On Aggression. Militant Enthusiasm Part One

Yesterday I completed my reading of Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression. The last couple of chapters are well worth reading, as indeed is the whole book. Below is the first part of another extract from the book. The second part will be posted within a day or two. I have edited and omitted some paragraphs in the text below. This is done for brevity and to remove passages that might prove confusing outside the context of the book. I strongly urge you to read the original work!
As already mentioned, norms of social behaviour developed by cultural ritualization play at least as important a part in the context of human society as instinctive motivation and the control exerted by responsible morality. Even at the earliest dawn of culture, when the invention of tools was just beginning to upset the equilibrium of phylogenetically evolved patterns of social behaviour, man’s newborn responsibility must have found a strong aid in cultural ritualization. Evidence of cultural rites reaches back almost as far as that of the use of tools and of fire. Of course we can expect prehistorical evidence of culturally ritualized behaviour only when ritualization has reached comparatively high levels of differentiation, as in burial ceremonies or in the arts of painting and sculpture. These make their first appearance simultaneously with our own species and the wonderful proficiency of the first-known painters and sculptors suggests that even by their time, art had quite a long history behind it. Considering all this, it is quite possible that a cultural tradition of behavioural norms originated as early as the use of tools or even earlier.
Through the processes described in Chapter 5, customs and taboos may acquire the power to motivate behaviour in a way comparable to that of autonomous instincts. Not only highly developed rites or ceremonies but also simpler and less conspicuous norms of social behaviour may attain, after a number of generations, the character of sacred customs which are loved and considered as values whose infringement is severely frowned upon by public opinion. As also has already been hinted in Chapter 5, sacred custom owes its motivating force to phylogenetically evolved behaviour patterns of which two are of particular importance. One is the response of militant enthusiasm by which any group defends its own social norms and rites against another group not possessing them; the other is the group’s cruel taunting of any of its members who fail to conform with the accepted ‘good form’ of behaviour. Without the phylogenetically programmed love for traditional custom human society would lack the supporting apparatus to which it owes its indispensable structure. Yet, like any phylogenetically programmed behaviour mechanism, the one under discussion can miscarry. School classes or companies of soldiers, which can both be regarded as models of primitive group structure, can be very cruel indeed in their ganging up against an outsider. The purely instinctive response to a physically abnormal individual, for instance the jeering at a fat boy, is absolutely identical, as far as overt behaviour is concerned, with discrimination against a person who differs from the group in culturally developed social norms – for instance a child who speaks a different dialect.
The ganging up against an individual diverging from the social norms characteristic of a group, and the group’s enthusiastic readiness to defend these social norms and rites, are both good illustrations of the way in which culturally determined conditioned stimulus situations release activities which are fundamentally instinctive. They are also excellent examples of typical compound behaviour patterns whose primary survival value is as obvious as the danger of their misfiring under the conditions of the modern social order. I shall have to come back later on to the different ways in which the function of militant enthusiasm can miscarry and to possible means of preventing this eventuality. Before enlarging on this subject, however, I must say a few words about the functions of social norms and rites in general.
First of all I must recall to the reader’s memory the somewhat surprising fact, mentioned in Chapter 5: we have no immediate knowledge of the function and/or survival value of the majority of our own established customs, notwithstanding our emotional conviction that they do indeed constitute high values. This paradoxical state of affairs is explained by the simple fact that customs are not man-made in the same sense as human inventions, are, from the pebble tool up to the jet plane. There may be exceptional cases in which causal insight gained by a great lawgiver determines a social norm. Moses is said to have recognized the pig as a host of the Trichina, but if he did, he preferred to rely on the devout religious observance of his people rather than on their intellect when he asserted that Jehovah himself had declared the porker an unclean animal. In general, however, it is quite certain that it hardly ever was insight into a valuable function that gave rise to traditional norms and rites, but the age-old process of natural selection. Historians will have to face the fact that natural selection determined the evolution of cultures in the same manner as it did that of species.
