THE HFG REVIEW OF RESEARCH (Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 1999)
THE BIOLOGY OF AGGRESSION
Introduction: The Biology of Aggression
"Maryland conference, you can't hide; we know you're pushing genocide!" A small group of protesters interrupted a conference at the University of Maryland's Wye Conference Center with this chant in 1995. Up to then the meeting had been dull. It was organized to replace a cancelled meeting on the biology of aggression which had the plug pulled by the National Institutes of Health after an administrator there made an ill-advised remark comparing inner-city violence to the aggression of "jungle" monkeys and touched off a public-relations furor. The organizers of this meeting had added some philosophers of science who opposed biological research and attracted many journalists hoping for another scandal, but so far the balance between biologists and their humanistic critics had necessitated presentations on both sides which were over-simplified in consideration of the non-specialists in the audience, and nothing very interesting or new had been said. Here was something completely different. The journalists perked up.
The protesters turned out to be a mix of college students concerned about racism and mothers worried about children perhaps too precipitately diagnosed as hyperactivesincere people with absolutely no understanding of the scientific issues involved in studying the biology of aggression. They disrupted the meeting for about an hour until criminologist Frank Zimring, who was there to talk about the many non-biological influences on crime rates, suggested that since protesters needed journalists, and journalists needed protesters, the rest of us could leave them to it and go to lunch.
What is it about possible connections between biology and aggressive behavior that so excites people?
In any such conversation it doesn't take long until people who oppose research on the biology of aggressioneven sophisticated philosophers of sciencebring up Nazi racism and the horrible experiments conducted by Nazi scientists, as if because science (in the Nazi case, pseudo-science) has been misused by criminal regimes, any biological knowledge must inevitably lead to ideologized social engineering of the most immoral type. It doesn't help when newspapers print headlines like "Scientists Find Violence Gene."
Yet some biologists have made extravagant predictions about the usefulness of what they know about human aggression to the criminal justice system, for example, which go far beyond what can responsibly be claimed. Even if we know that x% of a particular sample of violent prisoners (and the findings range from 49% to 94% in a recent review) suffer from some "brain dysfunction," this cannot suggest any specific modification in how we deal with crime and punishment until what we know is much more specific.
We do know something about biological correlates of impulsivity, which can contribute to some types of aggressive behavior. We know that some people react to alcohol and some drugs (legal and illegal) with more aggression than do others. And we know that experiences of violencesuch as longterm abuse in childhoodinfluence brain function, which in turn may influence aggressive behavior. We don't know much about how these dispositions contribute to the commission of crimes, and the use of any biological data either to predict or excuse the criminal behavior of individuals would be irresponsible. However, some people, knowing they have a temperament which involves them in aggression beyond their control, present themselves to psychiatrists hoping that a treatment exists which addresses their angry dispositions. To refuse help to these patients by discouraging any research on the biology-aggression connection would be a mistake which also valorizes ideology over evidence.
The Foundation supports research in biology along with research in any other field which promises responsible scholarly insight. Any one discipline is bound to present a partial view. Explanations for some human problems involving violence will need to call upon biological data; others will not. The articles collected here explain conservatively and critically some of what scientists have learned about the biological substrate of aggressive behavior from studies of both humans and other animals. The misuse of biological information can be prevented not by attempting its censure, but by assessing its merits as science and its implications as policy, and integrating it with what we know about the environmental, political, and systemic causes of violence for a better understanding of violence in all domains.
Karen Colvard is the senior program officer at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
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