Sociobiology Aggression among Modern Humans

Sociobiology: Aggression Among Modern Humans

The following will offer a sociobiological analysis of an article published by LiveScience entitled “The Evolution of Human Aggression.” It was written by writer/anthropologist Heather Whipps. Rather than simply present a summary of the article, I will include components and relevant examples from the field of sociobiology. Whipp’s original article can be viewed here:

E. O. Wilson defines the field of sociobiology “as the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior” (Alcock 2001). Of particular interest to sociobiology, is ultimate causation. Whipps’ article approaches human aggression on the ultimate level. She does not provide specific examples, but her primary focus does appear to revolve around “why” aggression maximizes reproductive success in individuals. It would have been interesting to have seen aggression approached from a proximate paradigm, as well, but information from this theoretical model is not provided. Since it was not included, an example of proximate causation can be observed in the following: “One of the immediate causes of aggression among male tarantula hawks has to do with the psychological effects of being in control of territory” (Alcock 2001). I find it likely that the same proximal study could have been made in regard to the aggressive behaviors of humans. Admittedly, a study of this sort may not have provided answers to ultimate questions (again, “why” are human beings aggressive), but it would have offered some valuable information in terms of studying aggressive behavior.

Whipps does not state or suggest that human aggression is maladaptive in any way. She does not suggest aggression is a Darwinian puzzle, in which “traits that appear to reduce the reproductive chances or genetic success of individuals” evolve (Alcock 2001). However, it does appear that she could potentially be under the persuasion that there is some degree of genetic determinism involved: “Some kind of genetic programming for violence may exist in humans as a result of our evolution” (Whipps 2009). Further, she implies that the same might be said of altruism. At any rate, according to Whipps, altruism, just as aggression, increases an individual’s fitness. They are both traits that can be viewed as being adaptive and beneficial:

“There is plenty of evidence to support both of these claims: violence, reconciliation, and cooperation are all part of human nature. […] These wide-ranging emotions all evolved because they benefited humans in some way in the past” (Whipps 2009).

Environment and experience are considered in the article. For example, it is possible that “an intricate set of conditions could, conceivably, drive most people to violence” (Whipps 2009). A condition such as this might include, but is certainly not limited to, socioeconomic status. In this light, aggressive behaviors are a response to the competition for material resources. Those with a greater means to obtain material resources would be selected for in terms of both natural and social selection. They would exhibit a greater perchance for Darwinian fitness. I find it unlikely, however, that an individual exhibiting an exuberant amount of aggression would be viewed as a potential mate when one considers the morality interwoven in our society. Violence – at least, gratuitous violence – is not often viewed as a desirable trait. Here, it appears that even if a proclivity for aggression exists in an individual, many will attempt to not act out upon it due to intense social pressures. A naturally aggressive, muscular male might be more potentially inclined to engage in bar fights or sports, for example, but, for many, aggression and violence are not a part of day-to-day life. Unless a person is a sadist, aggression is certainly not an aspect of mating or courtship.

In terms of gene counting, and, again, returning to altruism, it would be interesting to see if more aggression occurs among unrelated individuals. According to Hamilton, “self-sacrificing behavior will usually be directed toward individuals of close genetic relatedness” (Alcock 2001). Could the same be said about aggression? Would a person, for example, be inclined to be especially aggressive toward those who do not share a close genetic similarity than those who happen to share more? It does seem humans are prone to exhibit altruistic behaviors toward their own kin (and, thus, increase their inclusive fitness). It seems just as likely that the opposite would be the case.

It does not appear there is a naturalistic fallacy in the article. A naturalistic fallacy, by definition, concludes that “the natural world provides a model of how human beings ought to behave” (Barash 2008). Whipps’ article simply attempts to provide an ultimate paradigm for the evolutionary reasons why human beings are aggressive. She does not condone aggressive behavior nor does she suggest that all humans should be aggressive because we are naturally predisposed to do so.

Finally, there is some discussion in regard to free will. The crux of this discussion is as follows: “Evolution didn’t just shape us to be violent, or peaceful, it shaped us to respond flexibly, adaptively, to different circumstances, and to risk violence when it made adaptive sense to do so” (Whipps 2009). If free will can be equated to flexibility, it appears humans are able to choose, to some degree, to be aggressive or non-aggressive. However, it is also stated that “if basic resources such as food and clean water become more limiting, as many scientists believe is likely to happen as a result of climate change and energy shortages, then the environmental and social drivers of violence may become more difficult to control” (Whipps 2009). This statement creates an interesting dilemma. Is it possible to choose not to be aggressive when both an aggressive environment and an equally aggressive, genetic predisposition directly influences that choice? It seems unlikely, when one is under the mindset that human beings are simply an array of “selfish” genes coupled with experience. It has long been assumed that free will is something inherent in our species. Nevertheless, if an individual’s aggressive nature is further nurtured by aggression, the issue of free will could potentially become nonexistent.

To conclude, if aggression did truly enhance reproductive success in the past, does it continue to do so today? Natural selection works on the phenotypes of individuals. Individuals that comprise a particular species do not work toward the benefit of the entire population. We are supposedly quite selfish with our genes. Still, it does seem that human beings do strive for some sort of group benefit. Undoubtedly, one of our greatest evolutionary adaptations exists in cooperation. Without the ability to cooperate in groups, it is highly unlikely our species would have subsisted this long. In this regard, the reproductive success of the individual, as opposed to the survival of the group, could very well be secondary. After all, it is not too difficult to see that an individual, without a breeding population, is a reproductive dead-end.

Alcock, J. 2001. The Triumph of Sociobiology. New York: Oxford.
Barash, D. 2008. Natural Selections. New York: Bellevue.