Nature and Culture, an unresolved polarity: the case of aggression
Εισήγηση σε συνέδριο της «Αιγυπτιακής Εταιρίας Θεωρίας της Λογοτεχνίας» που έγινε σε συνεργασία με το πανεπιστήμιο Ain Shams με θέμα «Cultural Criticism», Κάιρο, 10-14 Δεκεμβρίου 2003. (Είχα ξεκινήσει να τη γράφω στα ελληνικά, αλλά μετά είδα πως μου ήταν πιο βολικό να τη γράψω κατ’ ευθείαν στα αγγλικά, μια και οι παραπομπές και η βιβλιογραφία ήταν κατά βάση αγγλική. Δεν έχω το κουράγιο να τη μεταφράσω, και πιστεύω ότι όλοι ξέρουν λίγο πολύ αγγλικά για να τη διαβάσουν. Αναρτήθηκε στο Λέξημα και στο blog μου).
Living organisms are a combination of inherent characteristics and environmental influences. Some characteristics are species specific, some more general, like the sexual drive. The genotype of an organism will produce a certain phenotype, according to the environmental conditions to which he will be subjected. The seed of a pine-tree will grow and become a pine-tree, but whether it will be a thriving tree or a sickly tree will depend on whether it will grow in a sunlit place or a dark place. A bitch will bear a dog, and whether it will be a bloodhound or a sheepdog depends on the race. However, whether it will be good at its job or not depends on the training it is going to receive.
In man, the power of heredity is confirmed in many ways. If in somebody’s family tree a lot of people suffered from diabetes, it is probable that he will suffer from this illness sooner or later in his life. The odds are however greater, if he is confronted with difficulties, which produce in him stress or depression.
In mental illnesses hereditary factors are often very decisive. The environmental influences however play a critical role in triggering a mental illness. In addition to medication, rearrangement of living conditions is almost invariably necessary for an effective treatment.
Aggressive behavior seems to be a similar case. Some researchers argue that aggression, like sexual drive, is innate, but its expression depends not only on hereditary predisposition, but on environmental conditions as well. It is worth noting that not only separate researchers, but also disciplines themselves tend to emphasize either its innateness or its environmental conditioning.
The term “aggressive behavior” is used in so many different ways that no single definition can possibly cover all of its meanings. Behavior that serves to injure an opponent or a prey animal or to cause an opponent to retreat is usually considered aggressive. When considering human aggression, some psychiatrists consider any act that has destructive
consequences (including suicide) to be aggressive. For our discussion, we will consider as aggression only that destructive form of behavior which is directed towards members of the same species, in our case, man.
Biologists on the whole tend to emphasize the innateness of aggression. Ethologists like Konrad Lorenz (Lorenz, 1966) and his pupil Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1971, 1975) studying animals, make conclusions about humans as well. In animals it is easier to study what is permanent and stable than what is changeable. And basic drives like sexuality and aggression are easier to study. These researchers regard aggression as a basic adaptation to environment, like all instincts or drives. Aggressive behavior helps the animal to protect its vital space and to contest effectively with other rivals for a sexual partner. It is characteristic that some male sex hormones within the body are associated with aggressive behavior. For example, red deer stags given the androgen testosterone at any time of the year will return to their regular mating grounds and will lose the velvet covering on their antlers in preparation for territorial battles, even in the absence of females. These functions of aggression promote natural selection, which helps the amelioration and evolution of the species.
All basic adaptations have a dark, negative side. Uncontrolled aggression could lead to the annihilation of the species. So it suffices if the defeated one acknowledges its defeat, and exhibits certain behavioral patterns that inhibit further aggressive behavior of the winner. For example, if the defeated dog exposes its throat or lies on its back, like a puppy, the aggression of the winner is inhibited, sometimes to the point of licking its opponent as if it were a real puppy. Among some baboons, a male will indicate submission by assuming the receptive posture of a female in heat. Besides, there are displacement acts which channel aggression elsewhere. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating. In courtship, for example, an individual afraid of its mate may, instead of fleeing or courting, stand still and feed or groom itself.
Man also undertakes displacement activities, or redirects aggression, like striking a vase instead of the face of the one who made him angry. Even potlatch, the ceremonial destruction of valuable objects in Kwakiutls, which the social anthropologist Franz Boas has amply described, can be considered as a displacement aggression towards rival leaders attending the ceremony, having as a goal to humiliate them and ascertain the superiority of the one executing the potlatch. The songs sung in this ceremony are aggressive. (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1975, p. 154).
