This paper uses the discursive framework of a Rogerian argument to promote the idea that, even though humans are true ‘naturally’ predisposed towards aggression, it is thoroughly justified to discuss their predisposition, about what happened to be the affiliated social settings.
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The fact that people are being more than capable of acting in a strongly aggressive manner has been commonly referred to as one of the traditional subjects of social research. The reason for this is apparent – one’s tendency to exhibit aggression towards others is commonly deemed not only the indication of the concerned person’s lesser worth, as a member of the society, but also as the proof of his or her potential capacity to cause this society much harm. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the issue of societal aggression could be effectively addressed, without a definitive answer being provided to the question – are humans aggressive by nature? In this paper, I will outline the so-called ‘environmental’ and ‘biological’ approaches to tackling this question, while arguing that it is namely the latter that appears to be the most scientifically legitimate. I will also promote the idea that, despite the seeming incompatibility between the mentioned approaches, they are mutually complimentary.
Body of the paper
As of today, many of the currently deployed strategies for reducing the acuteness of aggressive anxieties in people are based upon the assumption that one’s violent attitude/behavior should be discussed in terms of a social phenomenon. In its turn, this assumption reflects the main conceptual provision of the ‘environmental’ theories of aggression, which stress out that there is nothing ‘innate’ about human aggression and that it is being triggered by externally induced stimuli. As Fletcher pointed out, “Environmental models assume that aggression is learnt and the social environment is active in determining it. The individual and their biology, is seen as a passive victim of a lack of ‘goodness of fit’ between behavior and environment” (2007, p. 301). In essence, the ‘environmental’ conceptualization of aggression can be formulated as follows. As people go through life, they inevitably end up being exposed to several different aggression-triggering situations.
Consequently, it results in increasing the measure of these people’s tolerance to the socially extrapolated outbreaks of aggression. Most commonly, the advocates of the ‘environmental’ outlook on the inner causes of aggression point out the socio-economic deficiencies of one’s upbringing, as the main predictors that he or she will be likely to indulge in the aggressive behavior. According to ‘environmentalists’, this explains why ethnic ‘ghettoes’, which can now be found in just about every large American city, are associated with the nation-highest rate of crime/violence – due to their constant exposure to poverty/discrimination, the affiliated residents are being naturally prompted to resort to aggression, as the most circumstantially appropriate strategy for dealing with life challenges. As Anderson and Bushman noted, “Negative affect produced by unpleasant (childhood) experiences automatically stimulates various thoughts, memories, expressive motor reactions, and physiological responses associated with aggression” (2002, p. 30). It is understood, of course, that this point of view on the subject matter in question, denies any validity to the suggestion that humans are aggressive by nature.
Nevertheless, the ‘environmental’ paradigm of violence is far from being considered as such that represents an undisputed truth-value. The reason for this is quite apparent – there are many indications that people’s aggressiveness is predetermined by the very laws of evolution, which affect the representatives of the Homo Sapiens species, as much as they affect plants and animals. Hence, the conceptual premise of the ‘biological’ theory about the origins of aggression in humans – people are innately ‘programmed’ to be aggressive by their genes (DNA). The reason for this is that it increases the measure of people’s evolutionary fitness, in the sense of helping them to compete for the ‘place under the Sun’ with others. The logic behind this suggestion is quite apparent, as well.
As it has been revealed by the 20th century’s discoveries in the field of biology/genetics, humans are nothing but ‘hairless apes’, with their layer of cultural refinement being only skin-deep. What it means is that, regardless of what happened to be the measure of one’s educational attainment or the specifics of this person’s ethnocultural affiliation, his or her existential agenda cannot be discussed outside of what accounts for the biological objectives of just about any living creature on this earth. These objectives are: ‘spreading’ genes (sex), gaining access to nutrients (food), ensuring its privileged status within the affiliated environmental niche (domination). The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the essence of social dynamics within the pack of chimpanzees, which happened to share almost the identical DNA sequence with that of humans. As biologists are being well aware, it is specifically the most dominant (alpha) males within such a pack, which are being preferred by females, which in turn empowers the former rather substantially, within the context of how they proceed with ‘spreading the seed’ (Wrangham, 2012, p. 6).
