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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.

In ethological jargon “territoriality” denotes a somewhat complex syndrome of apparently instinctive behavior which is often associated with intra-specific fighting in defense of a mating or food supply territory. It is also linked with the fact that, in most species, murder is rare. Animals may fight members of their own kind, but they do not usually fight to the death. Many species are endowed with “instinctive” mechanisms which inhibit a combatant from pressing home his victory against a defeated opponent (of his own species) whenever the latter exhibits appropriate signals of submission. No human society, ancient or modern, primitive or civilized, has ever developed customs which correspond at all closely to this stereotype of “territorial behavior.” Indeed, most human fighting is not concerned in any way with either the conquest or defense of territory. But warfare between sovereign states can be thought of as a variety of “intra-specific fighting” and, on a gigantically inflated scale, it sometimes exhibits some of the characteristics of “territoriality” though without the crucial feature of an inhibition against actual killing. Without more ado Frank tells us that territoriality “can be faintly discerned beneath the complex behavior of humans” and Storr (following the lamentable example of Robert Ardrey) jumps in with “there can be no doubt that man, also, is a territorial animal” with the implication that all our internecine behavior is instinctive rather than culturally conditioned. So much for the non-science of psychiatrical ethology!

OF COURSE, the problems are real enough, but we do not help to solve them by introducing brutal oversimplifications and false analogies. Hobbes is very relevant. Leviathan was a tract against Civil War and in favor of authoritarian central government. Hobbes maintained that every individual has a natural right to be selfish and hence aggressive against all his neighbors, but that in order to live comfortably in society all men must reach a covenant to forego, in equal measure, a part of that individual sovereignty. Likewise families and communities must forego their natural rights so that all may come together as parts of a single whole, the sovereign Commonwealth. The central authority in this Commonwealth must be endowed with coercive power so as to enforce the covenant of tolerance which has been accepted by its component elements. Leviathan is a masterpiece, but it suffers from many grave logical defects the most important of which is the assumption that the analogy between the State and a living creature can be taken quite literally. Most of the stock fallacies of sociological reasoning derive from this mistake and Messrs. Storr and Frank trot them all out once again. Societies are not organisms; they cannot breathe or gesticulate or suffer from high blood pressure. Words like “love” and “hate” refer to the emotional states of individuals, not of communities. “A nation at war” is not the same kind of entity as “an individual engaged in a fight.” Social psychology is not just a blow up of individual psychology, nor is it true that all men have the same vices as ourselves. Even if it were true that every American male resorts to outright violence on the slightest provocation, as the Endleman symposium might seem to suggest, this would still prove nothing at all about Man as a species. It may be that some thousands of individuals will have met with violent deaths before tomorrow morning, but even in societies in which human ferocity is given the most exaggerated valuation—and such societies exist—such killing is statistically a rare phenomenon. Chagnon’s Yanomomö are a case in point. His descriptions of repeated slaughter make one wonder how any society can survive at all. Yet three adults out of four die from causes other than violence. Most people throughout the world get through their whole lives without any likelihood of either killing or being killed. If a “natural” (i.e., uncultured) man could exist he would certainly be much closer to Rousseau’s placid simpleton than to Hobbes’s selfish brute. Only Western politicians, generals, and psychoanalysts have the delusion that the world is populated by potential murderers.

Just how far the ethological evidence really has any relevance for the human situation is a matter of doubt, but its implication, if any, would be the exact converse to what Ardrey, Storr, and Co. seem to suppose. What is surprising for an ethologist is that man, as conditioned by culture, frequently kills members of his own species whereas other animals in a state of nature seldom do so. Submissive appeasement gestures, analogous to those which can be observed in other animals, occur in man also, but they differ from one social setting to another and do not function effectively as inhibitors of aggression. This suggests that men kill other men not because of “instinct” but because of their cultural training. If Hobbes and Storr are right then education in tolerance would be a waste of time. Man is instinctively violent, and we must stagger along as best we may by using the deterrent threat of counter-violence. But if they are wrong—as the new science of ethology in fact suggests they are—then the Utopian dream of a non-violent world society deserves to be taken seriously.

All living creatures discriminate between creatures of our kind and creatures not of our kind. Among non-humans this distinction is either known instinctively or else imprinted within a few days of birth, but man has the unique capability of being able to vary his discrimination as he chooses. Characteristically, as he becomes socialized, he applies it to a whole series of overlapping but mutually inconsistent categories. “We” comes to mean all sorts of different things according to the context in which “I” happens to be at any particular moment. The significant categories (“We Groups”) differ as between one social system and another, but with us they include: family, class, community, ethnic group, dialect group, nation, sect, “race,” caste, club, profession…. This choice of self-identification has social consequences which Carpenter summarizes by saying that with humans “conflict is a structural property of human societies.” “We” and “they” become polarized—not through any instinct but because the rules lay down that this is so. If I am taught that members of category “X” are “people like me” then they are notionally my friends and I am under a social obligation to treat them as such, but if the members of category “Y” are “not like me” this gives a sort of legitimacy to potential feelings of hostility. Since the categories do not coincide, my potential enemy in one context is my friend in another, but it is normally the obligations of friendship which predominate, and it is this that makes social existence possible. This is true in great affairs as well as small, so that the bias of probabilities is always against the expression of hostility through open violence. The peculiarity of warfare is that normal animal and human valuations are turned upside down. Social pressures, which ordinarily serve to minimize overt hostility, are suddenly inverted so that the individual soldier is coerced into murdering complete strangers with whom he has had no previous contact. It is a crime to kill a neighbor, an act of heroism to kill an enemy, but who is enemy or who is neighbor is purely a matter of social definition.

