Aggression, War, and Human Nature, Part I  



Causes of War:  A Historical Survey

Violence:  Our Civilization Compared To Others

Deeper Causes Of Aggression

Freud's Theory Of Aggression

Some Other Psychological Takes On Aggression




Following is a criticism of the Rainsnow books, and my (very long) answer (which ended up becoming an article):

"Ö In your Rainsnow books, you spend a lot of time discussing the dynamics of warÖ You seem to attribute war to the economic and psychological effects of life in modern Western civilization, but, as your own personal stories in The Journey of Rainsnow show, war has been with us long before this form of culture, with its frustrations and economic needs, ever came into being. In fact, many of the primitive, tribal societies which you idealize, were far more bloodthirsty and violent than our own. Warfare was a regular part of their lives, while in ours, it is only an aberration which produces peace demonstrations, and massive calls for withdrawal and disengagement if even a small number of casualties are sustained. In light of this, donít you think you need to rework your theory about aggression and warfare? Isnít the tendency to make war something that goes deeper than the defects of our civilization? Isnít our civilization, in fact, more peaceful than those which have gone before, even though the capacity of its technology to destroy makes it appear more dangerous? - C.R."

I reply:

As both The Journey of Rainsnow and The Message of Rainsnow make clear, human aggression and warfare seem to have been with us from the very beginning of our collective existence, and to have been expressed by a wide variety of cultures and civilizations, not just our own. When I discuss the dynamics which can lead to the advent of war in our civilization, I am not denying that other dynamics have existed in the past, to drive other societies to war. I am only seeking to develop an understanding of the dynamics that are at work in our own times, and in our own cultural setting, so that we may better cope with them, and learn to master them.

Most likely, your question reflects a desire to reach the deepest possible level of understanding regarding the causes of violence, aggression, and war throughout human history: causes which go beyond the flaws of specific cultures and times. That is an admirable desire, for it could lead to a more lasting and fundamental solution to the problem of war than has yet been found: one which could be applied, equally well, to all cultures and circumstances of history.                 Back To Top


Causes of War: A Historical Survey

On the surface, of course, we see many different causes for war throughout the ages.


Rome waged war for glory, plunder and tribute, and slaves: to enhance the wealth and status of its elites; to make its own world more comfortable; to "buy" social peace within its borders by channeling the wealth of other lands into its own "social welfare program" of "bread and circuses", meant to appease the poor, who it refused to empower, only pacify. Rome also waged war to eliminate powerful rivals who might interfere with its designs.


In pre-Columbian Mexico, the Aztecs waged war for tribute, and for captives to be sacrificed to the Gods, for they believed that the sun would lose its life-giving force without the regular offering of human blood. And so, a great system of human sacrifice was put into place, to maintain the life of the universe, and also to fuel the power of the Aztec nation, which was seen to depend upon the strength and good will of its blood-hungry Gods.

Germanic Tribes

The Germanic tribes which threatened Rome throughout its history, but especially towards its end, frequently launched their invasions as forms of armed migration, driven from their lands towards the borders of Rome as the result of pressure exerted on them by other tribes, which invaded their lands, and drove them to seek safety by crashing into the lands of others. This was a pattern repeated, at many times, and in many parts of the globe, and was often set off by population growth, drought, or overgrazing, which caused one group to seek territorial expansion, or else relocation, once its traditional homeland could no longer support it, displacing other groups in the process, which were then driven into the lands of neighbors.

Alexander the Great of Macedonia

Alexander the Great led the Greeks into battle against the Persians in order to unite the Greek cities he had just conquered against a common enemy (other than himself); to gain revenge against Persia for its previous invasion of Greece; to eliminate the threat of future invasions from Persia; to reach and consolidate borders which he could defend; to achieve glory, explore the world, outrun the shadow of his father, whose own greatness demanded that he be even greater, and perhaps to escape from the torment of a life he did not know what to do with. Being a king, he found ways to insert his people into his own psychological journey, and to use them, and the world, to settle his personal issues.

