The Nature of Human Aggression – A Critical Book Review


Many Rousseauistic thinkers, such as the ones that signed the Seville Statement on Violence, which we covered in the opening post of this series regarding violence, base their arguments that humans are naturally nonviolent on the hunter-gatherers’ allegedly nonviolent life style. According to them this lifestyle was corrupted by civilization.

One of them is the eminent anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who wrote a very influential book called The Nature of Human Aggression, which in a way is an expansion and explication of the Seville Statement‘s main ideas. Montagu argues that humans are not naturally violent but are peaceful cooperative beings in a violent world dominated by an aggressive culture, and he focuses on pre-state societies (mainly hunter-gatherers) to prove that.
Since similar arguments can be heard from time to time by many environmentalists and more importantly by many animal rights activists, we find it important to address the issue specifically and expansively, through one of the most Rousseauistic modern thinkers.

Montagu’s motivation is obvious, if the problem is not in humans, whose “true nature” is concealed by modern culture and society which are the problem, then there is hope. “All we need to do” is to peel off the violent layers.
But the picture coming from many studies of these societies is of aggressive, hierarchical, patriarchal, tribal, xenophobic, grudge, vengeful, ethnocentric and violent humans.

Considering the similarities between the Seville Statement and The Nature of Human Aggression, we tried not to repeat ourselves (except when it was necessary) but to focus on the differences, the expansions and of course the reliance on pre-state societies. Please read our post on the Seville Statement of Violence for a more complete picture.

Anthropocentrism and Speciesism

While both are obvious counter theories against the innate aggression theories mentioned in the former post, what was relatively implicit in the Seville Statement, is totally explicit in The Nature of Human Aggression. Montagu is listing and directly confronting his “enemies” which are mainly: Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morris, Robert Ardrey, Niko Tinbergn, Raymond Dart and even Darwin, Freud, Margaret Mead, William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies),Sam Peckinpah (director of the Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs), Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange) and Stanley Kubrick (director of the filmed version of A Clockwork Orange). All are held responsible for providing an excuse for violence to common humans (as if they need one).

Montagu is arguing that humans are not naturally violent despite the arguments of the thinkers listed above, and despite wars, crime, the atrocities of the 20th century and etc. It is all cultural, not natural, he argues. But his objectors don’t argue that humans are naturally violent because of their personal childhood experiences of school and neighborhood or since they read the paper every day, and not even because of the atrocities of the 20th century. For most, the groundwork is ethology, not the daily news. Many draw their conclusions observing and studying other animals including primates, and some, primitive human societies, to infer humans’ pre-cultural nature.

But Montagu is too anthropocentric to accept drawing conclusions about humans from other species:
“The people who write these books take their evidence from the science of animal behavior, called ethology, and some of the writers are among the world’s foremost ethnologists. In many cases, their studies are careful and detailed and constitute major additions to our knowledge of the way their subject behave. For the most part there is no quarrel with the quality of that work, or with its importance. There is strong disagreement, however, with the easy analogies these writers have made between genes and the behavior of fish on the one hand, and human beings on the other.”

He is making a very anthropocentric dichotomy between humans and every other animal, treating the last as if they can never change and are bound to their genetics, instinctively react in more or less the same way to the same stimulus, as opposed to humans who learned everything from their culture and act as they choose to whatever stimulus they encounter.
In his eyes everything in the animal world is instinctive while humans…”lost virtually all remnants of any instincts they may have once had”
“The most important setting of human evolution has been and continues to be the human cultural environment. It is because cultural response has been the most important dimension through which we have made our adaptations to the environment that the immense biological gap exists between us and other species”

However, these anthropocentric examples are nothing compared with his speciesist ones.
For example, Montagu negates an argument made by two other anthropologists (Washburn and Lancaster) that the horrible hobby of angling is an indication of an innate aggression. They reinforce their claim by indicating that humans even deliberately choose to use the lightest fishing tackle in order to prolong the fishes’ struggles, so they can maximize their personal sense of mastery and skill.
They also argue that the ease with which boys can be interested in hunting, fishing, fighting and conduct games of war, is a very strong indication of how natural human violence is.
Montagu’s dilatory counter argument is that many humans are appalled by fishing, and the reason the ones who are not, choose the lightest fishing tackle, is that “they simply never asked themselves whether fish have any feeling at all”. But of course the whole point of the argument was that humans exactly and specifically enjoy the fish’s struggle. They don’t need to ask themselves whether fishes have any feeling, as they take pleasure of their windings and squirms. It is a dominant based pleasure – “fighting” nature and “winning”.

