Ideas that add up #18

There’s a misconception that survival of the fittest means survival of the most aggressive. The adjective ‘Darwinian’ used to refer to ruthless competition; you used to read that in business journals. But that’s not what Darwinian means to a biologist; it’s whatever leads to reproductive success. It can also mean cooperation… I don’t think aggression works like thirst or sleep. I think aggression is more elicited by particular situations. I think it can be mitigated.

Steven Pinker interviewed in the FT, December 15th 2012

Aggression elicited by particular situations. Also, learned by emulation, honed through rehearsal and cemented through habit.

Pinker makes a useful distinction. Aggression is a fundamental emotional reaction, a survival mechanism triggered by the limbic system when it commandeers mind and body with the order: freeze, fight or flight! But it’s not as deep-seated as certain other survival-reactions. And it’s not untameable. With the right programme of emulation, rehearsal and habit it can be mitigated, for an  individual and apparently for entire populations and cultures. Pinker’s evidence is his statistical proof that the human world has become much gentler and less aggressive during the past few centuries of socio-political transformation.

If thirst and the need for sleep are hardwired into our congenital specifications, aggression is only softwired.

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