The Crusades

The Christian Crusaders who followed Pope Urban IIís call for the First Crusade, fought for many reasons , including religious piety (the desire to "rescue" Jerusalem and the Holy Land, from the "infidels", or Muslims, who they believed were despoiling and desecrating the holy sites where Christ had lived, and abusing Christian pilgrims); for plunder, treasure, land they could conquer, and peoples they could command; for the chance to win Godís forgiveness (many had sinned greatly in the past, and they were given new hope when the Pope promised them that God would erase the sins of all those who lost their lives in the Holy War, and doubtless forgive many others who responded to his call, as well); to escape from poverty, and from the dismal quality of feudal life (especially when you were on the bottom), and from boredom: to suddenly have a chance to fill oneís empty life with the intensity of a great adventure and a mission. The Pope may also have conceived of the Crusades as a means of pacifying war-torn Europe, by uniting all of its belligerent lords and knights in a common battle, to be fought against non-Christian peoples, outside of Europe.

Catholics Versus Protestants

The Wars of Religion, which ravaged Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, as Catholic and Protestant armies sought to annihilate each other, were also fought for a variety of reasons, including the desire of some local rulers to increase their power and control by eliminating the influence of the Catholic Church (thus, they turned to new forms of Christianity, which decentralized religious authority, and enabled political leaders to begin to dominate religious ones). Issues of influence and power among competing nations also played a part; as well as fanatical intolerance of the beliefs of others, which probably boiled down to issues of power and control ("believe what I believe as a form of proving your loyalty to me, as a sign that I do not need to fear you"). Also involved were probably issues of metaphysical fear - "do not undermine my faith (which I need to crush my fear of the unknown) by doubting it". Finally, the "good" versus "evil" rhetoric of the war may have helped to provide an excuse for many people to unleash their dark side, which could be considered to be an innate component of our human baggage (as portrayed by William Golding in The Lord of the Flies), or else the result of seething frustrations produced by small town and village peasant life in Christian Europe, which finally provided people with an "acceptable" way to act out, and express their rage. Thus, other people, dehumanized by propaganda, could be attacked as though they were serpents, not men, bypassing all the roadblocks of Christian morality to enable an emotionally agonized populace to explode. (This dark side may have been especially cultivated among certain strata of professional soldiers, whose mercenary lifestyle and insulation from civilian populations, except as targets, was conducive to brutality.)

The Colombian Violencia

Could a similar process have been at work in the Colombian Violencia, during the mid-1900s, when atrocities of unimaginable cruelty became widespread? This brutal civil war, which did so much to lay the foundation of that nationís current tragedy, was fought for political power between competing elites; for control of land, as a source of prestige and wealth for some, as a source of bare existence for others; for differences of opinion over religion and ideology; for passion and revenge; and it also unleashed a wave of common crimes, in the environment of disorder and uncertainty which resulted from the breakdown of the national state.

The American Civil War

The American Civil War was fought, by one side, to protect its economic and social system, based upon cotton, the plantation system, and slavery, which was deemed to be threatened by the increasing alienation of the national government; and, by the other side, to preserve the power and potential of the American nation, which, it was believed, would be shattered if the act and precedent of the secession of the Southern states was allowed to stand. (Slavery, though disapproved of, was not this sideís main motive for fighting.) When many, in the North, showed no interest in fighting this war, the government used coercion ("the draft") to compel them to fight; while in the South, a kind of regional/state patriotism led many poor whites - small farmers who did not profit from the plantation system - to, nonetheless, give their blood to the effort to preserve that system. (Their sacrifice was given for an ideal beyond that system, and not really connected to it, an ideal carried in the human heart, always ready to defend the essence of life, even when it does not know what it is - an ideal harnessed and misused by the system, to draw thousands of noble, good men to its own defense.)


In the Nigerian Civil War, fought in the late 1960s between the secessionist state of Biafra and the central government, the issue was the desire of one tribe, one ethnic group (the Ibo), to establish its own area of political and economic autonomy within Nigeria. (Living in a post-colonial state, in which various formerly independent ethnic groups were bunched together within unnatural borders established by the British during the colonial era, the Ibos felt that they were being unfairly dominated and discriminated against by another ethnic group. They wanted to form their own tribal nation.) The central state, however, desired to prevent the post-colonial Nigerian nation from unraveling, and also did not wish to lose valuable resources within the Iboís territory. The war was a cruel mix of savagery, and starvation, that shocked the world, which stood by, watching.

