Mass shootings occur about every 12.5 days (Meindl and Ivy, 2017) and so, figuring out why this is the case is of utmost importance. There are, of course, complex and multi-factorial reasons why people turn to mass killing, with popular fixes being to change the environment and attempt to identify at-risk individuals before they carry out such heinous acts.
Just-so stories take many forms—why men have beards, human fear of snakes and spiders, why men have bald heads, why humans have big brains, why certain genes are in different populations in different frequencies, etc. The trait/genes that influence the trait are said to be fitness-enhancing and therefore selected-for—they become “naturally selected” (see Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010, 2011) and fixated in that species. Mass shootings are becoming more frequent and deadlier in America; is there any evolutionary rationale behind this? Don’t worry, the just-so storytellers are here to tell us why these sorts of actions are and have been prevalent in society.
The end result is a highly provocative interpretation of combining theories of human nature and evolutionary psychology. Additionally, community development and connectedness are described as evolved behaviors that help provide opportunities for individuals to engage and support each other in a conflicted society. In sum, this manuscript helps piece together centuries old [sic] theories describing human nature with current views addressing natural selection and adaptive behaviors that helped shape the good that we know in each person as well as the potential destruction that we seem to tragically be witnessing with increasing frequency. At the time of this manuscript publication yet another mass campus shooting had occurred at Umpqua Community College (near Roseburg, Orgeon). (Hoffman, 2015: 3-4, Philosophical Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology)
It seems that Hoffman (a psychology professor at Metropolitan State University) is implying that such actions like “mass campus shootings” are a part of “the potential destruction that we seem to tragically be witnessing with increasing frequency.” Hoffman (2015: 175) speaks of “genetic skills” and that just “because an individual has the genetic skills to be an athlete, artist, or auto-mechanic does not mean that ipso facto it will happen—what actually defines the outcomes of a specific human behavior is a very complex social and environmental process.” So, at least, Hoffman seems to understand (and endorse) the GxE/DST view.
There are more formal presentations that such actions are “based on an evolutionary compulsion to take action against a perceived threat to their status as males, which may pose a serious threat to their viability as mates and to their ultimate survival” (Muscoreil, 2015). (Let’s hope they stayed an undergrad.)
Muscoreil (2015) claims that such are due to status-seeking—to take action against other males that they perceive to be a threat to their social status and reproductive success. Of course, killing off the competition would have that individual’s genes spread through the population more, therefore increasing the frequency of those traits in the population if they happen to have more children (so the just-so story goes). Though, the storytellers are hopeful: Muscoreil (2015) proposes to be ready to work toward “peace and healing” whereas Hoffman (2015: 176) proposes that we should work on cooperation, which was evolutionarily adaptive, and so “communities not only have the capacity but also more importantly an obligation to create specific environments that stimulates and nurture cooperative relationships, such as the development of community service activities and civic engagement opportunities.” So it seems that these authors aren’t so doom-and-gloom—through community outreach, we can come together and attempt to decrease these kinds of crimes that have been on the rise since 1999.
There is a paraphilia called “hybristophilia” in which a woman gets sexually aroused at the thought of being cheated on, or even the thought of her partner committing heinous crimes such as rape and murder. Some women are even attracted to serial killers, and they tend to be in their 40s and 50s—through the killer, it is said, the woman gains a sense of status in her head. Two kinds of women who fall for serial killers exist: those who think they can “change” the killer and those who are attracted through news headlines on the killer’s actions. While others say lonely women who want attention will write serial killers since they are more likely to write back. This is, clearly, pointing to an innate evolutionary drive for women to be attracted to the killer, so they can feel more protected—even if they are not physically with them.
Of course, if there were no guns there would still (theoretically) be mass killings, as anything and everything can be used as a weapon to cause harm to another (which is why this is about mass killings and not mass murders). So, evolutionary psychologists note that a certain action is still prevalent (the fact that autogenic massacre exists) and attempt to explain it in a way only they can—through the tried and tested just-so story method.
Klinesmith et al (2006) showed that men who interacted with a gun showed subsequent increases in testosterone levels compared to those who tinkered with the board game Mouse Trap. Those who had access to the gun showed greater increases in testosterone and thus added more hot sauce to the water. They conclude that “exposure to guns may increase later interpersonal aggression, but further demonstrates that, at least for males, it does so in part by increasing testosterone levels” (Klinesmith et al, 2006: 570). And so, due to this, guns may increase aggressive behavior due to an increase in testosterone. This study has the usual pitfalls—small sample (n=30), college-age (younger means more aggressive, on average) and so cannot be generalized. But the idea is out there: Holding a gun has a man feel more powerful and dominant, and so, their testosterone levels increase BUT! the testosterone increase would not be driving the cause. It has even been said that mass shooters are “low dominance losers”. Lack of attention would lead to decreased social status which means fewer women would be willing to talk with the guy which makes the guy think that his access to women is decreasing due to his lack of social status and, when he gets access to a weapon, his testosterone increases as he can then give in to his evolutionary compulsions and therefore increase his virality and access to mates.
