The Evolution of Murder

Original: Eduardo Angulo (2017) Evolución del asesinato. Translated and adapted by Julio Nicanor Ozores, M.D.

The American evolutionary psychologist David Buss contends in his 2005 book The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill that the evolutionary process humans acquired psychological adaptations to facilitate homicide. Natural selection, it is hypothesized, winnowed and perfected psychological mechanisms that solved certain problems by facilitating homicidal behavior. Of course, to solve problems created by enmity and competition there are alternatives to homicide, and it is likely that there was a concurrent selection for alternative solutions. But which solutions take precedence in any given situation? Duntley and Buss affirm that we do not know which factors ultimately lead to homicide, nor to behaviors that bypass it, such as benevolent solutions involving altruism, empathy, or the cooperativeness of couples or individuals within groups.

Theories about the evolution of homicide do raise a challenging question – if we possess mechanisms to kill that “fire” in the presence of certain stimuli, why is crime relatively infrequent? Why aren’t we all criminals? Why, even amongst those who have killed, do they do so only once?

That being said, habitual killing occurs. The first two of the following three case histories are of renowned cases of multiple killings. The first one took place in the Madrid of the1950’s, the second one in the Edinburgh of the 1820s.

José Maria Jarabo: All for My Lady’s Honor

José Maria Manuel Jarabo was a spree killer who became notorious in Spain for murdering four hapless victims who happened to get in his way as he attempted to retrieve jewelry he had borrowed and pawned. He became the talk of the town for being a man accused of multiple murders who happened to be nephew of the President of the Spanish Supreme Court at the time, and later, for having been the last civilian criminal to be executed via the garrote vil, an ancient killing contraption. Our protagonist was a boastful man – there are some who say that he originated the often-heard bluster “You have no idea who you’re talking to!”, which he uttered as he was being arrested.

The murders took place between July 19 thru 21, 1958, near Buen Retiro, the famous part in the very center of Madrid. His crimes came to light on July 22, and that same day he was arrested. He soon confessed, was convicted, and was executed in 1959.

His criminal behavior sometimes seemed like that of a willful, spoiled child. But it was more serious than that – he was a male chauvinist and womanizer who felt entitled to kill. He had had what one might call an “adventuresome” life by the time he committed his final murders, having already done time in prison in the United States – despite enjoying the protection of being a member of a privileged family.

He was born in Madrid in 1928 and raised in a well-connected family that took up residence in Puerto Rico. He then was educated in fine schools in Spain and the United States. By the time he was a youngster, drugs, alcohol, and womanizing had spun out into habitual delinquency. He managed to marry a respectable señorita, had a child and then divorced. By the age of 20 he was arrested and convicted of crimes related to the trafficking of women (tratadeblancas). He was sentenced to 9 years in prison in a St. Louis, Missouri penitentiary, but after two years was extradited to Spain.

His family, still residing in Puerto Rico, tried to help him reestablish his life with a gift of 15 million pesetas, money that he frittered away in a year. By 1958, the year he committed his last crimes, he was broke, despite the money his mother and aunt periodically kept sending him. He did try to make an honest living buying and selling automobiles, but still ended up taking a mortgage out on the family-owned Madrid chalet where he lived, and even selling a patent having to do with the manufacture of neon lighting – a patent that belonged to his father.

The eight years since his time in America had been spent partying, drinking, and using drugs. The gossip around the time he became famous was that he had an insatiable sexual appetite, that he was particularly well endowed, and that he had an attractive simpatico manner and a great skill for seduction. Women were like a drug for him, and he would shift from romantic attachments to one woman, night stands with the next, and prostitutes.

Jarabo’s record after his return to Spain in 1950 was, again, that of a violent criminal. It was known that he carried a loaded Belgian Browning FN pistol in his pocket, a habit that he had acquired in the dangerous criminal worlds he frequented while he lived in the United States. This was the gun that would become his murder weapon. Not a month had passed since his arrival to Spain when he was accused of physically assaulting a woman. In 1951 there were two more accusations of battery against women. In 1954, of blackmail; in 1955, of theft and fraud; in 1956, accused of another swindle; in 1957, of breaking and entering. At this clip we get to 1958, the year of the events we narrate below.

