The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Is nature red in tooth and claw?

Nature may not be as violent as we think

Like sex, violence is popular in entertainment. It boosts TV ratings, helps to sell household products, moves video games, and books, and garners the attention of young people when all else fails. Nature movies get in on the act as well, reveling in the gory details of predators dismembering their prey. But is nature as violent as most people, including biologists, imagine? Or is it just that violence is what gets people's attention?

Huxley versus Kropotkin
Herbert Spencer's notion of nature being red in tooth and claw is a common position among leading Darwinists, including Darwin's bulldog, Thomas Huxley. Huxley wrote: "From the point of view of the moralist, the animal world is on about the same level as the gladiator's show. The creatures are fairly well treated, and set to fight, whereby the strongest, the swiftest and the cunningest live to fight another day."

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Huxley had his critics. Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution concluded that . . ."the popular idea of the struggle for existence entailing misery and pain in the animal world is the very reverse of the truth. What it really brings about is the maximum of life and of enjoyment of life with the minimum of suffering."

This distinctly un-Western view was echoed by Peter Kropotkin who is thought of today mainly as a shaggy-headed anarchist but was a respected mainstream Russian biologist. Kropotkin believed that cooperation is normal in nature. In his book, Mutual Aid, he wrote: "If we resort to an indirect test and ask Nature: Who are the fittest: those that are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another? We at once see those animals which acquire mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest."

Huxley seemed to have won the day. Writing a decade ago, Lee Dugatkin, an expert on animal cooperation, could proclaim: "While it probably pulls on our heartstrings to believe that the natural world is quite a cooperative place ... the literature on every sort of noncooperative act imaginable suggests that this view is naïve - nice in principle, wrong in fact."

And the final score is . . .
This confident assertion was shattered in 2005 by the publication of research that analyzed the field data on 60 species of primates from 81 different studies. The bottom line is that primates spend just 1 percent of their time being disagreeable and 9 percent of the time being nice (the other 90 percent of their time is spent in nonsocial activities). So the score is Huxley 1, Kropotkin 9!

Authors of the study suggest that aggression is so potentially costly it must be used sparingly. On the other hand it costs almost nothing to be nice. Being nice makes for poor entertainment, however, boring scientists and the public alike. 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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