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Evolutionary Aggression Essay, Research Paper


Aggression, the intentional infliction of some form of harm to others (Baron and Byrne, 2000) has been a topic of concern to many psychologists and especially social psychologists. When combined with evolutionary psychology, the approach to understanding human behaviour that takes the basic premises of Darwinian natural selection and applies them to the understanding the human mind and its evolution over time, it seems to appear that, in order to understand aggression, it is believed that we must look at the biological underpinnings of it. However, to suggest this means that aggression in humans and animals has developed over a period of time and that aggression is inevitable. This essay will assess the evidence for and against evolutionary theory and evaluates the evidence to suggest if aggression is inevitable.

Evolutionary theory works under the assumption that certain human psychological traits are species typical and have evolved relative to changing conditions in the environment. This is where many social psychologists study aggression as a response to specific conditions in the environment. Therefore the study of aggression is largely the discovery of environmental behaviour relationships with intervening psychological processes. Advances in human biology offer possibilities of better understanding of socio-biological underpinnings, however earlier biological approaches involved addressing the issue differently. An example of this is the case of an aggressive act where a man has lost his girlfriend due to an affair. He drinks at his local bar and thinks about the girlfriend and the man that had the affair. He becomes angry and drives to the man?s house and attacks him. Those who prefer the biological approach see this aggressive behaviour as having a biological basis, whether it is in the brain or in the genes. Thus the Primary determinant of aggression arising from biology sees aggression as innate behaviour, and therefore inevitable.

An early advocate of aggression as a biological trait was Freud (1920, cited in Baron and Byrne 2000). He believed that aggression was inevitable as it was the individuals Thanatos (the will to die) turned outward, which created ones aggression. He believed that some individuals were naturally more aggressive than others, making aggression, for some an inevitable emotion.

Lorenz (1950, cited in Hayes 1998) also described aggression as a biological trait, an internal energy that builds up and need to be released. He also suggested that aggression springs from an inherited fighting instinct that humans share with many species. This instinct developed during the course of evolution allowing only the strongest and vigorous to pass on their genes to the next generation, a case of survival of the fittest (Baron and Byrne 2000). Observation and measurement of aggressive behaviours in a number of species, shows that nature selects those animals with greater levels of aggression, therefore aggression is inevitable in order to survive and if there is a lack of aggression then their chances of survival decreases. This suggestion does seem to fit in with what we observe in the natural world, and thus is highly popular.

Socio-biology, also links aggressive behaviours to inherit instinct reactions to ancestral behaviours of feeding, territoriality and fighting of males during the mating season. An example of this is the deer tournament behaviour, which suggests a clear case of greater fitness in aggressive individuals, (Gleitman, Friedlund, Resiberg, 1999).

The problem with defining aggression is that it limits what aggression is, as there are many forms of aggression, and not one definition can account for this variability. Indeed what behaviour actually counts as aggressive behaviour? Possible behaviours of aggression could include, aggression as an deterrent for future rivals of aggression, aggression could be conducted to deter long term mates from sexual infidelity, aggression can even be used to elevate ones status (Buss 1999).

However, can all these forms of aggression be considered equivalent? The evolutionary theory predicts that there will be traces of aggression present in all people but there will be some variability in these forms of aggression. They suggest that there are levels of variability in aggression and these may occur, between species, among individuals, and across cultures.

Among vertebrates, the male of the species is found to be more aggressive, explanations given by bio-chemicalists suggest that aggressive behaviour is due to the effect of hormonal and testosterone influences (Van Goozen, Frijda, & de Poll, 1994, cited in Baron and Byrne 2000). They show that when human female embryos are exposed to excessive amounts of testosterone accidentally, they later act in a more aggressive way. Hormonal changes in women before menstruation can produce aggressive behaviour (Hayes 1998). Therefore, this suggests that aggression is not a social production but a chemical reaction inside the individual?s body, leady on to believe that it is inevitable.

There are many different forms of aggression and the differences between animal and human aggression was studied by Lorenz (1996, cited in Buss 1999). He suggested that hunting and killing for food may appear aggressive but is not. It does not involve anger but is an expression of hunger. Aggression has primarily survived due to its effect on increasing our evolutionary fitness. Its beneficial for maintaining dominance within a species and this in turn increase the likelihood of finding a mate and therefore, being able to reproduce. Aggression can be costly on energy and may even cause problems where obtaining food and mates are concerned. Therefore natural selection favours restricted aggression.

As mentioned earlier, aggression has an enormous range of variability, and human aggression stems from a large number of different factors, which is why the biological theories have seriously being questioned by most social psychologist as there are not any scientific basis that aggression stems form innate tendencies. In most of the animal fighting behaviour from Lorenz?s studies most of the animals fighting does not lead to serious injury or death, as compared to human aggression where millions are killed or serious injured. Innate tendencies to engage in such lethal behaviour make little sense from an evolutionary perspective. In addition, violence within a given culture varies dramatically over time as social conditions change (Baron and Byrne 2000). Such facts are inconsistent with the idea that human beings are genetically programmed for aggression.

Learning theorist are associated with two main theories to try and explain the inevitability of aggression. The first of the two is the cognitive association theory; this suggests that aggression is linked with aggressive cues, such as in films. Experiments have been carried out which support this theory, using guns as aggressive cues (Berkowitz 1989), which lead to the hypothesis ?the trigger pulls the finger?

The second main theory is that of the social learning theory by Bandura (1977, cited in Hayes 1998) who suggested that aggression is not inevitable as learning can occur firstly through direct experience reinforcement, for example, the classic study by Bandura and Walters (1977, cited in Hayes 1998) on adolescent boys.

Bandura?s worked sparked much research on effects of aggressive content in the media, such as television and films. However, Bandura did not believe his experiment should be taken too literally, as just because children and adults watch violence does not automatically mean they will mimic it. However, he believed also that aggression is not an inevitable emotion, but a learnt one.

The social learning theory does not explain how aggression was present centuries ago, as aggression was present before technological advancements. However, the socio-biology argument drawn from the observation of a limited time period concludes that aggressive behaviours are instinctive and therefore are natural and inevitable emotion, which has an adaptive value. Taking into account that evolutionary changes takes hundred of years and not all developments are adaptive, why should aggression be adaptive and therefore not inevitable? The methodology that was used does not seem to be equipped to look at the effects of the environment and learning through the evolutionary ladder as it is argued that the learning process increases in any species as they progress up the evolutionary ladder suggesting aggressive behaviours could be learnt.

Since evolutionary theory rests on the assumption that aggression is innate or biologically determined, to suggest that it is inevitable means that we are genetically determined to commit some forms of aggression. Although, this is a possibility, there is no conclusive proof to support this hypothesis. Much scientific speculation is directed towards genes and their influence on behaviour and aggression, linkage studies have failed consistently to identify the loci of relative genes. We should not readily assume that any behaviour is gene coded rather than a learned response to the environment, for there is much more evidence to explain the latter rather than the former, despite neither paradigm being able fully to explain human aggression.

The concern for evolution theorist is that their theories are untestable, because it is impossible for evolutionary psychologists to replay the process of evolution in their laboratories, they must relay on after the fact phenomenon.

The conclusion as to whether evolutionary theory suggest that aggression is inevitable, needs to combine the two main theories and accept that aggression is innate, but also that it is stimulated and conditioned by society. The evidence of similarities and difference between animal and human aggression has further cast doubt on evolutionary theories. Evolutionary theory may benefit from replacing its heavy reliance on assumption with a firmer grounding in tangible data, and testable hypothesis.

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