The Myth of Man as a Killer
Of all the vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influence on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.
John Stuart Mill
Mankind today has greater wealth and knowledge than at any other time in history. Yet today mankind seems more cruel, more aimless, more insane than ever before. It appears to many observed that man has the chance of an earthly paradise, but has chosen an earthly hell. If an individual must be mad to commit suicide, then perhaps the human species as a whole must be mad, for it is quite possible that humanity will exterminate itself.
How baffling this situation appears to so many well-meaning people! They look around and scratch their puzzled heads—if only they could discover the cause of all this lunacy! One of these sincere and disturbed individuals is Konrad Lorenz. However, he actually has managed to find the cause, or so he supposes.
Gazing at all the wars and other atrocities in human society, it occurred to Mr Lorenz that “we are all so accustomed to these phenomena that most of us fail to realise how abjectly stupid and undesirable the historical mass behaviour of humanity actually is.” He began to ponder why “reasonable beings behave so unreasonably.” Lorenz happens to be one of the leading experts on the behaviour of animals. It didn’t take him long to decide that the reasons some animals fight each other were basically the same as the reasons some human animals fight each other. Of course he realised that a simple theory like that wouldn’t do at all, because non-human animals never display anything on the scale of wars and massacres. So an ingenious twist was added.
With most varieties of birds and animals, fights sometimes occur between members of the same species. But if these fights became too vicious or too frequent, they would be very bad for the species as a whole, which would soon become extinct. So as these animals have evolved, natural selection has bred into them inhibitions. For instance, if two alsatians are fighting, one of them has only to stand in a certain submissive posture, and the other dog will automatically stop attacking. These inhibitions are adapted to the killing ability of the species. An animal which can very easily kill with one bite or blow will usually have strong inhibitions against doing so. If an animal can’t kill quickly, or if his intended victim can get away easily, there will be no need for inhibitions. But if the living conditions of these species are altered, so that they can easily kill their fellows, they will do so without hesitation or remorse. And Lorenz emotionally describes how a dove (the symbol of peace!) will slowly and cruelly torture another dove to death, when they are in captivity.
Applying this to man, Lorenz says that men find it comparatively difficult to kill each other with their bare hands, but as soon as they invent weapons—clubs, spears, atom bombs—their killing ability is vastly increased. Their innate inhibitions against killing, however, remain slight. So they are liable to go around slaughtering each other in a big way.
Having thought up this modern Just-so story, Lorenz leapt into print with his book On Aggression, which has had a huge sale in the German and English-speaking worlds. In this volume he gleefully expands his theory to explain nearly everything about human society, taking in his stride juvenile delinquency, space flight, Kantian moral philosophy, sport, the generation gap, and so forth. Some of it is not exactly new (“The romantic veneration of national values . . . can do nothing but damage.” “We should love all our human brothers indiscriminately.”) But underneath it all is Lorenz’s space-age version of original sin.
Meanwhile someone else was having the same worries. This was Mr Robert Ardrey, who in the 30s was involved with writing plays about social problems. In those days he attributed suffering and poverty to economic and social causes. But how innocent that was! Since then we have had the ‘affluent society’ which has given everyone marvellous economic and social environments, yet the same old problems remain. Perhaps Ardrey’s affluence has increased a bit more than most people’s. After all, there is a tendency for those who have moved up in the world to imagine that the world has moved with them, And Ardrey did get the backing of a wealthy capitalist foundation to write his book The Territorial Imperative. This is how he sees the problem:
How could we know that in the end there would come a changed environment and a prosperity such as no man had ever seen? And that such an age of affluence and material security would witness a level and degree of juvenile delinquency that did not exist in the depression years; racial conflict and bitterness that we had never known; and a crime rate beyond our most monstrous imaginings . . . A changed environment demonstrated that our environmentalist conclusions were inadequate.
. . . Or perhaps, that a television set and a car aren’t the only requisites of a healthy environment. But to continue with Ardrey’s life story: when he heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbour:
I ached with my love for my country, I ached with horror at the Japanese deception, I ached with sickness for the American loss I had encountered, slam-bang, for the first time in my experience, the territorial release.
So Ardrey concluded that not only his own reaction, but the actual entry of America into the war, were caused by instincts. He pooh-poohs the suggestion that he had been indoctrinated with patriotic values by pointing out that there were a lot of cynics, sceptics and leftists about in America during his childhood, and he doesn’t remember taking patriotism very seriously.
Although Ardrey is not a scientist, he, like Lorenz, is constantly at pains to state that his opinions are in keeping with the latest scientific findings. His two books, African Genesis and Territorial Imperative, are best-sellers, and together with Lorenz’s propaganda, other popular works like The Naked Ape, and most of all the novel Lord of the Flies, give many folk the impression that the view of man as inherently aggressive and possessive is well substantiated, whereas in fact it is the wildest fantasy, a superstition totally lacking in evidence and utterly rejected by all scientists specialising in this field.
