Is aggressive behavior innate?

Alfie Kohn gives the evidence to support the position that human nature is probably not innately aggressive or peaceful.

* Even if a behavior is universal, we cannot automatically conclude it is part of our biological nature. All known cultures may produce pottery, but that doesn’t mean there is a gene for pottery making. Other institutions once thought to be natural are now very difficult to find. In a century or two, says University of Missouri sociologist Donald Granberg, “it is possible that people will look back and regard war in much the same way as today we look back at the practice of slavery.”

* Aggression, in any case, is nowhere near universal. Montagu has edited a book entitled Learning Non-Aggression, which features accounts of peaceful cultures. It is true that these are hunter-gatherer societies, but the fact that any humans live without violence would seem to refute the charge that we are born aggressive. In fact, cultures that are “closer to nature” would be expected to be the most warlike if the proclivity for war were really part of that nature. Just the reverse seems to be true. The late Erich Fromm put it this way: “The most primitive men are the least warlike and . . . warlikeness grows in proportion to civilization. If destructiveness were innate in man, the trend would have to be the opposite.”

Just as impressive as peaceful cultures are those that have become peaceful. In a matter of a few centuries, Sweden has changed from a fiercely warlike society to one of the least violent among industrialized nations. This shift — like the existence of war itself — can more plausibly be explained in terms of social and political factors rather than by turning to biology.

* While it is indisputable that wars have been fought frequently, the fact that they seem to dominate our history may say more about how history is presented than about what actually happened. “We write and teach our history in terms of violent events, marking time by wars,” says Temple University psychologist Jeffrey Goldstein. “When we don’t have wars, we call it the ‘interwar years.’ It’s a matter of selective reporting.”

* Similarly, our outrage over violence can lead us to overstate its prevalence today. “Every year in the United States, 250 million people do not commit homicide,” Goldstein observes. “Even in a violent society, it’s a relatively rare event.” It is difficult to reconcile a theory of innate human aggressiveness with the simple fact that most people around us seem quite peaceful.

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