AGGRESSION, VIOLENCE AND CIVILITY AMONG ANIMALS AND HUMANS by Del Benson

Del Benson, Ph.D. is Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University since 1975 working to connect persons with nature and with other humans.

Can nature study and human history inform thinking about social groups, cooperation, posturing, territorial displays, aggression, violence, civility, and even peace amongst populations of wildlife or humans? These topics are so broad and deep that I suggest reading ecology books and Google searches about animal references. Scholarly accounts of the past from history books or religious books will suggest that humans have been quite violent towards each other over all time. Violent topics are common in The Story of Civilization, an 11-volume series by Will and Ariel Durant, the Bible, and the Quran.

Animals generally have social hierarchies within geographical territories that are defend against others of their species either overtly or subtly.  Birds sing and elk bugle to show their locations and to attract mates. Browsing mule deer might ward off another deer, even their own young, that wants to feed in the exact same place without clear signs that the space is being secured. Nests of birds and fish are often protected by at least one parent.  Cliff nesting birds tolerate very close proximity to other nests while eagles defend larger spaces.

Male grizzly bears and African lions kill the young of females to initiate estrus allowing breeding and genetic exchange with the new male. Baboons and some monkeys (especially the open grassland species) are quite territorial with violent interchanges under conditions of threat. Other primates (often the tree dwellers) such as chimpanzees and great apes show less physical violence but use posturing for social status and aggressive displays to ward off intruders of the same species.

Most animal species display with songs, feather shows, antler thrashing of the ground, urinating on bellies and bushes, brow lifts, or by driving Mercedes cars to show social standing. Social order and submission to authority can be maintained by picking bugs and grooming other primates, bearing necks and lowering the tails of submissive canines, cowering behind an aggressive partner, or by not speaking up at board meetings. Do these behaviors promote peace and civility for animals…or human animals?  Peace no, civility yes!

It is better to avoid fighting than to fight and lose, so displays are generally adaptive for upward mobility in the social structure. Many species will flee when danger is too near and that is why humans are taught to make noise when in dangerous situations of nature. Some animals give warning sounds such as the chatter of squirrels and trumpeting of elephants. Chimpanzees might pick up sticks to warn intruders or use them in battle if the threat is upon them.

Mock charges of display are frequently a first attempt to bluff the intruder before fleeing or fighting as seen with the neighbor’s dog, a bear in the forest, or with candidates at Presidential elections. Even generally gentle animals will fight off predators and other perceived threats. Hikers are told not to get too close to babies in the woods. Human presence could result in the mother disappearing or she might attack aggressively.

Fighting off unwanted suiters is a biologically adaptive strategy to make sure that breeding is taking place with those of similar fur and feather. Animals in situations where fleeing is not an option will likely play dead or fight. Never back a skunk into a corner with no escape route. These imperatives relate to humans also.  Cooperation is useful and adaptive…until that strategy does not work! Humans can try to live together, because our big brain affords us intelligent reasoning.

Humans have family and social structures.  We create tribes, cities, states, nations, organizations, and levels of authority and responsibility. Disputes can be handled civilly while skirmishes are avoidable…unless there is a greater threat. Humans pick leaders based upon displays of status that could include traits which are physical, psychological, social, economic, designated, assumed, or acquired by aggressive force.

Human civilizations have many attributes, but one major reason for being is the acquisition and distribution of energy. We use energy in the form of reproduction, food, labor, product making, distribution, transportation, securing the supply, and communications about the availability of resources to the rest of community. Ultimately, energy is used to acquire and to protect territories and to locate and secure resources that are needed and wanted for the times.

When resources are scarce, humans can think and solve those problems.  Solutions can cause invasions of human territories leading to conflict. Stories of history, whether academic or spiritual, are replete with examples of how humans have maintained and expanded their territories and fought for energy resources, labor, distribution, wealth, and status.

Is peace attainable?  No!  The hungry will try to eat. The oppressed will grow weary and fight back. Can civility be learned and practiced? I hope so! Humans have the ability to try.  Consequences for not trying are grave. Human abilities for destruction are greater today than at any time in history.  We have nuclear warheads, remote distribution systems to deliver them, and the appetite for dominance and display. We consume resources at alarming rates and defile the atmosphere, lands, and waters with activities and pollutants that harm nature and ourselves.

We know that we can exert force, but should we us it? Now is the time to focus our big brains on civility and diplomacy. We cannot flee because there is no place to go. We should not fight because that merely leads to more fighting and we learned from the animal world that fighting is only valuable when you win.

Can humans afford to battle nature or each other; or should we use the paradigm of diplomacy and civil actions?

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