One of his lovers was Beryl Martin Jones, a married Englishwoman. She lived in Lyon with her French husband but had come as a lone tourist to Madrid in 1957 to ponder a marriage that was not going well. On some Madrid night she met Jarabo and their idyll began. But then her money ran out, she became ill, and her husband came to take her back to Lyon. She had loaned Jarabo a diamond ring – a gift from her husband – so that Jarabo could pawn it to pay his debts. Now she wanted it back, afraid the ring’s absence would precipitate a crisis in her marriage.

Jarabo, fancying himself to have the gallant motivations of a Spanish gentleman, justified doing whatever it took to preserve his lady’s honor. More likely he had other pressing issues – he needed more money, he later testified, to move to Palma de Mallorca and set himself up as a psychiatrist in a chalet he had already purchased in someone else’s name. He had pawned the ring, for which he obtained 4,000 pesetas, using a compromising letter from its owner that gave him the authority to make the deal.

It’s now the night of Saturday, July 19, 1958. Penniless and desperate to recuperate the diamond ring, Jarabo can’t wait. The gold and jewelry store where he had pawned the ring would not open until Monday, so he goes to the domicile of Emilio Fernández, one of the store’s owners. He opens the elevator doors with his elbows, pushes the floor button using a fingernail, and rings the doorbell using a knuckle. The maid, Paulina Ramos, opens the door and announces that the owner is not home, but lets Jarabo in and accompanies him to the living room to wait. Instead Jarabo follows her into the kitchen and bashes her with a clothing iron, then, already dead, he stabs her with the same knife she had been using to peel some green beans. He then takes the cadaver to a bedroom and deposits it on the bed.

Emilio Fernández arrives and directs himself to the bathroom, where Jarabo shoots him on the back of the neck. The body ends up between the toilet and the bidet. Jarabo still has not found the ring, but no matter, he continues to search the apartment, relaxing after a while by sipping some chinchón anisette from the home bar. Soon Emilio’s wife, Amparo, arrives and enters the apartment. Jarabo chases her into the bedroom and shoots her, again in the back of the neck, as he had shot her husband. She was pregnant at the time, a fact that would cause a great commotion in public opinion.

After killing Amparo, Jarabo finishes the bottle of chinchón. He continues to search the residence but can find neither the ring nor the letter signed by Beryl. He changes his shirt, manipulates the cadavers to make the scene appear like a sex crime, and decides to go to bed right in the apartment, as it was already midnight and the building’s entrance hall, he supposes, had been locked.

The next day, Sunday, he rests for a while in the boarding house where he lived, then goes to the cinema. He waits until Monday to continue his search. He goes to the jewelry store in search for Félix López, the other business associate, in a desperate attempt to recuperate the ring and the letter. He waits for López at the storefront, and, entering alongside him, without further ado, shoots him from the back, again on the nape of the neck. Jarabo searches the store, but to no avail. A total disaster verging on black comedy: four dead, and Jarabo is still on square one.

A few hours later he takes his bloodied suit to the dry cleaner. He spends the evening partying with two women, going by taxi from one locale to the next until the early morning hours. On Tuesday he returns to the cleaners to pick up his suit, where he is finally arrested by the police. The bodies had been found when the owner of the dry cleaner shop, alerted by the news, had taken notice of the bloody suit and had called the police.

In interrogatories after his arrest, Jarabo put on a show as a generous and chivalrous caballero. He requested that food and a bottle of French cognac be ordered from a famous restaurant for all to partake. Although he declared that he regretted killing the women, and that “didn’t intend to kill anyone, but… had no choice”, he did not regret killing the moneylenders. Beryl had been “the only woman I was ever capable of loving”. He managed to get upon his request a dose of morphine, allowing him to sleep.