European Wars, Too Numerous To Count

Throughout much of European history, wars were fought for the control of resources; in order to eliminate or subdue potential adversaries (ingestion or disempowerment as a perceived form of self-defense); to establish and control colonies, and gain access to their resources and markets for economic development (the British capture of New York from the Dutch, the French-and-Indian War). Fear, paranoia, the Darwinian belief (even before Darwin) that survival depended upon size, which depended upon taking over and internalizing the resources of other lands, as well as the usual visions of glory, issues of pride, and the frustrations of populations in search of ways to vent their fury, or reconnect with lifeís intensity, or just die, all played a part, at one time or another.

The Incan Civil War

In the case of the Inca Civil War between Huascar and Atahuallpa, which debilitated the Inca Empire on the eve of the Spanish invasion, the battle was between two brothers, backed up by hopefuls and adherents, for the might, power, status, and wealth of being a "living God", master of a gigantic South American Empire.

Conflict Among Native American Groups

As for the smaller Native American groups, which are probably the ones you feel I have idealized, they, too, warred frequently, for various reasons. There was a frequent emphasis on raiding, which often involved the capture of enemy horses (Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Apache, etc.), or sometimes women (some groups from Amazonia), or captives for adoption or sacrifice (some Eastern Woodlands tribes), as well as planned or inadvertent combats with enemy warriors. These combats might be the result of being discovered in the midst of making off with something (horses, for example), and being forced to defend oneself, or else deliberate attacks made for the purpose of revenge or for the purpose of driving enemy tribes off of valued hunting grounds. Population growth, and/or displacement by enemy tribes (often armed by Europeans, which created new dynamics of power), could lead to some of these conflicts. Sometimes trophies - proofs of victory, or magical sources of power - would be taken in the form of scalps (North America), or shrunken heads (Amazonia). These forms of aggression, often, though not always, were centered on ensuring the preparedness of native warriors, who maintained and honed their skills through raiding. In a world of uncertainty, where the possibility of conflict was forever present, this small-scale fighting guaranteed that the tribe would always have capable defenders in its time of need. (Unfortunately, this form of "training" also tended to perpetuate conflict.) Even more importantly, perhaps, this raiding and fighting played a pivotal role in determining the warriorís status in his own society, leading to increased respect, to enhanced eligibility when it came to seeking a spouse, to the receipt of tribal honors. Conflict, less than being a mechanism for permanently eliminating the threat of an enemy, was more often a way of proving oneís worth; and genocide was rare, for the enemy was needed alive, in order to provide one with a constant medium for demonstrating oneís courage. Although enemy individuals would, therefore, certainly be killed in battle, there were rarely efforts to "eradicate" or "annihilate" an entire enemy people from the face of the earth. Instead, the enemy became a crucial part of oneís sacred world, just like the cougar, the bear, and the snake, which provided intensity to the earth, and left it with its heroic potential.      Back To Top


Violence: Our Civilization, Compared to Others

Although you characterize these "tribal societies" as far more bloodthirsty and violent than our own, and attribute the different levels of killing attained by those societies and ours, merely to differences in size and technology, I feel that there was also a very different mentality involved (again, in most cases). Indeed, the difference between the bow and the airplane was not as vast as the difference between the heart of the heroic-spiritual warrior and the heart of the practical/materialistic one of modern times (though, of course, technology has played an important part in eroding the ancient mentality, as Don Quixote noted, indignantly, of the effects of gunpowder. For material technology is now able to overpower valor and skill; just as it allows killing to be done at a distance, obscuring both the victim, and the reality of killing. As the heroic element has diminished, and the mechanical increased, so the ends of war have become more practical and centered on destruction rather than on maintaining a challenge for the warrior.)

