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Ignoble Savages

Human Aggression

by Anthony Storr
Atheneum, 127 pp., $5.00

Non-Violence and Aggression: A Study of Gandhi’s Moral Equivalent of War

by H.J.N. Horsburgh
Oxford, 207 pp., $5.60

Violence in the Streets

edited by Shalom Endleman
Quadrangle Books, 471 pp., $10.00

War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression

edited by Morton Fried, edited by Marvin Harris, edited by Robert Murphy
American Museum of Natural History Press, 262 pp., $6.95

These books are all concerned with violence as a form of human behavior, but they cover a very wide spectrum ranging from personal subliminal tendencies at one extreme to nuclear warfare at the other. It is quite impossible for a reviewer to treat the various arguments with equal justice, but I will start with a brief summary of what they are: Item 1 is short, lucid, and persuasive. Storr brings an amateur’s understanding of ethology to his professional psychoanalytical conviction that aggression is a necessary component of human nature. Salvation can only come through sublimation, and the space race to the moon, far from being a waste of money, is much to be preferred to letting off the Bomb. Item 2 is likewise psychoanalytic but is more diffuse. Frank writes as if international politics were no more complicated than a game of tic tac toe. If generals and politicians make mistakes this must be because of psychological defects in their personality, so closer psychological understanding of the motives of leaders will solve all our problems. What terrifies me about this particular author is the way he keeps making confident simplicist predictions about situations of the utmost complexity. “If the world has not destroyed itself first, it is certain to move eventually to an economy of affluence in which there will be plenty of goods for everyone.”

For Frank the problem of overpopulation is simplicity itself: “perhaps all aid should be accompanied by massive programs of birth-control and of education for potential leaders, given either in American schools or by American teachers sent abroad.” With a special High School in the Vatican perhaps? However, Frank is less certain than Storr that man is irredeemably aggressive and hopes that, by suitable education, our descendants may be persuaded to settle their disputes by techniques of non-violence borrowed from Gandhi.

This is also the theme in Item 3. Horsburgh is a moral philosopher. His book is an account of both the theory and the practice of satyagraha together with a discussion of whether, in the age of nuclear deterrence, Gandhian methods might have application outside India. The manner is academic. Horsburgh’s India never quite connects up with the real-life confusions of Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay. I have failed to discover the word “caste” anywhere in the book. Item 4 is a symposium of thirty-eight short articles about the sociology of violence internal to the nation state. It is mostly about contemporary America. It deals with facts rather than abstractions and is sometimes very good indeed.

Item 5 is a report on the proceedings of a conference of anthropologists. It is about warfare rather than civil disturbance or individual aggression. (Incidentally, it is a marked weakness of all these books that the relationship between these three dimensions never becomes clear.) Here again there is a legion of authors. The outstanding contribution is Chagnon’s account of Social Organization and Warfare among the Yanomomö, a tribal people living on the borders of Venezuela and Brazil. Also very valuable are the highly professional comments on ethology (con and pro) by Ralph Holloway and C. R. Carpenter which will serve as a useful corrective to views expressed in some of the other books. Especially important, in view of his eminence, is Carpenter’s remark:

that not only are the biological attributes of man unique, particularly his brain, but also ontogenesis in terms of interaction with a cultural milieu, and the nature of his social relations are also unique—that is, specific to man. This does not mean that other animal studies cannot be used for purposes of comparison, or that they cannot provide heuristic frameworks with which man may be examined. I do mean that man’s behavior, in the holistic sense, cannot be reduced to the same frameworks available for describing non-human animals, including primates.

(p. 37)

The rest of the volume is very patchy and the authors display a disappointing tendency to edge away from the crucial issue: In what sense is “primitive warfare,” which in Chagnon’s case refers to hostilities between intermarrying communities with a total population of about fifty individuals, comparable at all with “modern war” in which populations may run to several hundred millions on either side?

But let’s go back to the beginning. Warfare is like sin—it is quite safe to be against it. But why? Why should we suppose that peace is normal and war an aberration when the whole weight of European history has been just the other way round? For centuries the schoolboy heroes of the Western World have been modeled on Alexander the Great rather than Jesus Christ, our noblest virtues are those of the dying soldier, not the suffering priest, Utopia is always a version of Plato’s Republic, a Spartan nightmare inhabited by fascist thugs. With this kind of educational background the amazing thing is that we are willing to spend so much time chatting peacefully to our neighbors instead of bashing them over the head.