The trial, which started on January 29, 1959 was a media event, attended by a large public that included Spanish movie stars such as Tomás Zori and Sara Montiel, a bullfighter or two, the wives of quite a few higher-ups in the Franco regime, and many reporters. The trial lasted five days, during which Jarabo, elegant and punctilious, sported a brand-new suit every day. The jury heard from five doctors, three of whom opined that Jarabo knew what he was doing. His defense attorney pleaded that Jarabo was a psychopath, and thus, not responsible for his acts. One of the prosecuting attorneys countered that “the best medicine for a psychopath is hanging from a scaffold”. In the end Jarabo was sentenced to four death penalties, despite the influence of his uncle, the President of the Supreme Court. Francisco Franco himself approved of the sentencing, and the execution was set to take place on July 4, 1959.

On the eve of Jarabo’s execution, homicide detective Fernández Rivas visited him in jail and brought him a box of Romeo y Julieta brand Cuban cigars, on behalf of the director of El Caso, a Spanish weekly that was published during the Franco years. The newspaper wanted to express thanks for how articles about Jarabo had increased the circulation of the paper from 13,000 to 480,000. Jarabo spent his last night smoking the cigars and drinking whisky. He came to the gallows dressed to the nines and perfumed with expensive cologne, as was his style. But his death was a terrible affair because the executioner did not manage to break his neck quickly with the garrote, and he suffered agony for twenty minutes before dying.

The ruckus continued even unto Jarabo’s funeral. Because of rumors going around that he had not really been executed because of his family connections, the deputy escorting the coffin to the cemetery, pistol in hand, coerced the driver of the hearse to open it for anyone interested to verify Jarabo’s cadaver.

For most of the evolutionary history of our species, we lived in small groups, where there was no anonymity – everyone knew and interacted repeatedly with one another. In such settings social hierarchies are quickly established, and social status – how one is regarded by the rest of the group – is paramount. This is especially so for men, for whom losing the respect of others makes them easy targets for exploitation, endangering their ability to procure resources and mates. In other words, negatively affecting both survival and reproduction. Amongst the cultures studied by anthropologists, 65% of homicides are of men killing other men, 22% of men killing women, 10% are of women killing men, and 3% of women killing other women.

In our ancestral settings, violence may have been an effective way to defend status, or even raise it, in turn improving the prospects for survival and reproduction. To this day, we can see the mechanisms linking status to violence, when even trivial affronts activate behaviors that end up in brawls and homicides – we only need to think about the incidents of road rage that fatefully bring complete strangers into each other’s life.

William Burke, William Hare and The Rise of Anatomical Science

The assassins in this story of 19th century Edinburgh are William Burke and William Hare, but the background takes us back to another figure, Scottish anatomy professor Robert Knox, who earned some fame as an anatomist and ethnologist, but who is now remembered mainly for his connection to the notorious case if Burke and Hare.

Dr. Knox graduated from medical school in 1814, served as an army physician during the Battle of Waterloo, lived in Cape Town in South Africa for several years and returned to Edinburgh in the 1820s. Along the way he lived for a while in Paris, where he had the opportunity to meet the great giants in the history of comparative anatomy, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Georges Cuvier.

Once back in his hometown of Edinburgh, Knox was named Conservator of the recently inaugurated Museum of Comparative Anatomy. To make enough money to live with ease and luxury, he launched a private school of anatomy. In those days it was customary, indeed derigueur, for physicians to continue their study of anatomy by taking private courses after medical school, because the official study was deemed inadequate. Indeed, many schools proliferated like Knox’s.

Robert Knox

Knox enjoyed an overwhelming success with his school, which by 1828 had the largest enrollment in all Great Britain. One of his pupils might well have been a young and squeamish Charles Darwin, who was in Edinburgh around that time making a futile attempt to study medicine and have profitable career, as his father demanded.