Regarding your assertion that our contemporary, modern civilization is more peaceful than those civilizations and cultures which preceded it, I must also disagree. If our modern civilization is, in some ways, extremely concerned not to sustain wartime casualties itself, that does not imply that it is equally concerned about inflicting wartime casualties on others. The reluctance of our contemporary society to endure military losses does not, therefore, imply that we are pacific, so much as it implies that we now expect our violence to be one-sided. We expect to harm, without being harmed; to kill, without receiving wounds in the battle.

As for you assertion that aggression and war are not intrinsic to our way of life - whereas you claim that they were in the tribal societies of the past - I must say that violence is, unfortunately, intrinsic to our way of life. Though we do not consciously participate in a culture of raiding and skirmishing, as these former tribal peoples did, and though we seem to go through frequent long periods of peace in between significant conflicts, the truth of the matter is that our society is built upon an "unseen" (by us), but very tangible foundation of daily violence. I am speaking of the military and police activity of many foreign governments, which are armed by us, provided training and intelligence by us, and sometimes assisted by our advisers, agents, and troops - even in times of "peace" - to either fight against other foreign governments on behalf of our "strategic, geopolitical, and economic interests" (wars by proxy), or to control, contain, or suppress opposition political, labor or social movements, or revolutionary movements, within their own borders, for the same purpose. Although "we" may, at times, seem not to be at war, even in these times of "peace" we are almost always engaged in this kind of "invisible violence", in order to safeguard our "national interests" - the flow of oil and vital minerals to our land, the solidity of overseas investments, which generate our wealth and help to support our lifestyle, the maintenance of military bases, and strategic positions, across the globe. (Consider, during the post-Vietnam 1970s and 1980s, before Desert Storm, and excluding Grenada and Panama: the fighting between Ethiopia and Somalia in the strategically vital "Horn of Africa"; the battles between UNITA and the Marxist government of Angola, in which South Africans and Cubans were also involved; the counterinsurgency campaigns in Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador and the Philippines; the contra movement in Nicaragua; the war of the Afghan "holy warriors" against the Soviet invaders. The US was deeply involved in many of these violent conflicts, but not in the sense of actually being "at war", itself.)

Here is not the place to discuss the moral dimensions of this involvement. Suffice it to say that the US has not been unique in its use of this sort of constant "invisible violence" to construct the illusion of periods of peace. The Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the Soviet Empire, all exhibited this kind of behavior in the past, which may be nothing more than a modus operandi of all great powers, locked into the defense of huge and complex international systems, which are like gigantic fragile plants in constant need of being watered by violence. The point to be made is that what appears to us as tranquility is often, in reality, built upon a hidden level of struggle. But we do not see it, clearly, for we are peripheral to it. We taste its fruits without knowingly participating in the battle.

Naturally, if one considers our present society to be merely the latest development in a form of culture known as "modern Western civilization", then my argument that our culture is no less violent than many of the tribal cultures which preceded it gains even more ground. For this form of culture has experienced devastating moral collapses and outbreaks of war, in the case of World War I (1914-1918), with its incomprehensible levels of slaughter and unparalleled velocities of death, and World War II, with its technologically-enhanced barbarism, and shocking genocidal efficiency. Viewing our civilization from that perspective, we can hardly consider it to be only minimally violent. Rather, it might be much more accurate to conceive of our civilization as a highly unstable and erratic form of culture, characterized by temporary periods of calm, subject to intense and deadly "breakdowns." Although one could argue to the worldís end that ours is a less war-like culture than that of Native Americans of the 19th century, that view, as I have just shown, is highly debatable - while the infinitely greater destructive capacity of our culture is not.  Back To Top


Deeper Causes of Aggression

However, I feel that the heart of your criticism is aimed not at disputing the history of which culture or civilization has been the most violent and aggressive (surely, there are many candidates for this award), but to reach a higher level of understanding of human aggression, not tied to any particular cultural form. I do discuss this topic in both The Journey of Rainsnow and The Message of Rainsnow (and briefly discuss some theories and sources in The Message of Rainsnow, pages 466-469). To discuss it once again, with some additional detail, as a way of responding directly to your question, and also for the purpose of providing a resource for my Internet viewers:

We can clearly see that human aggression, violence, and war have been manifested by many different types of cultures and civilizations, and seem, in fact, to be common to the human condition (although anthropologists occasionally do make claims of having discovered peaceful and nonviolent societies).

