Animal behavior was studied by field researchers throughout the 20th century. They found a lot of competitiveness in animals and explored the biological mechanisms behind it. These facts made some people uncomfortable, however, and 21st century researchers have replaced that work with studies portraying animals in a more “progressive” light. The IMI is committed to the facts whether or not they make us comfortable. We need that to understand our mammalian operating system.
For most of human history, people would not have believed the peace-and-love model of animals because they could observe wild animals with their own eyes. Today, we have little access to wild animals, so we tend to confuse them with pets. Unfortunately, pets are not a valid model of the mammal brain. Pets do not meet their own survival needs. They do not forage or reproduce. Thus, they don’t help you understand why the mammal brain rewards you with happy chemicals when you see a new way to meet survival needs. We are not consciously trying to spread our genes, of course, but we repeat behaviors that stimulate happy chemicals despite our best intentions. This is why we need the facts about our mammalian impulses.
The point is not that we should have social rivalry. The point is that we do, and we can better manage it when we know where it comes from. Idealizing animals does not help us manage our painful emotions. The truth about animal behavior helps us see how we create our strong chemical surges, even when our verbal brain says, “I was not thinking that.”
The Inner Mammal Institute holds a large collection of books about the competitiveness of wild animals because that information has become scarce in the internet age. However, here are some internet links to empirical research on the animal urge for social dominance:
- An excellent summary of the research on serotonin and social dominance
from the book: Evolutionary Psychology: The Ultimate Origins of Human Behavior
- New York Times: Domination is Linked to Chemical in Brain
- Another pivotal study on serotonin and social dominance
- More Citations on Serotonin and Social Dominance
- My Recommended Reading List
You may wonder how a body of research could disappear from empirical science. One factor is the violent threat posed by animal rights activists in the late 90s (for example this and this). It motivated a massive retreat from primate research– past research as well as future research.
Social pressure is another significant factor. I know it well because I have spent most of my life in academia. Here is some of my writing on that subject:
Caveats about social science research:
All sciences have trends because scientists are human. The current trend in brain science and animal science is to presume that nature conforms to progressive beliefs. Rousseau said that nature is good, and evil comes from “civilization.” That mindset now prevails in our education system, and thus shapes our research. Conflicting evidence is routinely minimized and disparaged. This happens without conscious intent because the human mind sees the world through the lens of prior beliefs. Rousseauian philosophy is the lens that filters our science. We need to need to notice the lens instead of believing it’s all “evidence-based.”
Animals in nature compete much of the time. Even plants compete. Animals steal food from each other, even from children. They cooperate some of the time, of course. But evidence of cooperation among animals tends to come from lab-crafted situations. Research on animal altruism attracts funding and publication, while evidence of animal self-interest is typically ignored.
The human brain is always learning from rewards. Researchers know which messages get rewarded and which messages bring career setback and ridicule.
In my quest to understand human motivation, I looked beyond the inner circle of today’s research institutions. I have particularly enjoyed the human-nature series of Robert Ardrey and the earlier wildlife documentaries of David Attenborough. Ardrey spent much time with field researchers and ethologists in the 1950s and 60s. He learned that animals cooperate when a common enemy threatens. He provides fascinating examples of how animals calculate their self-interest in each moment.
If you live long enough, you can see the benefit of speaking the truth whether or not it fits the popular consensus. This is different from just “questioning authority,” because that typically means reflexive opposition to anyone above you while refusing to question your friends and allies. That is not science. That is a status game. The scientific method allows for questioning everything, not just your favorite targets.
Medical research is expensive, and funding flows toward marketable “cures.” Such research is not a complete picture of human emotion, and we should not expect it to be. Furthermore, big companies become targets of lawsuits. They must choose their research projects with such consequences in mind.
University professors must generate data that passes “peer review.” They need “good data” to avoid criticism, so social science research tends to focus on variables that are easily quantifiable, like race, gender and income. They ignore variables that don’t yield “good data,” such as early experience. The “information” we get from academia tends to sift the human experience through a filter of race, gender and income. Yet we are expected to take their “statistics” as the complete truth.