It is around this time that Professor Knox’s story entwines with the story of the dismal assassins Burke and Hare, when in November 1828 the police find the cadaver of a certain Mrs. Docherty in Knox’s basement, a subterrane that served as a dissection theater for his School of Anatomy. While of course it would not be amiss to find a cadaver in such a place, the police had reasons to doubt that Mrs. Docherty’s body had been procured properly.

But how had anatomical science been linked to murder? As was the case with many anatomy instructors, both then and to this day, Knox had trouble procuring enough cadavers. When someone would bring in a cadaver, Knox was not scrupulous about asking about its origin. He would pay the customary amount and the deal was done. Then, with a peculiarly Scottish twist, he would preserve the body in whisky.

This system was a fertile ground for the emergence of so-called “resurrectionists” – grave robbers who would “resurrect” the bodies of the recently buried. We can see fictional resurrectionists depicted in the classic 1931 movie Frankenstein, directed by James Whale.

The scarcity of cadavers was ameliorated via Knox’s market solution: He started to pay seven pounds for each cadaver, brought by disreputable characters, amongst whom would soon be the Edinburgh “resurrectionists” Burke and Hare.

But even with “resurrections” demand outstripped supply, and Burke and Hare came up with an even more drastic source. Perhaps more drastic, but neater and cleaner, because there would be no need to disinter the dead for fresh cadavers. They would simply assassinate whomever came within their reach. It seems that Mrs. Docherty was just one of the 16 to 28 people that Burke and Hare confessed to have killed.

They would kill their victims first by getting drunk alongside them, then they would press plaster poultices against their faces until they would asphyxiate. Hence to this day, “to burke” means to suffocate or strangle.

Great Britain was horrified when the tragedy was uncovered. Knox’s reputation was ruined, even though he was exculpated for presumably not knowing the source of the cadavers, and he was never tried in court. It is true that Knox did not personally transact the purchase of the cadavers, leaving the task to his assistants. But it was common knowledge that Burke and Hare’s cadavers were uncommonly “fresh”, and it is hard to believe he would not have asked for the source. Perhaps he suspected something, but it did not matter enough to him to press the matter. The public seemed to think as much – although Knox was never tried in court, during the Burke’s public execution, the vociferous crowd wanted him up on the scaffold. Perhaps Knox’s watchword was: Anatomy first, ethics be damned. Despite writing some books on anatomy, ethnology and even on fishing in the lochs of Scotland, he is remembered today mainly for his connection to the scandalous murders.

But let’s hear a little more about the lives of Burke and Hare themselves. Both were born in Ulster, Northern Ireland, in the late 1700’s and both migrated to Scotland as young men. Hare’s wife ran a boardinghouse, where Burke and his girlfriend happened be staying when a boarder named Desmond died of natural causes. To save funeral and burial costs, Desmond’s cadaver was the first to be sold to Knox – for seven pounds and ten shillings – the average workman’s six-month salary. From this point on, Burke and Hare no longer waited for the pension’s guests – lonely, poor, sickly people whom no one would claim– to die of natural causes, but hastened their end.

Burke was tried and condemned to death. In a rare whimsy of meeting out poetic justice, the judge ordered that Burke’s body be immediately dissected by an anatomy professor. A great multitude gathered to witness the dissection, and in the hubbub Burke’s skin disappeared, only to reappear, it was rumored, as premium priced wallets and handbags. His death mask and some of those wallets and handbags are still on display in the University of Edinburgh School of Medicine.

The scandal of murders being committed to supply anatomists would be repeated in 1831 by a John Bishop and Thomas Williams, when, as the press colorfully termed it they would “Burke and Hare” victims to supply the university. The whole situation finally forced the government to regulate in what manner cadavers would be supplied for the dissection halls of anatomy schools.

A moral hierarchy exists that leads us to classify some murders as especially heinous, but certain types of killing as acceptable, as when they are committed officially by institutions, during war, or as euthanasia to hasten the death and alleviate the suffering of the terminally ill. In different cultures or different eras infanticide was deemed acceptable, as well as murders construed as justified a matters of “family honor”.

