Why Nonviolence is Human1 David Dwyer, Michigan State University Abstract

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Why Nonviolence is Human1

David Dwyer, Michigan State University


This paper proposes that human uniqueness derives from the ability to understand the other-as-equal; and that this has led to the fundamentally human development of cooperative agreements and subsequently cultural institutions, and that as a result, being human involves a nonviolent, cooperative mode of operation unlike that found in other species.2

The question of human nature

Are humans inherently violent or are they gentle? Or alternatively are they evil or good, selfish or generous, and so on? I suggest that the question should not be posed in either/or terms, but rather as a dialectical opposition of two types of selves, one an animalistic, selfish self and the other a human, social, and nonviolent self which has evolved in humans, but not in other species. Thus in humans we find a unique opposition or dialectic between an animalistic self and a nonviolent human self. I do not mean to denigrate the nature of the animalistic self, but I do wish to extol the virtues and the potential of the newly evolved and uniquely human self.

The awareness of others

The logic of the paper draws on the evolution of the awareness of others. This progression derives from a proposal by Dennett (1987) termed “orders of intentionality,” but which I prefer to call stages in the awareness of others. Accordingly, I have renamed, but not really recharacterized, Dennett’s stages as: the “other as thing” stage, the “other as being” stage, and the “other-as-equal” stage.

The other as thing stage

At this stage Dennett says that the individual has a mind that possesses knowledge and can reason about causal effects such as, “If I throw a rock in the water, it will make a splash.” However, at this stage, the individual has no conception that the other has a mind, and consequently views the behavior of the other as no different from other things in the environment.

To be sure, at this stage one can see that there are cause-effect relationships with the other such as “if I say snake then it will run up a tree.” But this is no different from one’s understanding of other things in the environment like

If I throw a rock in the water, it will make a splash.

I call this the “other as thing” stage because the other is viewed no differently from other things.

There has been a good deal of research on the linguistic ability of apes (especially chimpanzees) and monkeys and their linguistic abilities as well as some work on the awareness question. Chaney and Seyfarth (1990), who have conducted their own research and reviewed most of this research, report that almost all the behavior of monkeys and apes can be seen to reflect the other as thing stage of awareness and that even though they “do occasionally act as if they recognize that other individuals have beliefs, but even the most compelling examples can usually be explained in terms of learned behavioral contingencies without recourse to higher-order intentionality” (253).

The other as being stage

At this stage one recognizes the other as an animate being with a mind that is distinct from other things and the individual begins to realize that the other can act on what he knows rather than simply react to stimuli. This represents a huge intellectual leap for now the individual can understand the actions of others as a consequence of their knowledge or lack of it. This development allows one to make a far better assessment of the other’s intentions than at the “other as thing” stage and increases the individual’s interest in what the other knows thus making one’s interactions with the other more predictable.

The awareness that the other has a mind creates the potential for new ways of interacting. Two of the most important of these are mutually beneficial arrangements and deceit. The logic of a mutual beneficial arrangement is a reciprocal linkage of two understandings.

He knows that if he scratches my back, I will scratch his back.

I also know this.

Mutually beneficial arrangements evolve because both parties understand that they gain more from participating than they would by not participating. But these arrangements can not be characterized as true contracts because such arrangements lack a mutual agreement been the two parties. The most we can say is that, like symbiosis, each of the parties understand that the relationship is personally rewarding. True cooperation will be found at the next level.

This “other as being” stage also enables deceit, that is, lies and secrets and is based on the logic that knowledge offered or withheld will affect the other’s behavior.

If he knows that snakes are near, then he will climb a tree.

If he doesn’t know that I have food somewhere, then he will not follow me.

Despite the value of mutually beneficial arrangements to the participants, the nature of the arrangement is quite limited at this stage, owing to the limited understanding of the mind of the other. For the same reason, deceit is not strictly speaking deceit for it lacks, as I show below, the bad faith intentions found at the next stage of the awareness of other.

