Monday, 12 February 2007

8:1 Are humans naturally aggressive?

Many people have wondered whether human beings are naturally aggressive. If they are, does this explain why warfare has played such a large part in human history? For anyone looking at the whole history of human beings would conclude that after eating, sex and playing games, killing or maiming other humans is the most common of our pastimes.

Like other animals, humans have an instinct to survive. If this suggests to them that fighting and killing will help, then they will usually do so. Many also fight for pleasure, a rough game of excitement and competition which appeals to most of us. You know this, well enough, Lily, if you remember the fighting games we played when you were young, and pretended to be a tiger, raptor or other sharp toothed beast.

Some very peaceful hunter-gatherer societies have been found in south America, Malaysia and elsewhere. They do not know of war and are peaceful within the group. Periodically mighty civilizations such as China and Japan have experienced several hundred years of almost complete peace.

Yet, if we survey the whole of human history, we find that the use of physical force against other animals (including other humans) is a practically universal feature. Now that women have begun to be recruited into the front-line of armies, you might find that you yourself are killing people in a war.

Yet simple aggression, or love of fighting, or desire to survive, cannot be seen as the main reason why most individuals have been caught up in warfare in the past. Most wars for many centuries have involved unwilling combatants. The politicians and generals decide, the troops, through fear, need, loyalty or hope for booty, apply themselves to capturing or killing the enemy.

Individual aggression has little to do with it. The pilot who released the atom bomb over Hiroshima was not, in all probability, feeling aggressive. He was just doing his job, no more ‘aggressive’ than the driver of a car changing gear or a farmer planting seed. Clearly wars would not happen if humans were actively programmed against the use of all physical violence. On the other hand, no animal would survive for long in this competitive world if they were so programmed.

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