Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution

Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution

Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution

Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution


Travis Rayne Pickering argues that the advent of ambush hunting approximately two million years ago marked a milestone in human evolution, one that established the social dynamic that allowed our ancestors to expand their range and diet. He challenges the traditional link between aggression and human predation, however, claiming that while aggressive attack is a perfectly efficient way for our chimpanzee cousins to kill prey, it was a hopeless tactic for early human hunters, who--in comparison to their large, potentially dangerous prey--were small, weak, and slow-footed. Technology that evolved from wooden spears to stone-tipped spears and ultimately to the bow and arrow increased the distance between predator and prey and facilitated an emotional detachment that allowed hunters to stalk and kill large game. Based on studies of humans and of other primates, as well as on fossil and archaeological evidence, Rough and Tumble offers a new perspective on human evolution by decoupling ideas of aggression and predation to build a more realistic understanding of what it is to be human.


Homo homini lupus est.
(Man is a wolf to man.)

—Plautus, Asinaria

Human nature is perhaps best defined by its malleability, and we can be sure that aggression is a component of our versatile character. If today’s behavioral scientist refers to “innate drives,” he or she is considered anachronistic. Nonetheless, we still recognize a myriad of internal, biological bases (both structural and biochemical) for aggressive expression in humans and in other animals—even when that aggression is prompted by external stimuli. The capacity for human aggression, including lethal aggression, must have been shaped by evolutionary forces. In forthcoming pages, I discuss some well-known hypotheses of the evolutionary basis of human aggressive potential. By way of introduction, I mention here the view of political anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who makes a cogent point regarding aggression and its relationship to human nature. Boehm argues that

when Darwinian competition becomes direct and face to face, as it tends
to be in highly social animals such as humans, chimpanzees, wild dogs, or
scores of other species, it is precisely dispositions to dominance (producing
threat and attack—[that is, aggression]) and submission (producing appease
ment or flight) that are retained by natural selection as useful behavioral
strategies. Like most any other behavior trait, these reproductively selfish
political dispositions are maintained through individual maximization of
inclusive fitness [that is, the evolutionary success of an individual’s genes
as measured by the number of those genes he and his relatives pass on to
survive in subsequent generations].

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