I have to admit, there have been times when I thought the ludicrosity of racism, misogyny, bigotry and narrow-mindedness were slowly but surely being eradicated. I was so very wrong, but heck I’m a Canadian….What do I know!
It makes me ill, truly sick to my stomach, that this horrid view on the world’s peoples still exist in the year 2018. I recall growing up in a small rural Canadian town in Ontario and listening to boys vent their rage against, blacks, spics & gays while they hit their girlfriends and called girls they couldn’t get, “Sluts, whores, ditch pigs.”
Even at that young age, I was confused by their anger… I knew for a fact, they had never met a black person, encountered a gay and had never left the 20 miles of home to even know how to identify a “Spic”. So where did that hatred come from?
A man I have known half my life told me about his youth and going down to the city and finding “Queers” to beat up. As an 80 year old, he lives with that till this day, and tries to make up for his actions… But is it enough???
Why, what is it that makes so MANY people hate those who are not exactly the same as them? How can a person say they believe in God and his teachings and hate someone who believes in God but is of a different faith?
We are a hostile and aggressive species. I can’t recall who said that, but we are, and for no good reason I can think of other than nurture.
Agustín Fuentes Ph.D.
At the recent American Association of Physical Anthropologists meetings in Portland, I sat through an interesting talk about lethal aggression in chimpanzees. The presenter, Michael Wilson from the University of Minnesota, did a good job of laying out a substantial overview of all the data we have on chimpanzee lethal aggression. Bottom line: chimps can be pretty violent, especially males. But exactly why they are violent is not fully understood. Importantly, if one removes the largest and most violent population from the dataset, then no single explanatory pattern emerges. Of course, this fuzzy and interesting conclusion is not what is making the rounds in the twitterverse.
Rather, folks are saying that this is just further evidence that chimpanzees, and their closest relatives (humans), are aggressive by nature. If this is true then domestic abuse, bullying, and warfare are pretty much to be expected: it is just the way we are.
Or not. Let’s get our myth busting caps on and think about this; what does it mean to be aggressive by nature? Even more the point, what is aggression and where does it come from?
If humans have evolved as aggressors, if using violence is a core part of our nature, then aggression needs to be a thing (a trait) that can be targeted and shaped by evolutionary processes. There also needs to be evidence that humans (and our primate relatives) regularly rely on aggression, over other types of behavior, to achieve mating and other social successes.
Ok, so what do we know?
Aggression is not a single trait, or an easily described behavioral system. It is not a thing that has evolved as a package, but rather it is a suite of behaviors that has a dynamic and complicated range of expression. Anthropologists, biologists and psychologists note different behaviors and patterns of “aggression” when defending yourself versus when planning an attack, from mothers defending their infants, from predators chasing prey, in fear-induced aggression, in sex-related aggression, and in territorial aggression.
In humans there are no consistent patterns of aggressive behaviors that make men have more luck with women or succeed over other men for status, even though sometimes aggression does play a role. Even when fighting, many of the most effective professionals (such as in boxing and ultimate fighting) are good because of their ability to strategically constrain their aggression.
Ok, but what if aggression is itself a physiological system (part of our body) that has been favored over evolutionary time?
It’s not. Unlike a femur (the long bone in your upper leg) there is no single thing or pattern that we can measure and label as “aggression.” While we know that certain parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the hypothalamus) interact with certain neurotransmitters (serotonin, Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA)) and a range of steroid hormones (like testosterone and other androgens) work together to produce aggressive behavior, we also see that there is no specific physiological or neurological system designed for aggression. Everything involved in the expression of aggression is tied to other systems and its use in behavior is highly contextual.
For example, take Monoamine oxidase A (called the “the warrior gene”). One version of this gene is associated with hyper aggression in males (it is little studied in females). However, expression of this gene is related to childhood stressors and life experience. We see that a slightly larger percentage of men with the “aggressive” version of this gene (compared to those without it), who live through real childhood trauma and social stressare highly violent and have trouble controlling their behavior as adults. But many of those with the “warrior” version of the gene don’t have these problems at all (me, for example). These same kinds of complexities are true for serotonin, testosterone, and the other hormones and neurotransmitters associated with aggression.