But after watching for a while, I realized that more was at stake than food. The pigs seemed to bite when another pig got in their way, like someone cutting you off in traffic. Biting works in the pig world. The pain of a bite is a big surge of cortisol. That paves neural pathways that make you think twice before you cross paths with the biter again. It’s easy to see this in our daily lives. We steer clear of people who "bite," effectively deferring to them unintentionally. We reward aggression inadvertently to avoid pain, even though we oppose aggression consciously.
Aggression Works Because People Feed It
A pig feeding taught me about the roots of aggression
I toured a farm recently and got to feed the pigs. I saw them bite each other over the crumbs of tortillas we were given to toss at them. The pigs were not actually hungry because the farmer already fed them. The conflict reminded me of Henry Kissinger’s statement that the conflict in academia is so bitter because the stakes are so low.
We humans restrain our aggression most of the time. Instead of condeming ourselves for having these urges, we can appreciate ourselves for our ability to manage them. We find ways to meet our needs without biting and release pent-up aggression in safe contexts like sports and poetry slams. We get pretty good results out of this mammal brain we've inherited. But it's useful to remember that the mammal brain wires iteslf from early experience. A pig may be born in a litter of 16 to a mother with only 8 teats. That piglet learns to fight from the moment of birth. If you put that little pig in a world of abundance, it will still be aggressive because the mammal brain wires itself in youth.