And, it is specifically by acting utterly aggressive towards other members of the pack that alpha-males can achieve dominance, which in turn puts them in favor of females. In this respect, Sell, Hone, and Pound came up with a legitimate suggestion, “Aggression is an adaptation designed by natural selection to regulate conflicts of interest in ways that lead the target of aggression to increase the weight placed on the interests of the aggressive individual when making decisions” (2012, p. 35). Therefore, even though the idea of humans being naturally aggressive may appear somewhat emotionally discomforting, it does not make it less valid. After all, as it was implied earlier, the existential mode of just about any person can be well discussed within the formula sex-nutrition-domination – even if he or she remains thoroughly unaware of it. Those who would disagree with this statement may ask themselves a question – what is the ultimate purpose of people’s strive to obtain a good education, for example?
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It will not take a scientist to answer it – this is because, being a well-educated individual, one would be much more likely to secure a well-paid job, which in turn will ensure his access to plenty of ‘nutrients’, on one hand, and make it more likely for this person to be able to attain a social prominence, on the other. Such prominence is the pathway towards leadership/domination – something that never ceased representing a strong appeal to people (particularly males). According to Waasdorp et al., “Research suggests that aggressive youth are not only considered popular in many cases, but they also may possess positive qualities such as being perceived as leaders… (this) may actually help facilitate their attainment of the higher social status and social inﬂuence” (2013, p. 265). What it means is that, regardless of whether we like it or not, aggression will remain an important part of how people go about addressing life-challenges – at least, for as long as the representatives of our species continue to be subjected to the Darwinian laws of natural selection.
Nevertheless, even though the mentioned ‘environmental’ and ‘biological’ conceptualizations of aggression appear strongly incompatible, this is far from being the actual case. The reason for this is that, as we are well aware, one’s tendency to behave in a strongly aggressive manner is being hardly tolerated by just about any society. In its turn, this can be interpreted as the indication that, despite the evolutionary ‘naturalness’ of aggression in people, it is being triggered socially. The so-called ‘gangsta’ sub-culture, known for its glorification of aggression/violence, comes in particularly illustrative, in this respect. After all, young people’s likelihood to end up being affiliated with this sub-culture has been traditionally discussed in conjunction with what happened to be the specifics of their socio-economic status.
In plain words, the more intensive has been the exposure of a particular person to poverty/discrimination, throughout this person’s formative years, the more likely would be for him or her to prefer acting aggressively towards others. This, of course, makes it possible to suggest that, even though the actual roots of aggression are unmistakably ‘biological’, one’s tendency to behave aggressively has a socially predetermined phenomenological quality to it. That is, the outbreaks of aggression in humans may not be just as sporadic/irrational, as it is being commonly assumed. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the so-called ‘instrumental’ aggression in humans, defined as “one’s capacity to envision long-term goals and to use aggressive or lethal action as an instrument to secure them” (Roscoe, 2007, p. 488). The phenomenon of human aggression cannot be discussed outside of people’s capacity to recognize the would-be effects of one or another course of action, on their part.
This, of course, implies that, as far as the representatives of our species are being concerned, their behavioral aggressive and non-aggressive tendencies can be deemed equally natural – hence, confirming the appropriateness of the so-called ‘existential-phenomenological’ outlook on human aggression. According to its advocates, there is much complexity to this aggression’s societal emanations, which is why people should avoid coming up with value-based judgments, in regards to the issue at stake. Consequently, this calls for the reformulation of the contemporary aggression-related discourse – instead of arguing about whether the roots of human aggression are ‘biological’ or ‘social’, researchers should focus on trying to find the way for people’s aggressive impulses to be safely released. After all, as it was noted by Fletcher in the earlier quoted article, “Healthy and appropriate expression of aggression may be a natural way to move towards greater realization of the self” (2007, p. 305). It is understood, of course, that this suggestion may sound rather controversial, but there are many good reasons to consider it being consistent with the realities of post-industrial living in the West.
I believe that the deployed line of argumentation, in defense of the suggestion that a consensus can be reached between the adherents of the ‘environmentalist’ and ‘biological’ theories of human aggression, fully correlates with the paper’s initial thesis. There is indeed a good rationale in believing that this would benefit humanity in several different ways.
Anderson, C. & Bushman, B. (2002). Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 27-51.
Fletcher, R. (2007). Being aggressive. Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 18(2), 297-314.
Roscoe, P. (2007). Intelligence, coalitional killing, and the antecedents of war. American Anthropologist, 109(3), 485-495.
Sell, A., Hone, L. & Pound, N. (2012). The importance of physical strength to human males. Human Nature: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective, 23(1), 30-44.
Waasdorp, T., Baker, C., Paskewich, B., & Leff, S. (2013). The association between forms of aggression, leadership, and social status among urban youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(2), 263-74.
Wrangham, R. (2012). Intergroup aggression in chimpanzees and war in nomadic hunter-gatherers. Human Nature, 23(1), 5-29.