THE POINT I want to emphasize is that such behaviors are all matters of custom; they are primarily determined by social conventions, not by “instinct,” or “imprinting,” or “territoriality.” The psychological states of mind of the human actors are a response to social forces. They are an effect, not a cause. It follows that if we want to modify the incidence of warlike attitudes, it is society that must be changed, not the human beings. In particular, we need to do everything possible to confuse the issue, to make it difficult for those who exercise leadership to draw sharp unambiguous boundaries between “we” and “they.” Some boundaries stand out: language frontiers, skin color frontiers, national frontiers. It needs more than wishful thinking to get rid of them. Polarization according to such criteria is unavoidable, but it is only when the boundaries coincide that they become dangerous. The real risk lies in situations where territorial exclusiveness is combined with endogamy and with a studied avoidance of economic and social communication across the ghetto frontier. And do not forget that whole nations, as well as city enclaves, may be dominated by ghetto values.

The equation We: They:: Friendly: Hostile is the universal nexus through which new relationships are forged and old ones broken up, and I agree that this kind of polarization could not develop at all unless human beings had an underlying potentiality to feel aggressive; to that extent Storr is right. If man did not possess aggressive instincts social life would be impossible. Even the most rudimentary sense of social solidarity depends on the feeling that “we” are different from (and potentially hostile to) “the others.” But Storr is wrong when he implies that the actual expression of human aggression is determined by “psychological” factors. Psychology comes into it, but only in a very roundabout way. The establishment of relationships in society is not a mechanical matter but a voluntary social act, which takes place within an existing structure of social conventions. New links are created by the exchange of gifts (women, valuables, words, documents, etc.) between partners who had previously felt themselves to be members of separate (and therefore potentially hostile) groups. An Australian aborigine “makes friends” with his neighbor by exchanging sisters, an Englishman by exchanging dinner invitations, sovereign nations by exchanging documents of treaty. The exchange unites the opponents. They become “allies,” friends. As dozens of anthropologists have been told by hundreds of informants throughout the world “we marry our enemies.”

This paradoxical attitude to the relationship between friendship and hostility is not just an odd quirk of primitive communities operating at the technological level of Chagnon’s Yanomomö, it has been part of the coinage of international diplomatic maneuver down the ages. Henry V wins the battle of Agincourt and marries the king of France’s daughter. It is relevant here because it emphasizes how completely arbitarary and socially determined is an act of war. The initial act of war is political, a move in the complex game of diplomatic chess. The manipulation of public opinion and the maintenance of public morale in the face of military adversity is, of course, a very essential part of the same game, but warfare is never “caused by” the public will in any simple sense. That is why the Ardrey/Storr/Frank assumption that war-making by a nation-state is a kind of human equivalent to “territorial” behavior among, say, prairie dogs is so totally misleading. In a nation at war most individuals are not engaged in aggressive activity at all, and although all human societies may be thought of as systems of conflict (in Simmel’s sense), most forms of human rivalry explicitly preclude the use of violence and have nothing whatever to do with either territorial or national self-identification. The latter point is expressly recognized by Storr but he still manages to use the ethologists’ “territoriality” as the model type of group solidarity and inter-group opposition and treats the whole issue as a simple modification of infantile motivation. The relevance of rules of legitimacy for an understanding of group behavior is never recognized at all. Yet that surely is the problem. Man is not just a wild animal whose ferocious instincts must be curbed by society or sublimated into other channels, he is a social animal who is taught by society to exhibit hostility in some situations and friendliness in others. The difference is fundamental.

THE ENDLEMAN SYMPOSIUM is a useful corrective to the Storr-Frank oversimplifications. It puts stress not only on the multiplicity of contexts in which violence is manifested in American life but also on the immense relevance of cultural phenomena, such as films and TV, which act as educational media and train the individual American to regard extreme violence as a normal feature of everyday life. Endleman’s contributors are mostly on the side of the angels, but they recognize their limitations. We do not know in detail just how such child-training expresses itself in the adult personality. Even those who are disgusted by a fantasy world which seems to offer nothing but “wars, rumours of wars, murders, rapes, arson and traffic accidents” have to admit that the world of Little Red Riding Hood was not all that much better. There are self-styled “experts” who would justify an excess of violence in the mass media on much the same grounds that they would welcome an excess of pornography on the bookstalls: the sheer surfeit may be cathartic.

