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 becomes the basis for a general rule, such as this one:
…from this it will be clear that the damming up of aggression will be more dangerous, the better the members of the group know, understand, and like each other.
There is no reason to indict ethology itself for such careless thinking. Indeed, Lorenz was sharply criticized in 1948 by his co-worker Niko Tinbergen for deriving principles of human conduct from these cute comparisons. When analogies are drawn, as they are in the work of Tiger and Fox, they can be drawn so that they appear reasonable, even if debatable; it is not necessary, in using ethology, to pass off sentimental nonsense as science.
But Lorenz’s language well serves his purpose. He wants to use the “findings of science” to put across two of his main beliefs about human character. The first is that spontaneity is dangerous for human beings, the second is that we are passive creatures in the hands of our genetic inheritance. The sooner we recognize these facts the less harm we will do one another.
The German title of On Aggression, Das Sogenannte Böse, which means literally “the so-called evil,” reveals some of the intentions we find in the book itself. Lorenz is telling his readers that they move in society unaware that their values and beliefs today are all illusion; science, which can show them just how deceived they are in their strivings, will cut them down to size. Things they thought were evil will be shown to be inevitable. People are going to be aggressive, they can’t help being so, and the only hope they have is to listen to science and not act as though they can transcend or even fight their genes.
What does science say? If aggression does harm to others, then the less one acts in new or experimental ways the less risk one takes. For a tired generation, the words are soothing. Science makes legitimate a certain ideology of human passivity, a surrender of the will.
In his new book, Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins, the use of “science” to legitimate social passivity has become more explicit. “Civilized” has two meanings to the author. It first refers to man in society, as opposed to man stripped of pretension, an animal like any other. The contrast is made to appear a discovery of the ethologist, as though before Lorenz similar thoughts had not occurred to Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, etc. But a second and more pernicious definition of “civilized” also appears in this book. It means twentieth-century life as compared to the small-town, stable existence “of the past.” Once Lorenz makes this distinction, he can talk about sin, dressed not in the robes of a priest, but in a white lab coat.
The “sins” referred to in the title are our old friends—overpopulation, waste of the environment, and technology. We are told of “the waning of all strong feelings and emotion caused by overindulgence”; genetic decay is said to have an interesting, if illogical, relation to hippies:
It is an alarming possibility that the many infantilisms are turning a certain type of hippie into social parasites.
The breakdown of tradition is another sin, so is the gullibility of the masses, and—you guessed it—so is the bomb.
Most of these are clearly real problems. But when they are considered as “sins” they tend to become fears rather than problems, and particularly the fears of a provincial petit-bourgeois mind. Stick to your job, watch out for hippies, watch out for workers, keep things clean and under control, the new is bad—the sense of experience in Lorenz’s book is that of a person bound to a snug family life in a small town. One need not inquire further into technology, or why the bomb came to exist. It is all sin, and one must turn one’s eyes from it. Lorenz in this new book openly celebrates retreat, and large numbers of people will find it easy to respond to this. For it is comforting to find a man of science proving that the problems of the modern world are too overwhelming to be faced. Indeed, the world of the exorcist, of the fearful devil, is not far from Lorenz’s world.
Skinner’s theories on aggression need not detain us long. Skinner recommends the same surrender of will by using arguments exactly opposed to those of Lorenz. He denies genetic constraints, indeed he denies there is such a phenomenon as human nature. Human activity is a result of environmental conditioning; aggressive behavior, like any other, is the product of an environment programmed to make the individual act in that way. Aggression results when an environment doesn’t give the individual adequate rewards for his actions so that he becomes frustrated and therefore aggressive.
Skinner has done little more than restate the work of John Dollard (Aggression and Frustration, 1939) in pompous jargon. Although barely readable, books like Beyond Freedom and Dignity are popular, and with the same public which devoured On Aggression. In both books the human being is helpless in the hands of his fate. Differences in aggressiveness among people, like differences in courage or self-doubt, have no “scientific” meaning. Thus in both Skinner and Lorenz, the concept of human character, and of human responsibility for personal acts, is obliterated.
In spite of their claims to “science,” Lorenz and Skinner are shadow-boxing. In both writers, indeed, one detects a kind of pleasure in denying the reality of human character, a pleasure which finds its echo in the excited “shock” which their pronouncements stir among their readers.
Erich Fromm is a more serious writer, and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness a more serious book. He has correctly and forcefully perceived how Lorenz and Skinner have used science as a cover for moralizing about human helplessness. His book deserves to be widely read, but I doubt that it will be, in part because it says things its audience does not want to hear, in part because it does so in a self-defeating way.
The Anatomy is much too long. Points are made repetitiously, but a good editor could have fixed that. The real problem is that Fromm has written two books at once, a polemic on aggression and also a theory which would reformulate psychoanalysis by using aggression as its starting point. Nearly 200 pages are spent on the first task, and the reader is left both convinced by Fromm’s criticisms of past theory and slightly dazed. Three hundred pages remain, and it is in these that Fromm comes into his own.
