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BOOK SUMMARY: On Aggression

SUMMARY: On Aggression
Copyright © 1998 by: Sebastian Molnar

Konrad Lorenz (1963) used animal behavior in an attempt to demonstrate how human behavior might be understood. Humans are animals, so it is likely that humans develop behavior patterns by similar mechanisms other animals have. Lorenz listed four main drives (hunger, reproduction, fear, and aggression) which help to create and shape certain behavior patterns. None of them work alone, but he focuses on the aggression drive. Lorenz contends that aggression can only occur within a species: intraspecific aggression, as opposed to interspecific fighting, since the 'motives' behind each are different.

Lorenz stated three functions of aggression: 1) balancing the distribution of the species, 2) selection of the strongest, and 3) defense of the young. These characteristics have important effects on the behavioral development of a species. For example, aggression may allow for territoriality (e.g. in a species where males are aggressive - the more aggressive a male is, the more likely that male will be able defend and to hold on to a territory). Territories may have certain resources (e.g. food, shelter). A female wanting to reproduce may require certain resources - a place to nest or a place to rear young - so females will select (aggressive) males with territory. In a species where the young require a relatively long time to develop, aggressive parents may be required for protection.

Lorenz listed four types of social organization: 1) anonymous crowds, 2) family or social life, 3) rat packs or tribes, and 4) bonds though love and friendship. Anonymous crowds and family groups form primarily out of a common or mutual goal (e.g. migration, since there is safety in numbers; or, nest building and rearing offspring). In these cases aggression is insignificant or non-existent. In rat packs, aggression may be present, but it is directed to 'non-tribal' members - individuals are not recognized, but the characteristic tribe smell is. The fourth type of social organization, 'the bond' (personal 'bonds' and strong group cohesion) - as Lorenz contends, can arise only when aggression is present, but in addition, there also exists certain 'aggression inhibiting mechanisms'. 'Ritualization' is a process where a certain behavior evolves into something symbolic (the original purpose may no longer be the reason the behavior is performed - it becomes a ritual). Aggression may be redirected to some 'object' other than the one eliciting the aggression - this may be how some rituals develop. Ritualization occurs in both rival fights and in certain mating behaviors. It is through 'simulation' (in rituals) that dominance and subservience can arise and create certain social orders (e.g. in wolves). It is also through simulation that certain mating behaviors (e.g. the male 'mating dance' of some birds) persist. The simulation must be performed a certain way before a female accepts a male - but the simulation itself may represent something else (i.e. endurance) and the female actually selects males for endurance on the basis of rituals.

There is perhaps one main problem with Lorenz's argument. Lorenz believed in a "good for the species" or "survival of the group" view. This was a widely held notion - until recently. Speaking on a molecular level, it is 'gene survival' (Dawkins, 1976) not group survival that occurs. Groups can only survive if the individuals in the group survive. Individuals survive through the selection of phenotypic effects of their genes interacting with the environment. The group may be considered a part of the environment. Also, what is good for the group may not necessarily be good for the individual (overpopulation is an example - there are limited resources for each individual). The argument against the "survival of the species", however, does not ruin Lorenz's argument completely. Lorenz points in the direction to understanding the biological component of human behavior by understanding animal behavior.

Lorenz suggests that humans lack aggression inhibitors, since humans seem to be changing (socially) at a much faster rate than evolution can compensate for. Humans are somehow different: we have 'moral and rational responsibilities'. New outlets for aggression have developed (e.g. laughter, sports), which may have come about by ritualization (e.g. sports from 'rival fights'). The human mind solves problems and it allows us to adapt to changing conditions. This may be necessary, since humans have no apparent natural 'weapons' (as other species do; e.g. cats that have claws). However, humans do have aggression and do form personal bonds. As such, inhibitors on aggression are required to keep these bonds intact. If there were no such inhibitors, humankind could have easily brought about it's own extinction (i.e. through war and nuclear weapons). Lorenz does not appear to answer the question adequately.

Question: Groups can form without aggression (e.g. anonymous flocks), and families can arise simply on the basis of mutual goals. Rats are fairly successful animals - they have aggressive natures, but no close bonds form. Since other animals seem to do sufficiently well without bonds, what biological/social advantage would incur by the formation of close social bonds?

Lorenz, K. (1963) On Aggression. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, reprinted in 1966.
Dawkins. R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprinted in 1989.




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