There are many different approaches and theories for attempting to explain this. Naturally, there is intense disagreement, and no one has a definitive explanation. "Itís human nature", too depressing for some, seems overly general and insufficiently usable to others; while the idea that "aggression is learned behavior", not innate behavior, is reassuring, but probably only partially correct.

Already, I have discussed many specific causes of specific wars; and yet, there are likely to be deeper causes, underneath these causes. Take the case of wars brought on by competition for resources. Why is war the answer chosen to address the issue of scarcity? Why not some form of cooperation between groups or nations, an arrangement to share resources, instead of a war to utterly dominate them? Or take the case of a war fought because of the desire of a countryís ruler, or ruling elite, to enhance its wealth, and its power? Why do the rulers - if it is not a question of mere survival - want these things? Why are they willing to use their people as cannon fodder to attain them? And how is it that their people are able to be either dragged behind their will, or else excited to follow them? Clearly, our level of understanding can be deepened still further.  Back To Top


Freudís Theory of Aggression

Sigmund Freud, the brilliant thinker who revolutionized, even invented the field of modern psychology, involved himself deeply in the study of human aggression. (See Civilization and its Discontents.) According to Freud, there is an innate desire, contained deep in the human unconscious, to cease to exist - to die - as a means of escaping from the pressures and tensions of living. This inwards-directed aggression threatens the health and survival of the individual, who, to save himself (for a part of him also wants to live), must "eject" these self-destructive impulses outwards, in the form of aggression against others. Freud went on to say that societies are compelled to act in much the same way as the individual: threatened with self-destruction and disintegration due to the aggression of the individuals who comprise it, society must limit aggression within its borders, and "eject" this violent force, that demands expression, outwards, in the form of collective aggression against other societies: war, in other words. Freudís theory went on to claim that our human aggressive tendencies were exacerbated by the frustrations of living in our modern civilization, which hemmed us in with so many taboos and prohibitions, enraging us by the theft of so much of our life force, and so many of our desires and dreams. He stated that it might be possible to pacify our rage with material abundance; but went on to say that if our material expectations were let down, there might then be nothing left to hold back our aggression. Pessimistically, Freud dismissed grand dreams of international brotherhood and global community, for he believed people were capable of living together in civilized society only when some people remained outside of that society, as targets to receive the aggression that, if not ejected outwards, would dissolve the society from within.

Freudís theories, today, are usually dismissed, for valid theoretical and empirical reasons, but also, for ideological reasons. His starting point of an innate death wish as the origin of human aggression is generally condemned (although it does resonate, in an interesting way, with some of the dynamics that appear in the relation between suicide and murder). However, many other aspects of Freudís concept, particularly regarding the frustrations of group life and civilized life, and the "value of the enemy" as a unifier of one group at the expense of another, do continue to radiate a considerable amount of insight.  Back To Top


Some Other Psychological Takes on Aggression

Some other psychologists see aggression mainly as the result of the frustration and anger produced in the individual as his desires are thwarted, at first by parents, and later, by others who have more power, by societyís customs and laws, and by biological limits.

The Role Of The Id

Often, these psychologists adhere to the Freudian concept of the psyche, though not to Freudís theory of aggression, per se. They see the psyche as divided into three parts: first, the "id", the most primitive layer of the mind, which seeks its own pleasure and satisfaction in the most direct, impulsive, and selfish ways; the "ego", which tempers the raw energy of the "id" with an awareness of consequences, guiding it to delay gratification or even forego gratification, altogether, as needed, in order to procure the maximum amount of attainable pleasure, while avoiding the pain that would result from pursuing unattainable or forbidden pleasures; and the "superego", or conscience, which introduces a new level of self-control to the psyche, augmenting the egoís strategic oversight of the id, with a new dimension of moral oversight. That "morality", however, may sometimes only be the values of others, internalized as the result of our love or fear of authority figures who towered over us during childhood (though we spiritual types would like to imagine that there is also a natural guiding sense of "right" and "wrong" imbedded in our psychological makeup).

