Birds of feather fight together.

An old study can show us a little about nature, but may underestimate the human mind.

Aggression is an innate aspect of the natural world. But as humans, we are taught to forego fighting for reasoning. In 2019, as a resurgence of fascism and anger dominates the news, we see images that bring into question the very nature of our morality. How can such an intelligent species diverge so greatly as to harm each other so readily?

Birds and aggression

To understand humans, evolutionary theory would dictate that we must understand our ancestors. One primary maxim of evolutionary theory is that adaptive behaviours (those which increase the chance of survival for a particular gene line,) are more likely to survive. Of course, this doesn’t mean every adaptive behaviour survives, or maladaptive dies out, its all about an arms battle between species and time.

If we trace back to our beginnings (as debateable as they are,) we come from mammals. Our earliest ancestors were masters of scurrying, burrowing and hiding. We were not fighters in general, but we learned to fight between ourselves. In fact, when we look at modern primates, aggression for territory and resources is well marked. The survival of the fittest is still marred by the size and strength of the victor.

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz (1903–89) studied animal behaviour and made great insights into imprinting (i.e birds following onto a maternal figure,) and aggression. He stated, rather cynically, that although animal aggression was based on survival, human aggression could not be so readily explained. He cites Darwinian axioms to explain the violent ecology of bird populations, who are more aggressive and murderous than you may think.

For Lorenz, and other’s bound by evolutionary theory, aggression has some benefits. If an animal needs to kill to eat, size, speed and aggression are useful tools. If two animals are evenly matched in size, teeth and claw, it may be the aggression that wins out. Mothers who protect their young against larger beasts may win purely by intimidation. This ‘instinctcan readily explain most of the animal kingdom.

But Lorenz’ arguments for aggression only stretch so far. Human’s fight for reasons other than food and territory. We fight for esteem, for cause, for ideals and for others. We consider murder in the name of peace altruistic, and our philosophies often fail to condemn historic genocide in the name of the greater good. So what of human anger?

Human anger and the complexity of rage

To better understand human anger, we must consider its basic biology. In a state of uncertainty around potential threat, or in the presence of a known threat, the human body employs hormonal and physiological practices honed through millennia.

What we call ‘fight, flight or freeze’ is simply the production of adrenaline and other hormones that amp up our responses, pushing blood into our muscles and brains, and activating our sympathetic nervous system to become more reactive and push our hearts harder and faster.

This is not a uniquely human phenomenon, and would be nonsensical if it was. These systems use relatively ancient parts of our brain, including our limbic system (emotional control,) and amygdala (emotional salience and attribution) to galvanise lightening-quick responses. These pathways existed to decide your fate before you could consider them, and they did well.

Today we still rely on these ancient systems. In fact, some of the theories surrounding anxiety and depression rely on inappropriate and overuse of them. You can run from a tiger, but not a bad job when you have mouths to feed. The complexity of our modern day threats outclasses the relatively simplistic horrors of our past. You can’t punch your boss.

Human aggression can be multifactorial in origin and mutlifaceted in purpose. It can happen quickly (for example being banged in the head,) or over time (watching UK politics,) and then be enacted in different ways such as punching a bag or storming the Daily Mail comment section. Each is a release of energy, and one markedly more effective than the other.

But the purpose of aggression can also differ. The ‘frustration/aggression’ model suggests that anger is a consequence of stilted actualisation, the blocking of our personal goals and aspirations. When we get a bad grade on an exam, our anger is for the difference between what we feel we deserve and dream of, and what reality provides.

The aggression, in whatever form, helps to mitigate this feeling of discontent. Whether this a purely psychological and emotional phenomenon, or one of rebalancing a homeostatic drive of hormones is debated (although its probably a bit of both,) but the end result is the same. This can explain a number of motivations, including anger over societal and cultural discrimination. For evidence just check twitter every time the Conservatives tweet.

Instrumental aggression’, classically seen in psychopathy and criminal behaviour, is where aggression is tailored toward a goal. It is a marker of strength employed as a threat in search of a reward. This is the mugger holding a knife in the dark, and can occur alongside other forms of aggression.

Finally, for this article at least, we can talk about ‘social learning theorypioneered by clown-doll enthusiast Albert Bandura, who observed that children who witnessed an adult beat a doll would do the same. This theory is what lies behind current criticism of violent videogames leading to real world violence. Once again, we must look at the evidence and point out that if this was such a clear cut phenomenon, all gamers would be murderers.

But this clearly isn’t the case.

Human rage is complicated

So taking the above into account, we know that historically, aggression and its associated behaviours have had an evolutionary benefit, and that human forms of aggression can have multiple causes. The human brain itself, which is incredibly complex and, in my view, terribly designed, lends itself to the most obscure rationalisation and creation of rage that can be imagined.

One can easily prompt discordance over anger by posing philosophy, for example, is it right to go back in time to kill a genocidal maniac as an infant, or to punch a bully back? We employ post-hoc explanations to make ourselves feel better about outbursts (I punched him because he was a bad person,) or anticipatory meditations to facilitate future acts (I will be seen as a hero.)

Oftentimes the mantra of the murderer is one of disparate public appeal. One mans evil is another mans liberation, and the epistemology of morality does not help us at all. Morality is a arguably a societally derived ethos, and ethics the end result of discussion between powers, which dictate what is acceptable or not. Murder on the street is frowned up, but in times of war is celebrated.

Birds and (human) beings

So, in conclusion (or as much as can be concluded,) what explanations are there really for anger and aggression? In the end there is clear biology, but reasoning in humans has many forms. When these forms meet societal condemnation, we frown upon them, but when they are seen as morally acceptable, we treat the same acts as courageous and imitable.

But to put things in perspective, we can consider the birds. Birds are wonderful creations of nature, but will never see the stars. They will live out their lives in blissful ignorance of the potential of the universe, much like we are set to do. When we consider the emptiness of space, which by conservative estimates should be teeming with life, we hear and see nothing.

It seems that anger may be an explanation for this vast silence. Our own evolutionary shortcomings and rationalisations may be our end, and it is up to us to better understand rage and aggression before it becomes our undoing. A bird armed with a nuclear weapon would not think twice, but we must. And to paraphrase Alien, in space, no one can hear you tweet.

Dr Janaway is a registered medical professional. Please consult your local doctor if you have any concern about your health. All information provided above is anonymised. Images sourced from Creative Commons or original.

Image courtesy of:

If you would like to read more;

Psych Blog One — New Beginnings at the Frontline of Mental Health

Psych Blog Two — The Nightshift

Psych Blog Three — Lost In Translation

Psych Blog Four — To reconsider yourself.

Psych Blog Five — Gender, Sex and Politics



Psychiatrist with lived experience. Navigating the world and trying to explain and educate. Nominated ‘best couple’ in medical school awards.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store