On Aggression

Review of On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz, translated by Marjorie Latzke, with a foreword by Sir Julian Huxley (London: Methuen, 1966),

British Journal of Psychiatry 113: 803‑6 (1967).


This is a very remarkable book. The author is famous as an expert on the be­haviour of animals; he is also an extraordinarily gifted observer, and in prose which it is a pleasure to read (for which our gratitude goes also to his translator) he conveys a vivid picture of what he has seen in an underwater world and in the life of reptiles, mammals, and birds. In this book he expounds the insights he has derived from these observations, as penetrating as any which psychiatrists have based on the study of humankind. Distance and objectivity are combined with warmth and em­pathy. One finds to one's astonishment and delight how relevant an understanding of animal behaviour is to an understanding of man, and how many and how impor­tant are the lessons which one may derive from it. This particularly relates to the universal primary drive of aggression, perhaps the motivational field which in our own kind we understand least of all, with potentially the most dreadful conse­quences.

    Lorenz contrasts intraspecific aggression with the aggression shown between members of different species; in animal economy the latter plays much the lesser role. By and large, members of different species can live contentedly together. Even when one species lives by preying on another, the relationship, though it is one of occasional hunting and killing, does not mobilize in the predator an aggressive mood; expression and behaviour are much nearer to those of aggression in the prey that turns at bay to defend itself. In general, members of different species do not com­pete in a struggle for survival; predator and prey live in equilibrium. What threatens a species is not its "enemies" but its competitors: the mammalian dingo has ousted the marsupial wolf from Australia.

    On the other hand intraspecific aggression, the instinctive hostility that springs up, though perhaps only in narrowly definable circumstances, between two members of the same species, has an enormous role in nature's economy. Thus a stretch of coral reef, which harbours perhaps thousands of species living in amity, may be able to support one only of any given species of coral fish. Endowed with brilliant colours to warn the stranger off, the little fish attacks and tries to ram at its first appearance only a similarly coloured member of its own kind. One wonders how these creatures are able to mate. Some of them live permanently in pairs, and then the pair of mates is likely to be even more aggressive than single fish are. In other species at spawning time the fish lose their brilliant colours and become dull, per­mitting mutual approach. Colouring, aggressiveness, and sedentary territorial habits all go together. In such species intraspecific aggression plays a useful survival role; the territorial animal that drives off his rivals helps to spread them around the countryside and so helps towards a wider and a balanced distribution.

Lorenz demonstrates most convincingly that aggression is instinctive and wells up spontaneously; it is not primarily reactive, and for its appearance it does not depend finally on appropriate stimuli. Lorenz illustrates this principle by describing a common error of aquarium keepers who find, after putting a number of young fish into a large aquarium to give them a chance of pairing naturally, that when one couple have paired they become set on driving out all the others.

Since these unfortunates cannot escape, they swim round nervously in the corners near the surface, their fins tattered, or, having been frightened out of their hiding places, they race wildly round the aquarium. The humane aquarium keeper, pitying not only the hunted fish but also the couple which, having perhaps spawned in the meanwhile, is anxious about its brood, removes the fugitives and leaves the couple in sole possession of the tank. Thinking he has done his duty, he ceases to worry about the aquarium and its contents for the time being, but after a few days he sees, to his horror, that the female is floating dead on the surface, torn to ribbons, while there is nothing more to be seen of the eggs and the young.

    This error may be avoided by providing a tank big enough for two pairs and dividing it in half by a glass partition, putting a pair on each side.

Then each fish can discharge its healthy anger on the neighbour of the same sex ‑ it is nearly always male against male and female against female ‑ and neither of them thinks of attacking its own mate. It may sound funny, but we were often made aware of a blurring of the partition, because of a growth of weed, by the fact that a cichlid male was starting to be rude to his wife. As soon as the partition separating the "apartments" was cleaned, there was at once a furious but inevitably harmless clash with the neighbours and the atmosphere was cleared inside each of the two compartments.

     A general principle can be formulated, that the damming up of aggression will be the more dangerous the better the members of the group know, understand and like each other. The validity of this is appreciated by men living in isolation, e.g. in Arctic exploration.

    Lorenz notes, somewhat sardonically, that this principle has been forgotten by educationists. "It was supposed that children would grow up less neurotic, better adapted to their social environment and less aggressive if they were spared all dis­appointments and indulged in every way. An American method of education, based on these surmises, only showed that the aggressive drive, like many other instincts, springs spontaneously from the inner human being, and the results of this method of upbringing were countless unbearably rude children who were anything but non­aggressive."

    Social animals, who have to live together, have to find some way of surmounting the dangerous effects of intraspecific aggression, which still has its part to play (as in the solitary territorial animal) in securing advantages for survival. The fighting of rivals for a mate advances the selection of the strongest; parental aggression serves for the defence of the young against a careless or hungry neighbour, or against the predator; and within the society aggression leads to the working out of a ranking order on which peace depends. Lorenz has a warning for the youthful rebel and for those who tend to see only the evil side of the "Establishment," to the effect that without rank order every turn of the social machinery would grate against friction and resistance.