In these terms, many psychologists see aggression as the result of our idís drive for pleasure (the primal motivation). In cases, the ego may realize that it can let the id run free (a powerful nation may, for example, overpower a weaker one). If the ego sees no strategic reason to restrain the id, and if the superego is able to be convinced to step aside (excluding the intended victim from its moral protection, perhaps by accepting a propagandistic, demonized portrait of the enemy), then aggression may be unleashed. Just the same as a child who wants a shiny toy may push away a weaker child who is already playing with that toy, one nation or group of people, may fall upon another.

On the other hand, if the id, with its primal desires, is too tightly repressed by the ego, or superego, in response to external conditions or moral indoctrination, it may seethe within the human psyche, until, unable to bear the pressure of denial any longer, it explodes outwards in rebellion, overpowering the egoís attempts to restrain it, and launching the individual or nation into irrational and counterproductive forms of aggression, in its desperate effort to attain what is beyond its reach, yet too ardently desired to accept living without. In the process, rationality is lost, or relegated to second place. Unable to stop the madness, reason then attempts to wrap the madness up within a new sense of order and logic, giving an apparently rational form and aim to something that is utterly unreasonable.

These psychologists, therefore, see conflict and war as a result of the human search for pleasure, centered in the "id", once this search becomes disassociated from either the controlling force of the ego, or the controlling force of the superego. It should be mentioned that these three "layers" of the mind - the id, the ego and the superego - are really intellectual concepts, which do not correspond to exact physiological locations in the brain. This whole conceptual framework is, therefore, rejected by some.

The Battle For Self-Esteem

Another psychological theory for explaining the manifestation of human aggression, links aggression to the preservation of individual self-esteem. Whereas many scholars and scientists understand the link between aggression and the instinct for physical self-preservation, this theory maintains that it is the individualís quest to love himself - which is a crucial motivational component of his ability to preserve his life - that is the source of much of our aggression. These psychologists believe that when our self-love is threatened, aggressive instincts are awakened within us, as a tool for the defense of the self. The attacks which trigger the rise of this aggression in us could be in the form of criticism, humiliation, indifference, deprivation, abandonment, or betrayal: anything that makes us feel less worthwhile, less valuable, and on some level, less deserving of life. Furthermore, the attacks do not have merely to be against us. These theorists maintain that during the course of our lives, we transfer much of our self-love to others - a form of bonding that also enlarges our identity, fusing us emotionally with others. Thus, we may come to love our family, and our country, as other aspects of our new, enlarged selves. Naturally, if these are threatened or criticized, our aggressive instincts may be unleashed, just as surely as if we, ourselves, were under attack. According to these theorists, although the drive to love the self exists to motivate the drive to preserve the self, the drive to preserve oneís self-love is actually stronger than the drive to preserve oneís life. Consider the examples of the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II, and the Muslim suicide bombers of our own times, whose search for love, admiration, and respect as martyrs, outweighed their commitment to their physical lives. Literary and mythological examples used to illustrate the concept (see Gregory Rochlin, Manís Aggression: The Defense of Self) include the tales of Medea, Othello, and Achilles, all of whom killed others and irreparably harmed themselves, in aggressive reactions to humiliation and/or guilt which severely damaged their self-love, and drove them to seek violent revenge, to destroy or disempower either the source of their humiliation, or a stand-in for that source. (Frequently, psychologists have found, aggression may be "displaced", directed not against what has truly provoked it, but against a substitute target. Thus, the man mistreated at work, may vent his anger, not against his boss, but against his wife, his kids, his dog. In the same way, a people essentially enraged by the dynamics of its own society, may have its aggression channeled against another society that has nothing to do with its own dilemma. In fact, this is a way that clever leaders, sitting on top of unjust systems which abuse their own people, have often diverted the aggression that could have produced rebellions against them, against innocent peoples and nations, instead.)

Considering the beating which our self-esteem is taking in this day and age, as belittled, trivialized, ignored and often abused individuals hardly valued by society, this is a psychological theory which must be considered with great attention.  Back To Top



Another model for understanding human aggression comes from the controversial realm of sociobiology, closely related to the field of ethology (the study of animal behavior).