BUT FASHIONS CHANGE; moreover, fashions in morality are as ambiguous as decency in dress. Do we repudiate our sins just to make them all the more exciting? What should we make of the fact that Bikini Atoll, the scene of the world’s first thermonuclear explosion, has become the bathing-suit equivalent of a cache-sexe? Is our terror of the bomb just a symptom of sadistic fascination? Instant disintegration is not self-evidently more unpleasant than lingering death by cannon ball and septicaemia, so why the outcry against the barbarity of nuclear warfare? Our much heralded restraint in these matters has merely reduced our inhibition against more “conventional” modes of annihilation. If we were less indignant about push-button warfare we might be more effectively disgusted by the horrors of napalm. However, there it is. Whatever may be the underlying psychology, Western Man has recently been jolted out of his traditional heroic stance. It is Goya rather than Napoleon who now holds the stage. Warfare has ceased to be respectable, and self-righteous intellectuals are free to denounce the whole bloody business without committing any heresy at all. But there is no salvation for the wicked. With Calvinist fervor our mentors declare that we are eternally damned in any case.

The trouble with such sudden shifts of attitude is that advocates of the new morality become so indiscriminate. Forty years ago sexual frustration was suddenly seen to be the universal source of every human ill; today it is “aggression” that lurks in Pandora’s Box, and Konrad Lorenz replaces Freud as the prophet who will lead us into the next world—if not into the Promised Land. But pity the poor prophet! There is a Talmudic story of how Moses, being granted a vision of how his wisdom was to be perpetuated by the Rabbis down the centuries, failed to recognize his own creation; the ethologists will soon find themselves in a similar predicament.

AGGRESSION” can mean different things to different people. In politics a “treaty of non-aggression” clearly refers to moral decision; it is optional, not “instinctive.” But in the new pseudo-sciences aggression becomes a basic drive, the quintessential relationship between paired individuals. For psychoanalysts it is quite explicitly hydra-headed, embracing in the first instance both physical violence and sexual love and then extending, by sublimated derivation, into every imaginable variety of human interaction. Storr, for example, cites one analyst as saying that: “at origin, aggressiveness is almost synonymous with activity” and another for the view that: “aggression springs from an innate tendency to grow and master life which seems to be characteristic of all living matter. Only when this life-force is obstructed in its development do ingredients of anger, hate, or rage become connected with it.” Ethologists say much the same thing in their own special language: the outcome of evolution is that each individual animal is endowed with an innate tendency to act aggressively against its neighbors, whatever their species, in order to preserve its living space. This drive is not self-destructive because the sequence of stimulus and response that would ordinarily lead to violence can be modified by superimposed mechanisms (“ritualization”) which allows for courtship and friendliness.

At the back of this contradictory use of words is the question whether human beings are in any way different from trigger-operated automata. Does consciousness give us powers of decision and hence moral responsibility? Those who incline to a mechanical interpretation assume that aggression is innate, those who emphasize the significance of cultural variation—e.g., anthropologists, sociologists, political theorists—assume that aggression is subject to moral values. Until recently the mechanists appeared to be on the defensive, but the new ethological jargon is full of technical terms, like “imprinting” and “territoriality,” which slither across the traditional distinction between innate (“instinctive”) and learned (“cultural”) behavior, and this has allowed the popularizers to attribute all the evils of our Western society to human nature itself:

We are the cruellest and most ruthless species that has ever walked the earth—each one of us harbors within himself those same savage impulses which lead to murder, to torture and to war.

(Storr, p. ix)

Thus spake the Serpent in Eden! The doctrine of original sin revamped under the title “savage impulse” is the classic device for evading responsibility. In the 1920s it justified a new morality of sexual license, in the 1960s it justifies a Cassandra-like warning of the last trump.

THREE OF THESE BOOKS make deferential obeisance in the direction of the Lorenzian revelation without any manifest good cause, but if they are in error much of the blame must lie with Konrad Lorenz himself. He is much too fond of an expository trick by which he first attributes human motives to animals and then suggests that animal behavior offers lessons for human beings! This is not science but sentiment, but it is an example which proves irresistibly tempting to his imitators. No doubt there are a few very general facts which are true of all intercommunicating organisms, including man, so that we can learn something about human beings even by observing the behavior of sticklebacks; but we shall get nowhere at all by trying to solve problems of human morality by generalizing from an observation on chimpanzees. Yet this is precisely what Lorenz’s disciples imagine that they are entitled to do. In the process, they dress up in mock scientific clothing all the crass errors of social theorists down the ages. Storr, for example, in expounding the concept of “territoriality” comes up with “what is implied is that society itself has evolved as a defense against aggression; and that animals and men learn to cooperate and communicate because they would destroy each other if they did not.” He states this proposition as if it were a profound and revolutionary new discovery. Anyone less blinkered by the narrow preconceptions of psychoanalysis would recognize at once that it comes straight out of Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). If Hobbes and Storr were right all sociologists would be wrong, but my professional colleagues need not despair; the matter is not so simple.

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