In both cases the great constructor has produced results which may not be the best of all conceivable solutions but which at least prove their practicability by their very existence. To the biologist who knows the ways in which selection works and who is also aware of its limitations it is in no way surprising to find, in its constructions, some details which are unnecessary or even detrimental to survival. The human mind, endowed with the power of deduction, can quite often find solutions to problems which natural selection fails to resolve. Selection may produce incomplete adaptation even when it uses the material furnished by mutation and when it has huge time periods at its disposal. It is much more likely to do so when it has to determine, in an incomparably shorter time, which of the randomly arising customs of a culture make it best fitted to survival. Small wonder indeed if, among the social norms and rites of any culture, we find a considerable number which are unnecessary or even clearly inexpedient and which selection nevertheless has failed to eliminate. Many superstitions, comparable to my little greylag’s detour towards the window, can become institutionalized and be carried on for generations. Also, intra-specific selection often plays as dangerous a role in the development of cultural ritualization as in phylogenesis. The process of so-called status-seeking, for instance, produces the bizarre excrescences in social norms and rites which are so typical of intra-specific selection.
However, even if some social norms or rites are quite obviously maladaptive, this does not imply that they may be eliminated without further consideration. The social organization of any culture is a complicated system of universal interaction between a great many divergent traditional norms of behaviour, and it can never be predicted without a very thorough analysis what repercussions the cutting out of even one single part may have for the functioning of the whole. For instance, it is easily intelligible to anybody that the custom of head-hunting, widely spread among tropical tribes, has a somewhat unpleasant side to it, and that the peoples still adhering to it would be better off, in many ways, without it. The studies of the ethnologist and psycho-analyst Derek Freeman, however, have shown that head-hunting is so intricately interwoven with the whole social system of some Bornean tribes that its abolition tends to disintegrate their whole culture, even seriously jeopardizing the survival of the people.
The balanced interaction between all the single norms of social behaviour characteristic of a culture accounts for the fact that it usually proves highly dangerous to mix cultures. To kill a culture it is often sufficient to bring it into contact with another, particularly if the latter is higher, or is at least regarded as higher, as the culture of a conquering nation usually is. The people of the subdued side then tend to look down upon everything they previously held sacred and to ape the customs which they regard as superior. As the system of social norms and rites characteristic of a culture is always adapted, in many particular ways, to the special conditions of its environment, this unquestioning acceptance of foreign customs almost invariably leads to maladaptation. Colonial history offers abundant examples of its causing the destruction not only of cultures but also of peoples and races. Even in the less tragic case of rather closely related and roughly equivalent cultures mixing there usually are some undesirable results, because each finds it easier to imitate the most superficial, least valuable customs of the other. The first items of American culture imitated by German youth immediately after the last war were gum-chewing, Coca-cola drinking, the crew cut and the reading of coloured comic strips. More valuable social norms characteristic of American culture were obviously less easy to imitate.
Quite apart from the danger to one culture arising from contact with another, all systems of social norms and rites are vulnerable in the same way as systems of phylogenetically evolved patterns of social behaviour. Not being man-made, but produced by selection, their function is, without special scientific investigation, unknown to man himself, and therefore their balance is as easily upset by the effects of conceptual thought as that of any system of instinctive behaviour. Like the latter, they can be made to miscarry by any environmental change not ‘foreseen’ in their ‘programming’, but while instincts persist for better or worse, traditional systems of social behaviour can disappear altogether within one generation, because, like the continuous state that constitutes the life of an organism, that which constitutes a culture cannot bear any interruption of its continuity.
