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

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 and perpetrator.

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.

There’s an interesting prediction waiting in the wings. If I’m right that dishonor does not dilute, then the perceived fitness-associated costs of a single act of dishonor will be larger for a father and mother with many children than for a father and mother with only with only a few children. This has implications for reducing honor killings. Let me illustrate with a thought experiment.

The Costs of Dishonor to a Father Are Higher in Large Families

Say I am a father with nine children and one of my daughters has done something (or, more likely, has had something done to her) that has brought dishonor upon herself and each of her eight siblings. (Believe me, I am more appalled by having to write sentences like these than you are by having to read them, but I can’t come up with a better way to think through these issues than to try to step into the shoes of someone who is actually factoring honor-related concerns into their social decision-making). As the father of these nine children, the dishonored daughter has reduced my fitness by 9d because each of my children will suffer an honor-related fitness cost of d. (It might be better to quantify the hit to my fitness as 9 * .5 = 4.5 because my genetic relatedness to my children with respect to a rare allele that I possess is 0.5 rather than 1.0, but that won’t change anything in what’s to come. Can we please agree to work with 9 so as to make the math prettier?) So, if I am a father of nine children, and I can restore my family’s honor by murdering my dishonored daughter, I can recover 8d units of fitness (by restoring the damaged honor of my other eight children), and it costs me (I know, the thought sickens me as well) the fitness decrement I suffer through murdering one of my offspring.

If, on the other hand, I have only two children, then the perceived fitness cost of my daughter’s dishonor is 2d (a cost of d is imputed to both of my children), and I’d only be able to recover 1d unit of fitness (for my remaining, unmurdered child) by murdering the dishonored daughter. So, for a father with only two children, the calculus is not so clear: Am I better off in the long run to have two children whose honor is tarnished, or only one child whose honor is restored? For any plausible value of d, it’s hard to imagine that the decision-making scales would tilt in favor of killing the dishonored daughter if doing so would leave you with only one child. I’m betting that the father of two will stay his hand under circumstances in which the father of nine might not.

If I’m right about this, then a demographic shift toward smaller families in developing societies could eventually help to solve the problem of honor killings. I couldn’t find any direct evidence to support this prediction, but Manuel Eisner and Lana Ghuneim recently published a study in which they surveyed 856 Jordanian adolescents from 14 different schools to examine the predictors of their attitudes toward honor killings. They found that even when they controlled for the students’ sex (male vs. female), their religion (Muslim vs. non-Muslim), whether their mothers worked outside of the home (a good proxy for modernization), and the parents’ educational levels (also a good proxy for modern thinking), children with four or more siblings had more favorable attitudes toward honor killings than did children with three or fewer siblings. Not an exact test of my prediction, but to the extent that kids adopt their parents’ views, it seems to me that these results are at least tantalizingly consistent.

Do the human rights groups that want to reduce honor killings and other kinds of honor-related violence around the world ever talk about family size as a truly exogenous (and, in principle, modifiable) cause of honor killings? People are pinning their hopes for solving so many other problems around the world on reductions in family size, so perhaps I’m not being too pie-in-the-sky to add “reductions in honor-related violence” to that list of “Ways In Which We’d Be Better Off If People Had Fewer Kids.” As families shrink, I’m guessing that spared lives become subjectively more valuable than restored family honor.


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

  1. Pingback: linkfest: 05/27/14 | hbd* chick

  2. MaxxWiskers

    I did a quick internet search and there was a claim 1000 women were honor killed in Pakistan a year. Because this issue hits on political correctness there is good reason check all claimed facts in many ways. Still roughly speaking this is at least a 1 in a million kind of event and I would not be shocked if it was actually significantly higher. Your odds of dieing from dog attacks is likely higher. It is clearly a significant social event but its actual effects on a populations genetic heritage seems insignificant.

    In medieval Europe there was a version of honor killings with its culling of witches. The Salem witch trials was a famous example of this in early America, it was instigated by three teenage girls. These events did have signification numbers of people effected.

  3. MaxxWiskers

    This is sort of like the American political right being focused on gay marriage (microscopic in real numbers) when the real marriage problem that affects the majority is the destabilization of straight marriage.

    1. Mike McCullough Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts. Your pair of comments incorporate three points: (1) You argued that I overestimated the global prevalence of honor killings. (2) You argued that honor killings are too few to have influenced human evolution; (3) You argued that honor killings are too few to merit outrage. I’ll respond to them in order.

      (1) In 2000, the United Nations estimated 5,000 honor killings per year worldwide. Each year, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan puts the number of honor killings in Pakistan between 850-1000. Activist groups often say these estimates are far too low, but I don’t see them backing up such claims with data. The truth is, nobody knows exactly how many, but with estimates ranging from ~1000/yr in Pakistan alone, to perhaps 5,000/yr worldwide, I’ll stand with my original estimate:

      “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.”