The Food Supply, And Sex

Sociobiologists, centering their analysis on Darwinian theories of evolution, modern scientific knowledge of genetics, observations and studies of animal behavior and society, and anthropological studies of human culture, begin their work by discussing the biological function of aggression. They see its role in helping the individual animal or being protect its food supply, driving off competitors in times of scarcity, or even plenty; and also see its importance in the process of sexual selection, as males of many species drive competitors away from the females with whom they wish to mate. In the first case, "natural selection" rewards the aggressor, by guaranteeing him the resource base he needs to live, while the peaceful, meek creature is more likely to perish in times of want. According to Darwinís theory, the aggressor, by living, perpetuates his genes, which, presumably, contain that all-important dose of aggressiveness, while the less aggressive creature dies. Over time, aggression, in this way, becomes rooted in the genes - an innate characteristic. Regarding "sexual selection", a similar process occurs. The male who wins the battle for the female perpetuates his aggressive, fighting genes, by mating and having offspring; while the weaker, less combative male wanders away, alone, and when he dies, takes his genes with him.

According to this theory, these genetic dynamics, applicable to human beings as well as animals, have rooted aggressiveness deeply into our biological nature. Yet the sociobiologists insist that this aggressiveness is not all-powerful, but only one component of our human nature, a resource that is triggered in certain situations, and one which can, at least, be partially offset by other innate "biological" components of our mind, including our capacity to reason (which also has great "survival value").

The Social Group And Territory

In the case of human beings, the sociobiological dynamics which are said to have shaped us are deemed to be even more complex. Being "social animals", our biological resource of aggressiveness inherited from more primitive life forms on the evolutionary ladder, has become adapted to group life. Since the ability of humans to cooperate in social groups was crucial to the survival of our species, the same as with the wolf pack or baboon tribe, we developed ways of managing the manifestations of aggressiveness within the social group, so that it could continue to function coherently and effectively, providing us with its benefits. Rather than fighting against one another for the resources needed to sustain life, members of the group cooperated to procure resources for the entire group, which, therefore, became the unit of survival (this is a development which we are said to have inherited from certain forms of apes, which also lived in social groups). In cases, the "ranges" of particular human groups developed into "territories" (which some forms of "solitary" animals also claim). These "territories" might then be defended against other human groups, in order to guard the resource base of the group. (Some writers on the subject, such as Robert Ardrey, in The Territorial Imperative, seek to link territoriality in animals to our human formation of nations.)

Dominance And Submission

Regarding the struggle for dominance among males, which is typically associated with the process of sexual selection in some animal species, sociobiologists believe we have been influenced by the evolution of some primates, who have solved the "problem" in the following way: dominance, and with it, choice mating options, are sometimes established by fighting between males within the social group. The fighting, however, is normally non-lethal, just enough to demonstrate the superiority of the stronger animal, without crippling or destroying the weaker one. Even more frequently, dominance is established by "threats and displays", without actually fighting. The threats exhibit aspects of temperament and power in such a way as to intimidate and achieve success without bloodshed. In fact, this form of behavior is common among solitary animals, as well. In the case of solitary creatures, however, the loser usually wanders away into the wilderness, disappearing into his loneliness and genetic exile, whereas in the case of social animals, the loser stays, by exhibiting gestures of submission, which indicate that he "knows his place" and accepts the "superiority" of the winner, who then tolerates the loserís continued presence in the group (the beaten wolf, for example, lies down, exposing his throat to the winner). In this way, conflict does not shatter the group. Instead, the need to bond in the social group and work together, for survival, overcomes the wounded pride of the loser and the winnerís fear of being challenged again. Further conflict is avoided by the development of a hierarchy of dominance and submission within the group, which defines relations and creates roles that provide safety and stability for the members of the group. Of course, positions within the social order are often tested and sometimes challenged, but on the whole, the system works well to deter aggression, within the group, by enabling the "aggressor" to get what he wants pacifically, as a result of his social position, rather than having to fight for it each time. (And, in most cases, he will not get everything, for the "losers" will also be able to mate with the less-desired females, and sometimes, even with favored females, behind the winnerís back. They will be left with something, to keep them bound to the group.)

