Erich Fromm: Territorialism and Dominance (1973)

In this short extract from The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm rejects the idea that an instinct of territorialism exists that leads humans and animals to defend vast areas of territory they inhabit. He argues instead that there is a tendency to invade and appropriate new territories. In his view, this has nothing to do with innate human instincts, but with man-made aggressive ideologies and institutions. Here is the excerpt: 


The popular picture of animal aggressiveness has been largely influenced by the concept of territorialism. Robert Ardrey’s Territorial Imperative (1967) has left the general public with the implication that man is dominated by an instinct for the defense of his territory, inherited from his animal ancestors. This instinct is supposed to be one of the main sources of animal and human aggressiveness. Analogies are easily drawn, and the facile idea appeals to many that war is caused by the power of this same instinct.

The idea, however, is quite erroneous for a number of reasons. In the first place there are many animal species for whom the concept of territoriality does not apply. 1 Other students of behavior, like Zing Yang Kuo, are

rather inclined to think that the so–called ‘territorial defense’ is after all, merely a fancy name for the reaction patterns to strangers, flavored with anthropomorphism and nineteenth century Darwinism. Further and more systematic experimental explorations are necessary to decide this issue.” 2

N. Tinbergen distinguishes between the territorialism of the species and that of the individual:

It seems certain that territories are selected mainly on the basis of properties to which the animals react innately. This makes all animals of the same species, or at least of the same population, select the same general type of habitat. However, the personal binding of a male to its own territory – a particular representative of the species’ breeding habitat – is the result of a learning process.” 3

In the description of primates we have seen how often there is an overlap of territory. If the observation of apes teaches us anything, it is that various groups of primates are quite tolerant and flexible with regard to their territory and simply do not offer a picture that would permit the analogy to a society, jealously guarding its frontiers and forcibly preventing the entry of any “foreigner.”

The assumption that territorialism is the basis for human aggressiveness is erroneous for still another reason. Defense of territory has the function of avoiding the serious fighting that would become necessary if the territory were invaded to such an extent as to generate crowding. Actually the threat behavior in which territorial aggression manifests itself is the instinctively patterned way of upholding spatial equilibrium and peace. The instinctive equipment of the animal has the function that legal arrangements have in man. Hence the instinct becomes obsolete when other symbolic ways are available to mark a territory and to warn: no trespassing. It is also worth keeping in mind that, as we shall see later, most wars start for the purposes of gaining advantages of various kinds and not in defense against a threat to one’s territory – except in the ideology of the war makers.

Equally wrong impressions exist popularly about the concept of dominance. In many species, but by no means in all, one finds that the group is organized hierarchically. The strongest male takes precedence in food, sex, and grooming over other males on lower orders of the hierarchy. 4 But dominance, like territorialism, by no means exists in all animals and, again, not regularly in the vertebrates and mammals.

With regard to dominance among the nonhuman primates we find a great difference between some of the monkey species like the baboons and macaques, in whom one finds rather well-developed and strict hierarchical systems, and the apes with whom dominance patterns are much less strong. Of the mountain gorillas, Schaller reports:

Definite dominance inter-actions were observed 110 times. Dominance was most frequently asserted along narrow trails, when one animal claimed the right of way, or in the choice of sitting place, when the dominant animal supplanted the subordinate one. Gorillas showed their dominance with a minimum of actions. Usually an animal low in the rank order simply moved out of the way at the mere approach or brief stare of a high ranking one. The most frequently noted gesture involving bodily contact was a light tap with the back of the hand of a dominant individual against the body of a subordinate one. (G. B. Schaller, The Mountain Gorilla, University of Chicago Press, 1965).

In their report on the chimpanzees of the Bodongo Forest, V. and F. Reynolds state:

Although there was some evidence of differences in status between individuals, dominance interactions formed a minute fraction of the observed chimpanzee behavior. There was no evidence of a linear hierarchy of dominance among males or females; and there were no permanent leaders of groups. 5

T. E. Rowell, in his study of baboons, argues against the whole concept of dominance and states:

“….circumstantial evidence suggests that hierarchical behavior is associated with environmental stress of various kinds and under stress it is the lower-ranking animal which first shows physiological symptoms (lower disease resistance, for example). If it is subordinate behavior that determines rank (rather than dominant behavior as usually assumed), the stress factor can be seen as directly affecting all animals to different degrees dependent on their construction, producing physiological and behavioral (submitting behavior) changes at the same time, the latter in turn giving rise to a hierarchical social organization. 6

He comes to the conclusion “that the hierarchy appears to be maintained chiefly by subordinates’ behavior patterns, and by the low rather than the high-ranking animals.” (T. E. Rowell, 1966.)

