In the wake of the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which Adam Lanza murdered 20 students and six adult staff members, a number of people – from news pundits to those sitting around the dinner table — been asking the question, “what could make a person perform such a disturbing act?”

For some scientists, this question cannot be properly understood or answered without asking one more question: “can we learn anything about human violence from non-human animals?” In other words, if we look at the behavior of non-human animals closely related to humans, can we find pre-cursors to predatory aggression?

There at least two camps regarding the answer to this question. 

In one camp you’ll find Mark Bekoff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In an article on the Psychology Today website, Bekoff cites the work and writings of Jane Goodall and John Horgan and claims that humans are not acting like “animals” when they commit acts such as mass shootings, but are instead uniquely violent.

In another camp you’ll find Jane Gooddall — yes, Gooddall, who actually disagrees with Beckoff. In a Wall Street Journal article co-authored with Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Gooddall et al. reject Bekoff’s position and claim that “those who doubt that human aggression is an evolved trait should spend more time with chimpanzees and wolves.” 

You can find some analysis of these two articles hereI’ll let you decide which side has the more compelling arguments.