Culture Based on Instinct: The Human Propensity for Violence

April 10, 2006 by aaron

I. Introduction and Definitions

Is the human propensity for violence caused by culture or our very instincts? More specifically, does “modern” cultural constructs such as video games cause aggression? The second question is easy to answer, but the first is much harder because the argument of “nature versus nurture” has existed before Darwin and is no closer to being resolved today. Their are three major sides to the debate: the first (represented here by Robert W. Sussman) claims that culture is to blame, the second (Wrangham and Peterson) argues that instinct is solely responsible, and the third (Morrell) claims that humans are subject to their genetic makeup AKA the killer ape ancestor theory; however, all sides assume much. For example, arguing that cultures the basis of human aggression assumes that human instincts and genetic predispositions are not able to influence culture, and blaming instinct for aggression assumes that modern culture has no effect on human behavior, and the genetics argument assumes that there is a gene for aggression — which as of yet none has been found. One side blames video games and violent movies and the other two sides blame the”killer ape” ancestors of humans. However, the root of the problem is that all sides declare instinct, genetics, and culture mutually exclusive. In reality, because culture is based largely on instinct, human aggression is equally the fault of both culture and instinct, and genetics is not the cause of humankind’s aggression, just that aggression of some individuals.

Not all psychologists agree that humans have instincts. The term instinct is not normally used in reference to humans because of this, humans are said to have “innate predispositions”. In the context of this paper, references to human instinct refers to the innate in-bred predispositions that all humans are born with including the desire to eat, reproduce, etc. The existence of an instinct for aggression is also highly debated. Humans would have to have some predisposition for violence when defending territory, procuring mates, or attempting to fight off predators. These “natural” and “defensive” forms of aggression are considered facts; thus, are not debated. However, the controversy lies with aggression for aggression’s sake—such as the human ability to go to war or use violence and aggression as a way of bringing pleasure to oneself. These manifest themselves through competitions, hunting for pleasure, and other forms of aggressive entertainment. These forms of violence are based not solely upon instinct, but also, on the culture that humans are born to and live in.

Culture is defined as the manipulation of the environment and instincts because of want rather than need. The human form of culture not only allows members of the human species to interact but it also governs the very essence of human lives—similar to the instincts that govern an animal’s choices. Culture is also the entirety of the instinctual forces of humans channeled into institutions that allow for good and bad behavior, where those who follow the guidelines are good and the violators are bad (Titiev, 261). Therefore, human culture is not completely separate from innate human desires or instincts, but rather, an extension of human instincts that allow humans to manipulate their instincts to fit within whatever society or group they currently inhabit.

Aggression and violence while frequently used in the same context are two very different things. Aggression is an action with the intent to create harm; however, violence refers to an action with extreme harm as the main goal of the action (Anderson and Bushman).

_Note to Reader: Note to Reader: This is a survey at best; in such as small paper a topic as large and controversial as culture being based on instinct cannot be thoroughly proven, tested and contradicted. However, this paper will attempt to serve as “reasonable doubt” because it does not have enough space to do any more.

Through proving that aggression is based upon both culture and instincts and that cultural elements of aggression are based on instinct, we will prove that a small part of culture is based on instinct; thus, opening the door for the possibility that other cases exist._

II. Genetics as the cause for aggression; the problems that surround it.

Testosterone in humans was considered the cause of aggression and violence for many years; however, recent studies have shown that testosterone can only be blamed for a small portion of human aggression. While studies do show that in adults and post-pubescent males testosterone does play a role in aggression, it does not explain the aggression that can surface in prepubescent children (Constantino et al.; Hudziak et al.). Testosterone can be linked with violence; however, the amount of testosterone in ones bloodstream can be influenced by feelings and emotions. Studies done with prison inmates concur that violence and testosterone have a link, yet in non-incarcerated groups no real link is found (Zitzmann and Nieschlag, 185). Testosterone has also been shown to only cause or affect the intramale form of aggression such as competition and the resident’s response in an intruder-resident conflict, but it does not explain the intruder’s aggression or other forms predatorial aggression (Simpson, 33). To say that testosterone is the catchall for human behavior is an over-simplification of its effects. There are too many other functions in the human body that tie in with the production and use of testosterone as a result to blame testosterone for every abnormality is irresponsible (Zitzmann and Nieschlag, 183). Simpson continues this line of thinking saying that although testosterone is part of aggression it does not cause the aggression; there must be some outside influence to cause an aggressive response (33). Therefore, while testosterone does play a role in human aggression it is only a small portion of the cause.