But we need more facts, and meanwhile it is not unreasonable to suppose that in our own society, as in any other, we would behave differently if we were educated differently. Gentleness as well as gentility is a product of training. The aggression which Storr and Frank are writing about may be, in a psychoanalytic sense, a universal phenomenon, but its manifestation as aggressive violence is not an attribute of man but only of Western industrial man who has been culturally conditioned to act with brutality in a ruthlessly competitive society.

Of course, some may say: “But what does it matter? Our problems are those of twentieth-century industrial culture. Who cares whether man-in-the-beginning was Rousseau’s noble savage or Hobbes’s snarling brute?” I think it does matter, because what we think about man’s ultimate nature must necessarily affect our prognosis of the future. If man is, as Storr asserts, “a competitive, aggressive, territorial animal” by his nature then we are condemned to the fate which Storr predicts and apparently welcomes, the joys of free enterprise competition, in a world of rival nation-states intent on mutual annihilation. Oddly enough, out of these depressing premises Storr himself extracts a conclusion with which I can heartily agree: birth control should take priority over bomb control on the grounds that “the population explosion is, of all possible factors, the most likely to cause an explosion of a different variety. The hydrogen bomb is undoubtedly the most effective way of reducing world population.” If, however, we reject or are willing to qualify our belief that man is lethally aggressive by nature, then there are practical alternatives to murderous competition.

IT IS EASY to dismiss all doctrines of world government, world federation, and the like as impractical idealistic pie-in-the-sky and certainly the contributions on this theme that are offered in these books are markedly lacking in conviction. Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence (ahimsa) had a bastard parentage—the pure milk of Indian asceticism being heavily spiced with essence of Tolstoy and Thoreau—but the mixture makes little sense when revamped to fit the social peculiarities of contemporary Euro-America. What really happened in India between 1930 and 1947 bears no relation to the official mythology which Mr. Horsburgh now distills into a universal code of moral practice. The myth may continue to influence the wishful thinking of the saintly and the oppressed—the late Martin Luther King was one of these—but it has only marginal relevance for the problems of real-life politics.

I am more impressed by Anatol Rapoport’s argument, to which Storr draws attention, that in ordinary competitive games, including competition between business firms, the players take it for granted that “one’s opponent is a human being like oneself.” In contrast, whenever national honor and patriotism are invoked, the “enemy” are reduced to the status of wild beasts. But since so much of the modern capitalist world is now dominated by vast international consortia it has already been demonstrated that, in some types of macro-rivalry, sharply drawn national frontiers are superfluous. If this is so even in the dizzy world of high finance where cutthroat competition is treated as a virtue of the highest order, there cannot be any intrinsic reason why a comparable confusion of boundaries should not be achieved in the much more polite world of international politics.

In practice it is precisely here that we encounter a classic paradox. As communications improve and the worldwide network of economic relationships becomes more and more convolute, the intensity of local nationalism and patriotic slogans becomes ever more strident. Biafra is born to commit suicide precisely at the moment when the oil companies can guarantee that Nigeria has the resources to move into the modern world. Yet even this terrible case can be a source of optimism: it is so plainly futile. Bit by bit it is becoming apparent, even to Israelis, that in contemporary conditions victory in warfare is economically just as disastrous as defeat. It isn’t moral principles that guide the operation of power-politics but calculated self-interest, and in these calculations the decisive factors are ceasing to be military. The difference between Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 still hangs in the balance, but certainly the issue does not turn on any change in Russian temperament; it is simply that some influential Russians may be beginning to suspect that crime doesn’t pay any more. And once that is really understood we need not fear the Bomb.

BUT WHERE should we go from here? Arguments about the perfectibility of man are like ultimate theories of cosmology. Big bangs or steady states, neither side ever has the last word. We are no more likely to be obliterated by a Doomsday Machine than to achieve perpetual peace in a rediscovered Garden of Eden.

But do not let us forget that even if we are born as animals, we grow up as men. It is right that the psychologists and the ethologists should remind us of our “instinctive” beginnings, but we should not exaggerate the virulence of our original sin. What we need to understand is not what is true of all mankind but what is true of some men and not of others. Why are some societies warlike and others peaceful? And it is the sociologists rather than the psychologists who will eventually provide the answers. In all this pile of paper the fourteen most valuable pages are those in which Lewis Coser (Endleman, pp. 71-84) summarizes the theory of “relative deprivation” which provides a peculiarly satisfying explanation of why different low status sectors of society (e.g., the poor, the young, the women) react to violence in quite different ways in different types of revolutionary situation. It is through the pursuit of discriminations of this sort rather than through grand generalizations about human nature that we may hope to keep our runaway world in an approximate state of grace.

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