The Question of Aggression

The Natural History of Aggression

edited by J.D. Carthy, edited by F.J. Ebling
Academic Press, 159 pp., $5.00

We are all agreed nowadays that the most important, and the most pressing task facing mankind is to find some way to control or prevent the propensity of large sections of mankind to go to war with one another. But what exactly are the forces that we are trying to control? Has man, as part of his biological nature, anything which it is justified to call an “aggressive instinct,” and if so, how far can we blame this instinct for the existence of warfare as we know it in the modern world?

In the Fall of 1963 the British Institute of Biology organized a symposium in which this subject was discussed by leading workers from the biological and human sciences. The participants were all British, with the exception of an Australian anthropologist, Derek Freeman, and Konrad Lorenz, the leader of the German school of ethologists. The symposium was organized in four sessions and after each there was discussion, in which many other British biologists, among them Sir Julian Huxley, took part. The papers and discussions have been collected in this book.

The topics cover an enormous range. The first session, by general biologists and natural historians, contains papers by James Fisher on “Interspecific Aggression,” by D. I. Wallace on “Aggression in Social Insects,” and L. Harrison Matthews on “Overt Fighting in Mammals.” The next consisted of three papers by specialists on animal behavior: “Ritualized Fighting” by Konrad Lorenz, “Aggression in Monkey and Ape Societies” by K. R. L. Hall, and “Physiological Background to Aggression” by Arnold Klobber. In the third section, two human psychologists, Thelma Veness and Cecily de Monchaux, gave two closely related papers on “Hostility in Small Groups.” They were followed by Denis Hill on “Aggression and Mental Illness.” James Laver’s short contribution on “Costume as a Means of Social Aggression,” though amusing and stimulating enough to read, seems a little out of place in this rather bloodthirsty gathering. The meeting was then steered from the level of individual towards that of social psychology by Derek Freeman’s paper on “Human Aggression in Anthropological Perspective.” The final three papers, which directly take the problem of warfare as their central theme, were given by Stanislav Ondreski on “Origins of War”; Anthony Storr on “Possible Substitutes for War,” and John Burton on “The Nature of Aggression as Revealed in the Atomic Age.”

The book itself presents the meeting as a true symposium—a series of contributions, almost conversational in style, stimulating and provocative, but with little attempt to draw the threads together into any final conclusion. The Editors, in their short summing up, which is headed both “Prologue and Epilogue,” go out of their way to point out: “We did not attempt to define ‘aggression’ nor, with the exception of Veness, did our contributors.” Students of animal behavior often give the impression that they have had their fill of such difficult theoretical tasks as arriving at agreed definitions, and are only too anxious to get on to some empirical observations. This may…

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