A theory of mind also needs to recognize the differing degrees of knowledge that one can attribute to the other. For example, I can believe that you have the same knowledge base that I do. Or I can understand that you possess knowledge that is either more or less than my own but otherwise compatible with it. Finally, I can recognize that your knowledge is incompatible with that of my own. Each of these levels of understanding of the mind mark huge conceptual differences and represent fundamentally different capabilities. The first level, as far as I can tell, is indistinguishable from the other as thing stage. The second level allows for the understanding of the other’s actions as a result of what the other knows as well as a limited version of cooperation and deceit. The last level probably does not appear until the next stage.

The other-as-equal stage

At this stage the one becomes aware that the other also believes that the one also has a mind and is analyzing one’s behavior in the same way that one is analyzing the other.

Because I know that you are analyzing my behavior on the basis of what you think I know, I will also look at my behavior to understand what you know about me.

Thus, this stage leads to a reflexive dimension because it invites one to take the perspective and to look back at one’s self. This in turn leads one to see the other with a mind that is fully equal to one’s own. The consequences of this development are profound as I show in the next section.

The evolving self and the other-as-equal stage


If I know that you are analyzing my actions in the same way that I am monitoring yours, I begin to realize that I should begin to monitor my own actions as well. To get a better understanding of how you are looking at me, I may adopt your position and try to examine myself, reflexively, from that perspective. As a result, I may adjust my actions for the express purpose of influencing your interpretations of me, even though those actions don’t truly reflect what I wish to do or feel and put on a public face. Goffman (1963) called this activity “facework” and we find that as humans, it consumes a good deal of our time. As a result of this process, we develop a different dimension of self, one that we intend for public consumption and one that is private that we prefer to keep to our selves. Embarrassment arises when others discover discrepancies between our public and private selves.

In the process of developing a face, we have learned to look at ourselves as others do and have in the process also developed a second dimension of the self, which Mead (1934), drawing on the work of William James, calls the “I” and the “me.” For Mead, the “me” is the social self which examines and controls the behavior of the self by adjusting one’s behavior to meet the expectations of the other.

If I share my food with you (even though I am hungry), you will think I am a well mannered person.

And determining whether this outcome is desirable, or not, will guide the actions of what Mead calls the “I” part of the self. This is the part of the self that acts and takes care of the needs and desires of the self. With out the self-preservation dimension of the “I,” the self-interest of the self would be lost. It is also in the “I” that the natural, animalistic self is lodged including such things as emotions like hunger, thirst, anger, affection, desire are lodged. We need to be careful not to see the “I” as purely animalistic for in the process of humanizing, that we have been describing, these emotions may have modified through natural selection. Needless to say, it there is a good deal of variation between the balance of the “I” and “me” in individuals. Furthermore, if this is so, then there must be a component of this variation that is genetically based and if so, then the likelihood that natural selection may have favored individuals with the capacity to develop a curiosity in the other.


In contrast to the incipient form of cooperation that is possible at the “other as being” stage the “other-as-equal” stage enables true cooperation because now the parties can develop a mutual understanding that the parties have entered into an agreement with obligations and benefits to both and understand that meeting one’s own obligations is essential to the success of the agreement. Put differently, each of the parties must trust the other or s/he will not participate. Each of the parties also know that they must maintain a reputation of trust (part of one’s face) in order to enter into future agreements.

Language is the primary mechanism through which the mutual understanding of obligations and benefits of an agreement is developed. Language not only enables this intersubjective or shared understanding, but also facilitates negotiation of the details of the agreement. Negotiation is useful because participation in an agreement is voluntary because participants will participate only if they believe that it is to their benefit to do so. Such negotiations will involve questions of fairness and equity and cost and benefits. Furthermore, these negotiations will also involve what the philosopher J. L. Austin called “perlocutions,” speech acts of persuasion and justification (or legitimation), as the participants negotiate the details of their cooperative adventure. This understanding necessarily involves the weighing of costs such as the extent of obligations involved and loss of freedom against the benefits. And while language may enable negotiation to take place, it does not guarantee that it will be successful, either because the participants do not agree on the issues of fair distribution of benefits or because of mutual misunderstanding.

Hobbs, Locke and Rousseau referred to this willful entry into the cooperative agreement as “the social contract.” However, for these philosophers, the agreement was seen as between the individual and the state in which the individual voluntarily cedes some of his powers to the state in favor of the benefits that a state can provide. For the purpose of understanding cooperative arrangements more broadly, I prefer the proposal by Proudhon (1851), that the social contract is between individuals, rather than between the individual.

