The notion that human aggression is natural and behaviorally innate seems to have a long history deriving from the natural sciences. Darwin’s theory has long been construed as demonstrating the utility of aggression—the strongest control resources, detour challengers, and survive. In 1963, Robert Ardrey proposed that man descended from killer primates and retained his primordial ancestor’s killer instincts. Ardrey built on Raymond Darts’s theory that man evolved as a hunter into a killer from which the most cunning tool builders (weapon makers) and aggressive personalities prevailed—thereby arguing that human intelligence was the result of natural selection from violence.
Despite the killer primate being an interesting theory, it has largely been ignored by serious scholars on the auspices that there is no evidence to say that man is particularly more violent than any other predator. Early criticism also claimed that Ardrey and Dart ignored the supposed peaceful behavior of man’s closest relative, the chimpanzee.1 Interestingly, a new generation of primatologist are now claiming that chimpanzees are among the most aggressive primates. It is now readily accepted that chimpanzee males will form alliances, defend their own territory, attempt to expand their territory, and that some populations will kill members of their own species. Accordingly, the only other primate known to actively kill members of its own species is Homo Sapiens, the chimpanzee’s closest relative. 2
This shared behavior has inspired Harvard primatologist, Richard Wrangham, to propose the Demonic Male Hypothesis. Wrangham believes that natural aggression is primarily found in males of the two species and like his predecessors, Ardrey and Darts, Wrangham believes humans and chimps share a particularly violent common ancestor.2 3 But of course, such theories draw strong criticisms. There are those criticisms that say it is wrong to call violence natural because doing so condones it or in the least excuses it. There are those criticisms that say that the available data on chimpanzee behavior is inconclusive, that studied populations are under unnatural stress and therefore their behavior is not typical. There are those who say human violence is too complex to make sense of by relating humanity to our underdeveloped primate cousins and speculative common ancestors. Accordingly, to propose a theory and defend a theory is usually to disregard other theories and data—and disregarding relevant arguments is always grounds for dismissal or the assaulting label of careless scholarship—at least for the opponents.
Despite my own cynicism for scholarly debate, I must contend that the precise nature of man’s evolution really doesn’t change the fact that civilization is often violent. That is to say that it really doesn’t matter whether the original humans were peaceful or not because our nature today often is not. But, of course, it does matter for the evolutionary theorist—nature remains nature regardless of one’s predispositions. The fact that there are wars, there are murders, strongly suggest a natural predisposition in the species for such. Those who contend that primitive man was more peaceful have it wrong—the evidence for prehistoric cannibalism, ritual sacrifice, war, and murder are very prevalent in the fossil record—so too does the noble salvage, modern primitives, give us a record of regular neighborly conflict, rape, and murder.
While I’m not ready to say that the killer primate theory is correct, I do believe violence is natural. If we were a different species of intelligent life studying humanity, we would certainly make note of humanities periodic warfare, tribal raids, lynchings, gang violence, and individual conflict—we would say these occur with enough regularity to be natural descriptors of the species, and we would probably contend that this violence serves a number of regulatory functions. The arguments that I am against are the ones that want to deny nature merely because it doesn’t sit well with ideal views or because their proponets see confirmation as being affirmation. I believe social science must be separated from social engineering and while science may be used with utility, it is wrong for scientist to politicize…to deny a truth, because it is threatening, is to politicize.
However, Oxford primatologist and anthropologist, Vernon Reynolds has warned me not to “fall into the trap of overstating the power of evolutionary explanations”4. Doctor Reynolds recognizes that there are other causes for violence, such as “learned perceptions,” though he does concede that we can argue that we are evolutionarily “programmed” to “learn” (and I presume he means this with a predisposition for violence). However, I take a lot of inspiration from social psychology (being that it is one of my interdisciplinary disciplines) and am more concerned with “what” and “how” than “why,” which is the concern of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology. Nevertheless, Doctor Reynolds caution has caused me to do just that, and ask—can we overstate human aggression?
Interestingly, I am beginning to wonder if those who so ardently oppose the classification of violence as natural lend a valuable clue to human nature itself. Indeed, it seems that there is just as much predisposition (not to be confused with desire) to avert aggressive behavior as there is for aggressive behavior itself. Therefore I’m currently of the belief that any debate concerning man’s predisposition for war should also examine man’s predisposition for peace and any argument that is either/or is incomplete. I would suggest that we are conditioned to make and enjoy peace, but I will take the realist’s view and say that aggression is just as natural—that it is scientifically unreasonable to predict that we will ever eliminate violence and war as long as evolution has us defined as Homo Sapiens (perhaps the politically hopeful will see fit to call us something else).
4. From private email correspondence 03-23-10