zoology biology benno meyer rochow science blog violence Florian Nock

The Philosopher Knew it All Along

But was the philosopher right?

There was a time when behavioural scientists educated or based in Europe and America could get into heated arguments over the question of the biological nature and origin of aggression in humans (and animals as well). Was aggression learned or was it innate? It can be shown that mice as well as dog puppies will become fighters when the keeper allows them to always win in an encounter. Losses dampen their aggression and diminish their confidence that they would win a battle. Daily stroking, patting and cuddling was shown to have a similar effect on aggression in these (and by inference) other species. Finally, lifting aggressive puppies frequently off the ground also makes them become more docile (or perhaps timid?).

Such observations make it seem rather convincing that aggressive behaviour is learned when animals experience either success or pain in competition for food and in play. But enter former Turku University Professor Kari Lagerspetz: being aware of hundreds of observations on animals reared in total isolation, which display correct species-specific warning and attack signals when shown their own mirror image and then very often behave more aggressively than their community-reared siblings, the learned professor devised a simple experiment. Lagerspetz exchanged litters of an aggressive strain of mice with those of a docile line and waited to see how the little ones developed. Those reared by the docile mother (and were not actually her own offspring) turned out more aggressive than those which were actually her babies, but had grown up under the care of the aggressive mother.

If aggressive behaviour therefore (in mice at least, and they are mammals like us) is genetic and furthermore as physiologists have shown, can be released by electrical stimulation of the appropriate brain region, what is its function? Isn’t it more destructive than constructive? Much philosophizing has been done on this subject, even books on the philosophy of fighting and wars exist, and it seems obvious that in combination with bloodless rituals of strength, aggression is an important driving force towards the dispersal of a species and as a consequence promotes optimal exploitation of resources. It makes both “think”: the aggressor how to dominate the other individual and the loser how to avoid the aggressor and seek a more peaceful life or to find a novel way to confront the aggression. After all, the proverb tells us “Necessity is the mother of invention”! Immanuel Kant (and I always told my student that in an English-speaking country to use an English and not German pronunciation of this person’s name) had reckoned as early as 1784 that “we owe our gratitude to Nature for the quarrelsomeness, for the envious, competitive vanity, for the never satisfied desire to possess or rule. Without these, the excellent potential of humanity would slumber eternally.” In his praise of aggression as a driving force for innovation and progress he even went on to argue that without aggression we’d be no different from the sheep we keep.

Well, living in the countryside in New Zealand, you can’t help being surrounded by sheep and I know from experience and observation, sheep too can be pretty aggressive, both the ewes and the rams, but this great German philosopher definitely had a point. One could, however, also argue that it isn’t the conflict itself, but the avoidance of conflict at all cost that helps animals to disperse and to exploit their habitat fully. But I guess it’s philosophical.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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