Why Do Honor Killings Defy the First Law of Homicide? And Will Smaller Families Lead to Fewer Of Them?

Jun 23, 2014

By Michael McCullough

Few categories of human rights violations more deeply scandalize the liberal (with a little-L) moral sensibility than honor killings do. Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but by most credible accounts it seems likely that several thousand Muslim women each year (and more than a few men) are stoned, burned, hanged, strangled, beheaded, stabbed, or shot to death for the sins of getting raped, falling in love, or dressing immodestly. But to anyone who thinks about human behavior from an evolutionary point of view, honor killings are not just morally outrageous: They’re also really puzzling.

As Martin Daly and Margo Wilson documented in their marvelous book Homicide, killers are very rarely the genetic relatives of their victims. Instead, they’re most often strangers, or rivals, or cuckolded lovers (who, of course, are not each others’ kin even if married—at least, not in the sense that matters to natural selection). Indeed, the typically low level of kinship between the victims of homicides and the people who kill them is so predictable that we could get away with calling it “The First Law of Homicide.” When two genetic relatives are involved in a homicide, it’s usually either as co-victims or co-perpetrators, not as victim andperpetrator.

In a sense, a general reluctance to harm or kill one’s genetic relatives is not exactly breaking news. We’ve understood since William Hamilton’s 1963 and 1964 papers that natural selection creates organisms that appear designed to maximize their inclusive fitness (which incorporates the reproductive success of the individual in whom the gene is physically located, as well as the reproductive success of other individuals who are carrying copies of that gene around) rather than their simple direct fitness. Genes “want” to maximize the total number of copies of themselves that are floating around in the world, even if some of those copies are located in other individuals’ gonads. The principle of kin selection virtually guarantees that we’re walking around with instincts that restrain us from harming our relatives, even when they’ve irritated us. To be clear, I’m not saying people never kill their kin (mental illness is a real wild card here), but the fitness disincentives of doing so were so high as our psychology was evolving that the perceived incentives to do so now have to be very high indeed.

Which is what makes honor killings so puzzling. In a recent article, Andrzej Kulczycki and Sarah Windle summarized data on the circumstances behind more than 300 honor killings across Northern Africa and the Middle East. What jumps off the page when you look at their data is how flagrantly honor killings flout the First Law of Homicide: About three-quarters of honor killings are carried out by family members of the victim. To be specific, the victims’ brothers carry out 29% of them, fathers and (to a much lesser extent, mothers), carry out about 25%, and “other male relatives” carry out an additional 19% of them. (Of the remaining 25%, virtually all are carried out by the victims’ husbands/ex-husbands.)

I’m really interested in that 75% that violate the First Law of Homicide. For the perpetrators of honor killings to over-ride their intuitive aversions to killing their own daughters or sisters, the perceived costs of “dishonor” must be very high indeed. We can’t precisely measure the exact fitness value of honor for someone who lives in a so-called culture of honor, of course, but the link between fitness and honor is undeniable. If you live in an honor culture, your honor determines your (and your children’s) job prospects, marriage prospects, ability to recruit help from neighbors, ability to secure a loan, and protection against those who would otherwise do you harm. Honor is an insurance policy, a social security check, and a glowing letter of recommendation rolled into one bundle. The fitness costs of tarnished honor in an honor culture can be steep.

One of the things I came to appreciate about honor while doing research for one of my books is that honor is a sacred commodity. It doesn’t follow the laws we expect actual physical stuff to obey, or the normal laws of economics, or even the normal rules that govern our everyday psychology. It follows the laws of Sacred Things. If you feel sad one day, you can be pretty sure that the feeling won’t last forever. Dishonor doesn’t work like that. Dishonor doesn’t wash off or fade away with time. Dishonor has to be purged or atoned for. More importantly for my argument here, dishonor does not dilute. The dishonor that a “dishonorable” behavior creates for a family is not like a fixed quantity of scarlet paint that can be used to make only a finite number of scarlet letters. When a young woman “dishonors” her family, there’s enough dishonor to thoroughly cover every one of her brothers and sisters, no matter how many brothers and sisters she has.

31 comments on “Why Do Honor Killings Defy the First Law of Homicide? And Will Smaller Families Lead to Fewer Of Them?

  • 1
    Miserablegit says:

    It is the obvious fact that the people that are prepared to murder their own family members in the name of their religion care nothing for their own consequences, but because they are doing gods will be seen to be looked after in the next life.

