Djcnor’s Weblog

Evolution and Distance of Consequences

Posted on: December 21, 2008

A long time ago, I read Konrad Lorenz’s book On Aggression. It was a fascinating book about animal behavior, the circumstances in which aggression occurs, and inhibitions against it.

Lorenz wrote that aggression was not entirely a bad thing. The willingness of an animal to defend his territory or to fight to gain access to a big enough territory to sustain existence contributes to a balance of distribution of a species. The willingness of an animal to fight to preserve or enhance the well being of its young contributes to the continuance of the species.

The third function Lorenz saw for aggression disturbs me a bit, especially because he favored the Nazi cause. I try to separate the valid work of the scientist from the failing of the man. All scientists are men and have personal failings.

The third function for aggression on Lorenz’ list was selection of the strongest. The problem is the definition of strength, and subsequent science (and observation of human society) shows that there is more than one type of strength, more than one type of aggression that might be said to favor the strongest. The idea of social Darwinism comes from this idea that the “winners” of society are necessarily the “better” humans. (Of course, if you measure “winning” in terms of getting your genes passed forward , then you might conclude that the larger your extended family, the “better” you were, and I doubt that would correlate highly with “winning” in terms of accumulating the most material wealth.)

Lorenz noted that within a species, mechanisms often existed that allowed dominance to be established without deaths. (Rams beat their heads together until one gives up.) He also noted that there seemed to be built in inhibitions against harming the young, not only the young of one’s own species but of others. (We find chicks more attractive than chickens, and are more reluctant to harm them.)

Lorenz also speculated about the physical limits of inhibitions and how the physical limits of  human technology for harming others of our own species had vastly outgrown the physical limits of the inhibitions against it. Somehow, we find it easier to live with lauching bombs from a distance, thus avoiding directly witnessing the consequential damage to other humans, than it is to live with damaging another human directly, hand to hand. In our judicial systems, hand-to-hand physical violence is penalized far more severely than damage, however severe and however knowing, caused at a distance or by non-physical means.

We seem to have begun to develop at least rudimentary inhibitions against  war, which involves many forms of physical aggression at a distance. but our inhibitions against other forms of aggression at a distance cannot be said to have developed even to a rudimentary point. One of these consists of all the types of financial aggression that have caused the present world-wide economic crisis (Madoff’s activities being a prime example ). Another is all the types of ecological aggression being carried out by the most industrialized nations. And yet another is our harsh defenses of far more territory (both spacial and economic and ecological) than we need against immigrants of our own species who have so little.

I wonder if the human race will be able to develop the needed inhibitions against these other types of aggression in time to preserve our species.


1 Response to "Evolution and Distance of Consequences"

yyixdw Thanks for good post

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