Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
The appearance of Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression in 1966 set off a noisy debate: to what degree are men biologically disposed to kill or to maim each other? The debate is a phony one; in it biology is used to camouflage an argument which really concerns something else.
There are three sides fighting in this debate. Lorenz, anthropologist Lionel Tiger, and movie-writer-turned-philosopher Robert Ardrey are in one corner. B. F. Skinner and his group are in another. Humanists like Erich Fromm and Ashley Montagu are in the third, and in the fourth is the Ref, the general reader. The Ref has not done a good job. He tends to be carried away with enthusiasm for two of the boys, impressed first with the idea that men cannot control their biological proclivities with the same steadiness as mice, then with the idea that anything a man might want to do—kill, love, etc.—can be controlled, because mice can be “programmed” in the lab. To the humanists, he is indifferent. Lorenz and Skinner titillate because the public likes to be told, in the name of science, certain things it would otherwise be ashamed to hear.
In the nineteenth century John Stuart Mill and other writers used the word “ethology” to refer to the study of human character. It is significant that Lorenz has appropriated this word to describe his naturalist studies of animal behavior. For he uses his observations of the activity of animals as a way of discussing human morality.
What’s wrong with that? We are animals, we have genes, the psyche doesn’t float in limbo, divorced from the body. What is wrong with Lorenz has to do with Lorenz, not with the comparison of man and animal in the abstract. The Lorenz I am referring to is the post-World War II Lorenz, the social prophet, although even in the late 1930s, when he was writing on racial purity and racial strength in Hitler’s Germany, the social prophet was beginning to emerge from the student of the behavior of ducks and geese.
Lorenz’s “deductions” about human character are based on a sleight-of-hand. In watching one animal encounter another, he notices signs indicating that one recognizes the presence of the other. How does Lorenz describe this? He says the animals are greeting each other, and proceeds to describe the behavior in words which have rich associations when used to define the behavior of human beings. The animals become in his writings anthropomorphic. He then proceeds to argue that human beings do no more than what animals do, and that therefore principles of human conduct are deducible from patterns of animal activity.
In On Aggression this circular logic is used to create a peculiar language of discourse. Over and over we are given arguments like the following: first Lorenz describes the activities of some fish in the Amazon; it then occurs to him that his aunt used to behave in a similar way, and the folksy analogy …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.