Where aggression comes from

As a sociologist who has spent decades observing the various types of communities and social groups we humans create, closely noting how these societies sustain and renew themselves over time, or in some instances — how they fail and fade away, I have come to the realization that nothing that I know about the nature of societies prepares me for the sudden turns that human behavior sometimes takes. The human psyche, particularly its dark side, seems far more mysterious and intractable than any social system I know.

New Zealand, that placid country down under, known for its iconic landscapes, was where one of my children had considered moving when she felt drained by the turmoil and uncertainty in the country of her birth. I understood her yearning for a place in which she could flourish and feel safe, but told her and her siblings that a nurturing and peaceful community is a collective project we create for ourselves wherever our country may be. I also remember saying, as an afterthought, that often the most prosperous and stable societies in the world also have the highest rates of suicide.

The mass shooting by a lone terrorist gunman of worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last Friday, March 15, that killed 50 people and injured many others, was something I least expected to happen in that country. This coldblooded racist attack was premeditated and calculated to inflict the greatest harm. It was brutal and unsparing. The murderer strapped a camera on his body so he could livestream it on Facebook in a morbid dramaturgy of white supremacist hatred.

The victims were mostly recent immigrants, who had gathered in communion for their midday prayers. They were refugees who had fled from the violence, poverty and inequality in their own societies, believing that somewhere in the world, there was a country that would warmly welcome them, in which they could feel secure and have a chance at happiness.

The 38-year-old New Zealand prime minister, , wore a black head scarf when she visited the families of the victims. She embraced them, listened and offered comfort. In an instant, she became the radical antithesis of this era’s strongmen who draw their popularity from their racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim bigotry. “We cannot know your grief,” she told the grieving families, “but we can walk with you at every stage.” In the face of this unspeakable crime, she admonished her fellow citizens to “speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them.”

New Zealand may not be the last country in the world to experience mass violence like this. But the compassion and grace this small nation brings out among its people in times like these could show the rest of us how to respond like human beings when values that hold us together are directly assaulted.

Certain global changes are causing massive perturbations in the way we live, exposing fault lines from which ooze dark impulses that we assumed have been tamed in the course of human civilization. The most notable of these, says the British anthropologist Richard Wrangham, is aggression.

“The jungle is full of aggression,” he tells the German publication Der Spiegel in an interview (Spiegel Online, 3/22/2019). Dr. Wrangham had gone into the Ugandan jungle to study the behavior of chimpanzees. He was struck by the aggressiveness that seemed deeply embedded in their nature. “Only when a male has achieved physical dominance over every single female is he able to enter the male hierarchy and compete there for the highest possible rank… Once a male is fully adult, he continues to attack females even when they give submissive signals to him. The male who beats a particular female the most is the most likely to be the father of her next offspring.”

To the extent there are still many among us who profess admiration for men who boast of their elemental strength by their control of women, perhaps to that extent we resonate these brutal impulses inherited from our ancestors. Humans are among the few species, Wrangham notes, that managed to “domesticate” themselves. We owe our peaceable nature to this “domestication syndrome,” he suggests, adding that this is something we share with our pets and farm animals.

He believes that our closest relatives in the wild may be the bonobos. “They look very similar to chimpanzees, but their skulls show the marks of domestication: a shorter face, smaller teeth, a smaller brain and reduced differences between the sexes.” Violence against females is rare among them. “When a bonobo male attacks a female, she will call for help, and within minutes the male will face an alliance of females who put him in his place.”

This is a fascinating insight. It suggests that, even in the wild, collective action can stop those who, like the alpha males, try to dominate others by means of violence. “Well, it’s quite dangerous to rebel against the alpha male. The one who throws the first stone will risk his life. No lion or chimpanzee would dare to do that. Only humans were able to squat together and whisper: ‘Let’s meet at the big stone, then attack and kill him.’”

As speculative as it may sound, Dr. Wrangham, who says he doesn’t believe in the death penalty, draws this instructive conclusion about the emergence of peaceful societies: “At some point the community of beta men united against the powerful. Then they realized that from now on they themselves had the power to kill everyone in the group. They established rules for living together, and anyone who violated them had to fear death. In this way, those who obeyed the rules were favoured by evolution.”