Friday, April 11, 2008

The Ignoble Savage

Why does man, considered to be the most intelligent creature on this earth, indulge in inhuman acts of violence, arson and genocide as witnessed in Kashmir, and caste-related violence in other regions? Why does this so-called rational being behave so irrationally? It is generally believed that most people are by nature kind and noble and they behave like animals only when they are corrupted by those with a vested interest, like political leaders. This viewpoint is naive and simplistic, says Kuldip Dhiman

  "ULTRAS massacre 17 in Doda. According to the police, a group of 10 militants entered Ludar village and dragged 20 males belonging to one community out of their homes and shot them."

You switch off the television in sheer disgust, but such news stories keep appearing with increasing frequency. Whether it is Kashmir, Punjab, the North-East, or the distant Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Palestine, etc., it is the same old story that has been repeating itself for centuries— men killing men. But why? Why does the most intelligent of species in the world behave in such a barbaric fashion? Why are humans so violence-prone, and why is the violence chiefly communal? Why can't we all live amicably?

Religion and politics are often named as the main causes of communal disharmony. We blame the priests and the politicians for exploiting the 'innocent' masses for their own selfish ends. This may sound very convincing, but the fact is no one can exploit unless there is something available to be exploited.

While the minorities are in continual fear of being annihilated, the majority group is equally afraid of being overtaken by the minorities some day. Both groups are uneasy and uncomfortable with real, and often imagined, fear. They thus live in mutual suspicion about the motives of the other group. Political leaders are well aware of this distrust, and know that in a multiracial society only a tiny spark is required to flare up communal violence. Throw a piece of beef in a temple, a cigarette butt in a gurdwara or a piece of pork in a mosque, and a riot starts.

It appears that hatred towards the other group is universal. At a broader level, there is aggression between countries, especially between immediate neighbours; at national level there is aggression between states; at state level between districts and villages. In villages, there is aggression between families, between two tribes, between two villages, between families, between members of the same family such as between husband-wife, or between siblings, between genders, between the same gender and, finally, aggression against one's own self.

It is generally believed that humans are by nature kind and noble, and they behave like animals only when they are corrupted by people with a vested interest— like political leaders. This viewpoint has been challenged by thinkers over the ages.

One scientist, who devoted a lot of his energies studying the aggressive aspect of human nature, was Conrad Lorenz. He reinforced the belief that there is an innate drive for intra species aggression and it finds expression every now and then.

Konrad Lorenz was born on November 7, 1903, in Austria. In 1966, he wrote On Aggression in which he argued that aggressive behaviour in animals is motivated by survival, while in the case of humans aggressive behaviour may be channelled or modified. In 1973 he won a Nobel Prize (shared with Karl Von Frisch & Niko Tinbergen) for his studies on human and animal behaviour.

Borrowing Freud's hydraulic model of the brain, Lorenz argued that when pressure builds up in an internal system, rather like the water in a toilet cistern, the threshold for tolerance might be reduced and just a little stimulus is needed to trigger off aggressive behaviour. What is alarming is that in extreme cases, it may 'overflow' with no external stimulus as we often see in the case of two different communities who suddenly turn against each other in spite of having a fairly long record of peaceful co-existence.

After studying the behaviour of animal and birds, Lorenz came to believe that, like many other animals, we have an innate drive to aggressive behaviour towards our own species. This, he argued, is the only possible explanation of the conflicts and wars throughout all human history, of the continuing unreasonable behaviour of supposedly reasonable beings. Taking a Darwinian perspective and Freud's theory of the death instinct, Lorenz tried to explain this ugly aspect of human nature.

Since food and other resources are scarce, and humans have to compete with the other species for their own kind for survival. Even between members of the same species, such as humans, there is always competition for food, territory and power. Nature's laws are merciless — they favour the strong and that's why aggression seems to be innate in us. Aggression, like any other weapon, is a double-edged sword. To a certain degree it is good for us, but we often lose control of ourselves and indulge in all sorts of inhuman acts.