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  • Three things occur to me. The first two are not so much an explanation of the phenomenon as an elucidation of what is demanded, at a technical level, from such an explanation. The third is the beginning of a hypothesis, but I’ve not done any calculations to show how well it works.

    Firstly, the total number of honour killings which violate the first law may not be the full 75 %, because “other male relatives” might, due to a breakdown in communications, include husbands, blood aunts’ uncles etc. McCullough doesn’t make clear whether the data collection methods meta-analysed by Kulczycki and Windle took pains to make sure this didn’t happen, so I read the study itself. It doesn’t help that, despite McCullough’s quotation marks, the phrase other male relatives is absent from the original. The exact details also vary a lot by nation, so culture may make a big difference here. Indeed, the reality is that, depending on the nation, husbands can be the most common perpetrators. These observations modify the exact scope of First Law of Homicide violations which some explanation needs to account for. Ultimately a mathematical formulation of a specific hypothesis concerning these violations will have to be tested with calculations that bear all this in mind.

    Secondly, violation of the first law may be explicable in the sense that, while inclusive fitness prevents a person from causing a close relative who would have otherwise lived to die, these victims’ deaths may be seen as inevitable because of the community’s demands. Certainly some of the victim-perpretrator pairs aren’t closely related. This suggests that those targets whose families spare them are still doomed, and it would be unsurprising if their families reached the same conclusion. That’s not to say the phenomenon is trivial, however; but it would mean the problem shifts to one of explaining why so many people prefer to kill a relative rather than let someone else kill them.

    The third issue is that, while genes should not be able to cause First Law of Homicide violations, because natural selection would penalise them, memes are another matter entirely. To a lesser extent we would expect genes to prevent other factors from causing such violations, but the gene pool may not be able to evolve quickly enough in some cases. Memes also evolve by natural selection, but without as much reliance on individuals’ welfare or as predictable a kinship formula, and they do so on a timescale so much shorter than that of their gene counterparts that genes may not be able to win this war. I suspect that this is part of the story.

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  • “The third issue is that, while genes should not be able to cause First Law of Homicide violations, because natural selection would penalise them, memes are another matter entirely. ”

    The author has a minimal understanding of evo-psych. Kin selection is hardly the only thing that drives human behavior, if it were he is correct we should virtually never see honor killings. In fact if you read up on violence (e.g. Pinker’s Better Angels), most murders are men killing women and a LOT of those are for reasons that equate to “honor killings”.

    It comes down to sexual selection in humans and the dispraportionate investment required from females for a successful breeding strategy. For men the best strategy (in terms of making lots of kin, not in a moral sense of course) is polygamy. To achieve high status and to get the best pick of the best and most women. For women the best strategy is to find a man (one is as good as many since a woman can only make babies once every nine months anyway) who will be a good provider for children.

    Once you understand this you see the evolutionary pressures that make women the scarce resource that men compete for. And once you understand that you can start to understand honor killings. If women are the scarce resource the reputation of “your” scarce resources (your wife and daughters) is an essential part of the males reputation and also his long term reproductive success. The most obvious is that an unfaithful spouse can cause a husband to waste resources supporting a child not his own, just about the worst evolutionary mistake you can make. But even from the standpoint of fathers, a reputation that your scarce resources are not “good girls” means that they ALL will attract lower quality husbands which will significantly lower your long term reproductive success. Even from the standpoint of kin selection it can make perfect sense (again speaking from the standpoint of evolutionary biology not morality) to kill one daughter in order to “preserve the reputation” of the others, i.e., to make sure that the other daughters get high quality mates rather than let the spoiled reputation of one ruin the chances for all.

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  • I’m really interested in that 75% that violate the First Law of Homicide. For the perpetrators of honor killings to over-ride their intuitive aversions to killing their own daughters or sisters, the perceived costs of “dishonor” must be very high indeed.

    It would seem obvious to me, that the religious meme is superseding the evolved genetic kin selection.

    There does seem to be a correlation with the strength of the meme and meme-related social pressure, with the incidence of “honour” killings.

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  • We must remember that these are rigidly patriarchal societies in which the urge to spread one’s genes is limited to spreading them via sons. A man is successful if he has sons and his meaningful and status-giving progeny is measured only through males. For cultural purposes, his ‘line’ does not pass through a daughter and so she is of little value except as commodity or ornament to his house. If she fails as ornament, she endangers the status (and thus reproductive choices) of the other males, not the other females. So, as Jos suggested, memes trump genes. The meme of male lineage short circuits the genetic urge to continue since it ignores or at least severely devalues the gene continuation through the female.