Regarding Montagu’s “many humans are appalled by fishing”, as mentioned in the review of Pinker’s chapter about The Decline in Cruelty to Animals as part of our critical review of his book The Better Angles of Our Nature, in many places in the world the “hobby” of hooking sentient beings with a fishing rod is more popular than ever before. For example 20% of the British population have been freshwater fishing over the last 10 years (officially, it’s the biggest participant sport in the UK), and the latest study by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service shows that there are approximately 60 million anglers of which 46 million are estimated to fish in a given year. That’s every fifth person.

Montagu argues that: “there are individuals who enjoy inflicting pain on animals and on other human beings, but these persons are always abnormal and seriously disturbed.
But obviously actions done by more than 20% of the population can’t be considered abnormal or done by the seriously disturbed. It is much more reasonable to infer that normal humans are naturally capable of enjoying inflicting pain on animals.

Fishing is actually very characteristic of Humans. Humans enjoy a struggle, as long as it is under their super unfair terms of course, it is an opportunity to feel wild without being in any danger, they are unfortunately most likely to succeed in their cruel mission, it is an opportunity for a family day out, opportunity for male bonding, there’s a lot of gear involved which can satisfy humans’ fetishism tendency for merchandise, there is an opportunity to compete with each other over bigger gears and bigger “loot”, and it requires patience and self-control mixed with the anticipation for the great “exciting” opportunity to hook fishes in their sensitive mouth. A classic and characteristic feature of humans’ nature and culture. Or a classic and characteristic cultural expression of humans’ nature – if like us you disagree with the dichotomy between nature and culture.

Probably Montagu’s most speciesist part of the thesis is a chapter called Weapons or Leopards, where he counter argues against the claim that early hominids have weaponized their tools at a very early point.
“There has been a great deal of imprecision in the use of the term “weapon”. Its employment at once suggests aggression, for there is no other reason for the existence of such an instrument than its foreseeable use either offensively or defensibly. So let us attempt clarification of the meaning of this word. A word should be defined by what it does, the action it serves to describe or produce. It is the use to which a tool is put that gives its meaning, and the word employed to describe that should distinguish the different purposes to which a tool may be put that has been designed to serve a particular function.

All weapons are, of course, tools, but all tools are not weapons. When, then, does a tool become a weapon? A tool is defined as ‘any instrument of manual operation’ a weapon is ‘an instrument of any kind used in warfare or in combat to attack and overcome an enemy’ these are the distinctions made in the oxford English dictionary.
Is a tool employed for the purpose of killing an animal a weapon, or is it an implement – that is, a tool or instrument? Is the three-balled enthroned bola, used by Neanderthal man, and possibly before him, to enmesh the legs of birds and other animal, a weapon or an implement? Is a spear a weapon or an instrument? I suggest it is an implement when used to spear an animal; a weapon, when used to spear a human, no matter what its customary use may be, becomes a weapon. But no tool employed by humans to kill an animal is properly regarded as a weapon.
It is not a taxonomic, a classificatory, difference based on physical characteristics that determines the distinction, but the attitude of mind of the individual involved toward the object of his attention. Animals are hunted principally for food. Humans, for whatever reason, seldom are attacked for the purpose of consumption. It is not weapons with which animals are hunted, but implements, though the same implements may become weapons when they are turned against humans.”

Firstly, what can be more explicitly speciesist than arguing that using exactly the same instrument, exactly the same way, is a ferocious weapon on humans and a legitimate functional tool when used on everybody else?
Secondly, animals are not hunted principally for food, humans attack animals in various ways for various functions. The earlier mentioned angling which in many cases is a catch and release “sport”, is one example out of many, such as: passive exhibits, active exhibits, modern medicine, ritual medicine, gambling and betting, tradition, knowledge, utterly unnecessary clothing, totally unnecessary clothing, and absolutely unnecessary clothing, machoism, decoration, transportation, servitude, entertainment, bedding, mobile chargers, caddies, toys producers and celebrations.