But things are not always so simple. Since human environment, culturally controlled, is developing rapidly, there is not enough time for man to develop adequate inhibitions for his aggressive behavior. Nowadays the opponent is a distant target, and cannot develop such forms of inhibitory behavioral patterns, like imploring the aggressor to spare his life. If the U.S. pilots could see their victims in the recent war in Iraq crying and imploring for their lives, maybe they would be reluctant to drop their bombs. This is the argument Konrad Lorenz used in “Die acht Todsünden der zivilisierten Menschheit” (Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins) having in the place of U.S. pilots the pilot of the Enola Gay, who dropped the bomb on Hirosima and Nagashaki.
Whereas these scientists focus mainly on aggression as an innate impulse, Desmond Morris, in his book “The naked ape” and especially in his book “The human zoo” traces the causes of the excessive aggression we are witnessing nowadays in the conditions of overpopulation humans are subjected to. He also stresses another function of aggression, the rising in the hierarchy of social animals, or maintaining the position in it, and since our culture is very competitive, our aggressive impulse is often aroused.
A writer, biologically oriented, who has made great impact with his books “African Genesis” and “The Territorial Imperative”, supporting the innateness of aggression, is Robert Ardrey. We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers…The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen, he maintains.
The two major trends in psychology, the psychodynamic one originating from Freud and the behavioral one originating from Pavlov and Watson have opposing ideas. Freud traces two major instincts in humans, the love instinct and the death instinct. Aggression is the outer form of expression of the death instinct. Sometimes these two instincts are inextricable in one and the same context. Odi et amo, I love and I hate, says in one of his poems the Latin poet Catullus, which was set to music and made widely known by the German composer Carl Orff in his “Catulli Carmina”.
Behaviorists on the whole emphasize environmental conditions as playing a decisive role in humans. The Americans John Watson and F.B. Skinner were the most influential in supporting that a man’s character is exclusively determined by outer circumstances. Reward and punishment are central terms in their discussions, determining human behavior.
It is peculiar enough that a psychologist belonging to the same trend, Hans Eysenck, traces innate factors in character traits. Eysenck depicts human composition as a circle with two axes, both of which are innate. One axis is the axis of sentimentality and the other is the axis of introversion-extroversion. He supports that low sentimentality combined with a high degree of extroversion creates a psychotic, aggressive person, while great introversion with great sentimentality creates a neurotic person, whose aggressiveness is greatly suppressed or directed to himself as a self-destructive behavior.
Today researchers focus on the external causes that trigger aggression. John Dollard and Neal Miller consider frustration as a basic cause of aggression, mainly frustration of basic needs such as food, water, sleep, sex, love, and recognition. Leonard Berkowitz believes that anger is the basic trigger of aggression, and can be caused by other reasons besides frustration, like verbal abuse.
Social learning theorists like Albert Bandura support that aggression is a learned behavior. Children imitate models like parents, peers, movies or TV heroes. Watching violent actions, instead of having a cathartic effect on the viewer, arouses his aggressiveness. If the violent hero is rewarded for his aggressive behavior, then the child is encouraged in acting accordingly in similar situations.
Early traumatic experiences greatly encourage aggression in adult life. Such traumatic experiences are maternal deprivation, lack of identification with one’s father and parental abuse. Also parents’ use of extreme levels of physical punishment, imposed inconsistently, is associated with high levels of aggression in children, as are extreme levels of parental permissiveness toward a child’s own aggressive acts.
We have already stated that ethologists stress the innateness of aggression in animals and in man as well. But although they emphasize man’s ties with the animal world, they never disregard the fact that man is a cultural being. And, as Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt points it, “It is chiefly by means of cultural control patterns that he exercises control over his innate drives” (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1970, p. 31). Ethologists, by stressing the innateness of aggression and of many other behavioral characteristics, are the most ardent in supporting the necessity of inventing efficient means of controlling it. One such means is the effective birth control, proposed both by Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Desmond Morris, since both consider overpopulation as a major factor triggering aggressive behavior in our society.
Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt may well propose the establishment of cultural control patterns for aggression, the problem however is that our culture promotes aggression in various ways. We can name several factors, culturally controlled, which encourage aggression. One such factor is the highly competitive working conditions. Such conditions inevitably trigger aggression between people. Another factor is the presentation of violence in TV, as Albert Bandura has shown. War toys like weapons and tanks are most favored by children. War games constitute a great percentage of computer games, and so on. In other words, our culture encourages violence and aggression in many ways. So the cultural control patterns over inner drives that Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt advocates should be placed side by side with the undermining of cultural patterns that favor the uncontrolled expression of such drives. The cult of the aggressive super-hero should cease, and non violent, non aggressive behavior should be rewarded.
