The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origin of Property and Nations
As a mine of scientific-sounding misinformation Mr. Robert Ardrey would be hard to beat, but his application of the techniques of TV drama writing to the more musty corners of academic orthodoxy certainly livens things up. Looking up a well-known and easily accessible reference acquires the excitement of a James Bond spy story: “I at last found a copy in the guarded library of today’s Royal Anthropological Institute in Bedford Square.” Everything is black and white. Conventional professional scientists with whom Ardrey disagrees become criminal conspirators worthy only of the crudest ridicule; for his friends, the ethologists, no praise can be too high: “When Konrad Lorenz’s book appears in Britain and America” it will “take its place among the landmarks of our thought.” It has now appeared and it is no landmark, but it is modest and wise, while Ardrey’s version is only noisy and foolish. The two books have a common central theme—the function of innate aggression in man and other animals. Ardrey concentrates on what ethologists call “territoriality,” that is the drive to defend property aggressively, and he operates with very crude nineteenth-century ideas about how the evolutionary process works—“the survival of the fittest”—“Nature red in tooth and claw” and all that. Lorenz, on the other hand, is concerned to show that animal aggression is only a “so-called evil” and that its adaptive consequences are advantageous or at least neutral. Fighting between members of the same species helps to secure an even distribution of the species over its inhabitable area, and “aggression” has been responsible for all the more gorgeously dramatic, but inefficient, products of evolution, such as the Bird of Paradise and the Argus Pheasant. On which point Heinroth has remarked: “Next to the wings of the Argus Pheasant, the hectic life of western civilized man is the most stupid product of intraspecific selection”! For Lorenz, an even more striking virtue of aggression lies in its negation and control. Nature has had to ensure that aggressive animals shall not exterminate themselves by mutual slaughter. Thus behavior which signifies aggressive hostility towards enemies comes to be modified into a “ritualized” form which signals love and amity between friends. If we take fish and birds as our models, then the basic morality which allows a man to love his wife and respect his neighbor’s property has the same instinctive source as the basic immorality which leads to war and destruction.
BUT CAN WE TAKE fish and birds as our models? In observing how animals behave we can only record what they do and the circumstances in which they do it; we know nothing about their feelings and motives. But when we discuss human behavior our objectivity is fogged by subjective private experience. It may be perfectly sensible to describe the action of a baboon in baring its teeth towards an opponent as “an aggressive gesture.” For the Chinese Government to authorize the test firing of a nuclear rocket may also be properly described as “an aggressive gesture.” But to argue that the two behaviors are comparable in anything except a purely metaphorical sense is just nonsense. Yet this is precisely what both our authors are up to all the time. They want to imply that the political policies of modern states are in some sense predetermined by the genetic constitution of Homo sapiens. Ardrey argues quite explicitly that Indian-Chinese border disputes are analogous to squabbles between two varieties of geese sharing the same pool! This is just word-play, and as with any other verbal conjuring trick it can be played in several different ways. Despite Ardrey’s praise for Lorenz, the conclusions of the two books are diametrically opposed. Lorenz finds room for limited Christian-Confucian optimism—future salvation will be found in a specific human capacity “to love all our human brothers indiscriminately,” Ardrey offers us only a crude Hobbesian war of all against all—“we are predators, of course, and from time to time we shall go out looting and raping and raising general havoc.” Ardrey explicitly compares man’s “killing propensity” to that of a wolf (p. 340); this precisely is what Lorenz repudiate:
A wolf can rip the jugular vein of another with a single bite. There would be no more wolves if reliable inhibitions did not prevent such actions. Neither a dove nor a hare nor even a chimpanzee is able to kill its own kind with a single peck or bite…animals with relatively poor defense weapons have a correspondingly greater ability to escape quickly, even from specially armed predators who are more efficient in chasing, catching and killing than even the strongest of their own species. (On Aggression, p. 240)
[The statement that man has a carnivorous mentality] confuses the concepts of the carnivore and the cannibal, which are, to a very large extent, mutually exclusive. One can only deplore the fact that man has definitely not got a carnivorous mentality! All his trouble arises from his being a basically harmless, omnivorous creature, lacking weapons with which to kill big prey, and, therefore, also devoid of the built-in safety devices which prevent “professional” carnivores from abusing their killing power to destroy fellow members of their own species. A lion or a wolf may, on extremely rare occasions, kill another by one angry stroke, but…all heavily armed carnivores possess sufficiently reliable inhibitions which prevent the self-destruction of the species. (p. 241)
Although every schoolboy will tell you that it was Charles Darwin who first conceived the notion that Man might be descended from an ape and that he devised this heresy some time around 1859, the truth is that Man’s relationship to other animals has been a matter of fascinated conjecture for most of mankind throughout most of human history. The foster-mother of Romulus was a wolf, Helen of Troy was fathered by a swan. More recently the eighteenth-century Neapolitan, Giambatista Vico, imagined the ancestors of modern men to be speechless giants having the attributes of a gorilla; the slightly younger J. J. Rousseau argued that anthropoid apes are real human beings existing in a state of nature. But although Darwin’s heresy had long been a commonplace, we are still reluctant to admit its implications. Men indeed are animals, but surely they are more than that? And having imagined that this distinction is clear-cut, we go on to persuade ourselves that it is the non-animal, human, part of ourselves which is by far the most important. In the eighteenth century this distinction was embodied in the word Reason. Man possessed Reason, animals did not. The late nineteenth century substituted a more complex idea—Culture. The lives of mere animals, it was said, are determined by inherited characteristics, “instincts”; the lives of human beings on the other hand, are determined by habits transmitted by learning within a social context. Human beings are sharply distinguished from all other animals by their sophisticated powers of communication, by consciousness of personal identity, and by their awareness of property rights over things and persons and places. We flatter ourselves. We now know that though rats have not yet got around to nuclear warfare or telemetry, they can learn how to recognize poisoned food and pass on this information to their more ignorant acquaintances, and if we systematically investigate just how this might be possible, the classic dichotomy between instinct and culture becomes very blurred indeed. Certainly we are much more clever than the rats and the possession of spoken language makes a hell of a difference, but just how much difference?
