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Examine one or more media reports dealing with the nature/nurture controversy, that includes exaggerated and/or false claims. It is not too difficult to find articles announcing research findings in support of geneticization/gene-for claims. Critique the article making use of one or more of the rules of causality presented in this course when appropriate. Your proposition should refer to whether the claims made in the article are accurate, reasonable, or bogus.

not academic Nature/Nurture Revisited II: Social, Political, and Technological Implications of
Biological Approaches to Human Conflict

Author(s): Stephen D. Nelson

Source: The Journal of Conflict Resolution , Dec., 1975, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp.

Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.

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Nature/Nurture Revisited II




Institute for Social Research

University of Michigan

Because the literature on the biological bases of human conflict deals nearly
as much with extrascientific issues as with the purely scientific issues reviewed
previously in these pages, the present review directly examines the former to
illustrate the social and political context within which the scientific controversy
must be understood. The discussion centers on three principal themes: (a) the
distinction and often divergence between scientific knowledge and its public
uses; (b) the highly selective and often partisan uses to which particular kinds of
scientific knowledge about human behavior can be put; and (c) the necessity for
scientists to understand the ways in which, and the reasons for which, scientific
knowledge can be used in the public arena. It is concluded that safeguards must
be instituted to minimize abuses of the biological approaches, and that future
research on human aggression should continue to focus predominantly on struc-
tural-environmental causes.

During the past two decades a number of biologically based fields
have made ambitious advances into the area of human behavior. In

both the quality and the range of their content, these extend beyond
the generally inept but popular books of the middle and late 1960s

(for example, Lorenz, 1966; Ardrey, 1961, 1966; Tiger, 1969; Morris,
1967, 1969) purporting to explain much of human behavior, most
prominently aggression and violence, in terms of humans’ biological

makeup. Fields such as ethology, neurophysiology, neuropsychology,
psychopharmacology, behavior genetics, evolutionary genetics, and

physical anthropology share the central assumption that human biol-

JOURNAL OF CONFLICT RESOLUTION, Vol. 19 No. 4, December 1975
? 1975 Sage Publications, Inc.


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ogy plays an important causal role in more of human behavior than

social scientists have been willing to admit, and a vast literature of

research and argument has accumulated in recent years to support this


In an earlier paper (Nelson, 1974) I reviewed the portion of this

literature dealing with human conflict, in particular aggression and

violence. The major conclusions from that review were that (a) social

scientists need to become more knowledgeable about biologically

oriented approaches to human behavior in general, in order to gain

both information and a partially corrective perspective; and (b) how-

ever, unless contained in a comprehensive theory which includes social,

political, and psychological variables, biologically oriented theories of

conflict and aggression (although sometimes valid within their domain)

offer at best severely limited and at worst highly misleading explana-

tions of complex human conflicts. That review attempted insofar as

possible to evaluate objectively the literature solely on the basis of its

scientific merit, without regard to its real-world implications or poten-

tial uses. The criteria for evaluation were the familiar ones of scien-

tific validity: Are the propositions or theories true? Do they persua-

sively or uniquely explain the evidence from research? What is the

scope of their validity?

However, to evaluate this literature solely in terms of objective,
scientific criteria would be to examine only one side of the coin and
to miss its central meaning from a societal or global point of view.
Throughout the bulk of the literature, whether pro- or anti-biology,l
the social and political implications fairly scream out at the reader,

and the agitated debate and sharply divided public opinion confirm
the obviousness of such issues to all but the most determinedly

1. To characterize the debate as being simply “for” or “against” the biological
theories of conflict and aggression is of course oversimplified, for there are, in fact, a
number of intermediate positions adopted by various writers. However, some
expository shorthand is necessary in order to keep the reader from becoming lost in
endless prepositional phrases. For example, throughout this paper the phrase
“biological advocates” is used to refer to the principal advocates for the biological
theories of conflict and aggression. This term, standing in isolation, might be
somewhat misleading, since some of the harshest critics of the approaches in question
are themselves trained biologists or medical researchers, and other critics advocate
greater biological sophistication in areas of human behavior, but object to some of
the approaches discussed here.

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tunnel-visioned.2 In fact, in a great deal of the literature it is difficult
if not impossible to disentangle the scientific from the extrascientific
issues. Many of the biological advocates slide casually back and forth
between scientific evidence and sweeping policy recommendations; and
others, while avoiding such explicit recommendations, cast their evi-
dence in terms which leave little doubt as to the kinds of policies or
programs which would flow most easily from them.3 In sum, the

social and political implications of this body of literature are so
manifest and so potentially far-reaching that they deserve discussion
fully as much as do the purely scientific issues.

Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is to address directly some
of the extrascientific issues, both the obvious and the latent, in the
literature under review. (Except where otherwise indicated, this discus-

sion will continue to be concerned with the biological bases only of
human conflict and aggression, rather than the biological determinants
of human behavior generally. That is quite a different matter both
scientifically and practically and cannot be adequately treated here.) I

2. As Eisenberg (1972: 124) says in discussing Lorenz: “Some readers may
object to ‘politicizing’ what should be a ‘scientific’ discussion. My contention is that
it is necessary to make overt what is latent in treatises on the ‘innate’ nature of man.”

3. This statement is not intended to oversimplify or misrepresent the biologi-
cally oriented works as a whole, which in fact vary considerably in both the quality
of their scientific work and the writers’ readiness or hesitancy to draw pragmatic
implications from that work. In some instances, it is a case of good scientists making
careless or offhand policy recommendations within a narrowly constricted set of
possibilities. In other, less frequent cases, such recommendations-indeed, even the
scientific work reported-appears to be colored by the writer’s preexisting political or
cultural beliefs. And finally, among those who do not explicitly advocate programs
based on the scientific work reported, the scientific or theoretical focus of the work
is so narrowly conceived that inferences about ameliorative strategies again fall within
only a limited set of alternatives.

However, irrespective of the quality of the science or the writers’ intentions, all
three patterns point in the same direction for “solutions” to aggression and violence,
because they share the crucial assumption that the primary causes of these
phenomena lie within the individual rather than in societal arrangements and belief
systems supporting those arrangements. The importance of this distinction has been
well documented in social-scientific research and theory on causal attribution
processes (Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1967; Jones and Nisbett, 1971), and its decisive role
in determining public or official response to social problems has been illustrated by
Ryan (1971), Warren (1971), and Caplan and Nelson (1973). In particular, relevant
to the controversy at hand, the definition of a particular problem as “person-
centered” rather than situationally caused determines both the foci and the
techniques of ameliorative attempts-or indeed whether such attempts will be made
at all.

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intend (a) to illustrate the highly restricted inferential potential of

various parts of the biologically oriented literature on aggression, and

(b) to show how scientific knowledge-even the most “basic”-does

not exist in a vacuum, but is powerfully shaped not only by the

extrascientific concerns of science and scientists, but also by the

prevailing social and political interests of the culture. These are espe-

cially critical issues when, as in the present case, the knowledge base

is not yet well established, can be easily misunderstood or misrepre-

sented, and can potentially have serious consequences for the entire


These are not claimed to be ground-breaking new insights; most of

this paper’s observations have been discussed elsewhere. My intention

in this review is to bring together a number of widely scattered

observations and arguments, supplemented with some of my own

perspectives, and to organize them into a pattern which hopefully will

help the reader to understand the wider context of the scientific

material reviewed earlier. First, I will show why the controversy has

become so heated, and why what is at stake is not just a scientific

debate, but a conflict over the very foundation of social and political

arrangements: an image of human nature. This will be followed by a

detailed illustration of specific ways in which the biological approaches

to human conflict and aggression lend themselves to problem defini-

tions and potential policies or programs which may have adverse

consequences for both the individual and society. I will then turn to a

discussion of what can be learned from this controversy about the

proper role of science and the individual scientist in research areas

which have such far-reaching implications for society. The paper will

conclude with suggestions regarding directions for the future study of
human conflict and aggression, including the appropriate role of bio-
logical approaches to these topics. Throughout the entire discussion

three major themes are emphasized: (a) the distinction and often

divergence between scientific knowledge and its public use; (b) the
highly selective and often partisan uses to which particular kinds of
scientific knowledge about human behavior can be put; and (c) the
necessity for scientists to understand the manner in which, and some

of the reasons for which, scientific knowledge is used in the public

For reasons of space, this discussion must presume that the reader
is familiar with my earlier review of the various biological approaches

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and their basic arguments, or even more desirable, that the reader has

some familiarity with these fields apart from that review.4


As suggested above, two kinds of questions-not one-are addressed

by the participants in the often emotionally charged debate surround-

ing the biological approaches to conflict and aggression: (a) questions

of fact, accuracy, validity, and truth-the familiar “turf” of scientific

investigation; but also (b) questions of implications, consequences,

functions, and uses of one or another kind of knowledge. Because

much of the literature on both sides contains assertions about the

other’s “bias” or lack of objectivity, it is important to understand the

context in which this is meant.

Corresponding to the distinction between scientific knowledge on

the one hand, and its uses or functions on the other, there are several

different meanings of the term bias. Corresponding to issues of scien-

tific validity are two meanings of the word. First, it can be used in a

methodological or technical sense, in the sense that using or failing to

use particular procedures can bias one’s results. This type must be

judged on a study-by-study basis. Second and less commonly, it can

be used in a theoretical sense, to indicate that one has neglected to

consider additional important causes or effects, the inclusion of which

would cause one’s present theory or results to appear in quite a

different light. This type of bias can characterize entire areas of
research and theory, and as I argued in my earlier review, does in fact

characterize both the biological and the traditional social science

approaches to human conflict and aggression, the charge being more
serious in the former case because of the causal prepotency of the

factors excluded from consideration.

