‘I had no heart. We were animals’

Trinidad & Tobago Express, Trinidad and Tobago
April 20 2004

‘I had no heart. We were animals’

The quotation above is from a Hutu peasant recounting the day ten
years ago when he actively participated in the killings. At interview
he was probably about 45 or so had somewhat bloodshot eyes, and a
saddened countenance. He went on to explain that the Government had
decided to kill the Tutsis and they had been handed over to the gangs
of killers who had been transported to the killing fields-a Roman
Catholic church! Apparently there were also similar slaughters in the
Seventh Day Adventist church. The skulls and bones now adorn these
churches. He admitted to killing a ten-year-old child and when
questioned by the interviewer about killing a child when he himself
had a child of the same age, he simply shook his head-I had no heart.
We were animals. After watching the BBC account of then and now I
still found it impossible to determine from physical appearances who
was Hutu and who was Tutsi, any more than I could tell Catholic Irish
from Protestant Irish, or a Muslim from a Hindu in India, or Jew from

There are two things that struck me about this brief exchange. We
were animals and the government handed them over for killing. Poor
maligned animals. All life on the planet of course competes for the
resources necessary for continued existence and all animal life is
dependent on plant life. There are few plants that can kill animals
when eaten. This is simply the self-defence mechanism of production
of toxins in their tissues. Some may also trap animals to obtain
essential nutrients in nutrient poor conditions. Few animals kill
members of their own species although it is known in some cases,
especially where there may be severe overcrowding or deprivation.
Rats in overcrowded cages often develop aberrant behaviour and kill
cage mates, including their young.

In contrast, the human species currently kills, has killed and will
continue to kill, not only at the one-on-one killing level, where
states at least try to regulate and punish individual killers, but
also in group or state interactions. To the innocent who has had her
head bashed in with a club in a church in Rwanda, or to a mother and
child being torn apart by shrapnel from an American smart bomb in
Iraq, or to a group of Jews being marched into the gas chambers, or
to Armenian families being marched into the desert, or to West
Africans being enslaved and killed by both Arabs and Europeans, or
Hindus and Muslims mutually slaughtering each other in 1947, it is
all the same-the behaviour of an aberrant species. If the species has
been indeed “created” as many believe, the design was obviously poor.
Animals do not really behave in this way.

But there is a possible explanation. We have only to look at our
nearest relative, the chimpanzee, an animal with whom we share the
bulk of our genes, some 99 per cent. Jane Goodall, the primatologist,
has spent decades studying the behaviour of chimpanzees in the wild.
Much of what had hitherto recorded of the behaviour of chimpanzees
and other apes had been based on observations of the animals in
artificial environments of zoos. Much of the general behaviour of
chimpanzees is described in her book, Reason for Hope-A Spiritual
Journey. Although very much a personal narrative, she does toward the
end describe what the account is really about. It is about her
personal journey, as she states, from evil to love, drawing on
childhood perception of the architects of the Holocaust, the German
slaughter of millions of Jews. But the science is there in the book
and may also be seen in countless other field studies on chimpanzees
in Africa.

Chimpanzees are not the clownish creatures they are often made out to
be. Their basic social unit is essentially an extended family
grouping that may be as large as 50 or so individuals more or less
male-dominated, with one top male and several sub-dominants, females
organised in some sort of hierarchy, juveniles and infants, more or
less occupying a measurable expanse of territory supporting the
group. But there is much more to the science of the behaviour of
chimpanzees. Chimpanzees can be murderous as a group when they raid
other territories in a primitive sort of warfare, killing other
chimpanzees. Internally, in a group, individuals may be bullied,
ostracised, expelled or even killed. Infanticide has also been
recorded. Leadership of a group is under constant threat from
sub-dominants. There is even the behaviour of male bonding when the
males go of together on a hunt, even at times when their normal food
supply is abundant. There are even different regional “languages”. It
is not difficult to make comparisons with human behaviour.

The other thing that struck me was the excuse given by the Hutu
interviewee-it was a Government decision to kill the Tutsis,
reminiscent of the attitudes seen with all genocide. The individual
justifies killing simply as being caught up in the process. The fact
that murder is known in all societies, some being more murderous than
other, and that genocide, deliberate or incidental, is the norm in
human society, suggests that human social organisation is not
genetically ordered as is seen in highly social species such as ants,
bees and wasps, and termites. In the science of ethology or animal
behaviour the term behavioural plasticity refers to the degree of
variability of behaviour of a species in response to external
stimulus. Social insects demonstrate no plasticity. Anyone who has
kept dogs will demonstrate considerable behavioural plasticity, even
within a litter. Certainly chimpanzees demonstrate plasticity of
behaviour, both in the wild and in captivity. The range of human
behaviour suggests the greatest degree of plasticity of behaviour of
any species known to science.

There is nevertheless one aspect of social behaviour in vertebrate
animals that warrants some comment. This is schooling, flocking or
herding, seem amongst many fishes, birds and mammals. Social grouping
of animals as they go about their individual lives does offer some
advantage mainly against predation. In primates, however, this type
of behaviour is the exception rather than the rule. Primate grouping
is generally the family grouping. This raises the question of group
leadership. Certainly in chimpanzees leadership is by the dominant
male, until his displacement and the size of groupings is regulated
by natural processes.

Humans, however, have conquered disease and starvation (they think),
the natural population regulators and numbers exceed six billion,
unprecedented for a mammal. It should therefore not surprise anyone
that given genetic programming, plasticity of behaviour, inheritance
of learned behaviour and numbers, herding, a product of conditioning
and culture, becomes the norm of human behaviour, not rationality.
This behaviour can lead to exploitation of the herd. Simply follow
Martin Daly’s Sunday Express commentaries over the past few weeks to
understand the phenomenon. In conflict for power by the dominant male
or males, individual members of the herd suffer. Millions are
sometimes massacred by the herd. Jane Goodall and others suggests
hope in “spiritual and moral values”. Rationality, however, might
save the species. Some hope indeed.