In his well-argued article Lorenz on Aggression, in the book Ten Theories of Human Nature, Leslie Stevenson observes that the most destructive human violence is not between individuals but between groups, whether organised as in war or unorganised as in communal massacres. At a certain stage of their evolution, our ancestors had more or less mastered the dangers of their inhospitable environment and the main threat facing them came not from predators, but from other human groups. "The competition between tribes," avers Stevenson explaining Lorenz's viewpoint, "would have been the main factor in natural selection, so there would be survival value in the 'warrior virtues.' At this postulated prehistoric stage, those groups that bonded together best to fight other groups would tend to survive longest. Thus, Lorenz offers to explain what he calls 'militant enthusiasm,' in which a human crowd becomes excitedly aggressive against another group perceived as alien and loses all rational control and moral inhibitions. This tendency, he suggests, has evolved from the communal defence response of our prehuman ancestors.

Although we know that most animals tend to fight with one another, the victorious contender seldom kills the opponent if the latter makes appropriate gestures conceding defeat. Humans are the only one, as far as we know, to indulge in systematic mass killing of rival groups (although there have been recent reports about systematic warfare among different groups of monkeys). This is quite perplexing because, according to Darwin's theory, the main duty of all species is to survive and to propagate their own kind so they have more members of its type and, hence, a better chance of survival. Explaining Lorenz's theory, Stevenson says there was no evolutionary need for very strong inhibition mechanisms to stop fighting between ape-men. The more heavily armed animals need such inhibitions to prevent injury to each other, but others do not, at least in their normal environments. With human beings, cultural and technological developments put artificial weapons in our hands— from sticks and stones of prehuman ancestors, through arrows and swords of history, to bullets and bombs, chemical and nuclear weapons of today. The biological equilibrium between killing potential and inhibition is upset. This is how it is that human beings are the only animals to indulge in genocide of their own kind.

Appeals to rationality and moral responsibility have been notoriously ineffective in controlling human conflict. Lorenz reiterated that aggression was innate in us: like the instincts of Freudian id, it must find an outlet in one way or another. Reason alone is powerless; it can only devise means to ends that we decide in other ways, and it can exert control over our behaviour only when it is backed by some instinctual motivation. So, like Freud, Lorenz saw a conflict between the instincts implanted in us by evolution and the new moral restraints necessary to civilised society. He speculated that in prehuman groups there must have been a primitive morality that condemned aggression within the group but encouraged 'militant enthusiasm' against any group perceived as alien.

Being medical men, it was natural for Freud and Lorenz to explain aggression from a biological perspective. But there are others who believe that environment has its own share in shaping human nature.

Lorenz's theory, though brilliant and convincing, is not without problems. His critics accuse him of being unscientific because, as with the Freudian theories, Lorenz's application of the concepts of drive and instinct are not testable by observation and experiment.

To be fair to Freud, Lorenz and other such thinkers, we must not forget that although neuroscientists have done a lot of work, there is very little we know about the mind and how it works. The method of observation, measurement and testing works as far as physical things such as chemicals, solids, or even human organs like the heart, liver etc., are concerned. With modern instruments, we can now very accurately measure a person's heartbeat, or blood pressure. But we still don't know how to measure and test mental processes such as thought and emotion. You might love your spouse or your child, but how can you ever measure it or test it? Sure, one day we might find ways to measure mental processes, but until then we have to make do with whatever theories we have, unscientific though they might appear to be. Besides, thinkers are often way beyond their times and theories that were once rubbished once were later proved to be true. When Einstein presented his two theories of relativity, the scientific community laughed at him because his theories just did not make sense to them. Besides, they were impossible to test at that time as he dealt with space-time and gravity. Ways were found to test them only many years later.

While not taking credit away from Lorenz, it must be mentioned here that he was not the first to suggest that aggression in humans and animals was innate. Over the ages, thinkers have recognised this human trait. Nietzsche was quite vocal about it when he coined the phrase "the will to power," and when he observed that humans are in a continual state of war, and that peace was just a pause in war.

Freud himself devoted his attention to aggression, in fact his concept of the id, ego and super-ego is nothing but a recognition of internal and external conflict in all of us, leading to "collective neurosis."

