Are We Violent or Compassionate by Nature?

When human beings commit atrocities, whether individually or as a group, we are quick to judge our human race as nothing better than bestial, unable to control our grosser animal instincts. The fact that there exist people who are able to exhibit nobler qualities may, we reason, simply indicate that they are able to do this solely because they have not been pushed to their limits, but that they could easily descend to their brutish natures if provoked. However, Abdu’l-Baha tells us:

Signs of both these natures are to be found in men. In his material aspect he expresses untruth, cruelty and injustice; all these are the outcome of his lower nature. The attributes of his Divine nature are shown forth in love, mercy, kindness, truth and justice, one and all being expressions of his higher nature. Every good habit, every noble quality belongs to man’s spiritual nature, whereas all his imperfections and sinful actions are born of his material nature.1

Interestingly, when researchers looked into this apparent enigma, they found that the parts of the brain that regulate violence and aggression actually overlap with those which play a role in the appearance of empathy. The scientific team concluded that the cerebral circuit for both empathy and violence could be “partially similar”. Luis Moya Albiol, lead author of the study said, “We all know that encouraging empathy has an inhibiting effect on violence, but this may not only be a social question but also a biological one – stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other.”2

If we can educate people to be empathetic, this will therefore reduce the likelihood of violent behaviour. “Educating people to be empathetic could be an education for peace, bringing about a reduction in conflict and belligerent acts,” added the researcher.3

There also seems to be no scientific evidence to suggest that aggressive behaviour is a contributing factor in the success of humans as an organism. In fact, probably the opposite is true – that it is our ability to cooperate and negotiate complex problems that has made human beings successful.

Furthermore, the Seville Statement on Violence asserts,

It is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a ‘violent brain’. While we do have the neural apparatus to act violently, it is not automatically activated by internal or external stimuli. Like higher primates and unlike other animals, our higher neural processes filter such stimuli before they can be acted upon. How we act is shaped by how we have been conditioned and socialized. There is nothing in our neurophysiology that compels us to act violently.4

Mark Pagel in his book Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation concludes that, “what our history has demonstrated is that we humans will get along with anyone who wishes to play the cooperative game with us.” This strategy is imperative in today’s world because we no longer rely on what he calls the “ethnic-marker-equals-common-value” strategy – what is more important is to create stronger bonds of trust and common values that are not reliant on race or social class or culture and that will give people “a sense of shared purpose and shared outcomes.”5

In its blueprint for bringing about world peace based upon the teachings of Baha’u’llah, the Universal House of Justice unequivocally rejects the widespread view that aggression and conflict are “intrinsic to human nature and therefore ineradicable”.6 It goes on to point out that if we are to begin the process of transformation of a society into one that is progressive, peaceful, harmonious and dynamic, it is vital that the view of human nature as intrinsically selfish and aggressive be seen as “a distortion of the human spirit”.

Baha’u’llah asserts,

All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth.

He even goes further to state that these qualities of compassion, nurturing, cooperation and empathy are “feminine” in nature, and essential if we are to create a peaceful, just and sustainable world civilization and, further, that inequality between men and women will impede the advancement of civilization itself.

Abdu’l-Baha reinforces this imperative to emphasise feminine ideals:

The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.7

To achieve this state of balance, then, we need to recalibrate our attitudes and change our thinking. We are not aggressive by nature, we are not inherently violent and our “natural instincts” are not to conquer and to wrest power from others or to subordinate those who are weaker. There is ample evidence of our sensitivity towards the plight of humanity  – the outpouring of assistance towards victims of war, of natural disasters and of injustice is just one example. Not a day goes by when someone does not use the social media to draw attention to those less fortunate, exhorting us to help in some small way.

If these behaviours are not inherent, they must therefore be learned. We use our brains to reason and we make decisions based on our reasoning to take action. We can choose cooperation over excessive competition, peace over war, consultation over argument, compassion over prejudice. It follows that education is the key to making these decisions and ensuring we build a new society based on justice, equality and a recognition of the unity of the human race. This education is more than ensuring the individual is given the skills to pursue a profession or a trade and to provide for a family, it has to encompass qualities of character, a sense that this life has a higher purpose than day-to-day survival and that we really have been created to “carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.”


  1. Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks []
  2. Moya-Albiol, L., Herrero, N. y Bernal, M.C. Bases neuronales de la empatíaRevista de Neurología, 2010; 50 (2): 89-100 cited in ScienceDaily.com []
  3. Ibid. []
  4.  UNESCO. Seville Statement on Violencehttp://www.unesco.org/cpp/uk/declarations/seville.pdf []
  5. Pagel, Mark. Wired for Culture. The Natural History of Human Cooperation, Allen Lane 2012 []
  6. The Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace []
  7. Quoted in J. E. Esslemont, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, 5th rev. ed. (Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1987), p. 149. []

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Discussion 6 Comments

  1. Excellent piece thank you for sharing. I appreciate the gist but there is a bit of a contradiction – the feminine will in due course balance out man’s “…more forceful and aggressive qualities…” Seems to imply man is inherently more inclined towards aggression. Revelation is a source of higher values and spiritual aspirations but look at the price the revealers have to pay to bring it and live their message into the world… Persecution, torture, death. That the world is full of suffering and horror is obvious… that it is also full of beauty and goodness is less obvious but equally true. Regardless of where it came from and where it resides in us we have to learn to recognize the many manifestations of suffering and trauma inside us in order to heal and truly come into our beauty and goodness.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Walied. There does seem to be a contradiction in that particular quote, but I interpret it as being a statement of how man has been able to dominate in the past because of his physical strength and being able to get his own way because society was skewed in his favour. I think we are reaching a stage in our collective evolution where we can see the ascendancy of spiritual values – or at least the desire for them. Let us hope that this dawning of a new civilization is indeed not far away and we will see a society characterised by compassion and altruism instead of force and aggression.

  3. Very thought-provoking Lynette! Thank you! Indeed, we are called for world-embracing compassion. The Writings, even some that you cited, show that our bodily nature is both compassionate and aggressive by nature. Neither is evil. Both can be employed for the service of noble principles or for ego.

    1. Thanks, Sam. I think the key thing is that we have a choice. I’d like to think that we can choose to be assertive rather than aggressive, competitive without being ruthless, audacious but not hostile. That way we can indeed use these qualities for good 🙂

  4. Well analysed of the implication of the quotes and statements. Hopefully, the applications will provide clearer guidance for the ills this modern time.

  5. What an inspiring article, Lynette! Thanks for sharing! My response is inspired by the Baha’i Teachings about the meaning of ‘ Self ‘ for having a twin senses. The One True self is the spiritual self which is the high level nature of man that contains all the heavenly divine attributes created by God. However, the other self is referred to as the material self which is the lower nature of man that contains all the dark evil animalistic ego of one’s self. Man is created according to the image of God and therefore every individual is born perfect. This analysis of twin self has appeared to be a part of a larger one’s life journey, to gain a continuous spiritual growth towards the progression of the True self to attain perfection.

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