Corresponding to issues of implications and uses, there is the more

familiar meaning of bias and the one usually meant when the charge

is encountered in this literature: that nonscientific considerations (for

example, political or cultural beliefs) shape the content and perhaps
even the procedures of one’s scientific work. This type is often

4. For reasons mentioned in the earlier paper (which are equally important here

as in a purely scientific discussion), I will continue to follow Davies’s (1970: 613)

definition of aggression: “an act done with the intent to injure person[s] or damage

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difficult to establish, and in scientific circles is regarded as an ex-
tremely serious charge. The fact that such charges are leveled by both

sides in the debate, and the fact that they are encountered so

frequently, then, testifies either to the clarity of the evidence for the

charges, or to the apparent importance, for the accuser, of the ques-
tion at hand, or both.’

For example, the biological advocates take pride in their “hard-

headed objectivity” or “realistic” stance and frequently decry the
“misguided optimism” of their critics. The milder and more frequently

used labels for their critics are “romantics,” “idealists,” and “uto-
pians.” Sometimes the charges go further:

I may underestimate my adversaries as men of science, but I certainly do

not underrate the persuasive power of the doctrine which they are

defending. Considering its demonstrable untruth, its world-wide acceptance

is rather surprising. It can only be explained, as Philip Wylie has pointed

out, by the insidious and unperceived substitution of a fallacy for an

indubitable truth: the rather obvious fallacy “All men are equal’ has been

successfully camouflaged as the eternal and unquestionable truth “All men

ought to have equal opportunity.” This camouflage endows the doctri-

naires with the possibility of employing a highly dangerous quasi-moral

pressure to enforce their doctrine [Lorenz, 1970: xiii]. 6

Also, one of the most outspoken advocates of psychosurgery to

control violence claims that the case against psychosurgery is simply

part of “a widespread movement against psychiatry in general” (Mark,
1974: 28).

For their part, countless critics have accused the biological ap-

proaches, especially the more visible or popular works, of doing little

more than selectively putting new scientific information in the service

of old ideas about human nature-ideas considered socially and polit-
ically conservative if not reactionary.

My position should not be misconstrued as condemning the study of

comparative psychology or the search for biological determinants of

human behavior as though such efforts were inherently fascist. What I do

5. There is still another sense in which the term bias is used, perhaps more

uncritically and especially by nonscientists. This post hoc judgment is sometimes

made when the information merely challenges the preexisting beliefs, status, or
material interests of recipients of the information or their reference groups.

6. This powerful statement is typical of Lorenz’s style in his social commentary.
However, even his renditions of science share with this at least one important
characteristic: the tendency to make bold, categorical statements, unfettered by any
qualifying remarks.

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inveigh against is the formulation of pseudo-scientific support for a priori

social ideologies that are projected onto, not “found” in, nature [Eisen

berg, 1972: 125].

The seriousness of the controversy-evidenced initially by the

critics’ use of extrascientific as well as purely scientific issues in

response to the biological approaches, and later by charges of bias by

both sides against each other-stems both from past uses of biologi-

cally based concepts and from the present stakes of the debate. First,

when applied to human behavior and capacities, words like “innate,”

“inherent,” ” genetically fixed,” and various concepts from evolu-

tionary theory elicit almost conditioned responses of fear and disgust

in many people because of past abuses of such ideas. Such concepts-

often buttressed by science or pseudoscience (Hofstadter, 1955;

Ludmerer, 1972; Kamin, 1974)-have repeatedly been used for pur-

poses of exploitation, repression, and division. From Social Darwinism,

American racism, German Nazi ideology, and the like, such concepts

have acquired an extraordinarily sordid track record during the last

century or so, and apprehension at their being revived-especially

during periods of social and political unrest and shrinking economic

opportunity-is understandable.

