PAYBACK is an example of a newly emerging genre of books, a cross between evolutionary psychology and self-help. The book shares the common flaw of evolutionary psychology when it tries to be an applied science: the evolutionary psychologist seems to think that with a little dose of Darwin he can heal all the world's ills. This book, not at all lacking in ambition, purports to once and for all solve the problem of human violence, explaining "why we retaliate, redirect aggression, and take revenge" (the subtitle).
As with most examples in this genre, the authors take on a triumphal tone: "at last, we have a pretty good idea why" people respond to violence with more violence (23); the "underlying physiological and evolutionary bases" of violence "are only now becoming clear" (171). Of course, hedging their bets, they also follow the traditional strategy of insisting that, even if we don't fully understand it right now, we are right on the verge of a complete explanation, based on a "growing body of evidence." You will however find only the most minimal reference to the vast historical literature on revenge and the causes of human violence. The authors seem to think that nothing written outside a Darwinian framework is of any use. They briefly mention Aristotle, for example, but only in the most condescending terms: "clearly, Aristotle was unaware of ..the physiological basis of retaliation, revenge, and redirected aggression, just as he was necessarily naïve about the likely evolutionary underpinnings" of them (121).
You may have noticed that word "likely" slipping in there. For all the claims to have finally achieved a "modern scientific understanding" of violence (122), in fact the book is like so much work in Evo Psych: full of speculations and woefully short of evidence. The authors tell us that retaliatory violence is "almost certainly adaptive" (18), though they give us no actual evidence for that claim, nor try to determine whether they mean it was adaptive for small bands of hunter gatherers or whether it is still adaptive today. In fact, the authors never seem quite sure of themselves on this point. They repeatedly tell us that payback is beneficial to the individual, and prevents one from being taken advantage of by others. But just as often, they tell us that payback is harmful to the individual, only leading to a cycle of violence, and quoting Karen Horney to the effect that vindictiveness makes the individual "isolated, egocentric, and psychically sterile" (126). So which is it? Indeed, the very structure of the book replicates this contradiction, for it aims to (1) claim that payback is advantageous to the individual and (2) teach us how to forgive and get beyond violence. A closely parallel contradiction is found in the authors repeatedly telling us that violent payback is "hardwired" in us and probably ineradicable, but then devoting a whole final chapter to telling us how to "overcome" our hardwired responses. Needless to say, you can't have it both ways.
Not surprisingly, the book's positive recommendations are, like most self-help books, full of trite and banal suggestions (none of which make any use of Darwin):
-- "Asking for forgiveness and getting it is therefore one of the most effective tools" (195).
-- "Support social and economic structures that reduce inequity and promote maximally widespread well-being" (196).
-- "Help all children to be wanted and loved and provide good experiences and resources for them." (191).
But a few of their recommendations are what one might term chilling, perhaps what is inevitable when one puts social policy in the hands of psychologists (I think they tried that in Soviet Russia once!). The authors tell us that while "on the whole [!!] liberty and justice for all is a good thing," those who "seem to be born with disorders of empathy, conscience, and impulse control" should be locked up and drugged with the latest medications (191). The authors even try to diagnose literary figures such as Hamlet, Othello, and Ahab as obsessives, who should just have been given Prozac and they would have been just fine! (I'm not making this up). What a brave new world we would have if psychologists were in charge!
If you would like to see an example of genuine scholarship on revenge and violence, you might look at William Miller's work including "Eye for An Eye" and "Bloodtaking and Peacemaking." Jeffrie Murphy has also done some interesting philosophical work on revenge (Getting Even), and there are any number of good books on punishment and retributive justice.