James Silverberg and J. Patrick Gray (Eds.) Aggression and Peacefulness in Humans and other Primates (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1992; pp. 310; ISBN 0-19- 507119-0)

by Johan M.G. van der Dennen, University of Groningen, The Netherlands

The volume contains 11 chapters with references, an Appendix, and an Index.
In its outline, the book follows the more or less established and 'logical' structure of studies of nonhuman primates; preschool children; and preindustrial societies (exactly those domains of which a non-biologically-minded sociologist would claim total irrelevance for the explanation of the behavior of humans in contemporary societies). Most of the contributions are competent and very readable summaries of the state of affairs within the respective disciplines or specialisms.

It seems to be the inexorable, gloomy fate (or the self-imposed torment of the editors) of every book on aggression and violence to struggle with basic concepts and definitional hodgepodge, adding new variants to the hundreds of definitions already extant, or slightly bending, subtly distorting the concepts in order to better fit the book's contents. Such exercises often make tedious reading. They almost invariably begin with the assertion that "the definition of aggression is a muddle" and almost invariably end with a still greater mess. It has, for instance, been shown time and again that the concept of intention - however subjective, elusive and arbitrary - is nevertheless indispensable in any comprehensive definition of human aggression. For comparative purposes such a concept is admittedly unsuitable. The editors' (J. Silverberg & J.P. Gray: "Violence and Peacefulness as Behavioral Potentialities of Primates") proposed definition ("Aggression might be easier to observe if we define it as the assertiveness (or forcefulness) indicated by one actor's initiating toward some other(s) of an act that is higher on the violence scale than the previous act in a given interaction sequence, i.e., a readiness to initiate acts at higher levels of violence" p.3), however, introduces equally subjective elements: Whose violence scale? The violence scale of the actors involved or the violence scale of an observing third party? What if the violence scales of the parties involved differ in scope, or do not match in content? Could there ever be a universally acceptable "violence scale"? There is not even a trace of a consensus regarding the concept and definition of violence. And is assertiveness or forcefulness really easier to observe?
There is, furthermore, a serious problem involved in identifying the initiator of (a sequence of) agonistic activity. Even young children soon learn the time-honored strategy of provoking the prospective victim into physical retaliation or self-defense by highly subtle means (and knowing that the parents will punish the wrong child for its 'aggression').
That this is not a trivial squabble is indicated by the fact that in the many greater and smaller wars in this century's history, it is not at all clear who the initiator was, especially if one considers the existence of a phase of diplomatic warfare preceding the actual outbreak of the 'shooting war'. If it is acknowledged that most agonistic interactions develop out of 'normal' interactions more or less organically, pinpointing an initiator of the agonistic sequence might prove to be as futile as it is impossible. Is it the actor who first uses an invective or a derogation, or the one who first insults the adversary, or the first one to add injury to insult?
All in all, the way-out of the conceptual quagmire the editors propose is sufficiently vulnerable to subjective elements to prove to be a blind alley.

The stimulus for this volume, as the editors state in the preface, was a discussion about the Seville Statement on Violence in a Business Meeting of the Anthropology Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Seville Statement on Violence (SSV for short) was launched during the 6th International Colloquium on Brain and Aggression held at the University of Seville, Spain, in May 1986, with support from the Spanish Commission for UNESCO, with the purpose of counteracting the aura of "biological pessimism" that its authors/signatories believed to afflict discussion on the possibility of eliminating, or at least, controlling war, by means of refuting - or, more appropriate, by condemning as "scientifically incorrect" - the notion that war and violence in general can be blamed on a "genetically driven precultural human nature". Unfortunately, only one author in the present volume addresses the SSV, but that author, Frans de Waal, accomplishes this mission in a sublime manner, and, hopefully, his contribution will turn out to be the definite crushing defeat of this pseudoscientific monstrosity.
Whoever, like me, was extremely unhappy with the Seville Statement - its arrogant, self-righteous, apodictic tone; its preposterous naiveté; its dubious, distorted, sometimes plainly false contents; and its rather infantile programmatic aim - will welcome and appreciate, indeed savour, de Waal's chapter ("Aggression as a Well-integrated Part of Primate Social Relationships: A Critique of the Seville Statement on Violence"). He is the only author who attacks and seriously criticizes the SSV, and exposes it for what is: a sordid example of misinformation, a caricature of the (socio)biological approach to aggression, which, under the guise of "political correctness" actually stultifies any evolutionary analysis of aggression and violence. De Waal's criticism is a masterpiece of moral wrath and intellectual indignation (if such exists). I could not help but experience an acute attack of Schadenfreude, a very enjoyable kind of gut reaction-cum-satisfaction.
Other authors preceded him, of course. As, for example, Lionel Tiger (1990) commented:

"The consequence of this style of manifesto, having decided that the cup is half full, is that anybody who concludes the cup is half empty is, by definition, some form of scientific rogue, irresponsible for sure, possibly in the pay of armaments dealers, possibly an active apologist for bellicose regimes, in all cases dangerous to the body politic because they support or at least legitimate the crudest and most dangerous enterprises of destructive people who cling to power against the broad interests of humanity. In a letter commenting on this Statement, Fox underscores its classic if unintended nature by noting 'It is ironically appropriate that this document should have originated in the sordid center of the Inquisition, Seville' (Fox, 1987)" (p. 100).

De Waal eloquently reveals the warped logic, faulty reasoning, and internal contradictions in the SSV:

"Not satisfied with the full recognition of environmental factors, the SSV tends to dismiss human nature altogether: 'Violence is neither in our evolutionary legacy nor in our genes'. Curiously, this reckless statement immediately follows a rather thoughtful paragraph discussing both the cohesive function of social dominance and the dramatic results of experimental selection for aggressive behavior. The fact that artificial selection can rapidly produce hyper-aggressive animals indicates, according to the SSV, that aggression is not maximally selected under natural conditions. This is true and important, but how can a demonstration of genetic selection for high aggressivity ever to be taken to mean that violence is not in our genes?" (p. 39-40).

He also finds fault with the SSV claim that "warfare is a peculiarly human phenomenon and does not occur in other animals" (which is only - and trivially - true when war is explicitly defined as armed conflict) by pointing out that technology (i.e., arms and weapons) is not the essence of war, and, if one is willing to accept that, one cannot "escape the impression that chimpanzees stand at the threshold of planned, organized intercommunity conflict".
Finally the apodictic arrogance of the SSV is attacked as follows:

"One aspect of the SSV that is particularly disturbing is its intolerant language. The document opens each of its statements with the capitalized dictum: "IT IS SCIENTIFICALLY INCORRECT to say..." In view of the elusive character of scientific truth, this language is basically unscientific. Lack of appreciation of the scientific endeavor is further indicated by attempts to obtain endorsement of the document by majority votes from professional organizations. Not surprisingly, some commentators have seen hints in the whole affair of the darkest periods in the history of science (Fox, 1988; Zenner, 1988; Somit, 1990).
No one would even think of writing a manifesto similar to the SSV with the purpose of questioning a genetic substrate for patterns of attachment, sex, language, or cooperation. Most people readily accept these behavioral universals as core elements of human nature without in any way implying that this makes them immune to cultural modification. What is special about aggression is that it is the one behavioral universal that the human species does not like to see when it looks in the mirror..." (p. 41-42).

After this inspired demolition derby, de Waal's chapter further emphasizes the structuring role of aggressive behavior in primate societies. Primates possess powerful mechanisms of reassurance and reconciliation that allow them to cope with most of the socially negative effects of intragroup aggression. As a result, aggression (especially so-called 'moralistic aggression') can be a well- integrated part of, and can contribute constructively to, social relationships.

In Donald Sade's chapter ("Dominance Hierarchies as Partial Orders: A New Look at Old Issues") it is argued, based on graph theoretical modeling, that as yet undiscovered social and/or psychological processes must maintain the dominance hierarchy in primates, rather than resource competition alone.

