The Violent Way (Robert Ardrey)



In the summer of 1945, shortly before our present generation of students was born, American warplanes deposited nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities. The shock that leveled the cities spread its emotional shatter around the world. But following the first horror and the first awful guilt, many an imaginative mind began to ponder. The destruction of life and property had been of little greater order than that of the Americans’ earlier and terrible fire raid on Tokyo, or the inexcusable destruction of Dresden by combined Allied air forces. Yet neither had ended a war nor afflicted a world’s conscience. Not the act but the idea of Hiroshima was what rocked us. No imaginable action of whatever horror could shake us that deeply, since human history from its early beginnings had habituated us to the worst. What shook us was the unimaginable. The idea of Hiroshima was too new to behold.
In the year following, as some imaginations came slowly to comprehend the idea itself, I listened to many a speculation that the terrifying instant in Japan had indeed marked the end of general warfare. The struggles of armies which from civilization’s earliest moments had provided mankind with its principal stimulation could play no part in a future world. The destruction of a Dresden, the burning of a Tokyo, had brought to history no prize beyond misery. But the incineration of two Japanese cities, terrible though the deed, had provided an idea that must wake from his dreams any future conqueror: neither victor nor vanquished could survive a weapon of such order. The Japanese price had been worth the purchase.
Such speculations went shortly out of fashion. Perhaps that unreliable figure, world conscience, condemned meditations so coarse. Or perhaps the cold war with its confrontations of superpowers and the growing balance of terror frightened us out of what wits we had. Not until fifteen years after Hiroshima, when I was concluding the writing of African Genesis, did I again confront the problem. By then, however, a different question had emerged in my mind: “How can we get along without war?” And I wrote: “It is the only question pertaining to the future that bears the faintest reality in our times; for if we fail to get along without war, then the future will be as remarkably lacking in human problems as it will be remarkably lacking in men.”
I considered the possibilities of nuclear cataclysm and dismissed them as either unlikely or of merely academic interest. Cataclysm is not warfare, since among the dead one finds no differences; whereas warfare and the triumph of arms has through all our history been the final arbiter of the arguments of peoples. I wrote:

No man can regard the way of war as good. It has simply been our way. No man can evaluate the eternal contest of weapons as anything but the sheerest waste and the sheerest folly. It has been simply our only means of final arbitration. Any man can suggest reasonable alternatives to the judgment of arms. But we are not creatures of reason except in our own eyes.

I concluded that in far highest probability the easy answer of cataclysm would not be ours, that existence without warfare must somehow become our way. I compared man to the gorilla who in the heart of the Pliocene drought lost his forests and the boughs that had been the focus of his existence and descended to those bamboo thickets to which he was so ill-adapted. Could man, without his wars and weapons, survive?

Deprived of the contest of weapons that was the only bough he knew, man must descend to the cane-brakes of a new mode of existence. There he must find new dreams, new dynamics, new experiences to absorb him, new means of resolving his issues and of protecting whatever he regards as good. And he will find them; or he will find himself lost. Slowly his governments will lose their force and his societies their integration. Moral order, sheltered throughout all history by the judgment of arms, will fall away in rot and erosion. Insoluble quarrels will rend peoples once united by territorial purpose. Insoluble conflicts will split nations once allied by a common dream. Anarchy, ultimate enemy of social man, will spread its grey, cancerous tissues through the social corpus of our kind. Bandit nations will hold the human will a hostage, in perfect confidence that no superior force can protect the victim. Bandit gangs will have their way along the social thoroughfare, in perfect confidence that the declining order will find no means to protect itself. Every night we shall build our nostalgic family nest in tribute to ancestral memories. Every day we shall pursue through the fearful cane-brakes our unequal struggle with extinction. It is the hard way, ending with a whimper.

