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Self-interest Drives Animals to Dominate or Submit

Mammalian instincts must be understood to be managed.

chimp stash


Mammals grab food from weaker group-mates. This sounds shocking to modern ears, but the evidence is pervasive. Aggression is averted most of the time because weaker individuals submit to avoid getting bitten and scratched. An all-for-one-and-one-for-all ethos does not prevail in a wolf pack or a gazelle herd, as much as it looks so to observers. I will explain how and why the mammal brain stays alert for opportunities to dominate.

These comments are not meant to be dog-management advice, and I'm obviously not advocating food fights. I'm challenging the popular notion that nature is good and humans are bad. To me it's clear that nature is harsh and humans have gone far in moderating that harshness. The people who tell me animals are compassionate are the same people who tell me bribery is OK because everyone does it. They obviously believe in promoting their self-interest when they can get away with it, and don't realize they reach this conclusion with the limbic system that's common to all mammals.

Animals grab food when they can. An animal that doesn't grab will go hungry, and the weaker he is, the more others will grab from him. His ability to escape from predators and compete for mates will decline if he doesn't grab what he can. You are descended from individuals who did what it took to keep their DNA alive. Yes, animals cooperate some of the time, but only as needed to meet their survival needs.

Mammals assert dominance even when no food or mate is at stake. It's as if they invest today's extra energy in establishing rank so they will have what they need tomorrow. Of course they don't do this consciously. Each individual simply seeks rewards and avoids pain. Status hierarchies emerge in almost every mammalian herd or pack or troop. The new science of "emergence" shows how complex systems emerge from simple individual choices without design or intent.

Mammals live in groups despite the frustrations because of a neurochemical called oxytocin. The mammal brain releases oxytocin in the company of trusted allies. The oxytocin feels good, which motivates mammals to build social bonds. But group life means living alongside mates with eyes on the same food and mating opportunities. Mammals evolved a brain capable of making the social judgements necessary to survive in a group.

antelope herd

Perhaps you're thinking they evolved a system of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." That was drummed into me in college so I can understand how people come to see it as the state of nature. Students tell teachers what they want to hear, and these notions become automatic. People might not even realize they're quoting Karl Marx when they impose this template on humans and animals. But mammals do not live in egalitarian communes.

The idea that animals focus on self-interest makes people uncomfortable. Researchers are mass-producing evidence of animal compassion and empathy. Contrived experiments are repeated over and over, and trials are discarded unless they "prove" the agenda. You can see animal altruism on youtube, but it's just one slice of a big picture that includes lots of conflict and conflict-averting submission.

PT Blogger LC Kelley ridiculed my reference to serotonin's role in social dominance by citing lobster studies. Ridicule is a path to social dominance that averts aggression...but let's focus on the lobsters. Crustaceans are not group-living oxytocin-producing animals so of course I did not say they have a status hierarchy. But they do fight over food, and they use serotonin to mediate food-seeking behavior, as do everything from amoebas to zebras. Research on lobsters helps illuminate the important question of why we have more serotonin in our stomachs than in our heads. Serotonin plays a role in the decision to seize food, and prepares the digestive system to receive it. Serotonin has a calming effect on an organism. It signals that threats are subdued so it's safe to eat. Whether the food came from a battle with another lobster, or a dominance hierarchy among mammals, or a modern welfare state, the same neurochemical transmitter is involved, and it feels good.

Konrad Lorenz

LCK tarred me with the Nazi brush by citing Konrad Lorenz, so here is a brief word on that Nobel Prize-winning animal researcher. Konrad Lorenz had to submit to the Nazis in order to survive. Einstein and Freud were rescued because they were Jewish, but Lorenz had to live with their domination. His apolitical research on animal aggression happens to conflict with the Marxist view that capitalism is the cause of all aggression. In my experience, progressives vilify information that doesn't advance their agenda. Branding Lorenz as a Nazi is an easy way to distract from the substance of his findings.

The link between aggression, dominance and serotonin is complex. Research suggests that achieving dominance triggers serotonin, which has a calming. Let's apply this to human beings rather than geopolitical abstractions. Imagine an old ladies' knitting club, or a young men's motorcycle club. Every group has some individuals that are more dominant than others. When two or more mammals gather, some tend to dominate and some tend to submit. Once the status relations are agreed to, things calm down. Sometimes the dominant prevents aggression among the less-dominant. It's not easy being a mammal. I am not suggesting that we dominate each other. I'm saying that people who deny this natural phenomenon and cling to collectivist fantasies are often disguising their own dominance-seeking.

My book, I Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness offers a plan for feeling good in a world where everyone is a mammal. And there's more on this subject in my reply to PT Blogger Jennifer Baker's "Who is worse off than I am? There, I feel better now" - One-upping Is a Mammalian Survival Strategy.

More from Loretta G. Breuning Ph.D.
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