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.