In the book, Civilization and its Discontents, Freud admits, "In all that follows I take up the standpoint that the tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man, and I come back now to the statement that it constitutes the most powerful obstacle to culture. At one point in the course of this discussion, the idea took possession of us that culture was a peculiar process passing over human life and we are still under the influence of this idea. We may add to this that the process proves to be in the service of Eros, which aims at binding together single human individuals, then families, then tribes, races, nations, into one great unity, that of humanity. Why this has to be done we do not know; it is simply the work of Eros. These masses of men must be bound to one another libidinally; necessity alone, the advantages of common work, would not hold them together The natural instinct of aggressiveness in man, the hostility of each one against all and of all against each one opposes the programme of civilisation. This instinct of aggression is the derivative and main representative of the death instinct we have found alongside of Eros, sharing his rule over the earth. And now it seems to me, the meaning of the evolution, of culture is no longer a riddle to us. It must present to us the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of and so the evolution of civilisation may be simply described as the struggle of the human species for existence."

The instinct of destruction, argued Freud, when tempered and harnessed (as it were, inhibited in its aim) and directed towards objects; is compelled to provide the ego with satisfaction of its need and with power over nature. Since the assumption of its existence is based essentially on theoretical grounds, it must be confessed that it is not entirely proof against theoretical objections. But this is how things appear to us now in the present state of our knowledge; future research and reflection will undoubtedly bring further light which will decide the question.

Thinkers and scientists often take extreme viewpoints while arguing their postulates. Some believe that humans shape the environment, while behaviorists such as J. B. Watson and Skinner go to the extent of denying the human mind altogether and emphasising that environment is the only factor that shape human nature. Change the environment and you change the being. With hindsight, we can say that both these extreme approaches are partly wrong. Nature and nurture influence each other mutually, and we cannot ignore one at the expense of the other. In this connection, we might refer to the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

When Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, in 1976, the book further heated the debate over whether humans were ruled more by nature or nurture. He noted that discussing the evolution of birds without looking hard at the evolution of their nests, or at beavers, without considering the evolution of their dams, would be prima facie ridiculous. Each is essential to the survival of the other. It is the combination of bird and nest, the combination of beaver and dam, that gives a competitive edge to the animals who build them. Not only does the body of an organism march to the orders of its genes, but so do the artifacts the organism builds or uses. In this sense, the egg uses both a chicken and a nest to make another egg, and so the nest, too, is an evolutionary extension of the egg.

Though our disposition to be aggressive is genetic, it is further reinforced in our minds in our childhood by our parents, teachers and peer groups. Children grow up believing their race, religion, social group, caste and culture are far superior to that of the others. Highly charged stories of heroic victories and humiliating defeats are often drilled into our minds quite early. Vengeance is glorified to an extent that the new generation feels duty bound to settle old scores. Hence society and culture also have a hand in moulding our behaviour. It is a two-way traffic — organisms and environment affecting each other. We cannot afford to ignore either of them if we wish to study behaviour.

Language and memory are unique features that are responsible for the tremendous cultural and scientific achievements made by humans. Yet language and memory are the cause for our misery. Although most animals get violent with members of their own species, they don't appear to have long term memories — they fight and forget. Humans are condemned not to forget. While a strong animal might not go to the extent of killing his antagonist if appropriate gestures conceding defeat are made, humans can't afford to take the chance, fearing that if not the opponent his son or friend might catch up with him some day on a lonely stretch. And for this reason, often an entire family or tribe is massacred. On a broader scale, history books never let us forget the past. Heroic tales and folk songs of wars keep the flame of vengeance alive.

Exterminating the other group, even if it is possible, does not work because new schisms in the new homogenous group develop. Even if India were inhabited by just one race that followed one religion, divisions would soon develop. The best way out might be to have a healthy competition between diverse groups in preference to mindless violence in order to dominate the rivals.

Yes, aggression is innate in us, but it does not mean that intolerable behaviour and bloodshed are justified. A scientist's job is to observe, experiment, test and state the fact however unpleasant they might be because once we know the cause of the problem, we have a greater chance of finding a solution to it. Secondly, when observers say that aggression in us is innate, it does not automatically mean that all of us are violent and aggressive by nature. All it means is that we are susceptible to it in certain circumstances. For instance, most of us are quite capable of committing murder, theft, and other nefarious activities as such tendencies might be in our genes, however, by and large, we don't do these things because other factors such as upbringing, education, or religion inhibit us.

Our upbringing can either turn us into highly intolerable beings, or shape us into a 'noble savages.'


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