‘War Is Human Nature!’ and Other Unfounded Claims to Justify the Status-quo – Part II.


Having buried the baseless claim that humans are innately predisposed to war, and by extension its implication that such predisposition can be selected for and therefore rewarded over evolutionary timespans, let us move on to the claim of last resort for the cantors of ‘human nature’—the claim that, rather than innately warlike, humans are violent/aggressive by nature.

One permutation of the argument may go something to the effect of “I mean, just look at the chimpanzee! They’re so violent! No wonder we share 98.7% of our DNA—it really shows!” What our observant friend in this instance fails to realize is that, yes, we do share 98.7% of our DNA with the “violent” chimpanzee, but what he fails to realize is (a) chimp violence is not what it is cracked up to be, and that (b) we share the exact proportion of our DNA—98.7 [1]—with the Bonobo, a species no one would call violent by any stretch of the imagination. But, of course, the correlation is only with the villainous chimp. The assumption made of the chimp already places his paradigm in danger. The villainous chimp, the so-called ‘demonic male’, is not actually as violent as it is purported to be by recent authors whose data, distorted by ideology, is exceedingly paltry. Jane Goodall, an authority on the chimpanzee unrivaled in the world of science, reported a culture of pacification and ease among the Chimps of Gombe National Park, with a total of 28 instances of what could be called violent emerging over the period of a year, the majority of these instances resulted in no injury to either party and were followed by reconciliation [2]. The following observations were used to justify a violent conception of the chimpanzee in the 1996 book ‘Demonic Males: Apes and Origins of Human Violence’, and were uncovered for their shoddy science by Hart and Sussman int heir 2009 book, ‘Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution’:

(1) Goodall reports a so-called raiding party in 1982 in which a female was chased and mildly attacked and her 4-year-old son was sniffed.

(2) A 35 year old male’s body was found in 1981. With no evidence, murder was inferred. Males rarely live past 33.

(3) “From 1970 to 1982 six adult males from one community disappeared at a Japanese study site in the Mahale Mountains of Tanzania, west of Gombe,” one by one over a 12 year period. With no evidence, murder was inferred. But lions are common predators of chimpanzees in that region.

(4) Wrangham and Peterson misreport statements by Christopher and Hedwige Boesch, saying that they said “violent aggression among the chimpanzees is as important as it is in Gombe” whereas they really said, according to Hart and Sussman is that “encounters by neighboring chimpanzee communities are more common in their site than in Gombe and that this may lead to larger, more cohesive, group structure and a ‘higher involvement of the males in social life’-there is no mention of any violence or killing during these encounters” (p. 210).

(5) At the site Wrangham had studied since 1984, a male’s body was found in 1991 a few days after the troop’s males had been exchanging calls with another community. The researchers had not seen any violence, nor was there any in the 7 years prior or 6 years after the incident. With no evidence, murder was inferred.

Granted the obvious naturalistic fallacy that any “innate” nature of genetically similar human relatives implies any imperative for humans, it is still ironic to note that the Bonobo, so rarely identified for its proximity to humans, allocates resources via mutual aid in the form of louse-picking etc., and defuses situations which would otherwise escalate into violence via stress-reducing sexual interactions [3]. This is not to say, however, that no violence at all exists in Bonobo society. Females have been known to bite at the fingers and toes of males who attempt to take their stores of food, or violate the territory of particularly bonded females, occasionally resulting in severe damage or removal of the digits [4]. Particularly egregious incidents, such as infanticide and revenge-killing, have never been recorded among Bonobos [5].

So, having frustrated the simplistic equivocation between human and chimp violence, let us move on.

To say that humans are “naturally violent” implies a default state of aggression. If this were the case, if we are only agreeable tenuously and determined to be violent by genetics or evolution etc., then it would follow that a human who is primed for psychopathy, that is an individual with the physiology—i.e. white to gray-matter ratio and array of genes—associated with psychopathy. Even in this extreme case, this perfect storm of potential violence, violence is not assured, nor even likely unless conditioned. This exact template was found by a neuroscientist James Fallon—in his own head. Fallon, after a lengthy scanning of the brains of his relatives and genetic tests, found that he had 12 genes related to aggression and violence and zeroed in on the MAO-A gene (monoamine oxidase A), also called the “Warrior Gene”, and found that every member of his living family has a non-dominant version of the gene, except him [6]. He also found that his own brain-scan revealed very low activity in the orbital cortex, the part of the brain which regulates the knee-jerk impulses of the amygdala which concerns itself with activating feelings of fear and rage.

This particular brain structure mixed with the fact that the “warrior gene” dulls the brain to the effects of serotonin, should have turned Dr. Fallon into a raving, violent psychopath. In an interview with NPR [ibid], Fallon mused that “We’ll never know, but the way these patterns are looking in general population, had I been abused, we might not be sitting here today.”

That is the key to this kind of confluence—the brain and genetics of a psychopath, the career of an accomplished scientist. The findings of a 2002 New Zealand study confirm this; after following 442 male individuals from birth to the age of 26, carriers of the aggressive variant of the warrior gene indeed had a higher likelihood of developing anti-social and violent behavior—only if they had been abused as children [7]. A similar study [ibid] found that similarly genetically endowed youths were more likely to commit fraud if they associated with delinquents, but not otherwise. This is not surprising given how human-beings learn.

Human children learn through a process of—for lack of a better term—‘monkey see, monkey do’, that is through mimicking actions observed in ones environment as a guide to later action. This is confirmed by Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment, wherein a group of children of mixed sex, separated into two groups and individually exposed to 10 minutes of play with a “violent” model witnessed punching, kicking, yelling at an inflatable clown “bobo” doll. The other group was exposed to a model who merely played with the doll, but did not abuse it. The experiment showed that children exposed to the violent model acted violently toward the doll when it was given to them, while the non-violent model-group did not [8].

Other types of bobo experiments have been conducted since Bandura’s original test, generally confirming the the observation as well as observing the same effect in adults with such stimuli as video-games and movies [ibid].

But what do we make of all this? If we are not “naturally aggressive”, but learnedly aggressive in some cases, and even psychopaths cannot start an illustrious career of abuse without having first been abused, how are we to judge all this? Well let us study what we have observed so far—Warfare, and more importantly substantial inter-group violence of any kind, has only arisen since the agricultural revolution after-which surplus and ruling-classes came into existence. Having observed that the conditions of the rise of property, as surplus can only become given the organs of civilization which develop to manage it, how can we not come to the conclusion that our organization of society engenders violence? That the conflict which has arisen due to property is not conditioning mankind, through an aggressive media, national discourse, home environment etc.? That that environment itself is not self-perpetuating, engendering more alienation and frustration in society?

Would it then not be prudent, having deduced the above, that removal of the pressures which cause the excesses of our conditioned, violent culture be expunged—namely property?

Joshua Alexander

[1] http://news.sciencemag.org/plants-animals/2012/06/bonobos-join-chimps-closest-human-relatives

[2] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201103/male-chimps-and-humans-are-genetically-violent-not

[3] http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/bonobo/behav

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127888976


[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobo_doll_experiment#Experiment_in_1961


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