Are human inherently, unavoidably aggressive?

The theme throughout Robert Ardrey’s three books is the same. Man is by nature aggressive and territorial. He has instincts that drive him to war and destruction. He has, as part of his genetic endowment, a natural inclination for violence.

Reviewed by Stanley Lieberman

The origin of this aggressive instinct is described in African Genesis. The argument is based on the fossil remains of Australopithecus. Since tools have been found with the remains, these early men were hunters, that is, they were aggressive and were killers. Ardrey contends that early man’s dependence on hunting as placed emphasis on aggressive drives. Over the time span of man’s evolutionary history, those individuals that were more aggressive survived;those that lacked the proper level of aggression did not; and aggression slowly became part of man’s nature‐​innate, unalterable, and unopposable.

In The Territorial Imperative, Ardrey discusses the other of man’s major instincts, territoriality. For Ardrey, this is man’s most fundamental instinct. Man’s behavior with respect to this instinct is no different than the instinct‐​directed behavior of such animals as the lowly planarian worm, the digger wasp, the roe deer, and every primate but the gorilla. Ardrey concludes that “the territorial nature of man is genetic and ineradicable.”

The theme in the last volume of the trilogy is the same. Man is aggressive and territorial because by no other means could he have survived. “For certainly two million years we were continually dependent on the weapon in the hand to make possible the survival of a terrestrial primate so ill‐​armed by nature. Without the invention of the weapon, we could not exist.”

Ardrey points out that our greatest and possibly fatal mistake was the recent development of farming and animal husbandry. This may be the reason men kill each other. “Until five thousand years ago there was no other way to survive. And if it was only then that organized warfare became a significant human entertainment, perhaps we may understand it as a substitute for the lost hunting way.”

The “lost hunting way” is also the basis for all the other troubles that plague us. “Not only murder but riot, assault, vandalism, destruction of property may be seen as violent actions satisfying an appetite without which at one time we could not have survived, but for which little socially acceptable nourishment exists today.”

This is the essence of Ardrey’s writings. If Ardrey is correct, he provides no basis–in any manner–for libertarianism. If man’s nature is as described, a libertarian society would be impossible. In fact, the only type of workable society may be a dictatorship where man’s aggressive drives are regulated by strong external controls.

However, Ardrey is not correct:

(1) Labeling any behavior as instinctive fails to explain its causes. Aggressive behavior exists in many diverse species, and is caused by many things. In insects, such behavior may be triggered by trace chemicals; in birds, by territorial defense, but only during the breeding season; in carnivores, by prey, but only if certain internal conditions are present; in apes, by a predator, but only if escape routes are not available and the troop is considered in danger; in man, by a mere verbal slur, but only if attack is an appropriate response in the individual’s culture, and only if the individual’s experience indicates that attack would be appropriate to the specific circumstances. If the murderous raids of the Brazilian Indians are explained in terms of instincts, how is the peacefulness of the Eskimos to be explained? True, man displays aggressive behavior. However, this does not imply an aggressive instinct. It implies the capacity for such behavior. Man also has the capacity for tenderness and love. Man’s aggressive behavior is learned and is based on his beliefs and principles. Since man’s ideology has largely been based on a disregard for human rights, is it any surprise that he acts aggressively?

(2) The development of a weapon two million years ago could not have played a major role in insuring man’s survival, since man’s ancestral line goes back closer to thirty‐​five million years. Throughout most of this time, man had no tools and no weapons to help him.

(3) There is no evidence that early man’s principle food was obtained by hunting. In fact, the majority of his diet was composed of fruits, nuts, tubers, grubs, and rodents.

(4) Of all the primates, only the gibbon can be considered territorial. Furthermore, most behavior for apes is learned, since different populations, living in different areas, display different behaviors. A possible display of territoriality in one habitat is not present in another.

(5) No evidence of territoriality exists today among hunting peoples still living, for example, the Bushman, the Pygmy, and the Eskimo.

(6) Why do governments find it necessary to pass laws against immigration and treason and for a draft? If aggression and territoriality are instinctive, we would love our country and fight at the slightest provocation, real or imagined.

To accept Ardrey, is to blame biology for our destructive acts. Just as society is not responsible, neither are our genes. We must accept the responsibility for our actions. What we do, we choose to do.

