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Humans evolved to get revenge?

Thumbnail for version as of 20:30, 31 October 2005
Celtic dagger

No, as a matter of fact. In “Winners, losers – and revenge” (Britain’s The Sunday Times, May 25, 2011), David Hawkes, reviewing a book, tells us, “The echoes of revenge drama, from Iago to Charlie Sheen, can still be heard today”and manages to discuss the subject meaningfully, precisely because he isn’t pretending to tell us what great apes think or how revenge evolved. He goes so far as to offer an interesting thesis:

Revenge subverts the ethical basis of a competitive society. It is also a revolution in miniature; it assumes that the existing state of affairs is insupportable, and it actively seeks to transform it. Indeed, the English revolutionaries of the 1640s often conceived their revolt as revenge for a broken contract between monarch and subjects. In this exciting analysis of English revenge drama at its Elizabethan and Jacobean zenith, Linda Woodbridge argues that early modern audiences and playwrights enjoyed and celebrated revenge, associating it with the pursuit of social and economic fairness.

Revenge, she notes, is an evening of scores, a levelling. The malcontents who stalk the stage under the guises of Shylock, Edmund, Bosola, Vindice, even Iago, seek to avenge themselves on an unjust social order. The Jew, the bastard, the neglected servant and unpaid soldier use revenge to claim the equal rights of which society has deprived them.

Of course, Christianity nominally reserves revenge for God, and much revenge drama is driven by the tension between Christian ethics and the vengeful impulse.

Agree, disagree, Hawkes is discussing a subject with a genuine, external fact base, a subject that can be meaningfully studied. Career Christians used to do that, until they started to take evolutionary psychology seriously.


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