Human aggression has become dangerous because of destructive weapons. Why is it that even wolves, one of the most dangerous animals, do not kill their own kind, while we do it with ease?
Human emotions are an evolutionary paradox
Human greed destroys the environment. We know this, but we keep approaching disaster. Both problems are a consequence of our inherited emotional nature.
Konrad Lorenz, the 1973 Nobel Prize winner, was able to explain this paradox in terms of evolutionary theory. He studied the causes of human conflict and wrote his book On Aggression.
The book describes the difference between intergroup and intragroup aggression. Animal fights that determine rank rarely end in death. Fighting, for leadership in a wolf pack, ends when the loser denotes submission. And the more heavily armed the species is (with fangs, horns, claws), the less damage it tries to inflict on an opponent within the group.
That is, neither the wolf nor the deer will finish off an opponent. Weakly armed species are more prone to high aggression and destruction of their own kind.
Animals without horns or a powerful jaw, including humans, instinctively band together to become stronger. These inter-group fights are often deadly, such as wars between ant colonies, or bees against uninvited guests, or defending a rat pack against alien rats. And ingenuity in the absence of fangs has made us some of the most ruthless killers of our own kind.
The pack changes consciousness
Many animals, including humans, seem willing to kill or be killed in defense of the communities to which they belong. Lorenz points out that the goosebumps on the back that humans feel when they perform a heroic act are related to the prehuman reflex to raise the hair on the back in front of the enemy. This reflex allows us to appear larger than we are.
In On Aggression, Conrad Lorenz describes the emotions of a hero preparing to risk his life for the group.
Militant enthusiasm is a special form of collective aggression. It differs from the more primitive forms of individual aggression and at the same time is functionally related to them. The individual soars in high spirits above the bonds of everyday life, ready to abandon everything for the call of what in the moment of this feeling seems a sacred duty. Obstacles in his way become unimportant; the instinctive prohibitions against harming or killing one’s fellows lose much of their power.
People can enjoy a sense of absolute righteousness even while committing atrocities. Conceptual thinking and moral responsibility are at their lowest level.
Lorenz says: “An impartial visitor from another planet, looking at man as he is today – in his hand an atomic bomb, the product of his mind – in his heart an aggressive urge inherited from his ancestors, which the same mind cannot control – such a visitor would not give humanity much chance of survival.
The mystery of self-sacrifice in war
In his essay “The Pursuit of Self-Destruction,” Arthur Koestler wrote: “Even a cursory glance at history should convince us that self-interested crimes play a minor role in human tragedy compared to the number of those exterminated in disinterested love of their tribe, nation, dynasty, church or ideology… Wars are fought not for personal gain, but because of loyalty and devotion to a king, country or cause… We have seen on the screen the radiant love for the Führer on the faces of the subjects… They are mesmerized by love, like monks in ecstasy in religious paintings. The sound of the national anthem, the sight of the proud flag make us feel part of a wonderfully loving community. A fanatic is willing to give his life for the object of his worship, just as a lover is willing to die for his idol. We, alas, are just as willing to kill anyone who poses a perceived threat to the idol.” The emotion described here by Koestler is analogous to the “militant enthusiasm” described in biological terms by Lorenz.
Dying in battle to defend one’s community is considered heroic. However, because of the development of weapons of mass destruction, the world is in danger.
Hope for the future
Fortunately, our group isolation can be replaced by ethics. Ethical education was part of the evolution of human culture when the agricultural revolution transformed people from tribal hunter-gatherers to farmers living in larger and more heterogeneous sedentary communities.
The social groups of today are even more diverse. We are struggling to establish social cohesion and group identity within large communities. Taking steps to expand them in the name of security is the great challenge of civilization.