by Tuhon Bill McGrath
Copyright 1999 William R. McGrath

Anthropologists tell us that mankind began its history as hunter-gatherers, then became nomadic shepherds, then farmers and finally city dwellers. Aggression has been necessary for human survival at each step, but often in different ways.There are different types of aggression, each useful in a specific arena. I have titled this article controlled human aggression because I wish to emphasize that word control. Uncontrolled aggression can mean failure in a combat situation. You may think that there are no rules in combat but you are wrong. A soldier controls his aggression while waiting for an enemy to walk into the kill zone of an ambush. Move prematurely and the enemy escapes. Expend all your ammunition on enemy #1 and enemy #2 is free to attack you with impunity. When a martial artist is faced with multiple opponents he must control his aggression and not get so focused on so totally destroying one attacker that other attackers can easily stab him in the back.

When we speak of aggression in humans we often speak of the flight or flight reflex, but is this the whole story? Do the terms flight and fight describe the total range of aggressive behavior in
humans? Let us go deeper. Most animals can be classified as either predators or prey at some point in their lives. Generally it is herbivores and omnivores that are prey to carnivorous predators. Even large herbivores like elephants, rhinos and hippos can fall prey to predators when very young. Smaller predators can also become prey to larger predators (as when a hawk takes a snake) and larger predators can fall prey to smaller predators armed with better weapons (as in the case of a shark attacking a whale). Most animals generally go into one of several defenses when they sense a predator:

“Passive Camouflage”, as when an animal disguises itself as not to be noticed.

“Warning Colors” as in wasps, bees and sea snakes.

“Active Camouflage”, as when an animal tries to be seen as another more dangerous, or at least inedible, animal.

“Decoy”, as when a lizard drops its tail when attacked and leaves a enticing wiggling decoy.

“Flight”, as when a zebra runs from a lion, or “Fight” as when a group of musk ox form a circle around a calf to protect it from a wolf pack.

Both prey and predators often engage in individual intra-species aggression or “Dueling”, usually among males over breeding rights to females.

Predators add another category to our aggression list “Hunting.”

In addition, some animals such as ants, dolphins, chimpanzees and humans engage in group intra-species aggression or “Warfare”. This usually involves aggression over territory and is specifically intended to cause fatalities to members of the other group.

A very few species engage in another type of aggression that I’ll call “Live Capture”, such as when a wasp brings a stunned grub back to it’s nest to lay its eggs upon, or a feline brings a wounded animal back to it’s den to let it’s young practice killing techniques, or when a police officer arrests a criminal.

A last type of aggression is one that started as a safe practice method for other types of aggression such as hunting and warfare, this last type of aggression is “Sport.”

For the purposes of this article we will classify the different types of aggression as:
1.  Passive Camouflage
2.  Warning Colors
3.  Active Camouflage
4.  Decoy
5.  Flight
6.  The Mother with Cubs
7.  The Dominant Male
8.  The Hunter
9. The Warrior
10. The Duelist
11. Live Capture
12. Sport

Each type of aggression requires different survival techniques and attributes.

If you watch a lioness chasing a prey animal such as a zebra, you will notice how focused it is on that one particular zebra. Other zebra may pass between the lion and the zebra it has selected, but the lion will stay focused on that one animal until she has caught and killed it or it has escaped. This “tunnel vision is a necessary survival skill that prevents the lion from becoming confused by a large herd of animals. The lioness does not have to worry about the other zebras in the herd banding together and attacking her.

Contrast this to the type of aggression a soldier needs on a battlefield (especially in ancient times when, shortly after the fight began, the supply of projectile weapons had been exhausted). Two lines of armed men engage and you attack the man opposite you. If he were to fall back and you were to engage in the tunnel vision of “hunters aggression," focusing only on chasing down your prey, you would soon find yourself behind the enemy line, surrounded and killed. Therefore a warrior's aggression must be both offensive and counteroffensive, guarding against attacks from more then just the opponent in front of him. Conversely a police officer may need “hunters” aggression while chasing a criminal through a crowd, but will need to go to “live capture” or warrior aggression depending on the circumstances once he catches up with the bad guy.

Age and social status seem to play a factor in human aggression. Testosterone levels begin to rise upon reaching sexual maturity in human males, peaks in the mid 20’s and begins to decline in the 30s. As one would expect, most violent crimes are committed by young males in their teens and 20’s (and even when the offender is older, there is some evidence to suggest that criminally violent males in their 30’s and 40’s have above average testosterone levels for those age groups).