Second, as suggested previously, most writers in the literature under

review here recognize that much more is at stake in this controversy

than just the outcome of a scientific debate. It would perhaps over-

state the case to say that the debate over biological theories of human

conflict and aggression is not so much over their scientific validity as

over what image of human nature shall prevail. However, this seems to

be a central concern for several of the writers on both sides, and even

those who prefer to stick to the scientific issues seem to recognize

that this could be the most important outcome of the debate. The

stakes are indeed high. The entire range of social, political, and

economic structures and processes of a society are based on particular

fundamental premises about human nature-what are the inherent

tendencies of human beings, their abilities, weaknesses, and prefer-

ences.7 Specifically, a society in which the predominant image of

7. Perhaps the central dimension of images of human nature has to do with

assumptions about the causes of human behavior. Included in this realm are not only

assumptions about the locus of causality (for example, whether the primary causes of

human behavior reside within the individual or his/her environment-see note 3), but

also assumptions about the quality or degree of determinacy of such causes. For

example, apart from the question of the locus of causality, there is the somewhat

different question of whether the individual is to be considered an active, responsible,

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humans is that they are by nature aggressive or violent would have-

and would have need of-quite different kinds of societal arrangements

from a society which believed that people were inherently peaceful

and friendly. A shift in these foundations would likely have far-

reaching consequences for the social and political life of a society.

This is, in part, because images of human nature have a self-fui-

fulling quality. While the objects of physical science behave as they

always have regardless of which theory we hold about their behavior,

the behavior of men is not independent of the theories of human

behavior that men adopt. . . . What we believe of man affects the behavior

of men, for it determines what each expects of the other. . . . What we

choose to believe about the nature of man has social consequences. Those

consequences should be weighed in assessing the belief we choose to hold,

even provisionally, given the lack of compelling proof for any of the

currently fashionable theories [Eisenberg, 1972: 123-124].

In particular, the belief that humans are innately conflictful or violent

can lead to behavior and interaction that supports that belief. Kelley

and Stahlesky (1970), in a brilliant review of a wide range of social-

psychological research, have shown that individuals who are predis-

posed to conflict (rather than to cooperation) create the kind of
world they imagine, through interaction with others who, although

initially cooperative, react in kind to defend their own interests.

Expectation of malevolence on the part of even one of the persons

becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On a parallel issue relevant to the present controversy, namely,
assumptions about the locus and determinacy of causal factors (see
note 7), the very belief that one can control one’s destiny may be

essential for maintaining psychic and physical health. Lefcourt (1973)
has reviewed much research on both humans and nonhuman species,

showing that the sense of control over one’s fate (as opposed to
feeling at the mercy of forces beyond one’s control) “has a definite
and positive role in sustaining life” (Lefcourt, 1973: 424). Lefcourt
insists that feelings of both freedom and control are to some extent
“illusions,” in the sense that they are not invariably related to objec-
tive conditions, but are to some extent in the eye of the beholder.
However, he concludes, the sense of control is “an illusion that may
be the bedrock on which life flourishes” (Lefcourt, 1973: 425). If

relatively autonomous agent on the one hand, or an impotent, helpless reactor to

forces acting on him/her (which may be internal as well as external) on the other

(Chein, 1972).

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subject to this principle, an image of human nature that exaggerated

the uncontrollability and inevitability of “innate aggression” not only

would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but also would be corrosive

of the human spirit and human potentialities.

Recognizing such matters, many critics of the biologically oriented

approaches have acknowledged that the issue at hand is sufficiently

important to call for something more than a relatively restrained,

objective, scientific debate. Addressing a similar issue but in a dif-

ferent context, Siderits (1973: 10) perhaps has spoken for many of

Like it or not, as psychologists we are to a certain extent the custodians

of the images of human nature (and thus, of the perceived action-poten-

tialities) that prevail in the populace. And in the words of Koch (1971),

“We transmit to the future what we are. We may be what we eat, but we
are also what we image. If what we are has been reduced by shallow or

demeaning images, that impoverishment will persist in the world long after

the images that conveyed it have gone their way” (p. 125).

Having described (a) the pervasiveness of extrascientific issues in the

debate surrounding the biological approaches to human conflict and

aggression, and (b) how they have helped to shape the debate, in
particular through concern over particular images of human nature on

which depend a society’s social and political arrangements, I now turn
from the abstract to the more specific in order to show the kinds of

potential uses and implications which have so disturbed critics of these



I wish now to illustrate the kinds of social, political, and even

technological consequences that can flow easily from the arguments

put forward by the biological proponents, and in many cases, have
already done so. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that
these consequences must necessarily follow from such approaches; nor

am I saying that qualitatively different, perhaps more benign, conse-

quences could not also be logically derived from these approaches. I

am not talking here about rigorously logical outcomes that might

result from a purely scientific debate, but rather about the public

phenomenology that is most likely to be generated by such ap-

proaches within the context of present social, political, and economic

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arrangements. Such consequences are highly likely for several inter-

locking and mutually reinforcing reasons including (a) the simplistic

nature of the public- and elite-oriented versions of the arguments,

“easy formulas readily grasped by a wide audience” (Berkowitz, 1969:

372); (b) the tendency of the public to think in simplistic, either-or

terms with respect to causality and the sources of societal problems;

(c) the eagerness of many political actors and other partisans to take

advantage of that tendency; (d) differential access to communication

media to carry a particular message …

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