E. O. Wilson
The passions surrounding Lorenz’ politics and findings have abated. Academic opinion has now established a comfortable middle ground, acknowledging that aggression has both instinctual and learned components.
E. O. Wilson posited seven original triggers for aggression: “…the defense and conquest of territory, the assertion of dominance within well-organized groups, sexual aggression, acts of hostility by which weaning is terminated, aggression against prey, defensive counterattacks against predators, and moralistic and disciplinary aggression used to enforce the rules of society… Aggressive behavior is in fact one of the genetically most labile of all traits. In short, there is no evidence that a widespread unitary aggressive instinct exists.”13
He further tells us “most kinds of aggressive behavior are perceived by biologists as particular responses to crowding in the environment.”14
Overcrowding in California Prison
In our conceptual scheme, Wilson‘s seven triggers function as responses to disruptions of social rhythms. Overcrowding was a particularly strong example. His analysis confirms our view that the ties between aggression and homeostatic physiological functioning are deeply set in biology, that these triggers are efforts “to gain control over necessities—usually food or shelter—that are in short supply.”
Next, Wilson tries to persuade us that “although the evidence suggests that the biological nature of humankind launched the evolution of organized aggression and roughly directed its early history across many societies, the eventual outcome of that evolution will be determined by cultural processes brought increasingly under the control of rational thought”15
To support this notion, Wilson argues that when instinct and learning come together “genetic biases can be trespassed, passions averted or redirected, and ethics altered…” The redirection, in his view, would incline us toward a social harmony that he associates with “…the human genius for making contracts.” He expresses great confidence that it can “continue to be applied to achieve healthier and freer societies.”16
The learned components will come to dominate instinct. Big claims for the taming power of reason!
It is easily observed that the contracts Wilson praises are hardly free of “genetic biases”. Many contracts are nothing more than papered-over instances of coercion by the dominant over the subordinate parties. They’re full of aggressive territorial and dominance interests often hidden inside a surface geniality and insidious modesty of which Blake writes:
Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility.
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.
The interests and passions of competing factions do require alliances and coalitions, compromise, delay and renunciation. However, it is wrong to suggest that reason has triumphed in these contracts. Or that its successes have come at the expense of aggression.
It makes more sense to see the social contract as a late formulation of a long – practiced sociability in small communities where the subscribers to the contract knew each other well – they knew what to trust or suspect. Passionate avowals make promises real, not the contracts that record them. The passions are necessary to those promises because words are slippery and the future is unknown; we do not like to hear our partners say, “That was then, this is now.” These reversals hit us emotionally.
In our mass culture, the contractual arrangements that supposedly secure belonging lose their passionate avowal. We are strangers to each other. We sign on to all kinds of agreements. Some even contradict each other. One contract can cancel another. Obligations can change at any time. Read the fine print.
Why do we suppose that in large-scale settings teeming with stress-producing perturbations, we are more disposed to promise keeping than promise breaking when both the creative and destructive kinds of aggression maintain equally close ties with reason? That our cognitive powers tame us for social life tells half the story. Here’s the other half: Once our ancestors had the brains to figure out the long term advantages of increased cooperation, they also understood the advantages of subterfuge and deceit. Even primates put out false signals for food because they know it will send the others off in the wrong direction. And certainly, our forbears made promises they never meant to keep. They erected systems of belief they didn’t believe in themselves. They made treaties they never meant to honor. And they wrote social contracts that made some people more equal than others. As Tolstoy put it,
“Some do not believe in anything and are proud of it. Others pretend to believe in what for their own advantage they have persuaded the masses to believe in beneath the guise of faith. The rest, the great majority of the population, accept as faith the hypnotism exercised over them and slavishly submit to everything demanded of them by their non-believing rulers and persuaders.”17
Wilson’s compromise won’t work in human life for many reasons. Any kind of stress can be registered as a threat to homeostatic functioning. Why limit ourselves to seven triggers for aggression? Why not 700? Why not an endless series of them? Civilized aggression seems to be able to respond to anything, go everywhere, penetrate all behaviors, and serve all masters. A million things can bring it on. We can give almost any insult meaning. Fathers throw their babies against the wall. Aggression is almost infinitely recruitable – recruitable precisely because it is triggered, not pre-structured and lying in wait.