THIS, ESSENTIALLY, is what these two books are about. Both are attempts to provide “popular,” boiled-down versions of the implications of ethology (the study of animal behavior) for the human understanding of human beings. This is tricky country, and Lorenz’s naiveté is often quite as misleading as Ardrey’s downright error. Ethologists concern themselves with the competition for survival between whole animal species, and they have been particularly ingenuous in showing how inbred peculiarities of appearance and behavior are adaptively advantageous in the age-long sequence of genetic evolution. But when ethologists start talking about Man they are inclined to write as if “a whole culture” was somehow comparable to “a whole species,” which is really just nonsense. If a species “dies out” the individuals concerned cease to exist; if a culture “dies out it may mean no more than that cowboys and Indians have learned to drive Cadillacs. At one point Lorenz, growing sentimental about the evolutionary advantages of cultural norms, writes:
The studies of the ethnologist and psychoanalyst Derek Freeman have shown that hunting is so intricately interwoven with the whole social system of some Bornean tribes that its abolition tends to disintegrate their whole culture, even seriously jeopardizing the survival of the people.
In actual fact the abolition of the traditional culture of Bornean headhunters has been accompanied by an upsurge of population of embarrassing dimensions.
Nevertheless, careful reflection upon just what is the distinction between species difference in animals and cultural difference in man is badly needed, and the ethologists’ brash comments on the matter should help to clarify the anthropologists’ discussions. Even Ardrey’s profound confusions, by which he claims to explain the passing fashions of international politics as a simple response to genetic drives, could serve some useful purpose if it leads a more serious author to tackle what is certainly a very serious subject.
Ardrey’s argument runs something like this. The ethologists have shown that the phenomenon of territoriality recurs throughout the animal kingdom. Individual members of a particular species identify with a particular territory. All other members of the same species are dichotomized as friends and strangers. Strangers are attacked if they intrude on our territory; the deeper the intrusion the more violent the counter aggression. “This vital mode of behavior is not learned by the individual but is innate in the species.” Ardrey then makes two kinds of mistake. In the first place he usually writes as if this kind of behavior were found in all animals and that, therefore, it must be characteristic of man also. This is an error of fact. Secondly he confuses the behavior as such with the circumstances that produce it. He thinks that the statement “aggressive behavior is innate” conflicts with J. P. Scott’s proposition that “all stimulation of aggression eventually comes from forces present in the external environment. This is not the case. If we define the word “aggression” in a behavioristic way, as an ethologist should, then man, like any other animal, has built-in “innate” ways of exhibiting aggression. What is in dispute is whether man likewise has a built-in tendency to defend his home territory so that the precise circumstances in which he will exhibit this “aggressive behavior” are predictable. Ardrey is well aware of the weakness of his case. He knows (pp. 220-224) that man’s nearest living cousins, the anthropoid apes, show no such tendency, but he blandly assures us that these pacifist animals are “evolutionary failures”! He writes luridly of our “human” ancestors of two million years ago: “Far from being a beginner at the killing game…this pygmy sized predator of the high savannah was a skilled and successful hunter of what men today would still call big game…we killed animals ten or twenty times our size, did we kill each other?” And, of course, Ardrey’s answer is “yes,” the whole fantasy resting on a quite uncritical interpretation of a single fossil ape-like skull of a creature whose relationship to modern man is obscure but certainly not close.
LORENZ’S COMMENT is much to the point. If proto-man had been at all like the figment of Ardrey’s imagination he would have wiped himself out of existence. The survivors in the evolutionary rat-race are of two kinds—those which are disinclined to kill at all and those which are inclined to kill but are inhibited against killing members of their own kind. The uninhibited killer is a non-starter. Natural man, in Lorenz’s view, is a pacific creature; pit two unarmed individual men against each other in an unconfined space and the odds are heavy that both will survive. Man only becomes dangerous when he is equipped with weapons, and weapons are a product of culture, not of nature. But this is where the application of ethological arguments to the human situation becomes really interesting. And it is just here that Ardrey misses the point.