John Baldwin ("Determinants of Aggression in Squirrel Monkeys (Saimiri)") offers a comprehensive theory of aggression in Saimiri (in these species virtually limited to sexual competition during the brief breeding season), interweaving data and theories on all three major determinants of behavior: evolutionary, physiological, and environmental-developmental. He discusses several social mechanisms that can reduce aggression in Saimiri troops, without involving group selection arguments.

Karen Strier ("Causes and Consequences of Nonaggression in the Woolly Spider Monkey, or Muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides)") discusses the constraints on aggression in Muriquis, an evolutionarily very odd species. The unique combination of low sexual monomorphism and large testis size observed in Muriquis appears to reflect an extreme condition in which sexual selection pressures favoring overt agonistic competition between males are fully replaced by more subtle, nonaggressive competitive strategies. The benefits of agonistic intermale competition may, in this species, be reduced both by the costs of aggression and by the overriding effects of female choice.

Michael Pereira's chapter ("The Development of Dominance Relations Before Puberty in Cercopithecine Societies") focuses on the substantial sex differences involved in the acquisition of dominance status in cercopithecine societies (macaques, baboons, vervets), species in which stable agonistic dominance relations typically exist. Cercopithecine females appear to follow a simple behavioral algorithm when intervening in fights between female nonkin: "Support the highborn participant".

F. Strayer's chapter ("The Development of Agonistic and Affiliative Structures in Preschool Play Groups") reports on ethological research conducted with groups of preschool children. The findings indicate that social dominance is developmentally the earliest stable dimension of peer group social organization and that cohesive activities are increasingly coordinated with dominance rank toward the end of the preschool years.

Carol Lauer's chapter ("Variability in the Patterns of Agonistic Behavior of Preschool Children") discusses the variability in male and female participation in agonistic encounters, and variability in the formation of dominance hierarchies, of daycare-center children. Dominance matrices constructed for each of the 12 groups show that while on the average boys rank above girls, both sexes can and do hold high, low or intermediate ranks. Frequent teacher interference and inconsistent group membership can make the outcome of agonistic encounters unpredictable, in which case children do not learn dominant or subordinate roles.

Clayton and Carole Robarchek's chapter ("Cultures of War and Peace: A Comparative Study of Waorani and Semai") contrasts the (formerly) extremely warlike Waorani (or Auca) of the Ecuadorian Amazon with the nonviolent Semai of the Malay Peninsula. This might well be the most important chapter in the book for students of war and peace in preindustrial societies for its clarity of insights and surprising results. Both societies are interriverine swidden gardeners, gatherers and hunters, with virtually identical technologies. Social and political organization, descent, and residence patterns are virtually similar. Both societies are highly egalitarian without highly differentiated gender roles and strong sex dichotomies. Both societies practice infrequent polygyny. In both societies socialization of children is indulgent, nonpunishing, warm and affectionate. Yet, they are worlds apart in their world views, their cultural constructions of reality. Surprisingly, the Waorani case shows that, whatever the origins of warfare, neither ecological adaptation (as emphasized by ecological-functional theories) nor inclusive fitness maximization (as emphasized by sociobiological theories) is, in itself, sufficient to account for the persistence of warfare in Waorani society since, in the absence of changes in these areas, individual bands of Waorani abandoned warfare - consciously and voluntarily - in a matter of months after contact, and virtually the entire society changed, in little more than a decade, from the most warlike yet described, to one that is essentially peaceful. This may serve to remind one that human action is not primarily the determined product of external forces and factors, but rather the result of people striving to realize their objectives within the context of realities that they themselves are constructing and reconstructing.

