Chapter 1. Predator
"Human predators populate our society" -- Stefan Verstappen.
The Plundered Pilot
Keith is talking to a man in the corner of the room. I've known Keith for ages, so I go to say hi. He's agitated, stressed. It's not like him. He's always been a calm man, confident and quiet. He owns a plane, a little Cessna. He does small commercial gigs, takes tourists over the Grand Canyon. When he gets something extra, he puts it aside. "One day I'm going to buy our ranch," he tells me. Keith and Alexis, and their retirement dream.
"Hey Keith, how's it going?" I ask. The other man sits there, says nothing. Dark curls, Shaded glasses. Good suit, heavy gold watch. Keith shakes his head and shoulders in anger. "Fine! It's going fine!" he tells me. "Now can you please leave us alone? Please?"
I'm shocked. I've never seen him like this. "Sure, catch you later," I tell him, and go back to my place at the bar. I watch them. They're arguing about something. The man shrugs, talks. He's quiet and intense. Keith calms down, stop shaking his head. He's nodding now. The small drama ends with them shaking hands. Keith signs a piece of paper. The man folds it, puts it in his jacket pocket, stands, leaves. I wait a minute, then take my drink and sit across from Keith.
"Mind if I sit?" I ask him, already sitting. It's our running joke. He looks at me, not laughing, and sighs. "What was that?" I ask, still somewhat annoyed at him for sending me away before. "Nothing," he says, "Business." He changes the subject, asks about my kids. We chat for a while. He's distant, skinnier, hasn't shaved. I want to ask more about the guy in the suit. Then I don't. No need to stir the pot, right?
That's the last time I see Keith. Two weeks later I get a funeral card from Alexis. His widow. I call her immediately. Keith is dead. He crashed his plane. No passengers, just him. I'm lost for words. "So sorry." It's all I can say. Keith?
The investigator finds the plane had no technical problems. It didn't hit anything. The skies were clear. So he rules it a suicide. Keith crashed on purpose. No insurance for Alexis. The worst part is Keith cleared out their joint savings account. And just a few days before I saw him. Over $180,000 gone, no explanation.
Psychopathy as Adaptation
Some researchers have suggested that psychopathy is an adaptation, rather than a disorder. I had the same idea many years ago when involved with a difficult young woman. She was in treatment for borderline personality disorder. She moved from job to job, always blaming others. Her life was a long story of abusive parents, ex-partners, and friends.
She lived in a cloud of chaos and emotional pain. Yet it was others who always showed the real hurt. No matter how bad the situation got, she was able to find a way out, and attract new friends. Behind her, she left a trail of damage and trauma. She was on medication, which she rarely took. She had a therapist, whom she later seduced. The "sufferer" always got what she wanted.
Above all, she was predatory in a confident and innocent way. It took me a long time to realize I'd been sleeping with a psychopath. She wore the mask of "borderline" to be a more successful victim. At the time I also took notes. They documented my descent into an alternate universe. In a relationship with a psychopath, our core laws of social conduct are gone. In their place grows something alien and hungry.
There are already plenty of people studying psychopathy-as-a-disorder. I wanted to explore psychopathy-as-an-adaptation because it fit my data better. Further, it seemed to lead to more positive, and useful conclusions.
To model psychopathy as an adaptation rather than a disorder opens a door to a new world. Our questions change. We ask what struggle pushed this evolution. We ask what specific adaptations they actually own. Do psychopaths have longer teeth? Sharper claws? Or are their talents more discrete?
We also ask what counter-adaptations might exist in social humans (the non-psychopath majority). We ask, "Could the psychopath-social relationship in fact be a predator-prey story?" And the answer turns out to be an emphatic "Yes, of course!" We ask, "How old is this story?" and the answer is, "Millions of years."
The Predator Model
The author of "Dracula," Bram Stoker, drew the psychopath as predator. Perhaps he had personal experience. The story is not meant as literal truth. It is a metaphor, and a good one. Dracula comes in the night, dressed to kill. He drains the life blood out of you, even as he seduces you with his charm and sexuality.
Dracula does not kill outright. Rather, he turns you into a weak copy of himself. He is powerful and animalistic. He can read your thoughts, even as you scramble to escape. And the best tension is human versus vampire, with vampire-on-vampire conflict as cherry topping.
Dr Robert Hare started describing psychopaths as social predators in his landmark 1994 article in Psychology Today. The subtitle is: "This Charming Psychopath -- How to spot social predators before they attack." In this article and his work he focuses on identifying psychopaths. Many of us are familiar with his "Psychopath Checklist."
Predators deceive their prey as a core strategy. Human predators cheat their victims as a core strategy. It is the same thing. Animal models are essential to understanding and predicting human behavior. We find it hard to look at ourselves without lying. Our self-analysis crashes into notions of "free will" and "consciousness." We cannot improve nor discard these notions, so they obsess us. Yet we have no trouble dissecting animal behavior without such distractions.
