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The Evolution of Human Aggression: Feb. 25-27 conference

SALT LAKE CITY As scientists celebrate 2009 as the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, experts in anthropology, biology, psychology and other fields will gather at the University of Utah Feb. 25-27 to debate how evolution has shaped human aggression and violence, from war to domestic abuse and homicide.

"What evolutionary forces underlie human violence, and how can we use this knowledge to promote a more peaceful society?" asks Elizabeth Cashdan, a conference organizer and professor and chair of anthropology at the University of Utah.

The conference titled "The Evolution of Human Aggression: Lessons for Today's Conflicts" is presented by the university's Barbara L. and Norman C. Tanner Center for Nonviolent Human Rights Advocacy.

It will be held at various locations mostly at Fort Douglas on the University of Utah campus from Wednesday evening, Feb. 25 through Friday afternoon, Feb. 27.

The public and news media are invited to attend the free conference.

Conference highlights include keynote lectures on the evolution of peacemaking among primates and the relationship between homicide and economic competition; panel discussions on conflict and reconciliation among great apes, violence and warfare, hormones and human aggression, and domestic violence; a scientific poster session; and a community forum on violence.

"This conference helps to bring science fully into the conversation about violence, conflict management and peacemaking," says communication Professor George Cheney, director of the Tanner Center for Nonviolent Human Rights Advocacy. "This gathering, which is the third in our annual series, will include provocative presentations, lively debate and a roundtable discussion of how current research might be used to reduce violence in our own and other communities."

200 Years after Darwin's Birth, Evolution has Lessons for Modern Conflicts

"Curbing human violence is one of the great challenges humanity faces in the 21st century," says David Carrier, a conference organizer and professor of biology at the University of Utah. "Many aspects of human aggression will be addressed at this conference: warfare, homicide, child abuse and domestic violence. We encourage public attendance because an increased understanding of the evolutionary basis of human aggression may help individuals prevent violence in their own lives and the lives of their friends and family members."

"Every adult on the planet has experienced anger," says Stephen Downes, a University of Utah philosophy professor and a conference organizer. "Some of us have committed violent acts against others out of anger. Why we feel this way and why some of us act in the way we do is a question that has consumed students of human nature for thousands of years."

"Evolutionary theory gives some of the most revealing insights into this issue," he adds. "Bringing together a group of the world's leading experts on evolution and aggression is an appropriate tribute to Darwin in this 'Darwin year'" the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and 150th anniversary of his "On the Origin of Species."

While the modern view has grown more complex, Cashdan says that for decades, "there has been a lot of unproductive debate between people who argue that 'humans are naturally aggressive' and others who contend that 'humans are naturally peaceful.' There is plenty of evidence to support both claims: violence, reconciliation and cooperation are all part of human nature."

Cashdan adds: "We begin with the working assumption that natural selection has shaped human nature to be both violent and peaceful, and ask how evolutionary arguments can help us to understand the factors that lead to both violent and peaceful outcomes. This can help show which policy changes are likely to be successful, and where we can most usefully intervene to allow the better angels of our nature to prevail."

Abbreviated Conference Schedule:

  • 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, Utah Museum of Fine Arts Dumke Auditorium Opening keynote address by primate expert and psychology Prof. Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta. De Waal's talk is titled, "Destined to Wage War Forever? The Evolution of Peacemaking among Primates."

  • 9 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, Officers Club, Fort Douglas Panel discussion, Conflict and Conflict Resolution in Great Apes. One panelist is Harvard's Richard Wrangham, who argues that power imbalances promote violence.

  • Noon Thursday, Feb. 26, Post Theater, Fort Douglas Keynote lecture by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson of McMaster University. They will discuss how homicide rates correlate with inequality of incomes, and how young men "who are most likely to kill or be killed are those with little to lose by competing dangerously."

  • 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, Officers Club, Fort Douglas Panel discussion, Coalitionary Violence and Warfare. Among the panelists is Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, who contends: "Contrary to the popular impression that we are living in extraordinarily violent times, rates of violence at all scales have been in decline over the course of history."

  • 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, Officers Club, Fort Douglas Panel discussion continues, Coalitionary Violence and Warfare. Among the panelists, Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut will argue that conflict between groups generated the evolutionary pressures that favored the social forces holding together complex societies of hundreds of millions of people.

  • 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, Alta Room at the Alta Club, downtown Salt Lake City Poster presentations of research dealing with evolution and aggression.

  • 9 a.m. Friday, Feb. 27, Officers Club, Fort Douglas Panel discussion, Hormones and Human Dominance and Aggression. Among the panelists is Aaron Sell, of University of California, Santa Barbara. Sell will discuss why physically stronger men are more prone to anger.

  • 10:45 a.m. Friday, Feb. 27, Officers Club, Fort Douglas Panel discussion, Domestic Violence, focusing on spousal-partner abuse. One panelist, Aaron Goetz of California State University, Fullerton, will discuss debate over the extent to which men view their partners "as an entity that they privately own and control."

  • 1:45 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, Officers Club, Fort Douglas Panel discussion, Domestic Violence, focusing on child abuse. Panelists include keynoters Daly and Wilson, who will discuss the "Cinderella effect" violence against stepchildren.

  • 3:20 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, Officers Club, Fort Douglas Community Forum on Violence, including experts who deal daily with domestic violence.

The Barbara L. and Norman C. Tanner Center for Nonviolent Human Rights Advocacy promotes the understanding of human rights and encourages nonviolent conflict resolution and peacemaking. Founded in January 2006, the center is based in the university's College of Social and Behavioral Science. The center's previous annual conferences addressed migration, rights and identities, and the cultural and ethical values that drive terrorism.


Contact: Lee Siegel
University of Utah

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