The Political Incorrectness Of Sociobiology

Naturally, many sociobiologists see, in this behavior of some fellow primates, evidence of a genetic basis for the development of certain forms of human culture, including the development of social hierarchies and classes, rulers and subjects, "elites" and "masses": a conclusion which offends and disturbs many, and is certainly vigorously disputed. Are sociobiologists really saying that cultures characterized by social inequality are part of our "genetic programming", and the likely product of our human nature, just as a peach is the likely product of a peach tree? Certainly, it is problems such as this which have turned sociobiology, today, into such a controversial discipline, causing many to fear that it will become nothing more than a revamped form of "Social Darwinism", the heartless 19th-century philosophy which sought to justify the oppression and exploitation of man by man on biological grounds, as something normal, inevitable, and even beneficial for the "evolution" of society. Honestly, in regard to this, I feel that sociobiology may have been hit with "overkill", for though there are grave dangers in superficially linking studies of animal behavior and genetics to issues of human culture and history, the field ought not to be intimidated into utterly "shutting down", because life does depend upon self-knowledge, and sociobiology, at its deepest levels, does promise to enrich our self-understanding with new dimensions of awareness. Nor does it ever condemn us to live as prisoners of the dark things which may be "rooted" in our genes; for our genes surely also contain happier options, which may best be deployed by knowing the obstacles that they face.

The Deadliness Of Human Conflict

Making the leap from observed studies of primate behavior to human behavior, many scientists and philosophers have gone on to ask the critical question: why is it that animal forms of intraspecific aggression - aggression between members of the same species over "territory", "dominance" and "sexual rights" - rarely lead to death, while in human conflict, epitomized by war, death is the common outcome? Analysts attribute this unfortunate difference, paradoxically, to the intelligence of human beings, which has led to the development of deadly weapons. Whereas, in combat between animals of the same species, non-life-threatening wounds usually (but not always) discourage one of the fighters long before death occurs, in human combat, with weapons, fatal wounds are produced with much greater rapidity. A foe is, therefore, often killed before he has a chance to back down. Besides this, human intelligence is credited with producing an entirely distinct vision of combat. The human knows that if a vanquished rival lives to retreat, he may come back another day to fight. And so the human warrior is far more likely to be ruthless than the animal combatant in "defense of his territory", making sure to destroy his enemy so that he will never be able to challenge him again. His greater awareness of the future has, unfortunately, also turned him into a greater killer.

Violence Between Social Groups

Of course, as I said before, most social groups have developed mechanisms for controlling, and limiting levels of aggression within the group - otherwise, the group would lose its survivability and evolutionary value. But the extreme violence, which I have just mentioned, may sometimes be applied by one social group against another - or, alternatively, the other social group may be spared, after providing appropriate signs of submission (in battles between many ancient kingdoms, this was done by the provision of tribute to the conqueror; by sending "hostages" from important families to live within the power center of the conqueror; by wearing or not wearing certain kinds of clothing; by bowing, as when a defeated king must bow down before the throne of his conqueror; by providing workers or warriors to serve the interests of the conqueror.) In other cases, where rites of submission were not deemed sufficient to contain a vanquished enemy, slaughter would result - sometimes genocide and/or the enslavement of the survivors (Alexanderís destruction of Thebes and Tyre; Romeís destruction of Carthage; the Mongolsí reign of terror in China; Tamerlaneís "pyramid of skulls" in India). Again, human intelligence came into play, discovering the value of calculated terror, which allowed a ruthless nation to defeat future enemies with fear alone, on the basis of what it had already done to others.

Once again, the sociobiological "take" on aggression and war, relying heavily upon the attempt to extend the study of animal behavior and genetic dynamics to human culture and history, is highly controversial. Too simply pursued, it can lead to false assumptions, dangerous ideologies, and views of human nature distorted by looking through the prism of our primate relatives. Carefully and deeply pursued, however, it seems capable of providing us with valuable new perspectives on the roots of human violence and aggression, complementing our existing psychological, political, economic, and philosophical views on the subject.               Back To Top


Aggression, War, And Human Nature, Part II

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