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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 be estimable enough, but the reader would be hard put to it to estimate the number of major senses in which the word “aggression” was used during the meeting, let alone the minor nuances. However, perhaps it is fair to say that three major questions emerged.

The first is concerned with aggression in animals lower than the monkeys and the apes. Of course many animals—butterflies, earthworms, and so on—show no behavior that anyone would be tempted to call aggressive; but many others do, and the question is, when, if ever, is it meaningful to regard animal behavior as analogous to any of the varieties of human aggression? The difficulty emerges even in the Introduction. The Editors, tempted perhaps into inconsistency by trying to formulate a non-existent consensus, write first that “An animal acts aggressively when it inflicts, attempts to inflict, or threatens to inflict, damage on another animal.” But quite soon they go on to say that “A hawk swooping on a small bird is no more aggressive than the family butcher engaged in his livelihood.” Of course one can see what they are driving at, and the whole problem of the relation between “aggression,” in the sense in which we are interested in it, and the other drives or motivations associated with the act of inflicting damage is one of the central areas of debate throughout the whole book.

Several of the animal behaviorists made it clear that an animal may inflict damage on another in a way which is by no means directly related to the aggressor’s needs for mere economic requirements, such as food. One of the prettiest examples was given by Lorenz:

B. Oehlert, my daughter-in-law, found that she could keep orange cichlids, Etroplus maculatus, in permanent marital peace only if she kept two pairs, separated by a clear glass pane, in one tank. It sounds like a joke that her attention was regularly drawn to algal growth rendering the pane opaque by the observation of male Etroplus beginning to treat their females in an unkind manner. Cleaning of the glass at once redirected aggressive behavior towards the neighbor and restored peace between mates.

Two most interesting points were made by the animal behaviorists in this connection—suggestive but not very easy to transpose into a human context. The first was that most animal species which indulge in such hostile aggressive behavior, with members of their own species, have mechanisms which prevent the battle leading to serious damage to the loser. There is some recognized way in which the loser can throw in the glove before the knock-out and get away for long enough to recover. The other gives one even more to think about. Konrad Lorenz discusses the relation between fighting and the formation of bonds, of comradeship or friendship, between individuals of the same species. His two key sentences are:

We do not know, as yet, of a single organism showing bond behavior while being devoid of aggression; in a way, this is surprising, as, at a superficial appraisal, one would expect bond behavior to evolve rather in those highly gregarious creatures which, like many fish and birds, live peaceably in large schools or flocks, but this obviously never happens.

And

It is a fact worthy of deep meditation that, for all we know, the bond of personal friendship was evolved by the necessity arising for certain individuals to cease from fighting each other in order to combat more effectively other fellow members of the species.

But fish, birds, even wolves, are very different creatures to man. When we look at our closest animal relatives, the monkeys and apes, the picture is by no means simple. Some species of monkeys are hardly aggressive at all, particularly those whose feeding habits keep them close to trees and rocks, up which they can climb to escape enemies. The larger apes also seem in nature to be fairly gentle creatures. There is a good deal more aggressive behavior in species like baboons, which tend to go about in sizeable groups or bands, in open country. But the phrase that keeps cropping up in accounts of their behavior is “controlled aggressiveness.” There is a good deal of squabbling and loud-mouthed brawling within the band for food or females or other choice items, but though the fur may fly not much serious damage gets done. When different bands encounter one another they seem usually to sheer off without coming into actual contact. In another monkey species, the macaque, two groups which suddenly find themselves face to face may sit down and look at each other from a range of a few yards, but then the males of one group will gradually start drifting away, and the two groups eventually separate without coming to blows.

We begin to meet here the second of the major questions that these discussions raise. What are the relations between brawling aggressive behavior within a group, fighting between groups of the same species, and predatory attacks on other species which are used as food? The authors have rather different views, and clearly we still know far too little about animal behavior to reach any very definite conclusion. However, one gets the general impression that these three different types of behavior, which play rather different roles in the animal’s existence, should be regarded as three separate kinds of activity, functioning fairly independently of one another.

The situation in Man is certainly very different. His enormous capacity for symbolic thought makes inevitable the formation of psychological connections between activities whose resemblances may, at a lower level of evolution, be less important than their differences. The bar-room bully can easily be transformed into the war-time commando, and the vegetarian is more likely to be a pacifist than is the butcher. Man is, moreover, certainly one of the species, like cichlid fish, robins, deer, and baboons, which goes in for a good deal of personal aggressive behavior, particularly between males. Presumably this is basically what, in other animals, would be called part of the sex display system.

The advantages of developing ever larger social organizations have had the result that only those cultural systems have survived in which this aggression has been sufficiently diverted, from other members of the group onto outsiders, to be no longer a serious threat to social cohesion. It seems probable that inter-group fighting was an almost universal characteristic of the stages of man’s evolution immediately prior to the invention of civilization. It is a pity that the symposium did not include any modern archaeologists who could have dealt with this phase of the history of mankind. For instance, Stuart Piggott finishes his recent magnificent book on Ancient Europe: From the Beginnings of Agriculture to Classical Antiquity with a chapter developing the point of view “that one of man’s most deeply seated and most cherished needs is for aggression and dominance, violence and killing, directed against his fellow men.” There’s only space here to quote one minor but thought-provoking scrap of evidence: the standard gauge of European railway lines is directly derived from the distance between the ruts made by Neolithic war chariots.