The success of the agreement depends on each participant understanding its fairness and the reliability or trustworthiness of the participants. Those with a history of untrustworthiness will find it difficult to enter into new agreements. Thus we find that each participant is not only monitoring the other in this regard, but is also aware that he is also being monitored. This reflexive awareness imbues the individual with a sense of responsibility to the agreement, because if one wants the benefits of this agreement, then one needs to fulfill one’s obligations to the other for the success of the agreement. And reflexively seeing this, one can infer that the other will do so too. This mutual understanding is the basis for what we call good faith. Operating in good faith also contributes to an individual’s good face.

There are other characterizations of the concept of good faith. John Searle, when describing the expectations that people have in conversations with each other, uses the term “the cooperative principle.” For example, we expect the other to be truthful, to be relevant and to be accurate. Without the cooperative principle in place, there would be no point in interacting symbolically with others for there would be no reason to believe that what was said was truthful, relevant or accurate. The most important point about the cooperative principle is that this (truthfulness, relevance and accuracy) is the normal way that humans interact because much of their daily lives are filled with cooperative agreements and the sharing of information. It is also important to realize that the cooperative principle or the broader concept of good faith is a human universal, but it is not a genetically based universal, as is assumed for most linguistic universals, but rather is based on the pragmatically logic that we can only to communicate meaningfully with our peers and enter into cooperative agreements with them if we agree to act in good faith.

To be sure, following this innovation, there were no doubt developments that favored the selection of those individuals carrying a genetic disposition to be cooperative and interested in others following the Baldwin effect.3 In addition, it should not be surprising that pets, especially dogs, who have been cohabitating with humans for some 100,000 years or so (Vila et all 1997), have also been subject to a similar selectional process that they have developed an interest in the other, in this case humans.

Searle also adds the equally important point that before people can act in bad faith, which is the foundation for deceit, there has to be a foundation of good faith. A lie will be meaningless unless the cooperative principle is assumed because the lie is spoken with the intention that be taken as a good faith statement. I mentioned above that prior to the “other-as-equal” stage, a lie is not really a lie because there is no presumption that one is being truthful, relevant and accurate and without this presumption, a lie has no value. There is also no awareness that you are monitoring me for my good faith standing and therefore a lie costs me nothing.


When the individual parties are replaced by generic roles, the agreement is transformed into an institution. And it is the institution, not the cooperative agreement, that lies at the heart of a cultural system. Bourdieu uses the metaphor of the game to illustrate the nature of the institution. In this metaphor, each institution represents a field of play and each agent, a player with a defined role (goalie, striker, etc.). Furthermore, each institution defines a goal which the players are to achieve and the rules by which it is played. Playing the game may require both procedural and declarative knowledge. Institutions vary in size and could be as small and as simple as a greeting, or larger as a family, or even larger still an educational system. Institutions are often interrelated such as the teaching profession, the classroom, the school and the university. The roles within the institution can be egalitarian (friends), unequal but fair (parent-child) or hierarchical (boss-worker).

From Bourdieu’s perspective, the institution is the mechanism by which individual agents (players) interact and negotiate their personal business.4 It is also the activity of the agents which restores and maintains the vitality of the institution. Although institutions allow participants to achieve their goals, they also define and delimit practices of the participants and require knowledge (one’s family tree, chemistry, or edible fruits) and skills of them such as how to greet someone, run a classroom, host a dinner party or elect a president. In particular, because institutions are so closely connected with language, each institution is usually associated with distinct ways of talking known as discourse.

Children are introduced to institutionalization during the period of primary socialization (Berger and Luckmann 1967). 5 The primary socialization of a child begins with “internalization” which they define as “the immediate apprehension or interpretation of an objective event as expressing meaning … as a manifestation of another's subjective process.” (130) “Internalization in this general sense is the basis, first, for an understanding of one's fellow men and secondly, for the apprehension of the world as a meaningful social reality (130). This apprehension, they argue, “does not result from individual creation of meaning but from ‘taking over’ a world already created socially. This results in linking sequences of situations together intersubjectively: as I understand the world of others, it becomes my world.”

