Group aggression: a universal genetic and cultural disease?

(August 2002; a Hungarian version appeared in the daily newspaper “Népszabadság” January 23, 2002)


“Human beings live so short and

they cannot spend even that short time in a  peaceful way.”

(My mother)



As the first anniversary of the September 11 tragedy approaches and a possible new war between the U.S. and Iraq gets closer, newspapers have been flooded with analyses of possible causes and possible consequences. However, an observer sometimes can feel that most of these analyses remain on the surface and there would be a definite need for a deeper view both in space and time. As analogies to this tragedy, one immediately remembers tragic aggressive conflicts of the past like the holocaust, the world wars, the Rwanda massacres, and many wars of the past and present.


One tends to think that the above-mentioned tragedies are all links in a long-long chain: the chain of aggressive conflicts between groups of people; the beginning of this chain fades away in prehistoric ages. One may start to wonder at this point: if aggression between groups is so persistent and even the best efforts of the greatest minds of the past were not enough to reduce it a bit, does not it have some deeper, constantly working underlying cause? This way I came to think that it is useful if first we try to imagine conflicts of prehistoric people, living in groups, say one hundred thousand years ago. Such a group, if it were allowed to live isolated in a given area, probably were able to keep a balance with its environment for a long time. Finding food, maintaining the habitat could go on without any essential change either in the environment or in the numbers or life of the group. Events in nature, changes of weather, attacks of illnesses or wild animals could become sources of hardship and individual tragedies, but the group with its combined strength and accumulated knowledge supposedly were usually able to overcome these. (We are still here today, aren’t we?) Consequently, the greatest danger to such a group must have been some other group of people, living either in the neighborhood or wandering around by accident. The other group may plunder food, occupy land, carry off women, and kill people. Defense against a larger or stronger fighting group could have been hopeless.


Since this situation may have lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, and by the laws of evolution it was an advantage in natural selection if a group was more successful in combats against other groups, one comes to the hypothesis that this process has changed the nature of human aggression and there was a shift from individual to group aggression. Since members of different groups could have been very similar in appearance, the need to make distinction required the introduction of external marks (body ornamentation, “battle-dress”) and distinguishing sounds. There was a need for increased cooperation among the group members as well. So one may even think that these changes were a major factor in the formation of human language and culture.


If one tends to accept this hypothesis, it follows that a main characteristic of homo sapiens, comparing it to other primates, is a larger level of group aggression, based on genetic and cultural factors, against alien groups and their members. Who is counted as a member of an alien group may depend on differences in appearance, in language, in behavior, and also in many other circumstances, which may even be difficult to determine or could be ambiguous. Then, you like it or not, genetic and cultural inclination for aggression against alien groups can be found in any human beings, even in the most placid, best educated and highly cultured ones, since this was a basic condition for survival of his/her ancestors in prehistoric ages.


Naturally, in the last few thousand years there were essential (but not fundamental) changes in this area because of the progress of human culture and civilization. One of the main tasks of laws, ethics, morals and education was and remained to control and confine aggressive instincts in order to stabilize the society and the coexistence of neighbor groups. However, history seems to teach us that their success has been only partial. First, one could observe a hypocrisy concerning laws like “You shall not murder”. Such laws have been mostly directed toward members of someone’s own group and only in a lesser degree toward members of alien groups, especially during fights. Second, one could see that during unfavorable circumstances (e.g. economic or political crises, lasting poverty and under-development) the pillars of education, ethics, morals and laws might have collapsed.


What follows from all these? To be clear, let me emphasize what certainly does not. It does not follow that good education, good laws, good ethics and morals would be unnecessary; that the analysis of concrete conflicts and elimination of possible causes would not be useful; that self-defense and punishment of aggression should be condemned. The main conclusion is that these traditional and necessary answers cannot give a complete solution. The history of the last one hundred years shows that mankind is more and more endangered because of the gaps in the above-mentioned traditional and necessary solutions, as our (hypothetical) genetic and cultural heritage of group aggression has been combined with newer and newer dangerous technological developments. If this is true, then it seems right to call group aggression a universal genetic and cultural disease of mankind that has lost its onetime evolutionary function. Here comes the question: Should we really consider it and try to treat it as a universal genetic and cultural disease and does mankind have any hope to be cured then?



Tamás Szabados

Associate Professor of Mathematics

Budapest, Hungary