Serotonin is another naturally produced chemical that can cause aggression in humans. Both humans and primates test subjects with anti-social behavior showed low levels of serotonin. Although serotonin has been shown to cause aggression, not all causes of low serotonin are genetic in origin. Serotonin levels can be raised and lowered because of diet and in many individuals, the levels of serotonin are either raised or lowered depending on their upbringing (Harper-Jaques, 806). However, even though serotonin levels can affect some people’s behaviors on a day-to-day basis, many people who have a habit of long term anti social behavior have abnormally low levels of serotonin. A low level of serotonin mainly affects people that are impulsive in their aggression rather than those who premeditate their actions (Harper-Jaques, 807). In one study, 721 men and women were tested for blood serotonin levels; the results showed that men with high levels were more apt to behave violently yet in women no such relation was found (McCawley). However, because serotonin can be raised and lowered over a lifetime serotonin as with testosterone cannot be blamed for all occurrences of aggression in humans, as it may cause some part of the aggression it is influenced by both innate and cultural behavior.

Genetics is not fully responsible for aggression in humans, however it is frequently used as a societal scapegoat for those who are overly aggressive (Gest) Physical conditions only effect the aggression in normal humans, yet it can be the cause of aggression in psychopathic individuals. Research continues to find the elusive gene for aggression, but so far, no definitive gene has been found (is it”) that can be linked to a large population, yet on a small scale some success has been achieved (Morrell). Although genetics and physiological conditions can effect the occurrence of aggression in humans, it is just a small part of the overall cause.

III. Instincts as the basis of aggression, the trouble with solely instinct based studies

For many years, chimpanzee behavioral studies have been used as a way to explore the instincts of modern and pre-modern humans. Tied together with human based research, the studies show a nearly complete picture of the way human instincts relate to aggression. However, in some cases theories such as the “Selfish Gene Theory” are used to prove that just because instincts or behaviors exist in Chimpanzees that they exist in humans (Wrangham and Peterson), yet, many times the theories are stretched and it is assumed without supporting evidence that Chimpanzees make a good model for human behavior (Sussman). Even though Chimpanzees are good models for human behavior one cannot assume that because chimpanzees seem to have a trait that humans will also have the trait. Proving that humans share the same trait must be confirmed through other means.

IV. Cultural displays of aggression as caused and effected of instinct

Although aggression is considered a primitive act not suited for the modern world, this idea is wishful thinking at best and a falsehood at worst. Aggression plays a key role in society; humans praise those who are able to “aggressively pursue their goals” or that are “aggressive managers.” Higher status is given to those who can aggressively fend off all those who challenge them, be this through fist fights outside a bar, sports such as boxing or football, politics or even chess. The human status drive is one innate cause of aggression; this drive results in human competition both male and female. Whether it is in the office competing for a bigger office or fancier title or playing sports on the weekends, human activity is largely affected by the status drive (Loch). The status drive, as displayed through aggressive activities, has become two main categories in modern societies: real sports and virtual sports (video games). The status drive is also the basis of war, where the individual’s status is not affected but rather the groups status is endangered, and thus the individual helps to protect the status of the group as a whole.

Followed closely behind the human propensity for aggression is the human ability to go to war with other humans. Although humans are peaceful within their own group, they show near limitless capacity for violence to those of another group. However, the human ability to war is not limited to humans at all, chimpanzees like humans have been known to war with other groups (Wrangham and Peterson; Allman). In chimpanzees as with humans “wars” are generally fought to procure resources, mates or to elevate the status of the group. All of these reasons tie in with the human desire to protect their own and their families/groups status. Even though some detractors from this idea claim that human ancestors were not violent and that because of this human violence must be cultural (Sussman). Wrangham and Peterson evidences that because all groups of humans do “war’ in some way to protect the status of their group, aggression and violence cannot be purely the result of culture. Related to the situations human ancestors faced modern wars do not seem so alien, early humans would have had to protect their territory from invasions from predators and other groups, they would have had to protect their groups status by attacking any groups that had attacked them. In this context, modern human’s wars seem to be less new creations but rather the old ways of fighting with new tools. Therefore, culture now accepts what instinct necessitated.

V. Conclusion

Human aggression has many causes, but it can easily be narrowed down to three. The first of which is the status drive, this innate drive effects everything done by humans, the cultures that most humans live in promotes the propagation the use of the status drive as a reward system. The status drive has its basis in instincts, an instinct that has spurred and guided human evolution for millennia; today, culture just reflects this instinct. The second cause of aggression is genetic or biological, the use of testosterone, serotonin and countless other chemicals in the human bloodstream all contribute to the human ability to become aggressive, while not specifically cause or creating aggression. The third and final cause is the culture that humans live in, each culture has different standards as to what is acceptable, and these standards are a result of the propagation of a specific set of instincts.

Understanding that aggression is not just caused by events in a single persons life or by physical abnormalities is an important step to being able to treat individuals that show extreme amounts of aggression. It also allow for understanding of why humans act as they do, allowing psychologists and other professionals a better understanding of how and what must be done to allow the human species to live in some semblance of peace. It helps to explain how humans are a remarkably peaceful species with those of their own social group, yet have no trouble killing other humans. It can also allow professionals to discover who is at risk of becoming overly aggressive, before they become violent. This will result in fewer violent crimes and help take the strain off the world’s overburdened prison populations.

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