Primary institutions shape the child’s social behavior (the “me” of Meads I/me distinction) and can be seen as intermediate between an institution (as seen by the parent) and a cooperative agreement, as seen by the child (because the roles of child and parent, while generic to the parent, are ad hoc to the child who has no understanding that his/her parent is a representative of a generic class of parents.

Nonetheless, primary institutions have many of the trappings of other institutions, like roles, knowledge, discourse, etc., and only lack the concept of a generalized other. By this I mean that in cooperation an agreement is specifically negotiated by individuals. In secondary institutionalization, the roles involved have transformed from individuals to generic types. Berger and Luckmann observe that primary socialization ends when the child begins to think not that my mother doesn’t like that but mothers don’t like that.


Institutions encounter several problems not found in agreements. One of the problems institutions face is that the authorship and history of an institution is unknown. This means that potential participants, if they are to participate, need an explanation as to why this institution and its procedures are to be preferred to other possible institutions which may accomplishment the same thing. To strengthen the status of a given institution, legitimations are offered to justify it. Legitimations also show how each given institution fits into the constitution of institutions that makes up the individual’s community (it is what we do) as well as defend the practices of its institution against those of competing institutions by extolling the its virtues or denigrating competing institutions. Some legitimations may be so abstract that they bring in the divine as the author or sponsor of these institutions (we are God’s people).


Institutions evolve from agreements through the replacement of individual agents with generic roles. This process involves the coalescence of a set of analogous agreements. For example, suppose several families living in the same area have developed similar practices to deal with household management, such as childcare, food gathering and shelter. Because of their proximity families are likely to share their experiences and in the process evolve agreements that are so similar, in terms of agents, goals and practices, that the creation of generic roles for the analogous agents is but a small step.

Although the institution evolved from voluntary agreements, other types of institutions have subsequently developed. Some institutions are not voluntary and are assigned to individuals at birth as in the case of gender, race and caste. Others are not egalitarian so that some roles receive more benefits at the expense of other roles.


When individuals enter into the world of institutions, they enter a world of control, for institutions not only provide ways of doing things which would be difficult to accomplish otherwise, they also proscribe the way in which it should be (or not be) done. Thus institutions provide a mechanism of control as well. Furthermore, as this is a given world, it is not obvious to the individual that this merely one of an infinite number of possible worlds, and for this reason the individual will usually accept this world as the way things are.

Be they cooperative, involuntary or unequal, institutions impose a measure of control of the individual. This is clearly the case when an individual is forced to participate in an unequal institution such as slavery, but even within a voluntary, egalitarian institution such as friendship, institutions influence the way in which individuals can act. Although the individual is free to act, the individual will often choose not to act outside the ways prescribed by the role. This is because the individual is interested in maintaining a positive face or honor, and because the refusal to an institution may result in a loss of honor, the individual may feel obliged, due to this peer pressure, to enter into institutions even though he would prefer not to.


An institution which distributes its benefits unequally will require more legitimation than one that is egalitarian and voluntary. Here, we find that legitimations to be ideological in the sense that it attempts to justify the inequality of the institution and the privileging of one role over the other.6

Violence and Nonviolence: force versus agreement

In his quasi-evolutionarily analysis, Mead spoke of other species as “infrahuman” because he considered them below humans due to their lack of language (symbolic interaction) and the intersubjective capacities that language enables. To this characterization, I add, the lack of the “other-as-equal” stage of awareness. To many, this privileging of humans is ideological in the sense given above. This can be resolved by using the alternate term “nonhuman” to designate species that lack of symbolic interaction, a developed sense of the awareness of others and the capacity for institution building.7

Animals and Humans and violence

When we look at nonhumans we find that much of their social interaction is based on of the use of the threat of force and the maintenance of dominance hierarchies. Importantly, the controlling factor is not the use of force, but the threat of the use of force. To be sure, the way the use of the threat of violence is manifested in different species is a result of different natural selectional histories of individual species, but they all adhere to the same principle of the threat and potential use of violence.

