Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Natural vs. Mandated Order: Why are we aggressive?

James Desjardin/Collegian

There is an old fable about a scorpion and a frog. The frog is asked by the scorpion to carry him on his back across the river. The frog is hesitant and says that the scorpion will surely sting him if he does so. The scorpion reassures him, saying that if he were to sting him, they both would be doomed and drown. So the frog agrees, but about halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. Before their imminent death, the frog asks the scorpion why. The scorpion replies, “It’s my nature.”

Every known and viable species on this planet acts out of self-interest. A larger cranial capacity, bipedalism and opposable thumbs do not exempt us from our mammalian nomenclature. Simply, despite our ability to arguably dominate nature at this point in time, we are still animals with primal instincts. A squid or a fish may not know its place in the natural order of things, but our human consciousness of self has not effectively made us innately different from the squid who strangles the fish, or the fish who escapes the squid. We still aggressively fight for what we need and want, and against what we cannot tolerate for survival’s sake.

This natural order can be applied to our structures of nation-states. Of course, those states are fundamentally designed by an animal species, and are typically systems of organized government that, despite their particular sense of moral obligation or consciousness, will act in their self-interest aggressively to survive, even if by such an action they ultimately doom themselves, as is the case with the scorpion.

Some posit that attaining power within this system drives our aggressions, but that it is justified not by any facet of human nature, but by the structure of the world system, anarchically designed and characterized by competing nation-states with no higher power. It is a purely neorealist approach, in which the system is attributed with a set structure and respective variables. Theoretically, only those states that meet those requirements or have those particular characteristics will attain power and survive.

As recent history has demonstrated, the political system manifesting the greatest power has been the nation-state. As individuals, we adhere to the systemic structure of the nation-state in the global sphere. However, in this model there is no one dominating state or world government, but rather constantly competing states using various techniques of control to attain more power or resist outside influences.

Since within this model there is no greater power than the nation-state, these competing nations are thus acting within an anarchical structure. Furthermore, despite attempts to balance this power, the deterrent of mutually assured destruction has, in the past decades, been a dominant and eminent factor within this paradigm. This is an ominous dilemma, because to survive as a nation-state, territoriality and political autonomy must be secured, and such a political entity must constantly be seeking power or otherwise maintaining it, else another state will take it or overthrow it.

Since there is no world government or supranational power over the nation-state within this framework, there is therefore a threshold of power that a nation-state must attain on the global scale. The fear of this absolute power ironically drives the aggressive pursuit of power by others in the anarchical system to prevent some states from achieving total domination. In practice, this theory is arguably a “security dilemma,” in which the drive for power isn’t necessarily domination of one state over another, but rather a purely defensive strategy. The Cold War exemplifies this model.

The defensive nature of the nation-state in arming itself, both figuratively as a perceived political power and literally with weapons, creates an arms race with no end other than war. Like the scorpion, the nation-state must act to survive, but its most involuntary intuition and action will ultimately kill itself.

However, this structural model as characterized by nuclear power politics does not account for the non-aggressive conduct of other political entities that are not geographically or politically impacted by such forces. The model does not explain how various states, throughout history, have, when left alone and undisturbed, functioned in a non-aggressive manner for sustained periods of time. The model is therefore limited in its application, and its fundamental premise of the existence of anarchic, threatening forces provoking aggressive action is not universally present. Accordingly, the model can be reduced to the simple observation that societies, when provoked or under the apprehension of an external threat, can respond with aggression.

Following such logic, there is no system, be it political, economic, social or cultural, which will ever contain and mandate our inherent aggressions into willful submission.  No matter what the system is on the political spectrum in which one finds oneself, our innermost drive for survival will manifest itself by way of uncontrolled aggression. This biologically deterministic model points to an immutable condition of general and pervasive societal violence.

However, the example of history proves this to be incorrect and therefore a flawed model by anyone who considers it to be the exclusive model. Our ability to cooperate and exist in times of peace illustrates that we are not merely an aggressive species by nature, but a cooperative one as well.

After examining the established parameters of each respective theory, it is clear that neither can suffice without being inextricably linked to the other. Human aggression is, ironically, a toxic combination and by-product of both – a man-made political system that depends on our natural instincts to survive. The inherent quality of aggression as a necessary tool to survive drives us not only to repel immediate threats of bodily harm, but also more generally to covet the scarcity of resources that exist. Thus, for those who are able to monopolize and concentrate those resources into a system whereby we can determine the allocation and redistribution of said resources, power is born and political and social structure take root. Our political systems typically reflect a manifestation as well as exploitation of our deepest primordial instincts.

Aggression is innate, but this aggression has been institutionalized in our political systems. Our biological predisposition and history of warfare as a species has since informed our public policy and regulation of the world system. It is not that as humans we approach situations initially hostile, but in looking at natural selection, when a species is pressed there are certain factors that will determine a response. By defining the various existing modes of aggression while also accounting for its expression in a system with no greater power than the nation-state, we may begin to understand more clearly why aggressiveness exists biologically, and how it manifests systemically. Human aggression, if not considered in this holistic framework, will continue to be misinterpreted and enacted with great ramifications.

Emily Felder is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].


View Comments (3)
More to Discover

Comments (3)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • D

    David Hunt '90Oct 23, 2012 at 8:56 pm

  • D

    David Hunt '90Oct 23, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    If only… we could reinvent human nature by the “New Man”.

    How many calamaties and distopias have started with this wish? The Nazis. The Communists.

  • B

    billzOct 22, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Let me give you a tip Emily, this is way too long. I got through 3 paragraphs and gave up. If you want people to read, you have to get to the point. You’ll learn that if you ever enter the real world.