What I've done in this book is use the predator model as a backbone onto which all the rest can hang. We start with predators that cheat their way through the human social universe. All the rest derives from that, and makes sense in that context.
My first exposure to the predator model was in Stefan Verstappen's excellent work, Defense Against the Psychopath. This was the first text I read that suggested strategies for confronting and defeating a psychopath, which is the path I've taken in this book.
Not the Ants You Are Looking For
"There are spiders in Australia that smell and behave like ants: some are so convincing that the ants will allow a spider to live permanently as one of them. This spider will then feast upon its new friends, but it won't eat all the ants, or even a significant number; instead, it extracts resources slowly, sustainably, and over time." -- Daniel N. Jones, "Snake in the grass"
It's not just a few spiders. Thousands of different insects have hacked into the ant colony in one way or another. One caterpillar mimics the queen ant's voice to trick workers. The Paussus beetle is born, lives, and dies inside the ant colony. Not only does it smell right (ants use smells to detect friends from foes), it also mimics the sounds the ants make. Literally, it mimics the queen ant, saying "it's OK" to ants and larvae, even as it gobbles up.
Ants evolved to work together to collect food and protect it from thieves. They divide the work, care for their young together, and live in large colonies. They communicate, and they think collectively. An ant colony shows intelligent behavior.
Ants thrive, despite the parasites and predators after them, their protection, and their food. Indeed, ants are one of the most successful species. Ants have languages, tribal identity, social organization, the ability to work together. These are adaptations. One must ask, to solve what problems? and the answer seems to be: exactly that horde of cheats.
Ants started by spreading the risk of a seasonal food supply. Many ants can harvest a wider area than a single ant. A lucky ant can share with unlucky ones. An unlucky ant will survive a bad spell. So ants evolved altruism, which is a good answer to a risky food supply. Other answers are migration, hibernation, and synchronized breeding cycles.
Yet altruism has a weakness, which is cheating behavior. The ants' food supply is open to anyone who needs it. If you get into the colony, you can eat ants, larvae and food without work. Thus altruists had to evolve defenses against cheats, or go extinct. For an ant colony, this means to detect intruders, and then kill them. Genes for altruism can only survive if they also enforce reciprocity.
As Daniel Jones writes:
Some predators are fast, mobile and wide-ranging, executing their deceptions on as many others as they can; they resemble human psychopaths. Others are slow, stalking their prey in a specific, strategic (almost Machiavellian) way... There is a never-ending arms race between the deceiver and the deceived among most living things.
So the ants evolved languages of smell, touch, and sound to identify each other. The cheats evolved to imitate these languages. The ant languages got more sophisticated. The cheats got better. And so on, over hundreds of millions of years, to give us the modern ant. One family of ants from Argentina now covers much of the world in a "intercontinental super colony". This super colony is invasive, dominant, and drives out local ant species. An ant from Portugal can enter a nest in New Zealand, and be accepted.
This should be familiar to you. Cooperative altruism appears in other species. Termites, bees, and species of wasp have evolved along the same path. So have vampire bats, killer whales, and humans. We also form an intercontinental super colony, that is invasive, dominant, and often acts like one family.
In his 2012 book "The Social Conquest of the Earth," Edward Wilson described humans as eusocial apes. Our divisions of labor, overlapping generations, and cooperative care of young give us a "superpower" that few other species can achieve.
Humanity did not evolve in a garden of Eden. Severe climate shifts hammered us, over and over. We survived through many near-extinction bottlenecks, down to a few thousand individuals, over and over. These events didn't kill us off. Like the Argentine ants, we are descended from a single small population of genetically similar people. This lets us recognize each other as members of the same tribe.
We survived disaster after disaster by working together. We developed the ability to pass knowledge down the generations. We evolved altruism, the spreading of risk through tribes and generations.
Early altruistic humans had many cheats: scavengers, parasites, and above all, other humans. For every social instinct we evolved, we evolved talents for cheating others. And as cheats got smarter, social humans got better at identifying and punishing them.
Humans form networks of relationships. Sometimes these are hierarchical. More often we form ties to other individuals and groups. Those relationships aren't arbitrary. They build on meticulous accounting. We calculate trade in genes, food, shelter, sex, affection, information, time. It is mostly subconscious, yet it is constant and dominant.
We have sophisticated mental tools to track these relationships. We can remember faces for a lifetime. We remember the good and the bad, in detail. We can guess the relative value of any favor or item, in a given place or time. That roast chicken you shared with me for lunch is worth three beers tomorrow, or one in two weeks' time. We remember cheats forever, and we do not forgive them.