Fromm views aggression as two separate activities. The first he calls “benign” aggression. This is the damage an organism does to other organisms or objects in response “to threats to vital interests.” Such aggression is genetically programmed in all creatures, and is a matter of reaction rather than a spontaneous activity. The second kind of aggression he calls “malignant.” It is unique to man and consists of the damage human beings do to each other as a result of the way character is formed; it is not given, innate, or predestined. Change the conditions under which character takes shape and the peculiarly human aspect of aggression can be tamed. Fromm is not arguing that aggression as such can be “deprogrammed.” He is arguing that the element of aggression which leads to concentration camps or to napalm raids can be.
Malignant aggression he divides in turn into two forms, sadism and necrophilia. Sadism he defines as the desire for “absolute and unrestricted control over a living being.” Necrophilia he takes beyond its usual clinical sense of intercourse or physical contact with the dead; he uses the term as the desire to create, so that one can feel safe, a world where no other living beings exist. In enlarging the meaning of necrophilia Fromm is trying to make Freud’s idea of thanatos more concrete. Fromm does not treat thanatos, as Freud did, as a general human “drive,” but as the result of deformations of character at specific stages of human psychic development. In The Anatomy Fromm concentrates on Oedipal deformations, though a discussion of other causes is promised in a later volume. It is Fromm’s belief that interventions in the formation of character are society’s only weapon against the peculiar destructiveness of human beings. Fromm wants to make psychoanalysis “political” in the broad sense.
This is a noble aim. Regrettably, it is not realized, to my mind, because of the manner in which Fromm defines “character.” He views character as falling into types, so that there is the sexually sadistic character, the nonsexually sadistic character, and so on. In clinical practice these may be useful models; incorporated into Fromm’s theory they defeat his attempt to show that aggression depends on the way character develops, because his accounts of development end mechanically in stereotypes. Unlike Wilhelm Reich in the first two parts of Character Analysis, who shows that there is a structure to the way time passes in any given life, Fromm in his Anatomy can conceive of character development only by stating a fixed set of final attributes.
The character types he describes are themselves all figures whom we associate with extreme catastrophe. Hitler, Stalin, and Himmler are the sort of people we find in these pages. Yet no greater mistake could be made than to imagine all German fascists as little Hitlers. Functionaries such as Adolph Eichmann who claimed they were only doing a job were a different matter; no doubt they could be labeled as in some way necrophiliac, but how are we to explain the processes by which their characters allowed them to play quite different roles in that engine of destruction? By the time one reaches Fromm’s brilliant epilogue on the limits of Freud’s theory of aggression (an epilogue which ought to have been the introduction to this book), Fromm’s own theory has become hard to accept. It seems an attempt to find the nature of the mean in the development of the extreme.
When Hannah Arendt wrote that Eichmann and people like him were “banal,” she distinguished the masses from the extremists, and so touched on the very problem that the enthusiasm for Lorenz and Skinner raises, the problem of the relation of passivity to aggression. Logically the two are opposites. But if we think of the crowds who appear in Leni Riefenstal’s Triumph of the Will, we think of crowds of people who went about their business every day until the Führer, descending from the sky, called them to an exceptional task, to a moment of action which was safe because in a few hours the Führer would mount again into his plane and go to another city. It seems plausible that the feeling that there would be cataclysmic moments, Kristallnachts of beaten Jews, great parades, conferred some legitimacy on being passive, assured those crowds that life could keep its stability, its regularity, since the moments of aggression were like a swift and blind lunge. Some formula of time unites passivity and aggression, a formula which is not the rhythm of time in factories but can be compared with the more perplexing rhythms of bureaucratic work.
To be aggressive is to be alive—so many now seem to believe. Out of that belief comes the public’s fascination with books prophesying inescapable aggression. But this belief in aggressive moments as truly lived moments poses a problem for psychological theories based on thanatos. Fromm tells us that human character is never insulated from the society in which character is formed, but he has no way of describing how this transaction between a person and his milieu occurs. He can tell us of the formation of a monster like Hitler, but nothing of the formation of ordinary German fascists, who were not freaks, but rather people feeling alive during a safe, contained moment when they could become aggressive.
Why is aggression now seen as life? Fromm in his book has not answered the question; perhaps no single book can. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness does make one practical aspect of the problem clear, however, and that is the way the public image of science fits the present formula of aggression. Scientists do have a basis for their integrity—their standards of proof. But a gullible public puts these warrants of integrity to another use. “Terrible simplifiers” who write in suitably scientific language make it possible to justify resignation in the face of the overwhelming proven power of nature.
In d’Alembert’s time, the appeal to nature was to a higher order which could rebuke the artificial injustices of society; in Spencer’s time, social Darwinists appealed to nature again to justify energetic human activity, competitive as it might be; in the age of intelligence and aggression researchers, the appeal to nature is made in order to show men what they are helpless to control. Lorenz and Skinner are neither the first nor the last of the new simplifiers providing “scientific” license for passivity.
April 18, 1974