So I wrote in African Genesis. And a decade later I find no persuasive evidence that my view was incorrect. A decade of declining fear of general warfare and consequent cataclysm has offered evidence, I believe, for another hypothesis of predictive value: Human violence, once fulfilled on the battlefield, is today being fulfilled in the city’s streets.
There is a paradox involved, Organized warfare, although an exercise exclusively human in the vertebrate world, received in truth reinforcement from natural law, whereas social violence, the human expression replacing it, breaks every rule of social species. Intolerable though the damage of warfare might be, still it united societies, strengthened social contracts, and gave outlet for animal xenophobia. And if we are to prepare ourselves for any profound understanding of sabotage, riot, political kidnappings and assassination, then we should inspect carefully the concept of the stranger.
I have referred to the universality of animal xenophobia. The stranger is driven out of a group’s social space and is physically attacked if his attentions persist. The howling monkey roars, alerting his fellows in the clan; the spider monkey barks; the lion, without ceremony, attacks. However the animosity for strangers is expressed, whether through attack or avoidance, xenophobia is there, and it is as if throughout the animal world invisible curtains hang between the familiar and the strange.
What constitutes a stranger? Observers in California once experimented with valley quail who live in coveys without territorial attachment. Coveys tolerate each other within the same feeding range, provided that strict social space is respected. Alien intrusion on that space will immediately be resisted. The observers found that if a bird is taken from a group and returned within a week he will be accepted as a familiar. But kept away for five weeks, on his return he will be greeted as an alien. He has been forgotten. Similarly, they found that an alien who lingers about the periphery of a covey’s space for about the same length of time will come to be accepted as a familiar.
One would expect that primates with sharper perceptions than valley quail would come to know and accept a persistent recruit more quickly. But it is not so. In his early observations of the howling monkey Carpenter watched the efforts of a solitary male to join a group. He was of course greeted with roars and pursuit upon first sighting. The performance was repeated day after day. But how long would it last? Sometimes for days he would disappear, or Carpenter would lose track of him and believe he had given up. But then again he would appear, and once he bore a fresh vivid wound as a reward for his persistence. Then slowly antagonism lessened. When the study was suspended, four months after the original contact, the immigrant was being permitted to remain on the periphery of the group. He was becoming a familiar, although he had not yet attained the status of naturalized citizen.
In his recent study of vervet monkeys in Kenya’s Amboseli, Struhsaker kept careful notes on a parallel situation. For reasons unknown, an adult male left one group under observation in an effort to join another. It was November when he made his first foray and in uproar was put to flight. By the end of December, however, his presence was being tolerated, though ignored. Then within another month he was helping to defend his new group’s territory. His success came more quickly than Carpenter’s howler, but still the process was a slow one.
Most observers agree that in a successful group all members must know one another as individuals. Xenophobia, as I suggested earlier, becomes a force assurring that social partners will be familiars. Even when immigration is permitted, it is only after a long process of familiarization. Predictability of behavior makes group life possible. And when the unpredictable occurs in a familiar, the response may be as violent as to a stranger.
In the course of his long studies of the herring gull Niko Tinbergen used a net to capture gulls for marking. Netting, however, presented problems, since his approach to a colony would raise the alarm call and set the birds to flight. And so he devised a trap. First he disarranged the eggs in a nest while the parents were away. Then he retreated about twenty yards to a blind from which with a string he could spring his net trap. A parent, returning, would immediately lean over the nest to straighten out the eggs, and the net would be sprung. But an odd event followed. The gull, struggling under the net, would immediately be attacked and pecked by swarming fellow gulls. He was behaving strangely.
In The Herring Gull’s World Tinbergen regrets that concern for the survival of his netted victim prevented his ever making detailed study of the attackers. To him the social attack on the strangely behaving seemed of broad significance:

In human society, “primitive” as well as “civilized,” a similar instinctive reaction is very strongly developed. It is perhaps possible to distinguish three steps or gradations of rising intensity in the social defense attitude of the crowd. The first is laughing at an individual who behaves in an abnormal way. This serves the function of forcing the individual back into normal, that is to say conventional behavior. The next and higher intensity reaction is withdrawal; the individual has made himself “impossible” and his companions ignore him. This, viewed from the aspect of biological significance, is a still stronger stimulus to the abnormal person to behave normally. The highest intensity reaction is one of definite hostility, resulting in making the individual an outcast, and, in primitive societies, even of killing him. In my opinion it is of great importance for human sociology to recognize the instinctive basis of such reactions, and to study them comparatively in other social species.