Happiness research is often based on self-reporting. This introduces significant biases. In some cultures, you don’t admit that you’re unhappy, especially to strangers with clipboards. In other cultures, brooding unhappiness is respected as “deep,” and rewarded with special privileges, while happy people are dismissed as “complaisant” or “dull.” Self-reported indicators of happiness are also easily biased by the wording of a question.
Therapists don’t want to scare people away. Anything deemed “off-putting” is likely to be put aside by the psychotherapy profession. Good intentions can create a customer-is-always right view of psychology, leading to unfortunate distortions.
For example, abusive parents might resist therapy if they feel “blamed,” so its easier for the therapeutic community to blame society for abuses that occur. This is fine if it motivates abusers to change, but it’s harmful when it trains people to deny responsibility for their actions. Humans have struggled to feed their families since the beginning of time, so it is not “therapeutic” to use this struggle to justify harmful choices.
The non-judgmental view of life may be good for the therapist in the moment he encounters the “client,” but it is not always best for children and society.
Humans enjoy proving they’re right and others are wrong. This impulse has motivated humans to search for the truth by disproving earlier truths. Over the millennia, contrarianism has improved our understanding of human behavior. But the joy of proving others wrong can also lead to misperceptions and distortions.
For example, one popular strain of research purports to “prove” that humans are irrational using highly contrived scenarios. They offer subjects the chance to save five lives by taking one life. Most people think that’s a good thing until the researchers suggest those five people be saved from an oncoming trolley car by pushing a fat man onto the tracks. Many respondents refuse. This study is widely cited as “proof” that we’re irrational.
That interpretation ignores the very rational inference that the trolley might not stop when the fat man is pushed at it, and the pusher could end up in jail for murder. Perhaps this contorted finding is accepted as “science” because it feels good to accuse the whole human race of irrationality.
It feels good to help others, so we like research that points the way to a “better world.” But humans are more complicated than we expect, and formulas for fixing the world often have unintended side effects. For example, legalizing drugs can fix the world according to one strain of research, but such studies make simplifying assumptions and cannot possibly anticipate the full consequences of legalizing drugs. An engineer doesn’tre-design a part until he knows how it fits into the whole.
Every researcher knows which findings will win respect in their field and which will get them immediately shunned. Findings that fit current intellectual trends are eagerly reported in scholarly journals and the mass media. Findings that contradict the views of current opinion leaders often get buried in the researcher’s desk because they can easily ruin the career of a “scientist.” In every generation, new opinion leaders build careers by battling prevailing thought habits, only to impose new thought habits as rigidly as the old guard they so vehemently critique.
Human beings see the world through the filter of their beliefs. Scientists are human, and have beliefs of their own. The scientific method elevates data from the biased perceptions of individuals. But when every study reported by a particular group of researchers just happens to reinforce their shared belief system, it makes me skeptical. For example, current research on happiness reinforces the Buddhist belief system, even though the researchers perceive themselves as practitioners of “hard science ” rather than “religion. ” Similarly, research on animals reinforces the belief that kindness is the state of nature and unkindness is caused by :our society.” I’m not against Buddhism or kindness, but I’m against the gross oversimplification of human nature that ideology can produce.
Decades of research have provided us with tremendous insight into human nature. However, distortions are likely at each moment in time because new ideas puff themselves up to gain acceptance. Advocates of new views strive to establish themselves by ridiculing and displacing representatives of other views. Decades pass before the merits of both views can be weighed outside the context of this mammalian dominance struggle.
For example, Freudians ridiculed the “superstitious” thinking that came before them. Then behaviorists ridiculed the Freudians. Now genetics is popular and behaviorism is ridiculed. Each wave of insight makes a valuable contribution. But each wave tends to exaggerate its own contribution and understate the significance of prior insights.
Each of us is free to synthesize research from many time periods instead of depending on what’s popular at the moment. Interestingly, most of today’s raging arguments were addressed a hundred years ago by William James’s ground-breaking “Principles of Psychology.” But James’s positive contributions are mostly forgotten today, as people remember his misguided ideas about communicating with the dead. Every original thinker is right about some things and wrong about others, which prepares the way for the next swing of the pendulum. Each of us is free to synthesize our own insights instead of riding the latest swing.