W. A. Mason also expresses strong reservations based on his studies of chimpanzees:

The view taken here is that “dominance” and ‘”subordination” are simply conventional designations for the fact that chimpanzees often stand in the relationship to each other of intimidator and intimidated. Naturally, we would expect the larger, stronger, more boisterous, and more aggressive animals in any group (being intimidating to almost everyone else) to display a kind of generalized dominance status. Presumably, this accounts for the fact that in the wild, mature males are generally dominant over adult females, and they, in turn, are dominant over adolescents and juveniles. Apart from this observation, however, there is no indication that chimpanzee groups as a whole are organized hierarchically; nor is there any convincing evidence of an autonomous drive for social supremacy. Chimpanzees are willful, impulsive, and greedy, certainly a sufficient basis for the development of dominance and subordination, without the participation of specialized social motives and needs.
Dominance and subordination can thus be regarded as the natural by-product of social intercourse, and but one facet of the relationship between two individuals. 7

For dominance, as far as it exists, the same comment applies which I have made with regard to territorialism. It functions to give peace and coherence to the group and to prevent friction that could lead to serious fighting. Man substitutes agreements, etiquette, and laws for the missing instinct.

Animal dominance has been widely interpreted as a fierce “bossiness” of the leader who enjoys having power over the rest of the group. It is true that among monkeys, for instance, the authority of the leader is often based on the fear he engenders in the others. But among the apes, as for instance the chimpanzee, it is often not fear of the retaliatory power of the strongest animal, but his competence in leading the group which establishes his authority. As an example of this, mentioned earlier, Kortlandt 8 reports about an old chimpanzee who retained his leadership because of his experience and wisdom, in spite of the fact that he was physically weak.

Whatever the role of dominance in animals is, it seems to be pretty clear that the dominant animal must constantly merit his role – that is to say, show his greater physical strength, wisdom, energy, or whatever it is that makes him accepted as a leader. A very ingenious experiment with monkeys, reported by J. M. R. Delgado 9, suggests that if the dominant animal loses his distinguishing qualities even momentarily, his commanding role ends. In human history, when dominance becomes institutionalized and no longer a function of personal competence as is still the case in many primitive societies, it is not necessary for the leader to be in constant possession of his outstanding qualities, in fact it is not even necessary that he has them. The social system conditions people to see in the title, the uniform, or whatever else it may be, the proof that the leader is competent, and as long as these symbols, supported by the whole system, are present, the average man does not even dare to ask himself whether the emperor wears clothes.

 

Notes:

  1. Territoriality occurs only in higher animals such as the vertebrates and arthropods and even there in a very spotty fashion. (J. P. Scott, That Old-Time Aggression, in: Man and Aggression, M. F. A. Montagu, ed., Oxford University Press, 1968).
  2. Zing Yang Kuo, Studies on the Basic factors in Animal Fighting, Journal General Psychology, 97, 1960.)
  3. N. Tinbergen, Social Behavior in Animals, Wiley, 1953.
  4. One has more rarely drawn a parallel from this hierarchy to the « instinctive » roots for dictatorship than one has from territorialism to patriotism, although the logic would be the same. The reason for this different treatment lies probably in that it is less popular to construct an instinctive basis for dictatorship than for « patriotism.
  5. (V. and F. Reynolds, The Chimpanzees of the Bodongo Forest, in Primate Behavior: Field Studies of Primates and Apes, I. DeVore, ed., Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965).
  6. (T. E. Rowell, Hierarchies in the Organization of the Captive Baboon Group, Animal Behavior, 14, 1966.
  7. (W. A. Mason, Chimpanzee Social Behavior, in The Chimpanzee, G. H. Bourne, ed., 1970).
  8. Chimpanzee in the Wild, Scientific American, 206, 1962
  9. Aggression and Defense under Cerebral Radio Control, in Aggression and Defense, C. D. Clemente and D. B. Lindsley, eds., University of California Press, 1967

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