We have imagination, so we can plan how to work together. We have language, to exchange knowledge. We express our emotions on our faces, voices, body language, and the blush of blood on our face, ears, and body.
All of these are adaptations to defend against cheats. Just as the ant colony is the product of an arms race, so is human society. Who we are stems from this endless war between working together, and that promise: "the check is in the mail!"
The Forever War
You and me, we've been at war since before either of us even existed. -- John Conner, in Terminator Salvation
Since we're talking about evolution and a long arms' race, one question pops up. That is, when did human psychopathy start to evolve? What time period are we looking at here? It is a question no-one else has ever asked, according to Google. I'm going to try to answer it.
First, we can rule out a recent origin. Psychopathy is a consistent feature of humanity across the world. It is a human universal. It thus predates our expansion out of Africa, some 150,000 years ago.
The origins of humanity keep getting pushed back in time. The ritual burial cave of homo naledi in South Africa dates from around 3 million years ago. The oldest stone tools go back 3.3 million years.
Ritual burials speak of empathy for the dead, and social emotions that go beyond tribe and family. Stone tools point to a structured society, a division of labor, some level of trade, and forward planning.
Let me explain. To turn stone into usable tools takes incremental skill and learning, adapting techniques that follow a slow evolution. This means knowledge passing down the generations, which means specialized individuals, a caste of tool makers.
As Scientific American writes,
The Lomekwi knappers were able to deliver sufficient intentional force to detach repeatedly series of adjacent and superposed flakes and then to continue knapping by rotating the cores. [They] intentionally selected big, heavy blocks of very hard raw material from nearby sources even though smaller blocks were available. They used various knapping techniques to remove the sharp-edged flakes from the cores.
The raw materials are not widespread. The toolmakers had to travel to locations with the right rocks. They had to make their tools. They had to carry those tools back to people who needed them. This meant taking food and water, sacks or ropes, and so on.
It also means the ability to plan in advance and organize with others. This means language, rich enough to express futures and maybes. This sounds advanced for hominids with small brains, until you realize that ants do much the same. This behavior does not need to be conscious. It can be instinctive.
A stone tool production chain has cores, flakes, and anvils. It goes far beyond the mental capacity of a single individual. It tells us there was a social structure. Some specialized in making tools. Others in using the tools for hunting, cleaning meat, breaking bones, cutting wood. Such a social structure means altruism, that is, the ability to share with others. And whenever there is altruism, there are cheats.
The counter-notion is that early humans were generalists, and that they made their own tools as they needed them. Specialization and trade comes much later, in this view. Yet it's an easy model to discredit. Hunting demands its own sets of specialized skills. There would be extreme competition on men to be the best hunter, or the best tool maker. Women need tools as well as men, yet are unlikely to be toolmakers. Two specialists able to trade can always do better than two generalists. So the generalist model does not survive sexual selection, nor economics, nor the male-female division of labor.
So I think we can date human psychopathy to at least 3 million years ago.
The Puzzle of the Big Brain
Our most distinctive human feature is our over-sized brain. The fossil record shows it suddenly growing larger and larger, starting around two million years ago. What drove this expansion? The answer turns out to be: other people. As David Geary says:
There was very little change in brain size across our sample of fossil skulls until we hit a certain population size. Once that population density was hit, there was a very quick increase in brain size.
Why would more people mean bigger brains? Geary credits "social competition", with more people competing for the same food supply. The smartest win, have more kids, and the genes for smaller, stupider brains die out, he argues.
Yet human food supply is not a static resource. Rather, it is a direct result of human activity. More people means more food, not less. Fish do not line up in shallow water, waiting for someone to collect them. Deer do not come in packets of twelve. Food fights back. It is a deep and complex puzzle, solved by technology, knowledge sharing, altruism, and trading. Our social model gets more, not less, effective with more people. So, the more people, the more food.
This only stops being true when we hit the limits of our environment. That is, during a population collapse, not a boom. Only in catastrophic situations do people compete for food.
We could also ask why intelligence should win food? It does not happen in other animals. Big brains are expensive and dangerous, for mother and baby. Why not evolve larger teeth, or stronger muscles, or longer legs? It seems arbitrary to claim intelligence as the key to getting more food, without further explanation.
We can make Geary's model work, if we replace "social competition" with "arms race between altruists and cheats." When populations consist of small, isolated families, cheating is a poor strategy. It is easy to detect and punish cheats. Predators need a certain population density. They must be able to move on after exhausting a given territory.
So the economic incentives for cheating increased as ancient human populations grew. At a certain point, the arms race turned hot. Co-operative humans evolved social emotions to detect and punish cheats. Cheats evolved manipulation and emotional mimicry to hack the emotional languages. Social emotions became more complex, as cheating mimicry got better. As co-operative humans developed better social memories, cheats became better liars.