Robert Dentan's chapter ("The Rise, Maintenance, and Destruction of a Peaceable Polity: A Preliminary Essay in Political Ecology") focuses on the (ecological) roots of peace, which may be as complex as, or even more so than, the roots of violence and war. There may be many reasons for peaceability: nonviolence may be a response to overwhelming odds; it may be the taming effect of defeat; it may be enforced by colonial or imperial powers; it may be result of isolation and xenophobia; it may be due to a negative cost-benefit balance; it may due to a voluntary decision to abstain from or abandon violence, nonviolent ethics and pacifistic ideology; or it may be highly situational and opportunistic. As Dentan reminds us: "... peaceability is not disability, not a cultural essence unrelated to a people's actual circumstances. It should not be surprising that nonviolent peoples can become violent or vice versa. Nor does violence in a particular time and place necessarily indicate that peaceability in a different time or place is illusory" (p. 215). Violent people are quite capable of peacefulness, while peaceable people are quite capable of violence under altered circumstances.
It may be important to point out that 'peace' as used by Dentan, and by Anglosaxon authors in general, refers to the absence of physical violence generally, while in most other languages 'peace' refers preferentially or exclusively to the absence of war (as collective, organized, violent intergroup or interstate conflict). Whether such a semantic technicality has any impact on the analysis remains an open question. The analysis may be confounded, for instance, if one assumes that the causes, conditions and dynamics of interpersonal violence (e.g. murder) are different from those of intergroup or interstate violence (i.e., warfare and feuding). Arguably, war is not just aggression on a large scale, while aggression is not just war on a small scale. There may be a level-of-analysis problem involved. Dentan seems to be aware of it by distinguishing external (intergroup) and internal (intragroup) (non)violence, but subsequently he does not actually apply the distinction.
Peaceability should not be confused with pacifism, which is only one genre of peaceability. Many peoples who value peace positively nevertheless have relatively high rates of violence. Furthermore, many peaceable communities discipline children harshly, so that enculturating nonaggression may be a relatively minor factor in the creation of peaceability. Dentan rightly concludes that "The discussion of human violence and nonviolence has suffered from historical essentialism, treating particular historical moments as if they represented universal evolutionary trends or deep-rooted manifestations of quasi-national characters... A Darwinian approach, which takes nonviolence as an adaptation to particular ecological circumstances, seems more viable" (p. 251).

Marc Ross ("Social Structure, Psychocultural Dispositions, and Violent Conflict: Extensions from a Cross-cultural Study") reports on his ongoing cross-cultural investigation of political life in preindustrial societies. He tests structural and psychocultural hypotheses using data from a worldwide sample of 90 preindustrial societies. His argument is that psychocultural dispositions, rooted in early learning experiences (e.g., socialization practices, male gender identity conflict, etc.) and crucial in creating commonly held images of the self and others, determine a society's overall level of conflict, while the structural features of the social, economic and political system are crucial in determining the people with whom one cooperates and with whom one fights, either within one's society, in another society, or both. In other words, psychocultural factors are crucial in shaping the level of conflict and violence, while structural determinants are crucial in the selection of social targets. This is a refreshingly nonparochial and integrative approach to conflict analysis.

All in all, this volume is, despite some minor bones of contention, a must for primatologists, psychologists, anthropologists, students of war and peace in preindustrial societies, and in general anyone interested in the comparative and/or evolutionary study of behavior. Finally, though this is a nonscientific argument, and meant for bibliomaniacs only, the book looks, feels and smells good.


Fox, R. (1987) Letter. The Harry Frank Guggenheim Newsletter, 4 (1).
Fox, R. (1988) The Seville Declaration: Anthropology's auto-da-fé. Academic Questions, 1:35-47.
Somit, A. (1990) Humans, chimps and bonobos: The biological bases of aggression, war, and peacemaking. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 34:553-582.
Tiger, L. (1990) The Cerebral Bridge from Family to Foe. In: J. van der Dennen & V. Falger (Eds.) Sociobiology and Conflict. London: Chapman & Hall, pp. 99-106.
Zenner, W.P. (1988) Making scholarly decisions. Anthropology Newsletter, February: 2.

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