Suicide is not a great survival tactic. Successful suicide is invariably fatal. Animals, including humans, have a strong instinct for survival, and will avoid death under almost all circumstances. Why then, was suicide amongst Japanese samurai so popular and considered so noble?
It is true of course that people who are profoundly depressed to the point of insanity will sometimes kill themselves to escape the misery of their existence. History does not tell us that samurai were all morbidly depressed, however. Sometimes it even records that they died smiling. It also records that the mothers of samurai, who learned that their sons had killed themselves, smiled with joy at the news, hearing of how their sons had met such an honourable death. History is the official version. One might well imagine that these smiling mothers were heart-broken inside, and cried a lot when no one was looking.
Society rewards sacrifice. It does this for its own good. Society at large applauds people who help the poor, or pull people from burning buildings, because it saves the rest of us having to do these things. We all benefit from the sacrifices of others, so we all encourage each other to be self-sacrificing for the sake of society at large. Was this the force at work, making samurai commit suicide?
In feudal Japan, families were important. Honour was important too, as was status. Shame and dishonour affected the whole family. Families share genes. If one noble samurai lord became widely known to have done something shameful, this would affect the prospects of his whole family. His daughters would not marry so well. His brothers would have to work much harder to achieve any position of influence and power. Genes drive women to put a great deal of effort into finding the best mates, and men to seek to be as high status as possible, because high status men have more children (at least, before contraception they did). It seems logical, then, that genes might also drive us to police the behaviour of anyone whose behaviour might affect the chances of our finding good mates and reaching high status.
I suggest that the reason samurai went in for suicide so readily, is that their families instilled in them a strong sense of duty. Families, not wishing to be harmed by the actions of one rogue family member, would for the sake of their genes demand that the one erring member should kill himself rather than damage the whole family gene pool. Suicide is proof of a recognition of guilt and shame, and of a strong resolve to do something about that guilt. That it wipes the sins from the family of the dead man means that it is a sacrifice which has some good effect on the world, and thus this makes the suicide honourable.
This death would be, of course, a very high price to pay. The person dying would often be a high status healthy male, and perhaps father to a few children. This is no small loss, and so it would be a cost which could be borne only in special circumstances. These circumstances would include:
A society in which the shame of one man rubs off on his whole family. The society does not want shameful acts in its midst, and so obliges families to police themselves by insisting that shamed members kill themselves. It does this by shunning families which harbour shamed men. The society which behaved this way in feudal Japan was the aristocracy, which wanted aristocrats to behave aristocratically, and not let the side down by appearing ignoble in the eyes of the peasants. An aristocracy which could self-police so impressively would more easily be able to stay in power.
A society which for the sake of order and conservatism, believed that suicide was a sacrifice which wiped the sins of the dead man from his family.
A society full of families which were very fearful of losing status, and where a loss of status would be catastrophic to the chances of genes replicating.
The man killing himself would not be highly valued for his physical labour or his ability to produce food to feed his family.
These circumstances all existed amongst the nobility of feudal Japan. By contrast the attitude to suicide amongst the general peasantry was very different. It was considered a crime. A peasant man was valued for his ability to feed his family. Whereas a noble could be confident that someone would look after his children, and that there was no danger of their starving, a peasant was not in this position. A peasant who killed himself would be significantly harming the chances of his children to grow up properly fed. The nobles relied for their income on the labours of the poor in their area, so they didn’t want their peasants killing themselves off.
A good example reason why a Japanese noble might kill himself, is alleged disloyalty to the Emperor. It is easy to understand that a family tainted with disloyalty to the highest authority in the land might suffer. The particular favoured method of suicide was hara-kiri or “belly cutting” (the word seppuku refers to the formal ritual ceremony of suicide), which involved the man’s slitting himself wide open across the belly. This is a very difficult and painful way to commit suicide, and so all the more proof of the quality of the man doing it, and his genuine intentions.
I am sure that it is no coincidence that the unusual circumstances which would create an environment in which a gene’s chances of replication would be increased by the suicide of the gene’s host body, just happen to be those circumstances in which we find “noble” suicide. In Britain, things are different. Suicide is either the cowards way out, or, more often these days, a sad reflection on our society’s failure to make its members happy.
In World War Two, the British and Japanese had opposite attitudes to suicide. The British saw it as a foolish and cowardly way out of having to suffer imprisonment as a prisoner of war. The Japanese saw it as brave and self-sacrificing. This was the first time that the noble art of suicide had been extended to the masses, and suicide in Japan, though still by world standards popular, has not been so common since. Amazingly enough, the common Japanese soldier believed that his Emperor was a god, and that common soldiers could elevate themselves to higher after-world status by suicide. This is not a long-term stable state of affairs, first because people will eventually work out that they are being manipulated and sacrificed by and for the upper classes, and secondly because it is not a behaviour which is to the benefit of the genes of those exhibiting that behaviour. One could say that the modern Japanese might be less gullible than their grandparent’s generation, because the most gullible men killed themselves more often during the war. In the long long term, this selection process would breed a peasant class who would never be fooled by anything the nobles tried to get them to do.
Here I have used evolutionary theory to explain a bizarre behaviour exhibited by humans. A social anthropologist would have put it all down to “culture”. Genes react to environment. Genes created the social environment to a great extent, and within that particular environment, they favoured certain behaviours. One might argue that for the behaviour of suicide to evolve amongst an aristocracy, that the aristocracy would have to be living in that particular unusual way for a very long time indeed. My belief is that the instincts for self sacrifice were much older than feudal Japan, but that feudal Japan brought them out. Even in the Pleistocene, the chances of a brother’s breeding well would be harmed if his brother were well known to be a bad example of humanity. This would put pressure on people to distance themselves from bad relatives, for their own good. Suicide is just a very extreme result of this behaviour. The suicide may appear at first to be due to the self-sacrificing behaviour of the man killing himself, but actually its roots are in the fact that the family of the sacrificing man are putting pressure on him one way or another to do the deed. We did not evolve to kill ourselves so much as to punish the bad behaviour of relatives.
If I knew more about the Indian practice of suttee (wives throwing themselves on the funeral pyres of husbands), then I’m sure that I could eventually work out an explanation for that too.