    In other words, the shits who kill their daughters are simply extreme forms of the shits who see women as merely the vessels for their male offspring.

    (Am I allowed to call them shits?)

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  • ” (mental illness is a real wild card here)”

    It’s not too big a stretch to say Muslim indoctrination results in mental illness; certainly
    there are many other instances of apparent mental instability in Islam. REALlY
    absurd beliefs- salt/fresh water cannot mix, the sun sets in a muddy pool, the Buraq carried Muhammad to the seven heavens and Jerusalem in a single night, ants conversing with humans,
    the list of Koranic ‘miracles’ is seen as fact by the faithful.

    On the topic of insanity, a very good book— ALL GOD WORSHIPPERS ARE MAD by JP Tate

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  • 8
    Bob Springsteen says:

    Believe that your daughter is awash in the salacious exports of Satan, believe you will be rewarded by Allah in eternity by dealing death to her – and putting her on top of a bonfire and turning her into a human candle is scarcely more than a matter of being asked to do it. Most atheists simply do not believe that anyone is certain of the after-life: they don’t know what it is like to REALLY believe in Allah.

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  • Very interesting article, and it really answers its own question: in an “honor culture,” the evolutionary advantages provided by being a member of an “honorable” family are greater than the evolutionary disadvantage caused by the elimination of one family member. I doubt consideration of the eternal welfare of the wayward woman is much of a factor compared to the temporal welfare of the extended family. In a small way, many western families are acting from the same motive when they shun a gay or atheist child or simply shame a child who doesn’t measure up to the family’s expectations. They are valuing the advantages they believe will be had by being a certain kind of family over the potential harm wrought by failing to value a child for who he is. In both situations the child is expected to exist for the family rather than the family for the child.

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  • First of all, honor killings don’t violate the First Law of Homicide.

    The First Law of Homicide is that most homicide victims are not genetically related to the killer; i.e. 99% (or whatever) of homicide victims are not genetically related to the killer.
    Honor killings are part of the 1% (or whatever) where the victim is genetically related to the killer.

    Where is the contradiction? Nobody claims that ALL homicides victims are not related to the killer, just that most are not, as the writer McCullough himself says. Now if most homicides were honor killings or some other type of homicide where somebody kills a genetically related person, then that might be puzzling, except we know that they are not (because we know the First Law of Homicide is true.)

    Second. In any case, honor killings do make sense in terms of evolutionary theory, because evolutionary theory has adapted so that it does explain honor killings, the way all theories must adapt to empirical reality. The usual explanation, as other people (like Red Dog above) have pointed out, is that honor killings, and in fact very strict rules about virginity, chastity, fidelity, and even social freedom that are imposed on women all serve the purpose of preventing a male provider from providing for a child that is not genetically his own. And we have seen that in societies where male economic support of children is not necessary (such as in traditional Icelandic matriarchies or modern industrial societies), rules restricting women are notably relaxed or absent. As an aside, restricted female/provider male systems might represent a kind of local maximum for evolutionary utility; i.e., there are other maxima, but moving a society from one maximum to another means a temporary reduction in utility and thus tends not to happen.

    All the talk about particular culture and mental illness might be interesting, but aren’t relevant here. For one thing, other cultures other than Muslim (and there is no one “Muslim culture”) practice such harsh punitive sanctions against women.

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  • Just a thought, but how much are these “honour” killings outliers in overall homicide statistics, anyway? The article doesn’t discuss any statistics of this scope. They could easily corelate to the same rate of American family murder-suicide rates, and could easily have the same kind of cause – that is, madness or despair brought on by a person’s perceived loss of status or some other factor.

    Another thought, is that perhaps evolutionary psychology is a poor explanation for this kind of behaviour. Especially since evolutionary psychology (at best) describes psychological behaviours on a much larger scale than the individual. It’s better at answering “why do we have murder?” as opposed to “why did John Wilkes Booth kill Abraham Lincoln?” or even “why do we have political assassinations?”

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  • Koko is correct… The practice of honor killing is not specifically Muslim. It dates back as far as the Romans, and has been practiced by Christian cultures who have been fiercely defensive of female “honor”, whether or not blood is shed. No accident that the virgin Mary is the idol of the Catholic faith, is it? Has no-one read Marquez’ “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” which is based on the true story of a murder committed in a small Columbian village to atone for the ‘stolen’ virginity of a bride. All the inhabitants collude in the killing of the supposed perpetrator, who is clearly a scapegoat. (The murderers afterwards seek sanctuary in the church.) The wider problem is the concept of women as sexual property, and of virginity as the mark of honor. Honor killing is barbaric and appalling, but signifies a deeper and wider perception of women that affects their quotidian lives in almost every society.