And so on and on. Our brains are chock full of psychopathic talents and psychopath detectors. It's not that the more intelligent humans had more babies. The arms race did a pincer movement on small brains. We are either superb altruists, or we are superb cheats. Both take a lot of brain power: the more, the better. There is no safe middle ground.
Someone Stole My Lamp. I'm Delighted.
Let me explore some of those psychopath detectors. One is our sense of humor. Humor is a human universal, visible in children from a young age. Babies giggle with joy when they play with their parents. We instinctively trust people who can make us laugh. We distrust those who don't like our jokes, or seem to lack a sense of humor.
We use humor more in stressful situations. We value original humor and reward the "telling" more than the joke itself. In our horror films, the monsters don't laugh except in a creepy way that scares young children. Monsters have no sense of humor.
A joke is a construction, a story with a specific and consistent shape. Every joke, even puns, depends on a mystery. We don't tell the mystery. That would be "explaining the joke." Rather, we tell the joke and then we wait for the other person to "get it." When they get it, they laugh, and we laugh, and the event is complete. Or, depending on the joke, we may expect a groan.
It's not enough to just laugh, either. Both parties must laugh at the right moment, not too soon, not too late. The laugh must last long enough. It must not be too loud, nor too soft. A good joke makes both the teller and the listener happy. A failed joke disturbs and irritates us. Humor is so connected to our emotions.
Such a precise thing, the humor protocol. This is not random or accidental.
What we have evolved with humor is an empathy detector. A joke is a card with two sides. We show one side, and keep the other hidden. If the listener has empathy for the character in the story, they get to see the hidden side. This triggers the laugh response. If the listener has no empathy, they are baffled.
A psychopath cannot laugh "right." He does not laugh, or he laughs too much, or too long. We are more wary of people who laugh too much, than of those who don't laugh at all. What is he hiding, we wonder?
How Does it Make You Feel?
Another of those "uniquely human" talents is art. Why did our ancestors enjoy painting on rocks and cave walls? The traditional explanations are they made art for art's sake, out of boredom, while high on drugs, or as part of hunting ceremonies.
Yet like the 40,000 year old ivory Venus, art serves no functional purpose except to stir emotions in the viewer. The talent to create is so widespread that it plays on every street corner for pennies. Yet we respect it and, it seems, our species has done so for a long time. Above all, we expect art to make us "feel" something. And we ask this of others: "how does it make you feel?" And we scan their faces as they answer.
Psychopaths have many curious traits, which I will come to in the book. One is their lack of interest in creative acts. They do not draw, paint, sculpt, or carve. They do not take photographs, except of themselves and their possessions. They do not cook for pleasure, invent recipes, nor make their own bread as a hobby. They do not create music, though they can be an excellent performers of others' work.
This lack of creative drive is a curious thing, when you first see it. It matches their generally empty sense of humor. Their hobbies are travel, shopping, eating out, meeting new people. This is consumption, not creation.
Art is a precious thing. It is a universal human language. As with comedy, we reward originality more than technical brilliance. As with comedy, we enjoy art more in company than alone. And as with comedians, we praise and respect artists, though the talent has no survival value. Finally, we measure artists by their track record: one success isn't enough. One success can be fake, stolen, or accidental. Whereas for scientists or athletes, one victory can last a lifetime.
I'm certain creativity is another secret language of empathy. It asks the world, "friend or foe? Look at this and tell me you feel something!" and the viewer responds, or fails the test. It is much like telling a joke. Like a great joke, a great creative work must speak from and to the emotions. It must tell half a story that only a social brain can complete and "get."
A young child learns to draw at school, and takes their works back for their parents. These gifts are not useful in any concrete sense. Yet they are important and special in the moment. The child watches their parent's reaction. When they see joy at the squished faces and strange colors, the child also feels joy. They share the moment, confirming each others' social humanity. The child thinks, “See Mommy, isn't this great!” The subtext is, “See, Mommy, I'm normal. Please don't reject me!”
We create for ourselves and others. We create to make other people feel something. Usually, it's happiness, though sometimes it's loss, sadness, or other emotions. A creative act is a message of empathy. And we measure the quality of our art as we do our humor: by its originality, and thus its authenticity.
This is why imitative art is "fake." It is why engineering isn't art, and why fast food feels "cheap." It is why we don't explain jokes, and why an artist cannot explain the "point" of his or her work. It is a test, and if you don't know the answer, that itself is significant. It's why a pile of bricks in the Tate Gallery is worth a million pounds. That's the joke.
We've started to unlock the mystery of psychopaths by treating them as predators, rather than broken people. The predator model does more than explain psychopaths. It also explains the evolution of the human mind, as the result of an ancient arms race between cheaters and altruists. For 3 million years, altruists have gotten better at working together, and cheats have gotten better at faking it. In the next chapter I'll explain how psychopaths hunt.