Is murder part of natural life, or an anomaly of behaviour? Shawn Lehman wants to find out.
The anthropology professor at the University of Toronto will discuss death in the animal kingdom in his lecture Primate Infanticide: Adaptation Or Social Pathology on Sunday March 15 as part of TVO’s Ontario’s Best Lecturer series on Big Ideas.
A controversial subject to say the least, primate infanticide deals with the killing of offspring in ape species. This can happen in various ways for a number of reasons: An alpha male ape may defeat another male for control of a “harem” of female apes, for example, then kill the offspring of the rival ape.
The question, Lehman says, is this: Is primate infanticide part of how animals naturally evolve or is it this a pathological pattern of behaviour that can only be detrimental to a species?
“Are we working towards evolution or are these just a bunch of crazy monkeys running around killing each other?” he asks. “There are well-known cases where chimpanzees, our closest natural relative, have behaved like this, and yet it doesn’t benefit them in any way.”
So if our closest relative can kill indiscriminately, does that explain away murderous behaviour in humans? Yes and no, according to Lehman.
“How do you assess it?” he said. “We are subject to a lot of the same biological imperatives and what they do can offer some insight, but humans are even more complex. We do things that animals don’t do.”