24 April 2015

two sides of the same error

I am surprised and often delighted to see that some animals behave like men; I cannot see how this could either justify or condemn human behavior. I fail to understand why we are asked “to recognize that man behaves very much like a group territorial species,” rather than the other way round—that certain animal species behave very much like men. (Following Adolf Portmann, these new insights into animal behavior do not close the gap between man and animal; they only demonstrate that “much more of what we know of ourselves than we thought also occurs in animals.”) Why should we, after having “eliminated” all anthropomorphisms from animal psychology (whether we actually succeeded is another matter), now try to discover “how ‘theriomorph’ man is”? Is it not obvious that anthropomorphism and theriomorphism in the behavioral sciences are but two sides of the same “error”? Moreover, if we define man as belonging to the animal kingdom, why should we ask him to take his standards of behavior from another animal species? The answer, I am afraid, is simple: It is easier to experiment with animals, and this not only for humanitarian reasons—that it is not nice to put us into cages; the trouble is men can cheat.

Second, the research results of both the social and the natural sciences tend to make violent behavior even more of a “natural” reaction than we would have been prepared to grant without them. Aggressiveness, defined as an instinctual drive, is said to play the same functional role in the household of nature as the nutritive and sexual instincts in the life process of the individual and the species. But unlike these instincts, which are activated by compelling bodily needs on one side, by outside stimulants on the other, aggressive instincts in the animal kingdom seem to be independent of such provocation; on the contrary, lack of provocation apparently leads to instinct frustration, to “repressed” aggressiveness, which according to psychologists causes a damming up of “energy” whose eventual explosion will be all the more dangerous. (It is as though the sensation of hunger in man would increase with the decrease of hungry people.) In this interpretation, violence without provocation is “natural”; if it has lost its rationale, basically its function in self-preservation, it becomes “irrational,” and this is allegedly the reason why men can be more “beastly” than other animals. (In the literature we are constantly reminded of the generous behavior of wolves, who do not kill the defeated enemy.)

Quite apart from the misleading transposition of physical terms such as “energy” and “force” to biological and zoological data, where they do not make sense because they cannot be measured, I fear there lurks behind these newest “discoveries” the oldest definition of the nature of man—the definition of man as the animal rationale, according to which we are distinct from other animal species in nothing but the additional attribute of reason. Modern science, starting uncritically from this old assumption, has gone far in “proving” that men share all other properties with some species of the animal kingdom—except that the additional gift of “reason” makes man a more dangerous beast. It is the use of reason that makes us dangerously “irrational,” because this reason is the property of an “aboriginally instinctual being.” The scientists know, of course, that it is man the toolmaker who has invented those long-range weapons that free him from the “natural” restraints we find in the animal kingdom, and that toolmaking is a highly complex mental activity. Hence science is called upon to cure us of the side effects of reason by manipulating and controlling our instincts, usually by finding harmless outlets for them after their “life-promoting function” has disappeared. The standard of behavior is again derived from other animal species, in which the function of the life instincts has not been destroyed through the intervention of human reason. And the specific distinction between man and beast is now, strictly speaking, no longer reason (the lumen naturale of the human animal) but science, the knowledge of these standards and the techniques applying them. According to this view, man acts irrationally and like a beast if he refuses to listen to the scientists or is ignorant of their latest findings. As against these theories and their implications, I argue that violence is neither beastly nor irrational—whether we understand these terms in the ordinary language of the humanists or in accordance with scientific theories.

Hannah Arendt, On Violence (III)