“On Aggression” Revisited

Once upon a time, half a century ago and more, several authors wrote books according to which certain animals, including human beings, are, at least in certain circumstances, predisposed to aggressive behavior.  Prominent among them was On Aggression, published in English in 1966 by Konrad Lorenz.  Other authors included Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups, 1969) and Robin Fox (The Imperial Animal, co-authored with Tiger, 1971).  The most prominent and widely read of all was the inimitable Robert Ardrey (African Genesis, 1961, The Territorial Imperative, 1966, The Social Contract, 1970, and The Hunting Hypothesis, 1976).  Why were these books important, or even written to begin with?  After all, the fact of innate aggression, then as now, was familiar to any child who happened to own a dog.  Well, because the “men of science” disagreed.  They insisted that there were no innate tendencies to aggression, in man or any of the other higher animals.  It was all the fault of unfortunate cultural developments back around the start of the Neolithic era, or of the baneful environmental influence of “frustration.”

Do you think I’m kidding?  By all means, read the source literature! For example, according to a book entitled Aggression by “dog expert” John Paul Scott published in 1958 by the University of Chicago Press,

All research findings point to the fact that there is no physiological evidence of any internal need or spontaneous driving force for fighting; that all stimulation for aggression eventually comes from the forces present in the external environment.

A bit later, in 1962 in a book entitled Roots of Behavior he added,

All our present data indicate that fighting behavior among the higher mammals, including man, originates in external stimulation and that there is no evidence of spontaneous internal stimulation.

Ashley Montagu added the following “scientific fact” about apes (including chimpanzees!) in his “Man and Aggression,” published in 1968:

The field studies of Schaller on the gorilla, of Goodall on the chimpanzee, of Harrison on the orang-utan, as well as those of others, show these creatures to be anything but irascible. All the field observers agree that these creatures are amiable and quite unaggressive, and there is not the least reason to suppose that man’s pre-human primate ancestors were in any way different.

When Goodall dared to contradict Montagu and report what she had actually seen, she was furiously denounced in vile attacks by the likes of Brian Deer, who chivalrously recorded in an artical published in the Sunday Times in 1997,

…the former waitress had arrived at Gombe, ordered the grass cut and dumped vast quantities of trucked-in bananas, before documenting a fractious pandemonium of the apes. Soon she was writing about vicious hunting parties in which our cheery cousins trapped colubus monkeys and ripped them to bits, just for fun.

This remarkable transformation from Montagu’s expert in the field to Deer’s “former waitress” was typical of the way “science” was done by the Blank Slaters in those days.  This type of “science” should be familiar to modern readers, who have witnessed what happens to anyone who dares to challenge the current climate change dogmas.

Fast forward to 2016.  A paper entitled The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature.  The first figure in the paper has the provocative title, “Evolution of lethal aggression in non-human mammals.”   It not only accepts the fact of “spontaneous internal stimulation” of aggression without a murmur, but actually quantifies it in no less than 1024 species of mammals!  According to the abstract,

Here we propose a conceptual approach towards understanding these roots based on the assumption that aggression in mammals, including humans, has a significant phylogenetic component. By compiling sources of mortality from a comprehensive sample of mammals, we assessed the percentage of deaths due to conspecifics and, using phylogenetic comparative tools, predicted this value for humans. The proportion of human deaths phylogenetically predicted to be caused by interpersonal violence stood at 2%.

All this and more is set down in the usual scientific deadpan without the least hint that the notion of such a “significant phylogenetic component” was ever seriously challenged.  Unfortunately the paper itself is behind Nature’s paywall, but a there’s a free review with extracts from the paper by Ed Yong on the website of The Atlantic, and Jerry Coyne also reviewed the paper over at his Why Evolution is True website.  Citing the paper Yong notes,

It’s likely that primates are especially violent because we are both territorial and social—two factors that respectively provide motive and opportunity for murder.  So it goes for humans.  As we moved from small bands to medium-sized tribes to large chiefdoms, our rates of lethal violence increased.

“Territorial and social!?”  Whoever wrote such stuff?  Oh, now I remember!  It was a guy named Robert Ardrey, who happened to be the author of The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract.  Chalk up another one for the “mere playwright.”  Yet again, he was right, and almost all the “men of science” were wrong.  Do you ever think he’ll get the credit he deserves from our latter day “men of science?”  Naw, neither do I.  Some things are just too embarrassing to admit.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

8 thoughts on ““On Aggression” Revisited”

  1. Re: “men of science”

    As Gregory Cochran observes, the “soft sciences” (anthropology, psychology, etc.) have been heavily politicized for decades and are just beginning to crawl out from under that rock.