Ashley Montagu has put together an anthology of articles, Man And Aggression (Oxford University Press) mostly written by leading scientists who have been appalled at the epidemic of falsehoods spread by Lorenz and Ardrey. This volume shows, not only how the reasoning of these two writers is mistaken, but also how, time after time, they have simply got their facts wrong. We can recommend any worker bothered by the fairy tales of Human Nature, Killer Instincts, or Territorial Drives, to read Montague’s book. As Montagu makes clear, man has no instincts. Man’s behaviour is learned behaviour, and varies immensely with different upbringing and living conditions.
Most of the Lorenz/Ardrey arguments are developed by assuming that what is true for some animals and birds is true for man. But arguments drawn from birds are strictly for the birds. Furthermore, man’s closest relatives, the primate apes, are especially unaggressive:
Primates are not usually belligerent unless provoked, and the more carefully they are observed the more remarkably revealing do their unquarrelsomeness and co-operativeness become’ . . . if, as is evident, man’s nearer collateral relatives are wanting in anything resembling an inborn territorial drive, it is highly improbable that any form of man was ever characterised by such a drive.
And J. H. Crook adds:
Perhaps the most striking feature of those nonhuman primates the behaviour of which is most relevant to man is precisely their lack of easily defined territorial behaviour.
In view of the indisputable fact that man’s closest living relatives are notable for their lack of aggression and territory, it would seem that all the arguments in the world about coral fish and greylag goslings must fail to prove that man is naturally a killer or a nationalist.
One of the strange things about Ardrey and Lorenz is that, with their theories of innate depravity, they try to present themselves as courageous seekers after truth, ready to spurn comfortable illusions and face the harsh reality that men are naturally nasty! But the reverse is the case.
The great majority of people today believe in a greedy, lazy and warlike ‘human nature’. This is a popular myth which discourages investigation of the real, social causes of man’s inhumanity to man. That man cannot help himself, that he is born cruel and selfish, is just what most people want to be told. This myth enables them to accept without question their most cherished institutions of property and patriotism as ‘natural’.
Born and brought up in a specific society, we learn the values of that society just as we learn the laws of nature, and we confuse the two, supposing that private ownership, or governments, or romantic love, are eternal and instinctive, when they are really artificial and indoctrinated. Yet while Ardrey and Lorenz tell the world what the world dearly wants to hear, they pose as bold overthrowers of customary ideas. And the dust jacket of Ardrey’s second book proclaims that he, “threatens even more forcefully some of our most precious assumptions. Mr. Ardrey’s conclusions … will undoubtedly raise an even greater storm.” Reading that, you will hardly guess that most of his reader- ship are having their most precious assumptions confirmed, and that most of the ‘storm’ raised by Ardrey’s books has come from scientists who know something about the subjects he dabbles in.
The importance of all this to socialists is clear. We want to remove capitalism—the cause of wars, poverty, nationalism, and exploitation, and of the frustrations which provoke much aggressive behaviour. The lie of innate depravity is a weapon in the hands of the capitalist class: it prevents criticism of capitalism, since there is supposed to be no possible alternative. Ardrey’s theories are the direct offspring of the Christian bogey of original sin. He betrays this quite clearly when he assumes that those who disagree with him think that man is innately ‘good’. Of course, innate goodness is just as much a myth as innate wickedness. Ardrey has consciously set out to rehabilitate the discredited concept of original sin, just as Golding did when he produced Lord of the Flies.
Even the contributors to Montagu’s book, who are no Socialists, have tumbled to the political implications of the Ardrey/Lorenz thesis. K. E. Boulding comments:
A line of argument like that of Ardrey’s, therefore, seems to legitimate our present morality, in regarding the threat system as dominant at all costs, by reference to our biological ancestors. If the names of both antiquity and of science can be drawn upon to legitimate our behaviour, the moral uneasiness about napalm and the massacre of the innocent in Vietnam may be assuaged.
And Ralph Holloway says of Ardrey’s work:
In short, this book is an apology and rationalisation for Imperialism, Pax Americana, Laissez-Faire, Social Darwinism, and that greatest of all evolutionary developments, Capitalism.
While Montague concludes:
What, in fact, such writers do, in addition to perpetrating their wholly erroneous interpretation of human nature, is to divert attention from the real sources of man’s aggression and destructiveness, namely; the many false and contradictory values by which, in an overcrowded, highly competitive world, he so disoperatively attempts to live. It is not man’s nature, but his nurture, in such a world, that requires our attention.
Socialists can only regret that Montagu’s book (at 42s) is unlikely to reach the same massive working-class market open to the capitalist apologetics of Ardrey, Lorenz, Desmond Morris, and William Golding. It is a drop in the ocean compared with the intense brainwashing with ideas of innate depravity which workers receive all the time.