Aggressive man shouting over his smartphone / Photo by Shutterstock
Research suggests that there may actually be an evolutionary origin to aggression not just in humans but in animals overall. That origin for violent behavior specifically is targeted in one new study conducted by Bru Cormand and Noèlia Fernàndez Castillo, biology researchers who both hail from the Institute of Biomedicine of the University of Barcelona, as well as the Rare Diseases Networking Biomedical Research Center and the Research Institute Sant Joan de Déu. They followed the lead of Stephen V. Faraone from the State University of New York in the US and found a variety of factors to which to attribute violent behavior. The study was published in Molecular Psychiatry.
Chiefly, the research team classified human violence as a reaction to interactions with any of several stimuli that can alter how human behavior is expressed. They identified some 40 genes that they correlate with aggression in both mice and men, as the Steinbeck cliché goes. There were human participants in their study, and those participants were two of the aforementioned researchers themselves, Cormand and Castillo. They’re both genomic data analysis experts and virtuosos of the genic interaction network. Cormand says that “aggressive behavior is a present feature over the biological evolution since it has some benefits for the survival of species (accessing resources, breeding, etc.). In these lines, our study focuses on the biological basis of aggressiveness, i.e. those endogenous factors that tend to show certain antisocial behaviors.”
Human beings and mice have genetic bases in common when it comes to aggression, specifically violence, according to the study. Apparently, 40 genes in both can yield a measurably greater risk of human (or rodent) aggression. Cormand continues, saying that “aggressiveness has a significant environmental element, which was not considered in this scientific study. Therefore, it would be interesting to combine genetic and environmental data from the same individuals to consider the interactions that can occur between the same risk factors that influence this kind of behavior.”
Castillo addresses those 40 genes they identified, though, and says that they “take part in biological processes that are related to the development and function of the central nervous system, communication within cells and cellular function maintenance. Some genes are likely to function as important nodes of the genic networks prone to a violent behavior, and those would be probably related to other genes which play a minor role.” They look at several forms of aggressiveness in the study, focusing on violent behavior, and they include impetuses like ADHD, major depression, and other psychological conditions.
The thing is, though, these genes all work together to constitute these kinds of responses, and Cormand and Castillo describe said responses as being pretty deeply ingrained in the sense that they’re so biological as to be the products of combinations of genes that regulate cellular function maintenance and cellular communication. It suggests that human beings could — getting more bio-philosophical perhaps — be aggressive on a cellular level. Digressing from the abstract and returning to more veritable notions, cells themselves can theoretically be aggressive, which is hardly a novel concept in the field of oncology where cancers are often described as aggressive.
There are different kinds of aggression, though, and some view natural selection in a way that would characterize any grouping of genes in modern DNA to be the product of nature solving for a superior state of survival. In other words, research could be conducted to determine in the future whether or not ancient humans were more or less aggressive than modern humans, and findings could reveal that ancient humans might have been more aggressive in some ways yet less aggressive in other ways. To be fair, the modern human is arguably less likely than the ancient human to slaughter cattle even if both are inclined to eat beef; on the other hand, the modern human is definitively more efficient about its aggressions toward wildlife in that regard.
Another new study, in fact, reports that all 7.6 billion humans collectively only constitute 0.01 percent of all life despite having destroyed an apparent 83 percent of wild mammals. One could argue that this couldn’t have been accomplished without a certain minimum of genetic predisposition toward aggression. The mass slaughter of wildlife, even over thousands of years that human beings have been known to walk the earth, constitutes a collective macro-aggression that the theory of natural selection says must have some genetic basis. Ron Milo, a researcher from the Weizmann Institute of Science based in Israel who spearheaded that study and published it in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says, “I would hope this gives people a perspective on the very dominant role that humanity now plays on Earth.”
A question that returns to the abstract, though, might be whether or not those same genes have anything to do with the so-called micro-aggressions of which many complain about these days. Hoff Sommers, also known online as the Factual Feminist, defines micro-aggressions as “those everyday comments or quips used by the privileged to keep others in their place.” Born of this age of identity politics, they’re things like “Asking someone who appears to be Asian or Hispanic where they were born. Using words such as 'crazy' or ‘lame.’ Calling the United States a melting pot, or referring to a group of women as ‘you guys.’” An American professor, Derald Wing Sue, is somewhat well known now for having gone as far as to craft an actual list of such micro-aggressions, and many have adhered to it, seemingly making the conscious decision to be offended by the items on that list, which struck Sommers as disingenuous.
She wrote for MercatorNet, “Wait a minute. I am a woman, and I find microaggression theory to be macro-annoying. I’m not bothered when someone addresses my friends and me as ‘You Guys.’ Or when they tell lame jokes, pardon the expression. Who cares? Not me — and I suspect — not most women. So I’m calling out Sue out for mansplaining my lived experience as a female-identified person.” It devolved from there into an increasingly meta accusation of micro-aggression for imposing micro-aggression theory on people, but it speaks to the magnitude of misplaced aggression that domesticated humans have toward each other as people who don’t hunt for food (out of necessity at least) and don’t directly kill other wildlife as overtly or as often as ancient humans might have. The correlation could be nebulous, but it could also be genetic.
Two aggressive women fighting over a man / Photo by Getty Images