The point I wish to emphasize here is that the development of the self, and subsequently cooperative arrangements and subsequently institutions, introduces a fundamentally new way of human social interaction. Superimposed on the (instinctive) force-based mode is a new mode of interaction which is based on the concepts of a nonviolent cooperation, equality, fairness, and negotiation. When it first emerged in human evolution, this mode was no doubt merely an occasional alternative to the violent mode, but through time, this mode became the predominate mode of human interaction. This is not to say that the violence mode is inoperative, after all we do have fits of violent behavior, major wars including the possibility that we may annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons, but as humans we have the unique opportunity to deal with social interactions in a different way.


Nevertheless, violence is part of our daily life and one must ask why this happens, if humans have this nonviolent dimension. In response to this question, three categories come to the fore: breakdowns, otherizing and power.


One common source of violence is the breakdown of the cultural institution because some individuals do not feel that the institution is fair and equitable.


Otherizing is a byproduct of institutions. This is because the existence of institutions distinguishes between members and nonmembers. Non members represent a new other. Furthermore, nonmembers may be members of competing institutions with different procedures, knowledge bases and legitimations. Thus the coexistence of a competing institution challenges the legitimacy of the other. When this happens, efforts are made to strengthen its legitimation and to demonize8 the competitors, something that otherizes members to the competing institutions.

This otherizing is the basis for many of the major conflicts in the world today: he is not a real Christian, Arabs are terrorists; etc.

When this happens, we find that not only are these groups isolated, but that they are demonized as well. Isolation works at any institutional level At the same time, there is another process, which I feel is the stronger of the two, what I call inclusion, a process in with others and otherized groups are reclassified as members of one’s own group. My own experience has seen the inclusion in my community of Catholics, African Americans, women, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, and the diminution of national loyalty as a fence against others. As a peace corps volunteer in Cameroon, I noticed that many of my fellow volunteers initially referred to Cameroonians as “they,” but later switched to “we” when talking about community members.

The second area of qualification has to do with the question of whether this process of “humanizing” happens in everyone. Cheney and Seyfarth (1990 253) note that

Monkeys and apes do occasionally act as if they recognize that other individuals have beliefs, but even the most compelling examples can usually be explained in terms of learned behavioral contingencies without recourse to higher-order intentionality. What little evidence there is suggest that apes, in particular, may have a theory of mind, but not one that allows them to differentiate clearly or easily among different theories or different minds.

Is it not possible that some humans never get beyond the other as being stage? As Cheney and Seyfarth point out, it is possible to disguise a lack of an other-as-equal stage. If so, then it may be that institutions actually impose behavior that forces sich individuals to act as if they are operating in the equal stage when they really haven’t developed to this level.

Power and Privilege

While institutions have their origins in the consolidation of analogous agreements, some institutions develop in such a way that the distribution of power and privilege are unequal. In many cases, this privilege can be maintained by legitimation. And if the legitimation of such institutions fails, those holding the privileged roles may resort to the use of violence to maintain their privilege. But this approach is costly for a number of reasons and often breaks down. In addition, it is possible for the privileged hold so much power, that they no longer see the value in participating in institutions of equality at all and at this point the principle of good faith is no longer needed.

States and Individuals

States, however, represent a unique configuration of institutions, one that permits the centralization of authority. This authority can be democratically regulated, but it does not have to be. This centralization also enables the community to act as one, almost like an individual. They can enter into mutually beneficial agreements and they can act in good faith, and they have a sense of face. And when they acquire too much power they may loose all of this in favor of force and violence.

Basis of human Nature

This evolution of the awareness of the other has opened the door to a new understanding of human nature. Previous debates over whether humans are inherently (instinctively) violent, evil or the like versus whether they are inherently nonviolent, good, etc. presume that these are the only choices. This investigation proposes a third, which recognizes that humans are both. More specifically I conclude that a nonviolent mode of interaction is superimposed on a generalized nonhuman dependency on violence as a means of regulating social behavior. Consequently, when dealing with others, humans, unlike any other species on the planet, have a choice of interacting either violently or nonviolently. And when we view the myriad of daily interactions of humans we find that almost all are conducted nonviolently using the cooperative institutions and agreements that they and their predecessors have developed over generations.

This does not preclude the resort to violence, which can be found domestically, locally and internationally and which results in substantial suffering and loss of life. However, this perspective does place that violence in a category of unusual and abnormal strategy and with the understanding that as humans we have an alternative.