Finally, speaking of tools and weapons, please watch this short video argument about the most violent instruments in the world.

Synonymizing the Terms

Like the Seville committee who made a statement on violence but focused almost entirely on wars, so does Montagu whose book is called The Nature of Human Aggression and yet deals almost exclusively with wars, arguing that they are a product of culture and not nature and so humans are not naturally violent. Focusing on wars is very serviceable and easier to deal with. It doesn’t require a lot of intellectual courage or creativity to argue for wars’ uselessness and senselessness. Contrary to arguing that humans are not naturally aggressive, despite the history, scope and prevalence of gender, racial, class and of course interspecies violence.

We broadly referred to the deliberate mix of violence with war as if they are synonyms, in the Seville Statement post so you can read about there.

Yet, just one important example…
Montagu not only deliberately confuses aggression with wars, he wonders if modern warriors are at all aggressive: “on a personal level, how aggressive is a modern warrior? Think of a pilot, flying 30,000 feet up over enemy territory toward an unknown destination where the plane will drop its bombs: is this man exhibiting aggressive behavior? He is deliberately planning to harm, perhaps kill, other human beings, yet his feeling fail to match his actions. He is filled with hatred to match the destruction his bombs will wreak… is this aggressiveness?

The fact that Montagu even dares asking such a violent, self-explanatory question, is because humans’ aggression is much more complex than the narrow definition he presents in the book.

Humans are able to directly participate in mass atrocities by using some simple moral disengagement tricks that have nothing to do with hate, such as downgrading the harm, relativizing the harm, derogating the victims, arguing that the actions were necessary to complete the task, contrast and compare with other aggressors’ atrocities and etc.
In addition to that, there are some psychological relieves such as the distance between the aggressor and the victims, and the fact that the victims are numerous. Humans cannot wrap their minds around large numbers of people in a dangerous situation even if they are the ones causing it.

Seriously asking this question, the “pacifist” anthropologist Ashley Montagu, actually confirms the observation attributed to one of the least pacifist figures in human history, Joseph Stalin, who said that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic.

Violence is not about hate, and the level of aggression is definitely not nominative to the level of hate. The fact that some of the greatest atrocities in history were not made in the name of hatred is what makes humans so violent. Factory farms are not a product of hate but of indifference. They are more a product of reason than they are a product of hostility, a product of “efficiency” more than enmity.
What makes humans such violent and dangerous animals is not that they are aggressive but that they are permissive. The entire human history is full of violence that humans have permitted. Millions of humans were and are directly involved with dreadful violence, hundreds of millions were and are directly encouraging and supporting dreadful violence and tens of billions were and are directly overlooking it. Humans’ most violent act is not being done directly by them but directly for them.


Nature or Nurture? Either way – Torture

Like the Seville committee Montagu also makes a very strange and extremely anthropocentric dichotomy between culture and nature.

But where did all the cultural factors, that the people from the Rousseauistic doctrine put the blame on, come from?
Human culture is not divine or from out of space. It is all man made. Every cultural element leans on a biological one.

As cultural as human behavior may seem to some, it is biological in origin, wrapped in layers of culture. Believing that humans didn’t create all the societies ever in history in their own image, is believing in unnatural elements. Thinking humans are above nature is anthropocentrism.
It is humans’ elaborated ability to conceal their true desires and interests under thick layers of norms, manners, politeness, refinements and filtrations that misleads some to think humans can act differently than selfish, self-centered beings fighting over resources and status.

This dichotomy is very convenient and serviceable for the Rousseauistic anthropologists asking to paint romantic image of humanity, since it enables them to put all the blame for all the bad things on something outside humans. This dichotomy is very convenient and serviceable for humanists as well, which paint a romantic image of humans, as harmless and innocent beings who are compelled by a violent culture, blaming everything on it and nothing on humans. Of course this dichotomy is also very convenient and serviceable for speciesists who use it as justification for the “cultured humans” to do as they wish with the rest of the species which they define as uncultured. And this dichotomy is very convenient and serviceable for Montagu who is a combination of all the three – a humanist Rousseauistic anthropologist speciesist.

