1990s >> 1993 >> no-1061-january-1993

Letter: Who’s right about human nature?

  The article on human nature we published last August has provoked a critical response from one of our readers. We publish below a long extract from his lengthy letter, together with our reply.

Your article “Is Human Nature a Barrier to Socialism?” (August Socialist Standard) requires comment.


Following a somewhat sloppy overview of the history of evolutionary theory you decide on an onslaught on your defined “social darwinism” and suggest that “painstaking work in the field” by Schaller, Goodall and Fossey “has shown unequivocally that these animals [chimps, gorillas, orang-outangs) do not fundamentally possess any of the characteristics of aggression . . .  that have been attributed to them”.


One can only assume that the comrades who produced this statement have read very little of the author they cite. The fullest account is surely that of Jane Goodall in her The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behaviour (1986). In her chapter on Territoriality. she reports (from many sources, including your George Schaller) that territorial behaviour is widespread in the animal kingdom while in the higher (primate) species it often adopts a frightening and vicious form. Interestingly, the form of the behaviour is determined by, among other things, the size of the territory and the size of the group occupying it. If the territory is small, the boundaries are visited daily and intruders are frightened off—using the ritual behaviour explored so competently by Konrad Lorenz.


If the territory is large, boundaries are less well monitored but the hierarchy within the group is much more rigidly enforced—(again evidence of the findings of Lorenz vis-à-vis the “functions” of social groups). Typically gibbons occupy “smaller” territories, baboons “larger” ones. The early work on the nature of territorial aggression was that of Robert Ardrey who argued that mans most immediate ancestors were apparently non-aggressive apes resembling chimpanzees or gorillas.


He suggested the move to aggressiveness was brought about by environmental factors—he noted the likely effect of increasing aridity in Africa in the relevant time period and the consequent development of carnivorous habits in proto-humanids. Armed with weapons and searching for limited protein resources supplied by animals of the plain, men soon began to compete, formed territories.


Are the chimpanzees of today territorial? Ask Jane Goodall—and she replies strongly in the affirmative. Intruders from the occupied territories are aggressively expelled. boundaries are visited frequently and monitored, boundaries last for a number of years. The manner of the expulsion is determined by the size of groups, however, rather than the locality. If groups are equally balanced there will be auditory displays, ritualized aggressive displays and both sides will retreat. But if one party is considerably smaller, it will simply turn and run.


Among the chimpanzees the sense of group identity is strong; they clearly differentiate between “them” and “us”. Infants and females within the group are protected—those belonging to another group are frequently killed. Non-group members arc not only attacked but the style of the attack may differ from that used in squabbles within the community. Victims (from other groups) are treated more as though they were prey animals—they are “de-chimpized”.


Chimpanzees differ from most other species in that interlopers are not simply chased away but are assaulted and typically left to die. Moreover they do not just attack interlopers but frequently make aggressive raids into the very heart of the “opposing” camp’s territory where adult males, and to a lesser extent, females, are killed. Jane Goodall has documented for the National Geographic the total extermination of a “tribe” of chimps in this manner.


The conclusion that Jane Goodall has drawn from her research is rather different from the implications of your article:


  theirs is a form of territoriality that has shifted away from the relatively peaceful, ritualized maintenance of territory typical for many non-human animals, towards a more aggressive type of behaviour, in the chimpanzee, territoriality functions not only to repel intruders from the home range, but sometimes to injure or eliminate them: not only to defend the existing home range and its resources. but to enlarge it opportunistically at the expense of weaker neighbours; not only to protect the female resources of a community, but to actively and aggressively recruit new sexual partners from neighbouring social groups, (p. 528).

She continues by reporting favourably the views of her colleagues who have agreed that “the early practice of warfare would have put considerable selective pressure in the development of intelligence and of increasingly sophisticated co-operation among group members” and further that “the powerful pressure that warfare almost certainly exerted in the development of the human brain . . . if early humanid males were inherently disposed to find aggression attractive, particularly aggression directed against neighbours, this trait would have provided a biological basis for the cultural training of warriors”. She speculates on the theme of evolutionary development.


Of course the work of Goodall. Lorenz and Ardrey and the others you refer to should not be seen as hostile to the development of socialist consciouness per se.


We cannot understand ourselves as a species if we do not appreciate our origins from the animal kingdom. We are the product of our history (nature) and of our environment (nurture). We differ from other species in that we have become “self-conscious”. In Hegelian terms we are “nature” becoming conscious of itself. It is only by understanding that we are inseparable from our history and our environment that we can even hope to change the world— and, of course, in changing the world we change ourselves.


Bob Potter 


Hove, East Sussex


We did not say that the anthropoid apes never behaved in an aggressive way. What we said was what you quote: “that these animals do not fundamentally possess any of the characteristics of aggressiveness and the rest that have been attributed to them”. By “fundamentally” we meant something built-in to their genetic structure that compelled them to act aggressively on all occasions. Jane Goodall certainly recorded aggressive behaviour by chimpanzees but that is not the point at issue which is whether or not this behaviour is inherent. Even you concede that it is a function of size of territory.


Goodall was one of a number of researchers whose work helped dispel the myth, perpetuated by such films as King Kong, that the anthropoid apes were ferocious and dangerous wild beasts. Her later Ardrey-like speculations on the significance of the territorial behaviour of chimpanzees for human behaviour cannot detract from this.


The naturalists of the later part of the 19th century regarded the Great Apes of the pongid line, gorillas, chimpanzees and orang utans, as by nature ferocious aggressive animals. No objective research on how these animals actually behaved was undertaken before about 1960. When it was, the research workers found that the stereotype held by the Victorians of nature red in tooth and claw was completely erroneous.


Instead they all found that these animals’ behaviour was very much like the behaviour of human beings, generally pacific and co-operative but also aggressive under certain circumstances. The real difference between human beings and the Great Apes is that the behaviour of human beings is mostly learned behaviour. In other words, human beings can invent new behaviour. The anthropoid apes can’t do this very much so that their behaviour remains more or less constant.


The Naked Ape School of Human Nature revived a completely erroneous concept of how modern anthropoid apes behaved, one of violence, and claimed that we humans descended from them differing only in being relatively hairless. when in fact the human line in evolution moved away about 9-12 million years ago in the shape of Ramapithecus.


In any event, conclusions about human behaviour cannot be drawn from animal behaviour. This was the major mistake of the Ardrey group. They attempted to extrapolate from the animal kingdom, particularly from the behaviour patterns of the modern anthropoid apes (but also of greylag geese) and apply them to human beings. But findings which may be authentic for apes and geese do not thereby apply to homo sapiens. Attempts to do this by Ardrey, Lorenz, Morris and Storr have been shown to be completely erroneous by many of the foremost anthropologists of the day.


Taking into account that our critic has insinuated that we have not read very much of the relevant research work, we suggest he would do well to broaden his own horizon in this field by reading some of the following Orang Utan, Orphans of the Forest by Monica Borner with Bernard Stone house. Naked Ape or Homo Sapiens? by John Lewis and Bernard Towers, Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, The Nature of Human Aggression by Ashley Montagu, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm, Evolution in Action by Julian Huxley, and Prehistoric Man by Vratislav Mazak (to name a small number of many).