We should recall that the herring gull, living and breeding in its noisy, crowded colonies, is a species in which restraints on aggressive behavior reach something near perfection. Through territory, through postures of submission, through such a spectacular displacement activity as madly pulling up grass when frustrated angers boil over, actual fighting is virtually eliminated. But in response to the strange, all rules are off. Aggressive behavior in an instant becomes violent.
The rejection of the strange, whether the strangely behaving or the actual stranger, combines with Hediger’s social distance – the maximum distance that a social member will stray from his familiar fellows – to effect social integrity in animal groups. As we have seen elsewhere, rejection need not be accomplished by such forceful means as the defense of territory, or by the emotional assertions of antagonism such as demonstrated by the rhesus monkey. Xenophobia between groups may very well be expressed by simple avoidance, as do the langurs in central India’s spacious forests, or as do those exotic creatures in Borneo’s mangrove swamps, the great-nosed proboscis monkeys. Here space is not so great. In seven square miles along a river eight troops, each of about twenty individuals, were kept under observation. There was never conflict. On one occasion two troops slept in a single area, separating in the morning. But passive xenophobia ensured that there was no contact at all.
Even physical avoidance and the maintenance by one means or another of exclusive social space may be unnecessary in some species to express xenophobia. Aloofness may do. Phyllis Jay’s langurs sometimes met at waterholes. They Ignored each other. Psychological space prevailed. Baboons do the same. Family parties of zebra may seem to combine in single, endless herds on an African savanna, but each keeps to its own. So do African buffalo. And although a single alpha male exerts a sexual monopoly within a sexually mixed group, and although groups are so closely associated as to seem one herd to the unpracticed eye, still almost never does a male buffalo leave his group in an attempt to join another. The powerful lure of the familiar combines with the uneasy fear of the strange.
That animal societies are closed, and kept separated by distrust and antagonism, has been a worry to all utopians devoted to an ultimate brotherhood of man. For those so worried, a paper that appeared in 1966 was like a tranquilizer prescribed by a most respected doctor. The paper was called “Open Groups in Hominid Evolution,” and it was written by a British primatologist, Vernon Reynolds, who with his wife had made an excellent study of the chimpanzee in the Budongo forest of western Uganda. In his paper Reynolds ably summarized known evidences of human evolution back to the separation of the hominid from the ape lines certainly twenty million years ago. His description of contemporary human societies could scarcely be bettered:

Modern man is territorial and aggressive, hostile to and intolerant of strangers, and lives within an authoritarian social structure in which self-assertiveness and competition for dominance characterizes the successful male.