It is not uncommon in many mammalian species for both young males (upon reaching sexual maturity) and older males (who have lost dominance battles with the dominant male) to be expelled from the general herd and form themselves into bachelor herds in which they stay until they find a mate and form their own family herd. We see vestiges of this instinct in humans in which there seems to be an almost inevitable friction between parents and teenagers and an instinctive desire for young males to form themselves into a subgroup. This desire of young males to form their own subgroup or pack can be positive if they join a youth group at a church, a martial arts class, sports team, boy scout troop, chess club, etc. or it can be negative as in a street gang like the Crips or Bloods or a school gang like the Trench Coat Mafia we saw at Columbine High School.

Recent experience in Africa with elephants shows an interesting group dynamic of the bachelor herd in that species that may be true of humans as well. When elephants would overpopulate one area, game wardens would take young males out from the herd and transport them to a new area. The game wardens found that these young bachelor herds would become destructive in their new area, unnecessarily destroying trees and killing smaller herbivores it found at their watering holes. They became the classic “rouge elephants.” However, if just one older male was brought along with them, the younger male elephants did not engage in this destructive behavior, as they were taught which types of aggression were necessary for survival and which weren’t.

The need to be part of a group and to conform to the standards of that group is very strong in most mammalian species. I have seen a dog (when joining a new home where other dogs are present) roll around in the excrement of the established dogs to take on the smell of the new “pack.” In adolescent humans there is a strong instinctive desire to conform to the look, sound (smell?) and rules of their new pack and to see the world as either those inside the group or those outside the group. One sees this in nonconformist youth all conforming to the same mode of dress and using the same slang. This may be annoying to adults but it is typically harmless and is usually dropped when one enters adulthood. Marriage usually has a civilizing effect on young males, as the desire to build your reputation as a hunter and warrior, find a mate and procreate, yields to the desire to provide for your offspring; (perhaps this is the reason that in many cultures, men are not treated as full adults until they are married, with a married man’s responsibilities, no matter if they are a teenager or a man in his forties).

Mankind seems to have channeled this “bachelor pack” instinct into a formal training period. It is common for many societies to separate adolescent males and females into their own subgroups and undergo a period I call “Adulthood Training Camp” (A.T.C.) in which the oldest members of the tribe teach the younger members of their own gender the methods, techniques and responsibilities of adulthood. This allowed young men to safely vent some of the physical aggression normal for that age, while still conforming themselves to the norms of society. It also has the benefit of lowering some of the friction between parent and teen.

A common practice in some martial arts groups emulates these A.T.C.s. Teacher “A” will train his sons until they reach their teen years. He then sends them to train with teacher “B” who will do the same with his sons via teacher A. When the sons of each teacher reach their 20’s, they go back to their respective fathers to complete their training in their fathers systems with a new respect for their father’s teachings. As Mark Twain is reported to have said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

A.T.C.s usually have an “opening ceremony” and finish with a “closing ceremony” of some sort. Thus adolescence in these societies had a definite beginning and, more importantly, a definite end. The military and college act as the modern equivalent of the A.T.C. in our society to some extent, but biologically speaking, they begin at the end of the best years for the A.T.C. period in humans. Some other shortfalls are:

1.The small percentage of the population who go through military training (at least in the U.S.).
2. College is usually too focused on only one single aspect of adulthood (becoming a successful “hunter”) and no longer teaches other important values.

A youth oriented club like the scouts, church group or martial arts school, if done correctly with this result in mind, can fill the need for a modern A.T.C. that teaches the values one needs for successful adulthood. The boy scouts used to do an excellent job of this, (at least they did when I was a member in the 70s) because it taught values like keeping ones word and good citizenship, along with the fun things like outdoor skills.

If this joining of a subgroup is instinctive in adolescents, then we should make sure that they join a subgroup with positive values. I would like to see more martial arts schools emulate the scout’s format, adding the functions of a community youth center to that of a business. This would be a great benefit to today’s society where the high divorce and out of wedlock birth rates condemn so many adolescents to grow up with no father in the home and our society’s high mobility means that a child’s extended family of potential role models may be extended over several states.

Part 2 shows how a martial arts instructor can use these descriptions of human aggression to better understand and motivate his students.

From the Fall 1999 PTI Newsletter
Copyright 1999 William R. McGrath