Saturday, January 21, 2012

Genes for Shopping Malls

Within Edward O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, an argument is made for the innate genetic determinism of aggression.  Wilson believes that through a bit of willful (forceful?) rationalization and anthropological acrobatics, a theory of aggression in humans – its origins, purpose, and meaning – can be arrived at. Wilson himself largely arrives at this intellectual destination through the consideration of aggression in apes, through analyses of prey hunting and territory defending (as well as testosterone-influenced mate obtainment). He arrives at seven ‘categories’ of aggression within the human species, and claims that nearly all acts human aggression can be attributed to, or at least their roots found within, these categories. They are (in Wilson’s own terminology, pg. 101-102):

  • The defense and conquest of territory.
  • The assertion of dominance within well-organized groups.
  • Sexual aggression.
  • Acts of hostility by which weaning is terminated.
  • Aggression against prey.
  • Defensive counterattacks against predators.
  • Moralistic and disciplinary aggression used to enforce rules of society.

Easy enough to understand, and fairly comprehensive. It is of course, simple to see which types of aggression fit into each category (1 = nearly half of all wars fought, 2 = gang violence, 3 = rape, BDSM, etc.). It is equally as simple to picture Wilson, after scribbling these all on a blackboard, to whisk away a curtain beyond which a cohort of gorillas play and interact in a constructed environment, pump out his chest and claim “Behold! Behold why we murder, why we steal, and why we hurt one another and ourselves: the great ape, our desires incarnate, the core of our psychology distilled!” (I only wish he would have written that). Meaning that, he offers his list as some sort of diagnosis, as if Wilson, approaching the problem of societal aggression purely through observation and hard thinking, has identified the pathogen that gives rise to our clinical hostility: small strings of nucleotides preserved throughout evolution and only now being shaped and distorted by our current cultural restraints (/augmentations). 

The problem here is that Wilson is presenting a simple solution to a complex issue as a complex solution to a simple issue. To say that our aggression, as it exists today, is derivative of animalistic behavior is a correct assumption. We are, after all, no less animal than any other species; we have a taxonomy that fits within the phylogenetic tree just as well (perhaps better than, given the disproportionate amount of research that exists on our own phylogeny) as any other species. Aggression is a trait that is no exception to this evolutionary continuum (think of the hackneyed phrase “primal rage” that saturates popular fiction and the news). But there are exceptions, moments of aggression that do not fit into Wilson’s holy heptad of aggression. For one, what is to be said about aggression done for attention? What is to be said about self-aggression, self-inflicted wounding that can be attributed either to my previous example or otherwise deep depression? And purported ‘random acts of violence?’ What about aggression that is done for entertainment value (boxing, wrestling, aggression in movies/television/literature etc.)?

I mean for this to be more than just a list of aggressive manifestations within contemporary human nature that do not fit into Wilson’s neat list. What I want to point out is that ‘human’ traits are so far beyond the behavior of any other species that it is impossible for Wilson to make his assertions (or make them well at least, for he has already asserted). The reason being that we, as humans, have centuries of history, history of which we are actually conscious.  We have extensive documentation of ourselves and our thoughts, philosophy throughout the ages; we have aspects like entertainment (from Roman gladiators to CSI), intensely complex societal and political structures, rules, laws, economics, beliefs, addictions, superstitions, firearms, and personal tablets. Most importantly, to the best of our knowledge, we are the most intensely self-aware species that has existed. Wilson unintentionally makes the distinction himself: “The Nyae Nyae Bushmen believed that they had the right to kill neighbors who gathered vital plant foods from their foraging areas” (Wilson, pg. 108). They key words in this descriptive sentence are “believe” and “right.” This is an important distinction. We do not say that lionesses ‘believe’ that they can separate sick and elderly gazelle from their herd before they exercise their ‘unalienable right’ to maul it to shreds. Wilson can say what he wants about genetics, and indeed they, along with epigenetics and small amounts of input from external stimuli, do govern nearly biological aspect of our lives. But the swell of culture throws our purportedly automatous figures around like mown grass in streams and any attempt to eschew culture, to live ‘naturally’ and ‘by instinct’(or to think hard about human natural or instinctual aspects) is just as, if not more, a product of culture itself than enamoring cultural figures and practices. Point being, we cannot escape cultural immersion and Wilson is no exception. We cannot decontextualize our actions any more than we can claim to contextualize (anthropomorphize) the homologs of our actions within other species.
So when Wilson claims to have parsed out the biological from the cultural, how are we to take this seriously when his subjects (us) are thoroughly and unequivocally blindsided by culture? This is not dissimilar from the paradoxical “how can we properly describe linguistics with language?” Clearly, in order to validate Wilson’s claims, we would have to do so from an acultural (scientific…ish) standpoint. Even though the statement, as I’m making in certain ways, that ‘we are inheritably distinct from other species’ is an androcentric claim, it is important to realize that basing our cultural actions upon genetic inheritance, ‘cultural evolution,’ and unavoidable ‘stifled animalness,’ is justifying our empirical percolation, industrial ignorance of ecological sensitivities, vapid entertainment, political corruption, and all the other respectfully distasteful aspects of human nature; treating these outcomes as a product of evolution serves to absolve humanity of their consequences and is, in my own opinion, the ultimate manifest-destiny-ish, pseudoscientific, and androcentric point of view.
Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2004