    Their “science” has been little better than phrenology. The attacks on Lorenz, Ardrey, et al., were politically motivated, full stop.

  2. As far as political attacks go, perhaps the most egregious was/is that on Napoleon Chagnon. That debacle seems to have been the high water mark for the leftists. Most debates since then have seen the left in a rear guard action as they are beaten back.

    There is a long way to go yet, but we can be thankful that they are in retreat.

  3. Yes, the attack on Napoleon Chagnon had to be one of the worst ever. I’ll always admire Alice Dreger for her slam dunk of Tierney, Sahlins, and the rest of the leftover Blank Slaters in her “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association.”

  4. Just reading ‘BEHIND THE MIRROR’. I understand why the book was not taken up by the mass audience, it is complicated and demands a level of generousity.
    My q at this stage is where would you place ‘free will’? I would never go as far as to argue that we have no free will, rather the ability to exercise it is far more complex than the average person can even begin to imagine.
    Lorenz, by theorising on the nature of the forces that cause reaction/action in the human psyche shows the instinctive basis of our drives. Undoubtedly the overlay of family/culture mold or deform these drives, and as such behaviour which may seem individual is yet really be a variance of norm. The prodigal son etc.
    To push the cynical argument would free will not have to be against instinct and culture?
    Only half way through and so impressed, as I was just last week when re reading ‘the soul of the Ape’. To indulge in a tangent, Morias was of course damaged, his cultural experience forced, or shocked him into seeing many of the main stream currents and eddies. Most of the group never see such forces, rather they are blind to them and the effect upon the individual.

  5. Ardrey, Just rereading ‘The Social Contract’, the first few pages are like walking over old ground that you thought was lost,. I found myself saying,. Yes, Yes, Of course… My copy is literally falling apart from old age, the page markers seem a bit pointless now as they are sticking out like a porcupines quills.
    However, I read with great interest his concept that man has an inbuilt (paraphrasing) mechanism to self deception,. This is hugely important as game theory allows for deception within a group to be evidence of self interest. Self righteousness in many of the social progressive groups falls into the same category (so I would argue).
    Many of the pronouncements’ of the culture vultures are of the ‘do what I say not what I do variety’, now there is nothing wrong with this but the point is that they are unaware that these ‘gaming strategies’ are really evidence of quite blood curdling unconscious motivations.
    That Ardrey is seemingly lost in the fog of academic elitism is clear evidence to me that few understood him, that most academia is group workshopping and that the afore mentioned self deception is worthy of more study.
    Just thoughts, how bizarre it is that he can so lost,. There must be a deep reason for this, I’d be interested in your views on this?

  6. Just to clarify my bad expression, Ardrey wasn’t lost . Academia seems to have lost his work, or his honesty unmasks their falseness. There is a link here to Lorenz and his mirror.
    It’s tricky, I almost think one needs a certain independence.

  7. I’ve written quite a bit about why Ardrey has been “lost.” Basically, he was an outsider who shamed the academics by pointing out how obvious it was that the basic shibboleths of their “science” were nonsense. They became a laughing stock to the lay readers who read Ardrey, and they couldn’t intimidate those lay readers into silence they way they could those in their own tribe who got out of step with the narrative. Eventually they had to admit that they were wrong, but they could never bear to admit that Ardrey, a “mere playwright,” was right. As a result they invented an alternative “history” according to which the Blank Slate had “really” been derailed and exposed by E. O. Wilson, one of their own. It’s easy to show that, as far as the crucial facts about the existence and significance of human nature are concerned, Wilson’s “Sociobiology” was just a timid echo of what Ardrey, Lorenz, and others had written more than a decade earlier.

    As far as an inbuilt mechanism for self-deception is concerned, Jonathan Haidt has much to say about that in his brilliant “The Righteous Mind.” In that book Haidt distances himself from his fellow “tribesman,” embracing evolutionary psychology, exposing the absurdity of liberal pietism, pleading for understanding rather than automatic condemnation of conservatives, etc. However, even he has swallowed the Wilson myth, and repeats it in the book.

    Of Ardrey’s four books, “The Social Contract” is of particular significance because of the good things the author had to say in it about group selection. Dawkins claimed that Ardrey and others were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection in “The Selfish Gene,” and Pinker then seized on that passage to claim that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong” about everything in his “The Blank Slate.” Of course, that claim is utterly ridiculous, and yet it has become the academics’ favorite excuse for pretending Ardrey never existed. Meanwhile, of course, group selection has once again become very much a going concern, and in what has to be one of the greatest scientific ironies of all time, has been embraced by none other than Wilson himself!

    BTW, all Ardrey’s books are now available at Audible.com.

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