Tags: Cultural Evolution
Humans aren’t the only species that murders its own. Lions have more to fear from other lions than from other types of animals, with the possible exception of human beings. Once a male lion has established itself as the new alpha-male in a pride, either by killing or by driving out the previous alpha male, it routinely kills all the pride’s cubs. Male wolves behave similarly. And male bears will kill cubs that are not their own so that a female bear will become sexually receptive once again. Lions also kill other lions in territorial disputes. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, kill each other at a startling rate, and live in social groups in which extremely aggressive displays, often leading to open conflict, are a daily occurrence.
Although we are less violent and murderous than chimps, human beings have unfortunately established a violent means of death that is unknown among other animals. Human beings self-destruct. And I’m not referring to the fact that many of us stay in bad relationships or do jobs that we hate. No, here I’m referring to the lamentable reality that every year a large number of human beings kill themselves. In fact, the person most likely to purposefully end your life is you. The World Health Organization now estimates that approximately one million people commit suicide each year; that’s more deaths than are caused by war and homicide combined. Moreover, this plague is becoming worse rather than getting better. In fact, the global increase in the rate of suicide over the past 60 years has been stunning. Moreover, the true number of suicides each year is likely much higher than has been reported: Suicide is a particularly shameful death in much of the world, and other causes of death are sometime listed on death certificates to spare the victims family unnecessary shame. In some societies, suicides are not even recorded, making it impossible to accurately determine the true global rate of suicide. Even so, in many countries, suicide is now ranked among the top ten causes of death.
Understanding the root causes of suicide has been the focus of a significant amount of exhaustive research. It may be that the primary causes of suicide differ from place to place. However, it is clear that lost status, precipitated by things such as unemployment or demotion, broken relationships, poor school performance and lost friendships, often plays a prominent role.
We are the only animal species of which individuals intentionally take their own lives. On rare occasions, cetaceans will beach themselves, however, this behavior is generally believed to be caused by a response to various infectious diseases. Certainly, nothing similar to suicide is observed among other primates. Chimpanzees don’t hang themselves, throw themselves into rock outcroppings headfirst from high tree branches, nor doe they sacrifice themselves to dangerous predators, or otherwise destroy themselves. Suicide is essentially a human behavior. And it has now reached epidemic proportions.
What this means is uncertain. However, our current lifestyle is unprecedented. Our diets, the excessive time we spend indoors, our lack of physical activity, our artificial hierarchies: all of these things probably contribute to the chronic stress many humans, perhaps most, experience on a near daily basis, and chronic stress is one of the primary causes of many human diseases, including several mental health disorders, such as chronic major depression. Our bodies, and therefore our minds, did not evolve to thrive in modern societies whose only constants appear to be rapid and continual change. We congratulate ourselves on having, in large part, overcome the elements, on having become civilized. Perhaps we should not. Something about the way we live has given rise to an all too prevalent feeling that life has become an unbearable burden, full of despair and lacking meaning.
What can be done?