Obviously we disagree with Montagu’s dichotomy between humans and other animals and between natural and cultural but for the sake of the argument, even if so, it means that humans are even worse. Montagu argues again and again that humans choose their paths because their behavior is not instinctive, if this world is what they have chosen, then they are not only violent and aggressive, they are extremely cruel.

Genetic or cultural, all human societies, all along history, all the time, were and still are extremely violent.
There is not even one vegan culture, and only a few vegetarian ones and even that is for religious and spiritual reasons and not non-speciesist moral reasons.

There is something very ironic in the fact that it is the romantic humanists who are more on the culture side, since it’s the natural notion which says it is “not humans’ fault”- they don’t choose to be bad, they just are. On the other hand the nurture side says that humans are not inherently bad, they just choose to be. It means they can be better but don’t want to. So the humanists’ humans are actually much worse.

Montagu is making a lot of efforts to prove that humans’ behavior is not genetically determinate. But the fact that humans can change means that they can even get worse. And so far, from animals’ perspective they definitely have. Every year more humans inflict more violence on more animals. The fact that humans can choose to change but are changing for the worse is supposed to make Montagu’s view on humans even worse than ours, but he is too speciesist to realize that.

Isn’t the fact that humans have created by themselves, for themselves, and especially for the rest of the species, such a violent world, an absolutely unequivocal proof of their violence?
And even if it was true that the hunter-gatherers are a model of a non-violent society, isn’t the fact that hunter-gatherers represent about a billionth of today’s human population says something about humanity? Isn’t the fact that violence is so dominant all along history, much more significant than the nature or nurture dispute?
If humans don’t choose violence then they have a structural inherent problem, and if they do choose violence then they have a structural inherent problem.


Dangerous Humanism

Montagu argues that the ‘naturally violent’ school is dangerous because by stating that humans are naturally violent they approve their violent behavior.
But we find Montagu much more dangerous.
Because by anthropocentrically separating humans and animals, he is another brick in the speciesism wall. Montagu’s humans are wingless angels, this planet is theirs, for their use – a much more violent philosophy, as proven all along history.
Because the Humanism ideology is a very significant factor in humans’ sense of superiority, it caused much more violence than the crude animalistic model that Montagu’s objectors propose. Humanity’s superiority and its so called progress is done on the expense of the rest of the species, it has brought more violence toward animals and more oppression on humans.
By promoting a false viewpoint about humans, he blocks the at least theoretical option of humans to change. You must face reality so you can change it.
If you believe that you have the answer to a problem, you won’t go on searching, as you must.

It is the humanistic agenda, the ultra-anthropocentric and mega speciesist viewpoint that is dangerous, since no matter how bad humans are, the humanists emphasize the good (what they see as good). They treat humans with endless tolerance no matter how intolerant humans are to each other and to nonhumans. Acknowledging that humans are naturally violent is less violent than the application of the false belief that humans are not only not naturally violent, but are not part of nature at all. It is Montagu who is giving permission for humans to keep their aggressive superiority ideology.

Not those who tell us that humans are naturally violent in theory when they are so violent in reality are dangerous, but those who tell us that humans are not naturally violent when they are so violent in practice, everywhere, all of the time. Montagu is the dangerous one since if he and his alike succeed then humanity would be given more and more opportunities and without even acknowledging the greatest violence they inflict, and is currently not even considered as such.

The illusions of peace and nonviolence are not only theoretically dangerous, as it is not that they hold a potential to harm, they already harm. Every second that humanity is given another chance, this world continues, and billions of beings suffer. Every argument in favor of this world is an argument justifying billions of beings’ suffering.
Only by acknowledging the problem will we be able to solve it, and indeed acknowledging that violence is an inherent part of this world, intrinsic and inevitable, awakened us to the End All Suffering.

In the next part of this post we’ll solely and specifically discuss the myth of non-violence attributed to Hunter-Gatherers societies. A myth we find extremely crucial to refute as it feeds many activists’ false hopes for a non-violent society, if only some aspects of modern civilization are omitted.

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