  1. I’d really enjoyed reading this essay; I understood Wilson’s points better in your words than in his own. I like how you focused on just aggression and systematically gave reasons disproving his over simplification of such a vast, complicated topic. Your arguments are very strong and focused.
    However, the prompt dealing with humanity also asks us to connect Wilson’s idea of humanity with the monster of Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. It’s clear that you feel that there are deeper aspects of the human condition that take force here. Should you expand on this topic and focus on the connection between the two books, it may even strengthen your argument.
    Because you’ve focused on aggression you would probably be best choosing a point in Shelley’s writing where the monster is being violent and showing something more than just animal-like aggression. For example you could use the situation where the monster realizes he is to blame for the death of Frankenstein yet feels remorse, and wishes he were still alive.
    “But it is true that I am a wretch. I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing. I have devoted my creator, the select specimen of all that is worthy love and admiration among men, to misery; I have pursued him even to that irremediable ruin… You hate me but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself.” (Shelley, 199).
    (I apologize that my pages will not match yours)This would give you opportunity to discuss the deeper measures that remain beyond aggression. This could even be discussed with the ideas of culture. As the book mentioned had the monster ran into a family with a different disposition than that of the cottagers would he still feel this regret? So there is certainly a cultural aspect at play here.
    Should you need me to elaborate farther, or wish to discuss this feel free to contact me. Great job!

  2. Katelyn is providing a great example of a passage from Shelley that works well for your approach; that's good. She also makes the case that you are, basically, ignoring the prompt.

    Why do prompts exist? They serve two primary functions, I think. First, they make cheating more difficult, when properly designed. That's an ugly, mechanical reason. Second, they serve to help people organize their thoughts in a way which addresses the larger concerns of the class.

    You are undeniably writing articulately about Wilson, as someone who understands Wilson, and also as someone who is rehearsing *the* standard humanist's argument against Wilson.

    How much of a problem is that? I'm not going to complain all that much about an essay which does a *good* job of rehearsing the standard anti-Wilson argument. But I would have been much happier if you had gotten away from the easy, high-level things we can say about Wilson (We need science! We need to understand ourselves as evolved animals, even if it hurts! We need to discover and face facts! OR Reductionism is bad! Cultural context is everything!), and moved on to a more specific analysis which critiques Wilson, assuming that's what you want to do, from analyzing not just the *general* difficulties of analyzing all aggression in terms of evolution (I guarantee Wilson would have some kind of answer to all of your questions - that doesn't mean that you're wrong, by any means, but you stay at a dangerously general level), but, e.g., the challenges of defining the monster's aggression (or Clerval's...) in Wilsonian terms.

    As well written as this is, it is ultimately familiar (whether or not you know that it's familiar), because it is a general, high-level critique of a complicated text - a narrower focus would be better.