Freud v Lorenz on Aggression
Freud accepted the interplay of instincts, but saw them differently. Where Lorenz placed the “blossoms of personal friendship and love” on the “the rough and spiny shoot of intra-specific aggression,” Freud gave them each their own rootedness. Neither had priority. They rose through the tree of life together. In a late formulation in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933), he wrote:
“Our hypothesis is that there are two essentially different classes of instincts: the sexual instincts, understood in the widest sense-Eros, if you prefer that name—and the aggressive instincts, whose aim is destruction… But it is a remarkable thing that this hypothesis is nevertheless felt by many people as an innovation, and, indeed, as a most undesirable one which should be got rid of as quickly as possible.”18
Later he asserts that “Luckily the aggressive instincts are never alone but always alloyed with the erotic ones. These latter have much to mitigate and much to avert under the conditions of the civilization which mankind has created.”19
They were terms in a dualism “… both kinds of instinct would be active in every particle of living substance, though in unequal proportions…” Which makes us inherently problematical, conflicted beings, bound to suffer Given our real situation he considered “a belief in the ‘goodness’ of human nature… one of those evil illusions by which mankind expect their lives to be beautified and made easier while in reality they only cause damage.”
The alliance was really a fusion of instincts, as Freud understood it. The fusion gave aggression a role in sustaining erotic ties against harsh intrusions from the world. To illustrate the fusion of aggression and Eros, Freud most often focused on the rough and tumble of sexual foreplay, and on masochism and sadism. But he also noted its broader implications by observing, “Every instinctual impulse that we can examine consists of similar fusions or alloys of the two classes of instincts.”20 Animal studies of breeding season aggression, in recent decades, show the rhythmic alternation of aggressive and erotic behavior in mating rituals. Scientists have analyzed the underlying biochemistry for many social mammal species: “When the breeding season approaches and the gonads recrude, aggression increases with a corresponding elevation in testosterone levels.”21 We find an even more excruciating transitional expression in the agonal orgasm that occurs under acute stress in humans, as documented in cases of asphyxiation with erection and ejaculation.
We can conjecture that in nature aggression, when it fused with Eros, defended the primordial social rhythms of approach and separation from disruption. This made distance regulation a response to attraction and desire rather than fear and aversion – a relationship much different from what Lorenz proposed. It protected life rhythms.
Therefore, aggression is not prior to or a cause of love. Love has its own power as a motivator of action and as a counterforce to aggression. But what lets them come together in an instinctual fusion? And how does defusion tear them apart? In the defusion of Eros and ag-gression, Freud saw the working of the “death instinct”. This he associated with the thermodynamic tendency of all things to tend to increasing disorder, arriving at a final heat death.22
Insofar as it appears disorderly, we can perhaps liken the depatterning to the dispersal phase of the dispersal-aggregation rhythm as it expresses in body tissues, particularly in neural cells that lose their beat, or to the breakdown of the passing rules in its phenomenological face. Rhythmic derangement is in fact the diagnostic criterion for an epileptic seizure when evaluated through an EEG. And we live in a rhythmically deranged time. So in our lives aggression defuses from Eros frequently, drawn out, tempted, or swept away by all kinds of challenges and threats.
That the aggressive instincts played a primordial conservative role, Freud acknowledged in The Ego and the Id: “The rudimentary creature would from its very beginning not have wanted to change would, if circumstances had remained the same, have always merely repeated the same course of existence. But in the last resort it must have been the evolution of our earth, and its relation to the sun, that has left its imprint on the development of organisms.”
Why the sun? Freud understood that the solar rhythms of the days and seasons were embedded in our organisms by evolutionary selection and we seek to conserve them. Freud goes on to say that “The conservative organic instincts have absorbed every one of these enforced alterations in the course of life and have stored them for repe-tition; they thus present the delusive appearance of forces striving after change and progress, while they are merely endeavoring to reach an old goal by ways both old and new.”23
We can draw the following inferences from our brief analysis of the biophysics behind aggression and love:
o Between oscillatory instincts, on whatever time scale they move, resonances and dissonances naturally spring up as they move in and out of phase with each other.
o If aggression were a rhythmic function, it would have its own hunger-satiation cycle. It would act on us according to the frequency and amplitude of its oscillations. In doing so, it would fall into or out of phase with love and wisdom. But as a triggered drive, aggression has no rhythm. It acts as a perturbation on love and wisdom. Its effects vary with its intensity and the timing of its moment of impact.
o Only aggression specifically recruited by love and wisdom to protect love and wisdom can safeguard homeostasis. It defends rhythm from perturbation by establishing a defense perimeter against intrusions.
o Approach/separation and withdrawal/return are resilient in the face of perturbation. They link to internal clocks; the clock cycles (assuming they have not been destroyed by deeper disturbances) help restore tweaked rhythms. Lorenz insisted that human evolution didn’t have time to evolve these safeguards. But he was wrong.