Though it is widely accepted that our culture favors aggression, and that most cultures have always been aggressive, there are however instances of primitive cultures which were less aggressive. Researchers like DeVore believe that the most primitive cultures of hunters and food collectors were not aggressive, since they had no private territories, both as individuals and as hordes, to defend. Eskimos and Pygmies seem to be such instances. Though other researchers supported that these cultures too weren’t devoid of aggression, there is, however, no objection to the idea that economic and cultural conditions may favor or discourage aggression. Our culture is unfortunately an instance of the former.
Ethologists, despite the fact that they stress the necessity of cultural means controlling aggression, have been accused of propounding racist ideas because of their main thesis of the innate character of aggression. Generally, any stress on the innate is considered suspicious, favoring racism. We can’t dispense with ideology even in science. The reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution is a characteristic example. Christian religion believes that man was created by God, and can’t be a descendant of the ape. Giordano Bruno was burned because he believed that the sun goes around the earth and not vice-versa, undermining thus the pre-eminence of man in universe. Galileo was more fortunate, renouncing this idea in time.
This conflict between science and ideology has a long history.
In ancient Greece, a crucial problem was whether “areti”, a term comprising all virtues, giving however preeminence to bravery and wisdom, could be taught or not. It is the central issue discussed in Plato’s Protagoras. Aristocracy favored the idea that it could not, while the new emerging plutocracy of merchants favored the idea that it could. Sophists professed to teach it. It is evident that aristocrats tried to found their supremacy in hereditary qualities, which could not be attained by common people. The new plutocracy on the contrary favored the opposite idea, in order to contest effectively the aristocrats’ supremacy.
Nowadays the same ideological problem has arisen. Racists favor theories stressing hereditary factors, while supporters of the left aspire to the creation not only of a new, classless society, but also of a new man, who will be the creation of the new social conditions. As regards aggression, while all people acknowledge that aggressive behavior is both innate and acquired, some tend to consider its innateness more important, while others think that environmental conditions are more crucial. The former are often accused of being racists and fascists, while the latter are considered democratic and liberal.
This is not however the only categorization. Stressing the innateness of aggression, one tends to be pessimistic as regards the possibilities of harnessing it effectively, which may lead to giving up on every effort. On the contrary, those who consider environmental conditions more basic, are more optimistic as regards the effectiveness of the efforts to inhibit it.
We find the same unresolved polarity between predestination and free will. If there is predestination, every effort is meaningless, but there is no guilt. If there is free will, then resignation creates feelings of guilt. If we stress the innateness of aggression, then we come to terms with the fact that we cannot harness it. Robert Ardrey feels that way. If we consider environmental factors more important, then we may feel guilty for not striving to control it effectively.
There is a similar polarity between the pressure to compromise and the wish to rebel, the desire to leave and the pressures to stay, the sexual desire and the necessity to control it, or, in psychoanalytic terms, between superego and id.
Claude-Levi Strauss argues that reality is structured in binary oppositions, and the above seem to be characteristic examples. Forming two opposing paradigmatic axes, without oversimplifying we can place in the first paradigmatic axis aggression-as-an-innate-drive, predestination, pessimism, racism, compromise. In the second paradigmatic axis we can place aggression-as-an-acquired-behavior, free will, optimism, socialism, rebellion. These two axes, according to my opinion, form unresolved polarities. The opposition between Nature and Culture also forms, I think, a similar unresolved polarity. A consequence of this polarity is the widely acknowledged and debated opposition between Nature and Nurture. We are doomed to be exposed to such unresolved oppositions. Life and Death is a characteristic example.
Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Irenäus, Love and Hate, Methuen, Frome and London, 1971.
Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Irenäus, Krieg und Frieden, Pipper, München Zürich, 1975.
Lorenz, Konrad, On aggression, 2nd edition, New York, Routledge, 2002.
Lorenz, Konrad, Die acht Todsünden der zivilisierten Menschheit, Pipper, München Zürich, 1973.
Morris, Desmond, The naked ape, Dell Publishing Co., New York, 1967.
Morris, Desmond, The human zoo, Godansha Globe Book, New York, 1996.
Storr, Anthony, Human aggression, Penguin, London, 1968,
Watson, John B., Behaviorism, The Norton Library, New York, 1970.