Mother, Father, Killer

A new book asks what murder has to do with making babies

It is no coincidence that many of the best stories require that somebody put an end to somebody else--if possible, with extreme malice. Murder, or at least its immediate threat, crystallizes like nothing else the fleet ing sloppiness of life. But there's something deeper we intuit about this transaction that makes most of us fans of mayhem and homicide, in novels, plays, films, and the news: the raw chord of familiarity such stories strike in our own embattled psyches.

David Buss, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, takes a bold stab at deciphering this riddle with The Murderer Next Door. The book essentially combines his studies in evolutionary psychology (the notion that human behavior has been forged by collective experience throughout the history of the species) with extensive academic analysis of thousands of FBI and regional murder case files. While it is short, The Murderer Next Door is not a particularly vivid reading experience (Oedipus Rex, for instance, is called a "gripping tale").

It's the sort of book one would prefer that someone else read and then boil down, so here we go. Buss essentially argues that murder, rather than an aberrant act springing from an unhinged mind, is an evolutionary adaptation that every single human is capable of acting upon. We've all got what Buss describes as "circuits" that can be triggered by adverse circumstances.

Admit it: I'm so dashing you're thinking about killing me before I cuckold you
Courtesy of David Buss
Admit it: I'm so dashing you're thinking about killing me before I cuckold you

What sort of circumstances? Mate selection, mate retention, mate poaching, and mating competition, basically. To make this case, the author puts on his primate-vision goggles and proceeds to strip away the fripperies from our motivations. Murder, Buss writes, is "a means for solving specific problems we encounter during the evolutionary battles for survival and reproduction." He then dives into all the frightening, primordial stuff that lies behind romantic love: possession, stalking, jealousy, self-protection, and the rage of being rebuffed.

It all comes down to passing along one's genetic material, an explanation that can come off as a bit simplistic. Yet Buss is adept at keeping the reader interested with such tidbits as an American DNA study which determined that approximately one in ten fathers is not the genetic progenitor of his ostensible offspring. Put more simply: holy shit! This one guy in ten has been cuckolded, and the mother of his children and his "rival" have used his material resources to nurture their own genetic legacy. What's a poor bastard to do? (Hint: Professor Buss probably cannot be counted on to testify for the defense at your trial.)

Men do not get off easy here. The core of much homicidal violence, Buss says, is the fundamental inequity in the wider mating market. He argues that, historically, men have been in greater danger of going mateless, of being usurped by their rivals, and of ending up losers in the genetic sweepstakes.

The book makes a great deal of sense, and actually clarifies a lot of anecdotal quandaries in the great human pair-off. Still, at times things seem a bit pat. Buss devotes shorter chapters to killing for honor and the lethal repercussions of the unfortunate dis, but his heart definitely remains with the genetic-dissemination camp. As a result, it's not hard to imagine incidents that don't fit the hypothesis. For instance, what if I take the last cup of coffee from the pot without making more? Is it because I'm instinctually aiming to sap your vigor and weaken you from making time with Betty Lou?

Having written murder fiction (neither of my murderers was successful, but nonetheless), I've tried to dig into the reptile part of my brain that might kill. When I've dug around that rancid cellar, it's been a place of cold calculation. Perhaps Buss's contribution is to remove the reptilian terminology from the equation, and put things firmly in the realm of the mammalian.

The most insightful crime writers understand this dynamic instinctively. In his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler made sport of mysteries in which killings were planned and executed with complicated precision. He was, it seems, tapped into the cool (and immediate) motives of evolutionary expediency. Of crime investigators and murders, he wrote, "the one that really bothers them is the murder somebody thought of only two minutes before he pulled it off."

 
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