Most importantly, however, this debate is not simply an academic one. If one takes the stance that humans are by nature violent, one can argue that violence in humans is inevitable and that as humans we need to accept violence as a normal part of our existence. In fact this view may be used to justify the use of violence. If one takes the view that humans are inherently nonviolent, then one assumes that acts of violence are aberrations of human nature, but not to be taken as inevitable. If one adopts the position taken here, one views any act of violence as something for which there is a nonviolent alternative and as humans we have recourse to implementing this alternative.

The Role of Language

The Awareness of the other

My claim that humans are unique with regard to the awareness of others as equal raises the crucial question of why humans? Why of all the species on the planet did humans develop this ability? In other words, what enabled us to realize that others are looking at us in the same way we are looking at them? What enabled us to realize that others make decisions based on what they know and that it is possible to discover that they know differently from ourselves?

The numerous investigations into the evolution of the awareness of the other and the emergence of the complex self, appear dimly aware of the crucial role that language has played in these processes. Certainly little has been written on the subject.

From what I can determine most approaches opt for a genetic explanation. And while no one has seriously proposed a gene for culture, numerous approaches are looking for some genetic change to trigger this transformation. The most straight-forward of these approaches, which I call “the general intelligence school,” holds that a bigger brain means a smarter animal and consequently claims that these developments occurred because humans have bigger brains than other animals. While there is some truth to this position, it fails to show or even point to the kind of intelligence that would be needed for this activity. What type of new mental ability would lead to this awareness?

This is why I propose that language is both the cause and consequence of this process. This may sound circular because it is. Or rather the evolution of language and the evolution of the awareness of the other stand in a dialectical relationship. This means that an increase in the ability to communicate in turn increases the awareness of the other and vice versa.

While it is true that language conveys information and that the sending and receiving of information would increase our awareness of the other, it is also important that the use of language involves the declaration of one’s intentions and consequently, the interpretation of language involves not just decoding a message but reconstructing the intent behind it. In this process, the better the theory of the other’s mind the more successful the assessment of the intentions of the other.

The consequence of language

My conclusion that language enabled humans to increase their awareness of the other can be developed further if we assume that language structure evolved in stages and not instantaneously. In another paper (Dwyer 1986) I propose that grammatically the evolution of language followed the progression of human children from a one-word stage (ataxis), to a two-word stage (parataxis) to true syntax. From this perspective one may ask what sort of tactic system is necessary to develop a) the understanding that the other has a mind and b) the understanding that the other’s knowledge is incompatible from the self. My answer is that parataxis is sufficient to help one understand that the other doesn’t possess the same knowledge (the other as being stage) and that syntax would be necessary for the equal stage. While the argument is complex, I note in support of it that Chimpanzees are capable of parataxis but not syntax, and are capable of seeing the other as being but not the other-as-equal.

New concepts

I would also like to add that I do not see the relationship between language and the developing awareness of the other as one of cause and effect, but rather that the two coevolved. That is, just as language facilitated the growth in the awareness of the other, so did the awareness of the other stimulate the growth of language ability.

The Evolution of the Pronoun System



First Person

Second Person

Third Person







You all



The hypothesized evolution of the awareness of the other has produced as one of it’s by products, the pronominal conceptions of “it” (other as thing), he and she (other as being) and you (other-as-equal) and I (self). These distinctions are almost universal, though many pronoun systems are not fully distinct. English, for example, lost its distinction between second person singular and plural, though the new term “you all” is gaining popularity. English does not mark the distinction between the inanimate and third person plurals, nor masculine and feminine plurals. Other systems show greater specification such as the development of a dual form as well as a plural, the distinction between an inclusive and exclusive we. Some languages (French and Russian) contrast a formal and familiar second person and many languages have diversified the inanimate noun classes as in the case of the Niger-Congo languages.

Compassion, guilt, shame and embarrassment

I use the term compassion rather broadly to cover the understanding of the perspectives and feelings of the other. Compassion thus defined is a very sophisticated capacity for it involves being able to situate one’s self in the other’s position and care what that perspective or feeling is like. This is why compassion is only possible at the other-as-equal stage. Guilt involves the awareness that one’s actions have caused discomfort to the other, and shame arises because I come to realize that I am the source of your discomfort. The kindred term of embarrassment involves the discovery by you that some of my deeds and words, do not live up to the face that I am attempting to present. These concepts arise as a consequence of the new social relationships made possible of the awareness of the other-as-equal and subsequently entered the language as words.