Reynolds then presents an argument that we must recognize: that such societies are of recent origin and culturally determined. For evidence supporting his conclusion, he looks to the social organizations of the great apes, our nearest relatives. The chimpanzee exhibits, in Reynolds’ opinion, neither the xenophobia which I have been describing nor the social ranks which we have earlier considered. It is a loose society, an open society, in which strangers are greeted amiably, even with excitement: Chimpanzee life comes closer than the life of any other primate to the arcadian existence which we once attributed to the human ancestor. But the chimpanzee is not our ancestor.
The thesis presented by Vernon Reynolds has been acclaimed widely, if uncritically, since it shores up the tenet of cultural anthropology that, since human fault has been culturally determined, it may be culturally corrected. The thesis offends no follower’ of Jean-Jacques Rousseau – another distinct advantage. But gremlins haunt the machinery of its logic.
The gorilla is as closely related to man as the chimpanzee. His society is as authoritarian as any in the primate world. While exchanges between groups take place more frequently than in monkeys, still Schaller’s long study of the mountain gorilla revealed small change in nuclear arrangements. Gorilla society cannot be described as open.
About the orangutan we know little. They seem virtual solitaries, avoiding everybody. The male even avoids his wife. Our knowledge of the chimpanzee’ is today based on three studies, all excellent, by Jane van Lawick Goodall, by Adriaan Kortlandt, and by the Reynoldses themselves. None confirms the open society. That Goodall was able to identify two thirds of the chimps that came her way in the many years of her famous study suggests-as it has suggested to Washburn and others – that what she was observing was a single society divided into shifting sub-groups. All, were familiars. Kortlandt’s observations were made in a banana plantation verging on a Congo forest. His was an undoubtedly discrete society divided into a nursery group of mothers and young, and shifting sub-groups of males, sub-adults, and childless females. On one occasion he watched forty, all surely familiars, raiding the banana plantation at once. The Reynoldses themselves, in their earlier paper recording their direct observations in a forest environment resembling Kortlandt’s, guessed at a home range of six to eight square miles with only all-male bands venturing farther. In each region of three they estimated a population of about seventy. It would accord perfectly with the observations of Goodall and Kortlandt.
What the evidences suggest is that social distance in the great ape is fairly large. One may wander far from one’s familiars. But there exists at some point a borderline, turning them back to their familiars, and that separates whole bands one from another. Perhaps memory in the great ape, superior to that of the monkey, does not require continual reinforcement. But there are other considerations denigrating parallels between ape and man.
The ape is powerful. His dependence on society for protection is so minimal that Schaller could not believe that the last male gorillas had been killed, as reported, by leopards on Mount Muhavuru. Yet the hominid, our evolutionary ancestor, weighed rarely over eighty pounds.
The ape’s relations are amiable, it is true, and if not egalitarian in the gorilla, certainly approximating the relationship in the chimp. But Goodall observed that when meat was at stake – when a chimp, for example, had caught and killed a monkey or a bushbuck – the dominance of the killer was total. All others sat about with supplicating hands, and while he dispensed a favor or two, he munched his meat in the alpha role, ignoring his inferiors. But the chimp kills infrequently. Our ancestors killed for a living.
And we come to the final consideration of Reynolds’ thesis. Terrestrial man and arboreal ape have been environmentally separated for a good twenty million years, in terms of the challenge of natural selection. The chimpanzee is the product of one road, we are the product of another. It is a long time, even in terms of evolution, and to equate the end products is a wishful indulgence. But beyond all such criticism must remain a final roadblock in romanticism’s way. Among almost two hundred species of the primate family, few evolutionary failures can be compared with the gorilla, the chimp, the orang. Limited in adaptability, they are confined to small provinces of the earth’s terrain. Powerful though they may be in terms of muscular advantage, intelligent though they may be in terms of laboratory tests, the great apes all approach extinction. The Age of the Alibi tells us that this failure is due only to man’s incursions. Yet here is the baboon thriving beyond human enmity such as the great ape has never known. His brain is smaller. But the integration of all baboon minds into a social mind has been an accomplishment that the ape has never approached. As one cannot equate the life of the baboon with the lives of the great apes, so even less can one equate the history of Homo sapiens, the most successful of primate species, with the history of the apes, our most astounding failures.
Superior survival has been in baboon terms, just as in ours, a condition of a superior social contract. Were Reynolds correct in his description of the unique open society of the ape, he would still be describing a character of evolutionary failure opposed to a character of evolutionary success. But one must not neglect his “Open Groups” paper, since, whatever future research may confirm or deny, it represents the most informed support for an argument quite opposite to my own. If I dismiss it, I do not ignore it.
General evidence, I believe, supports the conclusion that xenophobia is a factor in the life of all organized societies, and that certainly in the primate family the open society does not exist. The stranger is necessary, and antagonism directed against him has a biological basis beyond wishful denial. The hostility assures that the group will consist of familiars. It unites the group through the process which I describe as the amity-enmity complex. If an animal society is-based on a territory, then joint defense of the territory against an intruding stranger not only enhances energy but enjoins mutual trust and sacrifice, just as a human group defending its homeland must seldom have problems with the social contract.
Can we wonder that warfare, satisfying such natural demands, has flourished throughout human history? Can we wonder that man, like other social animals, carries within him a dual code of behavior? As Gorer suggested, there must be few human groups that do not distinguish between the killing of an insider and the killing of an outsider. The one is murder, and for it we may be hanged; the other carries a variety of distinctions the best of which is a medal. Washburn has presented a similar estimate: “Whatever the origin of this behavior it has had profound effects on human evolution, and almost certainly every human society has regarded the killing of members of certain other human societies as desirable.”
Neither Gorer nor Washburn was referring specifically to organized warfare, but rather to the social tolerance of violent behavior so long as it is directed outward. Warfare as we have known it is no more than a cultural institution, like the home or the market place, providing multiple satisfactions for a variety of biological demands characteristic of social species. I find it unlikely that any institution so efficient in its satisfaction of a natural demand could ever have been abolished except by the character of warfare itself. But that is what has been happening in our time. That war has become impractical and therefore unfashionable is evidence that as an institution it is not in itself a genetic expression.
What we have in our genetic endowment is the rejection of strangers and probably the propensity for violence. These have not been abolished. All that is vanishing from the human scene is the institution that once provided satisfaction for both without damage to social integrity. And so, subconsciously, we provide an answer to the question “How do we get along without war?” We transfer energies once directed outward to the inward expression known as social violence. But such an expression presents an intriguing problem, for now we must invent strangers.

The preceding was part 3 of “The Violent Way”, a chapter taken from The Social Contract written by Robert Ardrey in 1969.


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