Can this aggression in man be regarded as an instinct—that is, as something built into the structure of the nervous system, and ineradicable from it? In that case it would seem that the best we can hope to do is to divert it onto suitable objects where it will be as little harmful as possible. Or is it, alternatively, simply the resultant of particular social pressures during upbringing, which could be modified so that the aggression never develops? Again, as might be expected, several points of view are expressed in this book. The classical alternative views are, on the one hand, Freud’s notion of an inbuilt death instinct, and on the other, of the theory that aggression arises essentially from frustration, and is basically socially conditioned. In this symposium Anthony Storr rejects both, and claims that “man’s aggression is more than a response to frustration—it is an attempt to assert himself as an individual, to separate himself from the herd, to find his own identity.” I have still another view. I have argued (in my book, The Ethical Animal) that the development within the individual of feelings related to dominance—which is closely connected with aggression—is an essential part of any process by which information can be transmitted from one generation to another by a social mechanism, and is therefore basic to human language and human society; there is no a priori necessity why the dominance should explode into aggression but something closely connected with aggression is, though not an instinct, an essential part of man as a social being.

Even if this is so, there is enormous variation, between individual men and between different societies, in the amount and kind of aggressive behavior they go in for. As Andreski points out, there are many societies, such as the Danes, who have not engaged in war for many generations. He argues that

If human beings were in fact endowed with an innate proclivity for war, it would not be necessary to indoctrinate them with war-like virtues: and the mere fact that in so many societies past and present so much time has been devoted to such an indoctrination proves that there is no instinct for war.

Burton also plays down the connection between modern warfare and individual aggressiveness. His main point is that sovereign states, at least of the modern kind, are not aggressive, but act, usually as a result of decisions taken by solemn committees of elderly gentlemen, on lines which seem to themselves essentially defensive. However, Storr argues that “in our efforts to realize our full potential, struggle and opposition are absolutely necessary. If enemies do not exist, we promptly invent them, as anyone who has served on a committee must know. Our mistake is to think that anything is achieved by destroying our enemies. On the contrary, we ought to struggle to preserve them.” He goes on to formulate the really basic issue at the present time.

Ideological conflict will go on so long as human nature remains as it is; it is the problem of resolving these without recourse to destructive violence which we have to deal with….I do not believe that ideological conflicts can be solved by the deliberate substitution of alternatives, but, because of man’s innate aggression, these alternatives will arise automatically if conflict in the form of war is impossible. There will always be plenty of ways in which countries can compete, whether it be in the space race, in education, in technology, or even welfare.

Storr’s conclusion seems to be that the mere fact that modern states are run by committees does not guarantee that they will not be aggressive, but that the kind of aggressiveness they may be expected to go in for is rather far removed from the knock-down drag-out violence of the human “tough guy” acting as an individual. This seems reasonable enough. After all, the first aim of all committees is to keep themselves in being. One may hope that a ruling Cabinet is unlikely to forget the desirability of self-preservation, but, instead of seeing red, will devote its ingenuity to thinking out ways of keeping ahead of its rivals in some peaceful but not easily overlooked and therefore sufficiently flattering manner; or even of being nasty to them, by means of tariffs, financial manipulations and the like.

This is a relatively optimistic conclusion, but human aggressiveness—whether its origins are instinctive or cultural—seems usually to have a rather strong sexual tinge. Are Storr’s suggested alternatives sufficiently like the working out of the Oedipus situation? The space race is perhaps too much of an SF masturbation fantasy. One would have thought that the Mohole project, or ploughing up the undeveloped lands, was getting nearer the mark. But is this the right sort of question to ask? We could perhaps use the space race, or something like it, to mop up the kinds of feelings that were involved in the American Civil War or the recent Indo-Pakistan war; but it is at least arguable that this is not a very important frame in which to place nuclear war, which will be fought by committees, and controlled—if it is—also by committees. A nuclear war would be destructive, but would it really be aggressive?

Or would it? One cannot help wondering whether the coy reluctance of the symposiasts to define “aggression” has not left them in the end, when they come to deal with human affairs, with an expression which has something less than the minimum of precision necessary for scientific discourse. Is “aggressiveness” dependant on the psychological motivation of behavior, or a characteristic to be judged by the results of a course of action? As we all know, individual men may do things, which turn out to have very nasty consequences, from the best as much as from the worst of motives. Storr argues that committees are rather less likely than individuals to act on aggressive motives. But isn’t it the crux of the political problem to realize that we have to try to establish a system of checks and restraints which will set bounds to the destructive consequences of national activities, whatever the motive—aggression or defensive self-interest—which inspires them?

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