Other Concepts

We can also see the evolution of other new concepts arising from the other as being stage. Because of the potential for lies and secrets, concepts and then words he words associated with these concepts would also arise. Likewise we would anticipate terms associated with knowledge and intention to arise. Associated with the emergence good faith, we would expect words arise around the concepts of cooperation, agreement, negotiation, legitimation, fair, trustworthiness, and as institutions arise around roles and the specialized knowledge associated with these roles.


The main idea I want to advance is that as a result of language, humans have developed a new means of social interaction, one based on equality and cooperation that is essentially nonviolent. This perspective offers a new answer to the question of whether humans are basically good or evil. The answer offered here is that they are both, but overlying this animal base is the uniquely human capacity for nonviolent social interaction, the practice of which represents the predominant mode of human activity and the mode most likely to guarantee our survival.


After writing this essay, it was pointed out to me that Gandhi had a similar perspective saying that "Man as animal is violent but his spirit is nonviolent. The moment he awakes to the spirit within he cannot remain violent."9 To me the spirit Gandhi speaks of is our awareness of the equality of others.


Baldwin, J.M. 1896. A new factor in evolution. American Naturalist, 30, 441-451.

Berger, P. and T. Luckmann. 1967. The social construction of Reality. Doubleday.

Bourdieu, P. 1982. Language and Symbolic Power. Harvard U Press; Cambridge.

Cheney and Seyfarth. 1990. How Monkeys See the World. Chicago; University of Chicago Press.

Dennett, D.C. 1987. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, Mass: MIT/Bradford Books.

Dwyer, David. 1986 What are chimpanzees telling us about language? Lingua 69:219-44.

Goffman, Erving. 1963. "On Face-Work." Interaction Ritual. New York: Anchor Books.

Mead, G.H. Mind, Self and Society. University of Chicago Press. 1934.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851).

Searle, J. What is a speech act? Language and Social Context (P. Giglioli ed.) 136-54.

Vila, Caries, Peter Savolainen, Jesus E. Maldonado, Isabel R. Amorim, John E. Rice, Rodney L. Honeycutt, Keith A. Crandall, Joakim Lundeberg, Robert K. Wayne. 1997. Multiple and Ancient Origins of the Domestic Dog. Science,  VOL. 276  13 June.

1 I wish to thank Anabel Dwyer, Robert Green, and Sara Gay Dammann for their helpful suggestions that have greatly improved earlier drafts of this paper.

2 Much of the thinking on this paper arose from my work on examining the evolution of language in the context of its coevolution with culture, the human body and self. In the context of this project, I have begun to understand how humans evolved to rely on nonviolence as the primary mechanism of human interaction.

3 The J.M. Baldwin (1896) proposed a mechanism to explain how learned behavioral abilities could lead to analogous instinctive capacity. Briefly, he argued that if an organism were behaving in a certain way, building a nest, or the like, natural selection would favor those mutations (or variations) that facilitated nest building. Because the genetic traits are analogous and not identical, Baldwin’s explanation avoids the problems of the similar, but unworkable, Lamarckian explanation of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

4 Within the context of the institution, Bourdieu introduces concept of capital, by which he means the various types of resources available to the individual to accomplish one’s goals and a good deal of this capital, knowledge, money, position, etc, is institutionally based.

5 Berger and Luckmann (1967), in their quasi evolutionary explanation of the origin of institutionalization, do not recognize a stage of primary institutionalization.

6 Unlike Marx who considered ideology as justifying the privilege of the ruling class over the worker, I prefer to characterize ideology having to do with privileging any unjust institutional role over its complement, be they men over women, whites over blacks and the like.

7 I argue below, following Mead, that language (symbolic interaction) is the enabling factor for both the development of the awareness of others and for the construction of cooperative arrangements and institutions.

8 Demonization is a strategy which legitimizes one’s own institutions by downgrading its competitors.

9 He also said, "Mankind is at the crossroads. It has to make its choice between the law of the jungle and the law of humanity."


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