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  • 14
    Piranavasorubi says:

    High quality mates? I don’t think you understand the mindset of such patriarchs at all, if you are using such arguments to justify honor based killings. What is so high quality about repeatedly marrying cousins through generations and having increased rates of terrible disabilities. No, I don’t think that is what is at work here at all. Each of these petty tin pot dictators fancy themselves as a Chinese emperor or a potential one since polygamy in such societies is allowed. So if you have a dozen daughters and a dozen sons, the daughters are sold off to your rivals/ possible allies however decrepit and old they may be and your sons could be cannon fodder. After all, if one son alone inherits your kingdom, he also can father hundreds of children. So it is a purely selfish thing to do from the patriarchs point of view, to ensure everyone remains under his control. It can be observed in the animal kingdom for example meerkats where the alpha male and alpha female make sure the other minor clan members don’t mate. When it happens in human societies, such selfishness leads to violence on the part of males who can’t get women because the alpha male is monopolising them or trying very hard to. If we are to build a civilised society, we need to stop pandering to such selfish males and put them in prison where they belong. Otherwise having a peaceful and fair society becomes an impossible dream.

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  • The mystery is that our psychology generally develops in ways that are consistent with evolutionary success, but the psychology of “honour killings” or any other kind of killing of kin, would appear contrary to that evolutionary pressure. One would expect that humans would have a less malignant instinctive attitude to religion, because those who care nothing for this life are less likely to pass on their genes.

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  • Actually, men kill far more men than they do women.

    I think Jos Gibbons’ reply goes a long way towards explaining the apparent failure of evolutionary pressure to optimise inclusive fitness.

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  • Again, article is pointing out that holding beliefs that cause such irrational actions (considering the genetic cost of those actions), should logically be very rare. One would expect that the population of individuals holding beliefs that make them kill their kin, would become less numerous over time, than people who hold less reproductively destructive beliefs.

    The question is not so much, what is the psychological rationale for “honour” killings? but what is the evolutionary or environmental cause of humans holding such a genetically self-destructive psychology?

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  • The contradiction is that “honour” killings are a systematic phenomenon. The 1% consists of anomalies.

    That’s not to say it can’t be explained – but it is to say there is something to explain.

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  • Are we absolutely positive that these statistics are correct? In the back of my mind I seem to recall the maxim that police assume most murders ( well, perhaps just of female victims) are committed by the nearest and dearest. It’s possible that the murderer is not genetically linked ( being the loving husband or partner) but the deed could be attributed to a father, brother or uncle on occasion.

    The tendency to elevate the customs of the group over an innate reluctance to harm one’s kin is seen often enough. The practice of circumcision and other acts that I’d consider to be mutilation, seem to confirm my suspicions.

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  • Could it not simply be the most selfish of selfish reasons ie the murderers truly believe the the victim will stop them achieving their perceived rightful place in the first division of the next world?

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  • 21
    Nunbeliever says:

    No, honor killings are not really puzzling from an evolutionary perspective. They constitute an extremely low percentage of all murders. Dogma, religion and cultural norms can demonstrably override even very basic instincts. For good and bad. Honor killings are no more puzzling than martyrs or acts of kindness to strangers. Cult members who abandon their children is only one example. Human sacrifice has occurred in most cultures all over the world. All these victims had parents and relatives who apparently (either for fear of their own lives or because they believed in the greater good) stood by and watched these people get killed to please blood thirsty gods. Honor killings aren’t really all that different. These acts could be described as a form of human sacrifice. Not, necessarily to please a god but to restore an imaginary equilibrium. Restore pride and honor. It’s of course a completely bizarre and counter productive tradition. But, really no more so than other forms of human sacrifice.

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  • ” I don’t think you understand the mindset of such patriarchs at all, if you are using such arguments to justify honor based killings. ”

    I’m not trying to justify them. That would be insane. I’m trying to explain them with what we know about evolution and how it impacts mating strategies.

    “What is so high quality about repeatedly marrying cousins through generations and having increased rates of terrible disabilities. ”

    The risk of marrying someone who is related to you but not a sibling or first cousin is minimal. That is why there are deep ingrained taboos against marrying siblings and first cousins but not otherwise. Also, when I say “high quality mate” I’m not making some kind of ethical judgement or saying that would be my idea of a high quality mate. I’m saying from the standpoint of a patriarch what THEY would consider a “high quality mate” and that would be someone who belongs to a high status family, has a good reputation for fidelity, and is young and fertile. I’m saying with those things in mind it is expected and not counter intuitive even from an evolutionary standpoint that a patriarch would go so far as to murder one daughter in order to preserve the reputation of the family and the access of his other children to what he perceives as high quality mates.

