The myth of innate aggression

This short essay challenges the conventional wisdom that humans are naturally aggressive, violent and war-like.


The Myth

“We are born with aggressive instincts. Human nature is violent. War is inevitable.”

Our notions about society and how it should be organized are based on these ideas. Much of our political, social, religious and scientific thinking starts with the premise that human beings are born-killers. This idea has become so much a part of our consciousness that we rarely question it. In essence it has become Truth—conventional wisdom that carries with it no requirement to examine the facts with a critical eye.

The Reality

One way to determine if aggression is an innate human trait is to examine other cultures. If just one culture can be found that values cooperation and nurturing over violence, then we can conclude that aggression is a learned cultural response, not a human instinct.

And in fact, a whole spectrum of aggression levels can be found in pre-literate cultures. Some are extremely violent warrior societies where aggression is highly valued. But other cultures are gentle and peaceful, with few instances of violent crime or war.

We are not “hard-wired” like bugs or ducks, where a given stimulus results in a fixed response. Unlike most animals, we have a large cerebral cortex that allows for reasoning, reflection, creativity and culture.

Brain asks: Am I human or a reptile?

The instinct-controlling part of our brain is relatively insignificant in comparison to the cortex, and can be superseded by will and thought. It is this “flexible response” capability that enabled humans to survive and rise above the rest of the animal kingdom. Many anthropologists feel it was our ability to cooperate, rather than our ability to fight or compete, that was the evolutionary survival trait.

Because of our ability to reflect and consciously choose the values we instill in our children, as a species we can be whatever we want to be. It may not be a stretch to say there is no such thing as human nature, that almost all our traits and tendencies are culturally defined. This is not as obvious as it should be, because most of us are only exposed to one culture (a culture where everyone pretty much thinks and acts the same) and it’s easy to get the impression that the way we are is the only way we can be.

Elite Culture

It is not instinct that drives us to commit atrocities, but our culture. Culture is a human creation. Our culture was molded primarily by men who crave power and the domination of others. Click To Tweet

Usually fallacies are perpetrated because they serve someone’s interests. Not surprisingly, the myth that humans are inherently aggressive benefits the same elites who have had the most influence in shaping our culture: rulers, politicians, militarists, lawyers, clergymen, scientists, the wealthy. If human nature is indeed violent and war is inevitable, then we need large strong states with central governments. We need powerful rulers with mighty armies and brutal security forces. We need repressive laws to protect us from each other. We need guidance from our churches on how to keep our destructive instincts under control.

Of course, when we are constantly told that we are born to be killers, we have an excuse to act like killers. Violence becomes part of our culture, so we act violently. The fallacy perpetrates itself, and the irony comes full circle:

Our belief in the inevitability of human aggression, sold to us by the ruling elites, creates a world that makes ruling elites necessary.


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Text and graphics on this page by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Attribution: James L. VanHise –

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