Evolutionary psychology posits that the human brain contains a great number of domain-specific mechanisms, each processing only certain kinds of input. These mechanisms are said to have evolved, or to have been naturally selected, in response to specific and recurrent situations or problems that our ancestors faced. These “problems” were the challenges of procuring sustenance, shelter, and mates, of avoiding predators, and protecting and raising offspring. Such evolved psychological mechanisms may be activated, or to to speak “fired” by specific environmental stimuli, but also by the organism’s physiological status or in response to other psychological mechanisms themselves. In our current society these mechanisms, which evolved over the course of thousands of years, sometimes react to never-before encountered stimuli – novelties of our complex social world that do not call for the formerly adaptive behavior that they elicited. Fear and disgust are still elicited by, say, snakes and spiders, regardless of the probability that any given encounter has of being dangerous. Perhaps children’s frequent pickiness about eating vegetables is a remnant of adaptive avoidance of poisonous plants. Conversely, we don’t have much instinctive fear of fiddling with electric appliances, or fear of riding in a car without wearing a seatbelt – risky situations too novel to our species to have allowed enough time for instinctive, evolved apprehension to evolve.

Wallace Souza: Assassinations on prime-time TV

He was a prime-time TV journalist, a rising politician, a savior presumably dedicated to justice, and… an assassin. His TV programs were impeccably scripted, and very complete – cadavers included. The documentaries were as rigged and as real as life itself, the very limit of theatrical manipulation. He was the journalist who paid killers to broadcast assassinations almost live. And he became the subject of a Netflix series, Killer Ratings, in 2019.

Wallace Souza was born in the Amazonian city of Manaus, Brazil, in 1957. His life before notoriety started with ordinary preparation for a staid professional life, studying economics in Brazilian universities becoming a journalist, marrying, having four children. He joined the police in 1979 but was fired in 1987 after being arrested for fraudulent activities connected with pension funds and with petrol theft. As the drama of his life continued, it was filled with intensity and danger.

He was a charismatic character, mustachioed and prone to wearing fitted suits in his latter career. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Amazonas (the state legislature of the province of Amazonas) in 1998, and soon rose to leadership of the Social Christian Party (Partido Social Cristāo), where he served until being expulsed in disgrace.

Souza became famous for producing and directing the TV program Canal Livre in 1989. The program, which defined itself as “investigative journalism aimed at fighting crime and social injustice”, became a sensation, and ran until 2008. At first the show would follow closely all manner of police proceedings and judicial affairs, drawing large audiences with its dramatic police raids, arrests, and presenters who followed police chases in a helicopter. Uncannily, his film crews were sometimes the first at the scene of the crime, gleaning graphic footage.

Souza became a popular hero in Manaus, seen a savior of the city wracked by crime, as he vented anger against gangs, criminals, and drug traffickers. His show, which blended gripping footage of bloody victims, weeping families and shootouts with segments of rollicking humor and music, rose to number one in the ratings. His image as a heroic figure peaked during a hostage-taking crisis, when he offered himself as a mediator and messenger between the police and the perpetrator, becoming a hostage himself in the process. With this popularity backing him, he ran for office, and won the post of state representative with the most votes in the history of the position.

The case against Souza begins when Moacir Jorge da Costa (AKA “Moa”) a former sergeant in the Military Police who had formed part of a security detail for Souza, was accused of having murdered several of the victims that had appeared on the program. Moa in turn implicated Souza, claiming that he had hired him to commit at least one of the assassinations. In 2009 Amazonas state police began to investigate Souza on charges of ordering murders to increase the audience ratings of his program. Now his uncanny early arrival at murder scenes raised suspicion that he had been paying hit men to commit crimes whose aftermath he would offer to aghast audiences. More than 10 homicides, the prosecution claimed, had been exposed by Moa, choosing to prosecute one homicide with the best evidence purporting to implicate Souza