Elliot Rodger is one of these types. Killing six people because he was shunned and had no social life—he wanted to punish the women who rejected him and the men who he envied. Being inter-racial himself, he described his hatred for inter-racial couples and couples in general (he himself was half white and half Asian), the fact that he could never get a girlfriend, and the conflicts that occurred in his family. Of course, all of his life experiences coalesced into the actions he decided to undertake that day—and to the evolutionary psychologist, it is all understandable through an evolutionary lens. He could not get women and was jealous of the men who could get women, so why not attempt to take some of them out and get his “retributive justice” he so yearned for? Evolutionary psychology explains his and similar actions. (VanGeem, 2009 espouses similar ideas.)
These ideas on evolutionary psychology and mass killings can even be extended to terrorism and mass killings—as I myself (stupidly) have written on (see Rushton, 2005). He uses his (refuted) genetic similarity theory (GST; an extension of kin selection and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory) to show why suicide bombers are motivated to kill.
These political factors play an indispensable role but from an evolutionary perspective aspiring to universality, people have evolved a ‘cognitive module’ for altruistic self-sacrifice that benefits their gene pool. In an ultimate rather than proximate sense, suicide bombing can be viewed as a strategy to increase inclusive fitness. (Rushton, 2005: 502)
“Genes … typically only whisper their wishes rather than shout” (Rushton, 2005: 502). Note the Dawkins-like wording. Rushton, wisely, cautions in his conclusion that his genetic similarity theory is only one of many reasons why things like this occur and that causation is complex and multi-factorial—right, nice cover. To Rushton, the suicide bomber is taking an action in order to ensure that those more closely relate to them (their family and their ethnic group as a whole) survive and propagate more of their genes, increasing the selfishness and ethnocentrism of that ethnic group. Note how Rushton, despite his protestations to the contrary, is trying to ‘rationalize’ racism and ethnocentric behavior as being ‘in the genes’ with the selfish genes having the ‘vehicle’ behave more selfishly in order to increase the frequencies of the copies of itself that are found in co-ethnics. (See Noble, 2011 for a refutation of Dawkins’ theory.) Ethnic nationalism, genocide, and genocide are the “dark side to altruism”, states Rushton (2005: 504), and this altruistic behavior, in principle, could show why Arabs commit their suicide bombings and similar attacks.
Jetter and Walker (2018) show that “news coverage is suggested to cause approximately three mass shootings in the following week, which would explain 58 percent of all mass shootings in our sample” looking at ABC News Tonight coverage between the time period of Januray 1, 2013 to June 23, 2016. Others have also suggested that such a “media contagion” effect exists in regard to mass shootings (Towers et al, 2015; Johnston and Joy, 2016; Meindl and Ivy, 2017; Lee, 2018; Pescara-Kovach et al, 2019). The idea of such a “media contagion” makes sense: If one is already harboring ideas of attempting a mass killing, seeing them occur in their own country by people around their own ages may have them think “I can do that, too.” And so, this could be one of the reasons for the increase in such attacks—the sensationalist media constantly covering the events and blasting the name of the perpetrator all over the airwaves.
Though, contrary to popular belief, the race of a mass shooter is not more likely to be white—he is more likely to be Asian. Between 1982 and 2013, out of the last 20 mass killings of the time period, 45 percent (9) were comitted by non-whites. Asians, being 6 percent of the US population, were 15 percent of the killers within the last 31 years. So, regarding population size, Asians commit the most mass shootings, not whites. (See also Mass Shootings by Race; they have up-to-date numbers.) Chen et al (2015) showed that:
being exposed to a Korean American rampage shooter in the media and perceiving race as a cause for this violence was positively associated with negative beliefs and social distance toward Korean American men. Whereas prompting White-respondents to subtype the Korean-exemplar helped White-respondents adjust their negative beliefs about Korean American men according to their attribution of the shooting to mental illness, it did not eliminate the effect of racial attribution on negative beliefs and social distance
Mass shooters who were Asian or another non-white minority got a lot more attention and receieved longer stories than those of white shooters. “While the two most covered shootings are perpetrated by whites (Sandy Hook and the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona), both an Asian and Middle Eastern shooter garnered considerable attention in The Times” (Schildkraut, Elsass, and Meredith, 2016).
Although Hoffman (2015) and Muscoreil (2015) state that we should look to the community to ensure that individuals are not socially isolated so that these kinds of things may be prevented, there is still no way to predict who a mass shooter would be. Others propose that, due to the high increase of school shootings, steps should be taken to evaluate the mental health of at-risk students (Paoloni, 2015; see alsoKnoll and Annas, 2016.) and attempt to stop these kinds of things before they happen. Mental illness cannot predict mass shootings (Leshner, 2019), but “evolutionary psychologists” cannot either. We did not need the just-so storytelling of Rushton, Hoffman, and Muscoreil to explain why mass killers still exist—the solutions to such killings put forth by Hoffman and Muscoreil are fine, but we did not need just-so story ‘reasoning’ to come to that conclusion.