      (2) Nowhere in my piece did I claim that honor killings have had an influence on human evolution. What I claimed is that humans possess decision-making systems that evolved in order to maximize humans’ lifetime inclusive fitness, and some of those decision-making systems have the goal of motivating parents to keep their children alive (in the same way that some of those decision-making systems are interested in making sure we get enough food, water, and oxygen). My essay was about how concerns with honor and reputation cause some individuals to regard their children’s lives as expendable, even though our concern for our children’s survival is axiomatic to a modern understanding of how natural selection has designed humans.

      (3) Your third point, I think, is that honor killings do not deserve the moral outrage and analysis that they are currently garnering because they are so few in number (you used the word “microscopic” to refer to their global significance). If you’re thinking that honor killings merit the same level of moral outrage as fatal dog bites and the Salem witch trials (do you?), then I think your comments are probably best left to speak for themselves. I simply have nothing to add.

  4. Raymond Hames

    Hi, Mike,

    Very interesting consideration of honor killings and the pay-offs. (As well as the psychology of dishonor.) As an extension implied in your kin selection perspective consider a case of two brothers: one brother with a few kids who has a daughter who dishonors his family and the man’s brother who has many kids. The stain is also on the latter and it may account for why 19% of honor killings are by other relatives.

    Oh, in regards to your tweet on hunter-gatherers and famine, a couple of things. The article is the second such finding. And it is not exactly those who live in warm weather climates. The study compared horticulturalists to hunter-gatherers. Since horticulturalists don’t exist in the Arctic or near-Arctic, those were left out of the comparison. But it did included horticulturalists who lived in temperate to cool regions where agriculture is possible.

    1. Mike McCullough Post author

      Hi, Ray: Thanks a lot for the comments (sorry here, too, for the long delay in responding). I like your reasoning. If the dishonored woman’s uncle has a lot of children who stand to be dishonored by association, he might be motivated to take action when his brother (the daughter’s father) might not.

      Thanks, too, for the clarification on differences between hunter-gatherers vs. horticulturalists with regard to frequency and severity of famine. Is the favored explanation among professionals, then, that hunter-gatherers can stay on the move and thus follow the food whereas horticulturalists can’t?

      1. Raymond Hames

        The issue is rather complex. For example, the people I study, the Yanomamo, are technically horticulturalists because about 70% of their diet comes from cultivated plants. They are able to move when necessary given the ultra low human population density of the Amazon and they also have the option to rely more heavily on wild resources. Intensive horticulturalists lack the ability to move or depend much on wild resources.

        It is true, as you suggest, that saturated horticultural environments pose problems because moving might be nice but you end up in somebody’s farmland. And when you do that, there is going to be a fight. So, in a saturated environment horticulturalists have a difficult time when famine inducing problems arise.

        As for hunter-gatherers, there are two things to observe. The first is they rely on resources that are extremely well adapted to the local environment and require no human intervention for their bounty (let’s ignore hunter-gather burning to create an environment that favors the species they prey upon). So, unlike domesticates, wild resources are well adapted to environmental fluctuations. And second, hunter-gatherers can turn to “iron rations” when times get tough. These are food resources that can be consumed when favored resources are scarce. They don’t taste good, may be costly to process, have a low rate of return, and are often not calorically rich: but they get you through the hard times until the environment ameliorates and the good stuff returns.

  5. tribalypredisposed

    I think a big part of the problem in understanding this issue is the obsession with kin selection. Kin selection is an elegant theory that happens to be wrong when applied to humans. Humans live in groups defined using culture, not kinship, and those groups can only succeed if our primary allegiance is to the group and not to kin. Group loyalty must regularly win over kin loyalty when the two loyalties conflict or your group cohesion will fail and neighboring groups will wipe you out. That kinship is vastly over-emphasized is then obvious simply from looking around and seeing that culturally defined groups have indeed succeeded.

    There are numerous examples, ranging from Procopious on the Nike Rebellion, to accounts of civil wars to accounts from the Amazon by Chagnon, to Rwanda where parents killed their own “mixed” children and China and the Soviet Union where children denounced their parents and siblings. Religions and cults and political movements regularly demand and receive loyalty placing themselves above all family and previous friends.

    Group over kinship is the rule. “Honor” killings are following the rule, not breaking it.

    1. Mike McCullough Post author

      Hi there, “tribalypredisposed.” Sorry for having taken to long to respond. You bring up some good historical examples. Would you agree with me, though, that humans continue to walk around with evolved preferences for favoring their kin over non-kin–even when they live in groups that include non-kin? Just because humans have to manage group loyalties doesn’t make their evolved nepotistic preferences go away. It’s not like those preferences have been selected out just because we have culture. There’s going to be lots of conflict, and that’s what I’d like to understand better.

      1. tribalypredisposed

        Thanks for responding Mike. Yes, I agree that there is still nepotism and that in many cases people do balance group interests against family interests. That said, it seems to me that usually if people are faced with loyalty issues, if favoring family would raise doubts about their group membership, they favor group over family. If it means killing their uncle in the Amazon jungle as Chagnon recounts or denouncing their brother as a counter-revolutionary in China or drowning their own kids in a well in Rwanda, they do it. If it means stoning their daughter to death they do it. Even if it means committing suicide with a cult or becoming a suicide bomber, they do it.
        My interest is in the journey to the point where self and kin interests are abandoned and all is given to the interests of the group. This may also inform our willingness to go to war.