Evolutionary theory does not at all suggest that the “successful” species are those gifted with “killing propensity.” Very much the reverse. Species become differentiated by specialized adaptation to territorially isolated ecological conditions. The attachment of an individual to its home territory is directly linked up with this process of adaptive specialization. In such cases Ardrey’s “territorial imperative” does have important evolutionary consequences. But one of the special peculiarities of the species Homo sapiens is its lack of ecological specialization. No other species can adjust so readily to drastic variations of temperature, humidity, and diet. And this highly advantageous plasticity is tied in with the fact that man, as a species, is almost entirely free from territorial limitations and attachments. It is true that living human beings, both as individuals and as groups, do on occasion exhibit symptoms resembling the “territoriality” displayed by various species of birds and fish, but this human behavior is a cultural not a species characteristic, and this makes all the difference. It is optional not “instinctive” behavior. Sovereignty is not a new idea, but it is not a human universal.
But let us go back to man and his weapons. It begins to look as if man and his proto-human ancestors have been using tools and weapons for several million years. Several crucial peculiarities of man—capacity for speech, upright gait, marked sexual dimorphism, absence of seasonal sexuality, lack of fur, peculiar placement of the sexual organs, etc.—are adaptive peculiarities which have evolved in the context of a natural environment modified by the existence of weapons and tools. Man did not evolve as a complete human being and then acquire speech and culture. He developed speech and culture while still evolving as an animal species. And our human predicament is that this process still goes on. Other animals adapt to a specialized environment which is relatively stable. If the environment changes drastically the species usually becomes extinct. In contrast, man’s adaptive apparatus includes a technology which changes the environment as it goes along. Man and his environment are thus always out of step. As Lorenz puts it, “the extreme speed of ecological and sociological change wrought by the developments of technology causes many customs to become maladaptive within one generation.” He finds the pace too hot, and it fills him with anxiety. I find this odd, but it shows up a glaring weakness in current ethological fashion. Students of animal behavior are so accustomed to finding a perfect fit between the innate capacities of a species and its total environment that they are inclined to view as pathological any palpable lack of fit between the state of human society and the state of the geographical space within which it exists. This is the classic fallacy of functionalist sociology all over again. Lorenz’s word “mal-adaptive” turns up in contexts where Durkheim would have written “anomie”; Georg Simmel was making Lorenz’s point about the positive function of conflict nearly sixty years ago; for sociologists, Malinowski’s notion that, in a healthy society, social norms must always fit with the requirements of ecology and of human biological needs has been a dead duck for nearly a generation.
Certainly the observation of animals may have moral lessons for human beings—“Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise”—but we shall only deceive ourselves if we attempt to minimize the differences between human and non-human animal behavior. The development of speech in Homo sapiens has completely altered our nature. A goose can communicate with another goose by means of “ritualized” gestures, but the kinds of message it can transmit are very narrowly delimited: “hostility” and “friendship” are only the observer’s labels for simple triggered responses. In contrast, human beings can say an infinite number of things in an infinite number of different ways; responses are intrinsically unpredictable; politicians and historians are what they are precisely because no man can ever know what his “opponent” is going to do next.
RELATIONS OF SOLIDARITY and opposition, amity and hostility, gift exchange and war, constitute the basic subject matter of sociological enquiry, and only a very simple-minded man could suppose that such complex matters might be readily understood by simple analogy with the habits of the prairie-dog. But this is what Ardrey implies. It is perfectly true that, as members of a common species Homo sapiens, we are all predisposed to behave in certain fixed ways which reflect our biochemical constitutions. But this in itself does not tell us very much. We are all naturally endowed with a capacity for speech and all spoken languages have certain features in common—e.g., they convey meaning by means of an alternation of vowels and consonants—but these constraints set no limit on what we say. Likewise the physical gestures of Homo are limited in kind by the fact that the actor is a man and not a goose. But what we express by these gestures is not limited at all. Thus any belief that our customs are somehow predetermined in the same sense as are the mating rituals of birds is an illusion.
The argument is in some respects circular. The ethologists interpret particular animal behaviors as aggressive, amicable, dominant, submissive, etc., and they use such terms because of what they know intuitively about themselves. That being so, it is quite illogical to reverse the process and pretend that we might understand human aggression better because of its analogic similarity to “animal aggression.” Until he reaches Chapter 13 Lorenz only occasionally falls into this fallacy. Most of his book is an entrancing record of how human observers can make objective studies of relationships between animals. But Ardrey’s anthropomorphism is of the clumsiest kind. He has a nursery-floor view of human affairs: “The principal cause of modern warfare arises from the failure of an intruding power correctly to estimate the defensive resources of a territorial defender.” Ethology apart, this is the Hobbesian notion that if there were no policemen, each of us would immediately set about murdering everyone else in sight, and it is total rubbish.
To sum up, the Lorenz book is delightful and fascinating, as long as the author sticks to his own field; away off when he starts mixing in anthropology or politics or philosophy. In the Ardrey version the mixture of extraneous matter is so great that it is best left alone altogether. An up-to-date general text on physical anthropology which might serve as a corrective to both volumes is J. Buettner-Janusch’s Origins of Man: Physical Anthropology, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1966.