    Species after species in the process of phylogenetic development have worked out their own ways of guiding aggression into harmless channels. Within the species the manifestations of aggression are ritualized; mock battles take the place of real ones; submissive gestures, perhaps based on infantile behaviour patterns, or on the soliciting behaviour patterns of the female, have at once an inhibiting effect on the aggressor. The gesture, as in the wolf who turns his unprotected throat towards the aggressor, may in effect put one animal completely at the mercy of the other. The more dangerous the animal is, the more effective and absolute are the prohibitions imposed by the appeasing gesture; and the most bloodthirsty predators have the most reliable killing inhibitions. It is unfortunately in the animals who are but weakly endowed with natural weapons of offence that these inhibitions are weakest. However, mankind, who can only with difficulty kill his fellow with his bare hands, has invented for himself tools to do so, and moreover ones which, by acting at a distance, have a much reduced effect in awaking such inhibition of a murderous attack as nature has given him.

    Lorenz discusses the different means which have been taken by different species towards the aim of keeping intraspecific aggression within bounds. In some species of social animals aggression is reduced to a minimum; but then one finds that the flock is a very loose structure with little internal organization. The shoal of fishes has no structure at all. In general, the ethologist does not know of a single species which is capable of friendship and which lacks aggression. On the other hand, aggression may dominate intraspecific relationships too far when the inhibiting stimuli are confined to, say, the immediate group or clan. Rats are biologically an extremely successful species, tough, courageous, adaptable in their ways, and (one of the few species who can do so) able to pass on information from one generation to the next. But intraspecific aggression constitutes a major danger for them.

    Rats living together recognize their common allegiance by smell, and the stranger rat who exhibits the wrong smell is attacked and destroyed as soon as he is recog­nized. When two clans of rats are living in proximity they are constantly at war; and such warfare must exert a huge selection pressure in the direction of ever‑increasing ability to fight. A parallel in man is offered in Sydney Margolin's studies of Prairie Indians, particularly the Utes, who suffer from an excess of aggression drive which under the ordered social conditions of today in the North American Indian reserva­tions they are unable to discharge. At one time Prairie Indians led a life almost entirely of war and raids, when selective pressures must have favoured an extreme aggressiveness. Ute Indians are said to suffer from neuroses more than any other human group, the cause of the trouble being undischarged aggression.

    A section of the book, of a strangely attractive and indeed moving kind, is given to the phylogenetic processes which have mobilized the aggression drive into being the instinctual basis of the bond which unites animals by ties which, at the highest level, are those of love and friendship. A very detailed account is given of the triumph rite of geese, which forms the bond between members of the same family and also between the pair when a young male goose falls in love with a young female. Mistakes can be made, and then the triumph rite may unite by accident two males; despite the fact that copulatory attempts prove vain, their relationship be­comes as close and as intense as the normal lifelong heterosexual one. The prestige of the male pair in the total society of geese is just as high as that of a married pair. Following on this, a female may fall in love with one of the males. With great patience and assiduity she may eventually seduce him into coitus, after which he immediately flies back to his partner to go through the triumph rite with him. Bit by bit the female may become the sexual partner of both males; and then there is happiness for all. No other couple in the flock can stand up to such a united trio; they are always at the top of the ranking order, they are never driven out of their nesting territories, and they are highly successful parents.

    It does not seem to this reviewer that Lorenz goes beyond the support available from biological observations when he applies his theories to man. Human behaviour is not rational, but it is understandable as phylogenetically adapted instinctive be­haviour. The nature of the laws which control such behaviour can be learned from studying animals. Present‑day civilized man suffers from insufficient discharge of his aggressive drive. Lorenz considers that intraspecific selection is still working today in the direction of increasing aggressivity. Aggression is to be controlled by ritualiza­tions and by redirected activity. Hitting the table instead of the other man's jaw, would be a simple example, and another more complex one is what Grzimek has called "bicycling"; the "bicyclist" is the man who bows to his superior and treads on his inferior. Every culture has its own ways of channelling aggression. Cultural rites and social norms are indispensable. It is highly dangerous to mix cultures. To kill a culture it is often sufficient to bring it into contact with another, particularly if the other is higher or has a higher prestige. In aping the "higher" culture, the people of the subdued side may lose an invaluable heritage.

    On this basis, at the present time, with races and cultures in the melting‑pot, we are facing grave dangers. Lorenz points to the coinciding factors which threaten the continuity of Western culture; diminishing cohesion of the family group, decreasing contact between the generations, the greatly diminished tolerance of the young for the values held in honour by their seniors.

    What preventive measures can we take? A number are suggested: the ethological investigation of ways and possibilities of discharging aggression on substitute objects; the psychoanalytic study of sublimation; the encouragement of personal friendships between members of different ideologies or nations; the intelligent channelling of militant enthusiasm. Remedies doomed to failure would be any attempt to breed out aggression, the attempt to suppress it by moral vetoes, or to starve it by de­priving it of appropriate stimuli. But a simple principle offers an apposite line of approach. Aggression can find complete satisfaction by the use of substitute objects, in fair fighting, in sport, and in dangerous undertakings. The race for space flight may be indeed an inestimable safety valve.

    There are points in this book where one would wish to part company with the author. The reviewer, for instance, would demand more evidence before he would accept the view that in civilized societies aggressiveness, which may admittedly tend towards wordly success, tends also to a higher differential survival rate. Nevertheless, the unspoken claim that ethology has an enormous contribution to make to human psychology must be conceded. This book should be read by every clinical psychia­trist, and it should be a set book for the D.P.M. The student's task in reading it will be a most grateful one. It is full of magic, full of profound concepts and vivid illustrations, full of wisdom.