      2. brian

        Seems to be a discussion about trying to resolve the differences between kin and fictive kin.

  6. Anthony C. Lopez

    Michael – great post! Two questions:

    1) Dishonor reversibility: your daughter’s honor having been tarnished is taken as a foregone conclusion, so the assumption is that dishonor is irreversible. Is that always true? Are there certain actions that make dishonor harder or easier to reverse? One thought I had is that when dishonor is “brought upon one’s self” that it is harder to reverse or undo than when dishonor is the result of another person’s actions. If the latter has occurred, why not kill the other person instead of your daughter?

    2) Based on the kin selection logic, I think your expectations are straightforward regarding which father will be more likely to kill his dishonored daughter. However, I wonder if males in larger families might just be more inclined to kill their offspring in general, and that this general tendency is simply magnified, not generated, by honor cultures. Maybe a better way of framing it is that, all else equal, males might be “less disinclined” to kill an individual offspring, the bigger the family. One reason for this is just paternal uncertainty. Wouldn’t paternal uncertainty be greater in larger families? Bigger family, more kids, more opportunities for cuckoldry?

    Thanks for your posts, Michael. I enjoy your site–

    1. Mike McCullough Post author

      Hi, Anthony: Thanks for the comments (sorry it has taken me a few days to respond).

      (1) It does seem that dishonor often can only be purged through the spilling of blood, though occasionally ostracism or shunning seem equal to the task. I think Chris Boehm’s book “Blood Revenge” does a good job of laying out the psychology of honor (or, at least, *a* psychology of honor) and its links to violence quite nicely (though of course it is the description of merely one culture, so overgeneralize at your own risk). In tribal Montenegro, as Boehm explains, someone who maliciously impugns your sister or daughter’s virtue stands to get himself killed; it doesn’t lead you to slay your own sister or daughter. I wish I knew something more about the historical reasons for the differences, but I don’t (Any of you other readers care to chime in?). I suspect it has something to do with cultural differences in norms about property and inheritance, but in any case I’m quite sure these differences in cultural attractor points are extremely historically contingent (cue Pete Richerson and/or Rob Boyd).

      If you want to read an excellent work of historical fiction on the links between honor and violence in the U.S., I cannot recommend anything better than Peter Matthiessen’s “Shadow Country,” which may be particularly special to me because most of the book takes place in the rural Florida counties where my father’s family is from. It’s a meticulously well-researched depiction of the psychology of honor in the post-Civil War South.

      (2) I don’t think a big family, per se, should lead to more violence. More children is always better than fewer, and I see no reason up front why paternity uncertainty should be higher in larger families. To make such an account work, I think, you need a benefit for the murder that goes up in value as family size goes up. Now, one non-honor-based possibility for explaining a link between family size and honor killings (h/t Max Burton-Chellew) is that if murdering one child deters your other children from dishonoring you in similar ways, the incentives could shift toward favoring the murder of the child as the number of children to be deterred increases. There may be other alternative explanations, too.

  7. Staffan

    Interesting post.

    My problem with it is how this behavior could evolve in a way that takes family size into account when large families are the norm. This is going on in clan-based cultures that appear to have lived in large extended families for at least thousands of years. So the behavior must have evolved only to deal with the context of a large group, all suffering reduced inclusive fitness. And keep in mind that people who commit these killings have been practising inbreeding for a long time too. So clan members who are merely cousins or even more distant are genetically closer than in other populations.

    Yet you do have some evidence to the contrary, and I can’t access the full text right now, but I will look at it later for sure. In case you haven’t heard of her, HBD Chick has written a lot about topics relating to this, http://hbdchick.wordpress.com/?s=honor+killings

    1. Mike McCullough Post author

      Thanks or taking the time to comment, Staffan. I appreciate your point about inbreeding, which is certainly going to bring cousins into higher levels of relatedness. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that there are evolved adaptations for honor killings. All I am suggesting is that because humans (and all living things) possess adaptations whose function is to maximize inclusive fitness, it is probable that that they also possess cognitive adaptations that enable them to estimate (reliably, though not perfectly) the effects of certain relatives’ behavior on the inclusive fitnesses of other relatives (and, most importantly, the inclusive fitness of the self), and then to experience motivations to take actions that will bring their own expected inclusive fitness back to a local maximum. I’m not sure how inbreeding would affect the evolution of such mechanisms, but my intuition tells me that it does not invalidate the prediction I’m making. In any case, the adaptations I’m thinking are at work here are not modern adaptations that evolved over the past few tens of thousands of years, but rather, are species-typical design features that happen to manifest themselves in a puzzling (and, to us, distressing) way against a certain kind of cultural backdrop.

      If it wasn’t totally obvious from the post, by the way, I am riffing heavily on the second part of Trivers’s 1974 paper: http://www.nbb.cornell.edu/wkoenig/wicker/NB4340/Trivers%201974.pdf (see esp. the section starting on p. 259).

      Thanks for the lead to HBD Chick’s post. I like her writing, though I only became aware of her post on this topic after I had written mine.


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