Several coinciding factors are at present threatening to interrupt the continuity of our Western culture. There is, in our culture, an alarming break of traditional continuity between the generation born in about 1900 and the next. This fact is incontestable; its causes are still doubtful. Diminishing cohesion of the family group and decreasing personal contact between teacher and pupil are probably important factors. Very few of the present younger generation have ever had the opportunity of seeing their fathers at work, few pupils learn from their teachers by collaborating with them. This used to be the rule with peasants, artisans and even scientists, provided they taught at relatively small universities. The industrialization that prevails in all sectors of human life produces a distance between the generations which is not compensated for by the greatest familiarity, by the most democratic tolerance and permissiveness of which we are so proud. Young people seem to be unable to accept the values held in honour by the older generation, unless they are in close contact with at least one of its representatives who commands their unrestricted respect and love. Another probably important factor contributing to the same effect is the real obsolescence of many social norms and rites still on aggression valued by some of the older generation. The extreme speed of ecological and sociological change wrought by the development of technology causes many customs to become maladaptive within one generation. The romantic veneration of national values, so movingly expressed in the works of Rudyard Kipling or C. S. Forrester, is obviously an anachronism that can do nothing but damage today. Such criticism is indubitably over-stressed by the prevalence of scientific thought and the unrelenting demand for causal understanding, both of which are the most characteristic, if not the only, virtues of our century. However, scientific enlightenment tends to engender doubt in the value of traditional beliefs long before it furnishes the causal insight necessary to decide whether some accepted custom is an obsolete superstition or a still indispensable part of a system of social norms. Again, it is the unripe fruit of the tree of knowledge that proves to be dangerous; indeed I suspect that the whole legend of the tree of knowledge is meant to defend sacred traditions against the premature inroads of incomplete rationalization. As it is, we do not know enough about the function of any system of culturally ritualized norms of behaviour to give a rational answer to the perfectly rational question what some particular custom is good for, in other words wherein lies its survival value. When an innovator rebels against established norms of social behaviour and asks why he should conform with them, we are usually at a loss for an answer. It is only in rare cases, as in my example of Moses’ law against eating pigs, that we can give the would-be reformer such a succinct answer as: ‘You will get trichinosis if you don’t obey.’ In most cases the defender of accepted tradition has to resort to seemingly lame replies, saying that certain things are ‘simply not done’, are not cricket, are un-American or sinful, if he does not prefer to appeal to the authority of some venerable father-figure who also regarded the social norm under discussion as inviolable. To anyone for whom the latter is still endowed with the emotional value of a sacred rite, such an answer appears as self-evident and satisfactory; to anybody who has lost this feeling of reverence it sounds hollow and sanctimonious. Understandably, if not quite forgivably, such a person tends to think that the social norm in question is just superstition, if he does not go so far as to consider its defender as insincere. This, incidentally, is very frequently the main point of dissension between people of different generations.
All this applies unrestrictedly to the ‘solidified’, that is to say institutionalized, system of social norms and rites which function very much like a supporting skeleton in human cultures. In the growth of human cultures, as in that of arthropods, there is a built-in mechanism providing for graduated change. During and shortly after puberty human beings have an indubitable tendency to loosen their allegiance to all traditional rites and social norms of their culture, allowing conceptual thought to cast doubt on their value and to look around for new and perhaps more worthy ideals.
There probably is, at that time of life, a definite sensitive period for a new object-fixation, much as in the case of the object-fixation found in animals and called imprinting. If at that critical time of life old ideals prove fallacious under critical scrutiny and new ones fail to appear, the result is that complete aimlessness, the utter boredom which characterizes the young delinquent.
If, on the other hand, the clever demagogue, well versed in the dangerous art of producing supra-normal stimulus situations, gets hold of young people at the susceptible age, he finds it easy to guide their object-fixation in a direction subservient to his political aims. At the post-puberal age some human beings seem to be driven by an overpowering urge to espouse a cause, and, failing to find a worthy one, may become fixated on astonishingly inferior substitutes. The instinctive need to be the member of a closely knit group fighting for common ideals may grow so strong that it becomes inessential what these ideals are and whether they possess any intrinsic value. This, I believe, explains the formation of juvenile gangs whose social structure is very probably a rather close reconstruction of that prevailing in primitive human society.
Apparently this process of object-fixation can take its full effect only once in an individual’s life. Once the valuation of certain social norms or the allegiance to a certain cause is fully established, it cannot be erased again, at least not to the extent of making room for a new, equally strong one. Also it would seem that once the sensitive period has elapsed, a man’s ability to embrace ideals at all is considerably reduced. All this helps to explain the hackneyed truth that human beings have to live through a rather dangerous period at and shortly after puberty. The tragic paradox is that the danger is greatest for those who are by nature best fitted to serve the noble cause of humanity. The process of object-fixation has consequences of an importance that can hardly be overestimated. It determines neither more nor less than that which a man will live for, struggle for and, under certain circumstances, blindly go to war for. It determines the conditioned stimulus situation releasing a powerful phylogenetically evolved behaviour which I propose to call that of militant enthusiasm.