Reviewed by Robert Masters

Robert Ardrey is one of the pioneers of new “biological perspective” now emerging in the social sciences. This approach–in opposition to cultural relativism in anthropology, environmentalism in sociology, and behaviorism in psychology–holds that man’s consciousness has a specific, biologically determined nature. Consciousness, like the body, has definite needs, and strives to actualize itself by growing toward a definite, genetically programmed form.

According to this view, man is not socially “malleable.” Society can provide man with knowledge, thus helping him to actualize his genetic potential. But it cannot “remold” or “condition” his psychology into the arbitrary forms required by utopian or rationalistic ideals. The hope that such remolding could be accomplished, Ardrey states, has been responsible for many of the absurdities and horrors of the last two centuries.

How does one discover the particular nature and needs of human consciousness? One way of approaching this question–a way that is central to the biological perspective–is to view man as an animal, as one species in the stream of evolution. This is the theme Ardrey develops in rich detail in his three books. He shows that there are definite continuities between man and other animals, continuities of body and behavior. Therefore, studying man’s phylogenetic relatives and ancestors gives one major insights into man himself.

Perhaps the clearest way of expressing Ardrey’s perspective is simply to say that it makes a difference that man evolved from a particular kind of ape. If man’s ancestors had been rabbits or lions or, for that matter, insects, man would be a significantly different creature. His physiological and neurological “wiring”–and thus his emotions and psychology—would be adapted to a different kind of life. Therefore his societies and the problems facing them would be different. A being descended from rabbits, no matter how intelligent–and no matter how it was conditoned–could hardly become a warrior; one descended from lions would have great difficulty becoming a housewife.

The prevailing view is that, even though man’s body is shaped by genetic and evolutionary forces, his psychology is not. By showing that this dichotomy is impossible, Ardrey and theorists like him are destroying the last major stronghold of the Christian mind‐​body split. They are completing the assault, which Darwin began a century ago, on the concept of man as a “specially created” being, separate and aloof from the animal kingdom.

The cultural/​environmentalist/​behaviorist establishment has, of course, fought back. The attacks on Ardrey have taken three main forms:

(1) His specific factual claims have been subjected to wide‐​ranging criticism. These issues obviously cannot be dealt with adequately in a brief review. Suffice it to say that, while Ardrey’s works are hardly free of errors, his basic theses have held up pretty well. In particular, his contention that hunting was the decisive formative influence giving rise to man–an idea that was considered crackpot when published in. African Genesis–has now been accepted by many of the leading authorities in the field.

(2) Ardrey is often denounced as an advocate of fatalism. Since our genes are adapted to hunting and violent killing, he supposedly maintains, there is nothing we can do about the problem of violence. His position is actually the exact opposite. His point is that only through learning about our nature, including its less pleasant aspects, can we devise ways of dealing with it. The theorist who denies our genetic predisposition to violence, he argues, is like someone who insists that nitroglycerine is not dangerous and that no precautions are necessary when handling it. (The results of such wishful thinking, Ardrey states, are all around us.)

(3) On the fundamental issue–the methodological one–the culturalists have not put up much real argument at all. They indicate they consider the biological perspective misleading or useless but they do not seem to have much conviction about this. Often they flatly contradict their own premises by using Ardrey’s methodology in trying to refute him, as when they attempt to show that man’s ancestors were not in fact violently disposed and that therefore man is not. This tactic puts them in the position of saying, in effect, “Man has no instinct–and besides, all his instincts are peaceable”! To be consistent, culturalists would have to hold that it makes no difference at all whether we are descended from killer apes–that this has no relevance whatever to man as he is today. Understandably, few of them have been willing to commit themselves to that position.

Ardrey’s writings are not without problems–such as his penchant for dramatic overstatement and sweeping but dubious analogies. But–as Nathaniel Branden recently observed in a different context—the first generation of any school of thought inevitably tends toward oversimplification. That the biological perspective is capable of balanced, rigorous, and fruitful development has been demonstrated by thinkers as varied as Steven Goldberg, Lionel Tiger, Robin Fox and John E. Pfeiffer.

Ardrey’s three books are stylistically brilliant, filled with information, and downright fun to read. In my opinion, they remain the best introduction to the New Darwinian Revolution.