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  • Sorry, you are correct, I wasn’t speaking carefully. What I meant is that men kill a lot more women than vice versa and when you look at the reasons that men kill women it is often bound up with issues such as “honor”. Not just honor killings where a patriarch kills a daughter but where a man kills his wife or girl friend because she is perceived to be unfaithful. Women killing men due to infidelity is very rare but men doing the opposite is quite common.

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  • I still don’t think you understand what I am trying to say and why I was upset by the comments in your first post. I speak as an Asian who had an arranged marriage. Not all arranged marriages are forced. My parents were really concerned for me and I loved them back in turn. When they selected someone for me, I could have said no. That was never in doubt. He just turned out to be my dream man. We have ups and downs like most couples but we have married quite happily for fifteen years. However I know someone close to me who was not so lucky. She too married the person who her parents selected for her. However, he turned out to be a tyrant who constantly bullied her and insisted on isolating her from her family. I tried to help, I knew at heart he was a coward and if she had insisted on her rights (they live in the UK) and made even the mildest of threats, his behaviour would have changed. However, her parents stopped her, insisting that she listen to his unreasonable demands and put up with extreme bullying. She did and I was sidelined, everyone telling me to back off. This is what I am against, a whole family taking the side of a tyrant for some sense of honour which I honestly can’t see. She is now an extreme depressive, but very good at insisting she is happy, so I don’t see how I can help. This is how it is for women in these families. Am I wrong to think maybe I can bring awareness from the outside to such men so my friend can be free from bullying?

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  • In addition to my comment above, I’d like to add that there is a perception that most murders of children happen in the nuclear family. It may be the result of the actions of the stepfather or mother’s boyfriend though invariably in a family setting. I’m extremely dubious of the first law of homicide being 75% in relation to women and children!

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  • We aren’t communicating very well and it’s probably my fault. First, I want to be clear I am in 100% agreement with you, I think the situation you described was terrible and I have as much contempt for sexists and misogynists as I think you do. I always was a feminist but having a daughter who is a feminist has made me realize how far I really had to go. For example, seeing my daughter grapple with weight issues all her life, not that she is heavy at all it’s just like so many young women she has been given a standard of “normal” beauty that is so insane virtually no healthy person can live up to it.

    I went off on a big tangent, I just wanted to make clear I am absolutely for women’s rights and feminism and in no way support or make excuses for honor killings. Sorry if what I said didn’t give that impression. In previous comments on this article I was just trying to think about the issue scientifically from what (little) I know about mating strategy and primitive tribal culture — when I do that I try not to speak in value terminology either way as much as possible but I absolutely agree with you honor killings are awful.

    Arranged marriages are interesting. I used to work with a bunch of brilliant Indian guys and a few of them left “on vacation” and always came back married. They were getting arranged marriages but they thought the idea wouldn’t go over very well in the lab where we worked. The amazing thing is that most of the arranged marriages I know about in person (not that that’s many) have actually worked out pretty well so I try not to judge that as well but I’m too much of a romantic to ever embrace the concept.

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  • 30
    inquisador says:

    “Although Sikhs and Hindus do sometimes commit such murders, honor killings, both worldwide and in the West, are mainly Muslim-on-Muslim crimes. In this study, worldwide, 91 percent of perpetrators were Muslims. In North America, most killers (84 percent) were Muslims, with only a few Sikhs and even fewer Hindus perpetrating honor killings; in Europe, Muslims comprised an even larger majority at 96 percent while Sikhs were a tiny percentage. In Muslim countries, obviously almost all the perpetrators were Muslims. With only two exceptions, the victims were all members of the same religious group as their murderers.”

    From a study by Phyllis Chesler in 2010

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  • Honour killings take place among Hindus. The belief that they are a peculiarly Muslim thing, either historically or today, is due to seeking out information to confirm prejudice.

    “According to campaigners there are up to 10,000 ‘honour killings’ in India every year. Most of the victims are young women killed by their fathers and brothers over ‘forbidden’ relationships or for insisting on marrying a man they love.

    Many of those killed were in India’s northern states where councils have issued stern warnings against men and women from the same sub-caste marrying each other. Caste elders regard the practice as akin to incest even though the individuals are not related. ”


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