An unbiased observer from another planet reflecting on human behavior from a perch close enough to capture the broad strokes of human conduct, but far enough away not to sweat the details of our separate behaviors would conclude that we are rats. Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian co-founder of classical ethology (the evolutionary study of animal behavior), concluded this in his classic 1966 account of aggression in animals including humans called On Aggression. The extraterrestrial would surmise this based upon the observations that both rats and humans are “social and peaceful beings within their clans, but veritable devils towards all fellow-members of their species not belonging to their own communities.” Our Martian would have more optimism about the future of rats than humans, says Lorenz, since rats stop reproducing when a state-of overcrowding is reached. We do not.
The comparison of rats to humans is a provocation, one assumes. Presumably the unflattering parallel was contrived to collar us and press us into remedial action on those aspects of our social behavior considered by Lorenz to be malfunctioning. At the same time, objective scientist as Lorenz saw himself as being, there had to be something more than invidious comparison at work in the twinning of rat and man. There must be some ethological meat on these insalubrious bones. Brown rats, like men, rely on the transmission of experience to other members of the community. That is, rats learn, rats have culture. Additionally, and most significantly rats, oftentimes models of cordiality towards their neighbors can “change into horrible brutes as soon as the encounter members of any other society of their own species”. On these counts – rats as startling comparison, rats as cultured, rats as murderers – rats can stand in for humans in speculations about nationalism, war, and other dangerous aspects of human behavior. Rats have the additional advantage of not directly objecting to being experimented upon.
Lorenz provided an edifying, if somewhat chilling, account of rat group-on-group violence, much of which seemingly was worked out in experimental arenas. The work is mainly from F Steiniger and summarized by Lorenz. Steiniger found that when rats were introduced into an enclosure, aggression grew incrementally after a period of wariness. Once pair formation between male and female rats occurred violence escalated and within a couple of weeks a mated couple typically killed all other residents. Death often came to a rat in the form of peritoneal sepsis – a rat dies of multitude of suppurating cuts. That being said, a skilled rat can deftly inflict a nip on the carotid artery. Exhaustion and nervous-overstimulation leading to adrenal gland disruption were another leading cause of death among beleaguered rats.
Most groups of rats are constituted of genetically related families – rat mothers, rat fathers, rat grandparents, rat siblings and rat cousins all getting along with mutual accord. Tender and considerate are rats to members of their family group. Larger animals will, for example, “good humouredly allow smaller one to take pieces of food away from them.” In matters of reproduction they’ll generously step aside and let “half- and three-quarter grown animals…take precedence of the adults.” An intruder is not treated so solicitously and they are routed rapidly and killed by bites. Since rats identify family members by smell, the experimenter can manipulate the odor of an animal and turn a beloved family member into a threatening intruder. Grandpa had never been so bewildered. In one such experiment Lorenz assured the reader, though with a note of apology to the biologist who one supposes will want to view the spectacle to its ghastly end, that the experimental animal was spared his fate and removed into protective custody.
The behavior of rats is seemingly a special case and this is what invites the comparison with the humans. The ferocity of rat intra-group aggression prompted Lorenz to puzzle over its evolutionary origins. What species-preserving function has caused its evolution, he asked. Formulating evolutionary questions in this manner is frowned upon in contemporary evolutionary biology as it invokes a group selection rather than an individual or gene centered perspective, the last of which might be helpful considering the kin-basis of rat families. Nevertheless, attacks between neighbors where all is risked for modest return should be regarded as unusual; Lorenz’s major conclusion, in fact, of On Aggression was that most aggressive encounters between species do not result in the maiming or death of combatants. So the functional basis of rat conflicts call for a robust explanation. Since a traditional Darwin explanation eluded Lorenz who assumed, erroneously in the view of most evolutionists, that Darwinian explanations can only be applied “where the causes which induce selection derive from the extra-specific environment.” By this I take him to mean that natural selection provides an explanation of inter-specific encounters – predation and so forth, or when an animal’s struggle for existence is assessed in the context of a changing environment. Rather than exclusively invoking natural selection Lorenz obliquely speculated that rat-clan gang fights are the outcome of sexual selection where there is “grave danger that members of a species may in demented competition drive each other into the most stupid blind alley of evolution.” But Lorenz is equivocal here, conceding that unknown external factors may still at work. “It is quite possible”, he concluded, that “group hate between rat-clans is really a diabolical invention which serves no good purpose.”
On viewing human and rats Lorenz’s extraterrestrial may find these species indistinguishable because aspects of their social behavior are so head-scratchingly difficult to fathom. Group hatred between rat-clans and the human appetite for war seem inexplicable viewed functionally. Lorenz does not, however, conclude from his frustrated attempt to subject rat and human aggressive behavior to the rules governing that of most other animals that those two errant species are somehow outside of nature. But he comes close. His use of heightened and subjective language is interesting in this discussion. For example, he recorded that when a stranger is detected among the rat gang the information is transmitted in the house rat “by a sharp, shrill, satanic cry.” In describing the fate of the stranger Lorenz reports that “Only rarely does one see an animal in such desperation and panic, so conscious of the inevitability of a terrible death, as a rat which is about to be slain by rats”. This talk of satanic cries, panic and desperation is accompanied by reference to hatred, brutishness and so on. Female rats are described as being “murder specialists”! Intra-specific aggression of this sort is described as constituting “evil” – not a word, one assumes, to lightly throw around.
The use of this charged language prepares us for an account of human aggressive behavior that is contiguous with the rest of nature, but at the same time that appears pathological and hard to fathom. Lorenz’s task with respect to human behavior was to assess it ethologically using the tools of his trade, but also to illustrate its profound aberrance in a manner that could still be remedied by drawing upon those same tools. I’ll discuss these correctives in a future post. For now though, we might pause to reflect upon this strangest of kinships – man meet thy cousin.