeance for certain wrongs, vigilante justice is an acceptable alternative. The danger is that without the checks and balances of the legal system, there is an increased chance of blaming and punishing the wrong person. I think there are cases where the evidence is so clear, and the need for vengeance so great, that the risk of vigilante justice targeting the wrong person can and should be ignored.

Frankly, there are even some offenses for which I think violent mob justice is appropriate. I offer as evidence the 1996 movie “A Time To Kill”:

Maybe we should bring back stoning as a method of capital punishment for certain egriegous crimes!

clvrmnky June 2, 2008 8:23 AM

@moo: cast your net a little wider. The model you speak of is a.) pretty recent, in terms of the history of civilization and, b.) does not take a number of other cultures into consideration. The vengeance model is either not present, or expressed in a totally different way in many other cultures. And vengeance as the root of punishment is definitely not something shared across all cultures.

I suspect the reason we seem to anguish so much over “correct” punishment in our later civilizations is that societies have changed so quickly, and in so many disparate ways, that our the rules that serves us so well broke down fast.

Banishment no longer means the same thing, for example, that it once did when it was probably the most terrible thing you could do to someone convicted (in the local cultural sense) of a crime. How would you banish someone today?

Ah, yes, we have jails. Not /exactly/ the same thing, considering that for social animals, banishment is practically and symbolically a social death sentence.

As for stoning, well we have modern examples of that sort of justice, and it has (shall we say) many practical problems. I suggest you look it up.

Really, this stuff is far more complicated than recent Germanic codes and the old testament might have us believe. Just ask a criminal lawyer.

tcliu June 2, 2008 10:03 AM

@clvrmnky: I’ve read two of Diamond’s books and like you say, I found them to be “obviously correct”. Thing is, I’m not really capable of looking closer due to not having any anthropological background whatsoever. Diamond could leave out huge chunks and I wouldn’t know they were missing.

I would love to get an opposing viewpoint, though – do you have any pointers to papers (preferably downloadable) that I can read? I don’t mind putting some time into it, so don’t worry if they are not “popularized”.

averros June 3, 2008 4:07 AM

Jared Diamond, simply put, is a demagogue. His view of history is highly selective (it is hard to believe that anyone cherry-picking favourite examples is totally ignorant of historical facts which flatly contradict his theories).

In the end, his enire thesis is nothing less and nothing more than unabashed advocacy of government regulation of nearly everything. Which is not surprising considering his thinly veiled Marxist materialistic determinism.

tcliu June 3, 2008 8:18 AM

@averros: That may be true, but since the problem with Diamond is that he lacks in scientific rigor, I’d need something more than your word to back that up.

averros June 3, 2008 11:44 AM

tcliu: I’m not sure how to approach that without simply advising to take a university-level course of history and some biology. JD makes so many omissions and distortions that it’s nearly pointless to pick them apart one-by-one.

For example: he asserts that old-worlders were so successful in new world precisely because they had advantage of having germs unknown to the new world. Oops, he conveniently ignores the fact that the new worlders had quite nasty germs unknown to old-worlders. Syphilis, for example. Etc, etc.

Of course, the fact that old-worlders had that thing called (early) Enlightenment, – and the resulting fluorishing of technology and individual initiative (including, incidentally, development of effective firearms and extensive trade and exploration) while the new worlders had static and despotic society, is totally irrelevant in JD’s world view.

Enligtenment was impossible without rationalist “revolution” in Catholic christianity following work of St.Thomas. Incidentally, St.Thomas also formulated the notion of natural rights (the same”self evident” ones) which is the total anathema to the collectivist view of history driven not by ideas but by material factors exclusively.

Fraud Guy June 3, 2008 1:48 PM


IIRC, JD does talk about how the trade, technology, and warring borders of (especially) European states gave them an edge in the cross-oceanic interchange.

And yes, while syphillis was and is a nasty beast, it was mild compared to the bugs that the Europeans brought. How many Europeans died from the American infections, vs. those who were killed by Eurasian bugs?

I agree that his state argument seems ahistorical on the surface (I haven’t had time to read the whole yet), but he addresses your other argument in GG&S. That’s why it’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and not just Germs.

Davi Ottenheimer June 3, 2008 9:53 PM

Hey, this just came up in detail in an episode of Boston Legal. Couple choice quotes about revenge murder:

“studies show vengeance is good…like oat bran in the morning”

“a great wrong was set right and justice was finally done”

averros June 4, 2008 12:57 AM

Fraud Guy – actually, the impact of syphilis on immuno-naive European population was tremendous (initially it was nearly invariably fatal, and mutated into more benighn form only about 60-70 years later – which JD does mention, in a different place). What saved Europeans is the quick change in sexual mores (accelerated by the Church-promulgated interpretation of the epidemic as the divine punishment for sins (especially adultery:)) , and, of course, large robust population which survived truly devastating blows a lot of times.

Anyway, the point is that technological and cultural progress has a lot more to do with the prevalent set of beliefs in the society than with geography or livestock. (Oh… and, of course, any biologist knows that smallpox is an exclusively human set of viruses, and is not carried by any animals, livestock or not). The problem with JD’s presentation of history is that he completely ignores the role of ideas and tries to reduce everything to crude materialism.

If he had some intellectual honesty, he’d have to admit the role of Christian rationalism as the key factor in the advancement of the West (it is instructive to compare it with the history of Islamic rationalism, which fell out of favor sometime after the fall of Abbasid caliphate, which left the Muslim societies technologically retarded). Apparently, crediting the Church with laying foundation of the Western civilization would be a complete no-no for a leftist academican. It must all be because of horizontal expanse of Eurasia and lots of livestock with lovely diseases. (Why Africans with their even lovelier diseases and incredible variety of fauna never managed to overrun the world remains unexplained). And the guns came out of nowhere. Probably grew up on some trees unique to Iberia (well… guns were invented by Chinese and then came to Europe through Muslims).

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