Souza continued to deny any participation and any knowledge of malfeasance, but at some point he also denied that he knew Moa, which seemed too improbable, based on the testimony of others. Souza did not turn himself in immediately, explaining to his defense attorney that he feared for his life that if he was ever incarcerated in a common jail, because he would come face to face with criminals he had denounced on his TV show. The attorney then made a deal that if Souza surrendered, he would be kept in a separate cell. Souza then turns himself in, a broken man, and is held in a separate cell. All along his attorneys steadfastly maintained he was innocent. Was he being set up by rival politicians? His son Rafael, also implicated in the affair was arrested and accused of homicide, drug trafficking and possession of illegal weapons

A judge rules that there was enough evidence for trying Souza and other defendants in the case of at least one murder. Finally on October 2009 Wallace was formally accused of murder, drug trafficking, intimidation of witnesses, trading illegal weapons, and of having spearheaded an organized crime group. He was expelled from the Legislative Assembly. He then did not show up for initial proceedings against him, presumably because of a medical condition that required hospitalization. But the trial went ahead, and Moa testified, especially regarding the killing of a drug dealer named Caçula. As the proceedings went on, several witnesses for the prosecution were killed, raising fear that Souza was orchestrating killings even under indictment and in hospital.

Finally, while free on bail, Souza disappears, prompting a nationwide manhunt. He was captured shortly afterwards. He died in July 2010 of a heart attack while in a hospital in Sao Paulo.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize winning Peruvian novelist, may have summed up Souza’s character best, when – undoubtedly with some irony – he defined Souza as a hero of our times, a public servant with an inordinately conscientious devotion to his profession.

For as long as canons of law have existed murder has been considered a crime, a crime that deserves the harshest of punishments. In circumstances or societies without laws, and therefore no threat of punishment, assassinations constitute a large proportion of the causes of death, sometimes of up to one third of men. And although societies with canons of written laws, policing and the threat of punishment do experience lower rates of homicides, homicides are still a frequent cause of death within some of their constituent groups.

It was an attempt to understand this phenomenon that motivated Duntley and Buss to propose their hypothesis. According to their theory, there were salient benefits for the occasional killing of conspecifics throughout our evolution. For example, if one kills a competitor or enemy first, it preempts one getting killed – killing to not be killed. It may scare potential rivals. It may make resource acquisition easier. It eliminates competition from the offspring the victim might have had.

The theory claims that over the eons of our evolution killing a conspecific brought about sufficient survival or reproductive advantages to leave a selected propensity for killing in our makeup. This propensity, even if does not serve any adaptive purpose in our current world, remains.

But murdering must be well planned to minimize failures and punishment. Psychological mechanisms may have evolved to facilitate such meticulous planning, such as mobilizing close attention and focusing interest, mental rehearsal of possible scenarios, and calculation of possible consequences. This is exemplified of course only in cases of non-impulsive, deliberative murders.

But if such tendencies evolved, one suspects that this would have provoked the evolution of defense mechanisms as well, and faculties and tendencies that would protect would be victims. Group support and belonging, whether to one’s family, clan, or tribe, depend on the capacity for empathy, in the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. These are essential, constitutive aspects of the evolution of our species.

Roger Whitaker and his group of Cardiff University proposed a hypothesis that the increasing size of the human brain was selected for by the demands of group belonging. Even small groups have complex social relations. The brain has special zones such as the prefrontal cortex, the temporal lobe, the amygdala, and other parts of the limbic system that participate in the feelings and behaviors related to empathy and affiliation. Paradoxically, though such regions may process capacities for empathy- for putting oneself in the other’s place – they also participate in aggression and violence.

But these ideas that aim to understand why some people kill do not explain what turns a particular person into a murderer, or to what degree the causes are factors intrinsic to their psychology, to the society in which they live, or those universal, evolved mechanisms that we all share.


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Added References

Robert Knox, from Wikipedia

Social Christian Party (Brazil), from Wikipedia

Killer Ratings: A Netflix Documentary Series, 2019.

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