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"Violence makes us animals, but compassion does as well"

Adolf Tobeña, neurobiologist

With the conference "The Neurobiology of Human Aggression" Adolf Tobeña, Professor of Medical Psychology and Psychiatry at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), opened the first National Congress on Conduct in the monastery of Sant Benet in Bages, Spain. The subject of his conference, moreover, was as defiant as it was provocative. Humans, Tobeña argued, are not morally superior to animals, and nor can we presume to be morally superior or more cultured. According to the expert, in psychology, everything parts for a common unit, the brain, and from a determinate chemical base.

Jordi Montaner | 20 may 2010


Adolf Tobeña
In
1986, at the request of UNESCO, an international group of psychiatrists, psychologists, anthropologists, geneticists and biochemists signed the Declaration of Seville, which denied that human violence has a biological origin, that wars proceed from a natural instinct or that man was predestined to act aggressively. As a result, domestic violence, terrorism, torture, murder, suicide or vandalism were deemed to be products of cultural behavior.
That document contains many mistakes that science has able to reveal over the last 20 years. Today, it has so little validity that UNESCO already has removed the Declaration from its main website.
A century and a half after Darwin sensed that our origin is not different from that of animals, we only find more and more similarities in the area of behavior.

But anger pure and mindless violence can not be justified on the basis of survival.
Why not? As humans, we can not moralize as to what is virtuous and what is evil when it comes to instincts. All instincts are often responses of a different nature to the same stimulus, variations in behavior that, through centuries, have defined us as a species, making us more adaptable to our physical and social environment. Darwin himself was also a pioneer in the study of the aggressive responses of animals to certain stimuli. He found that the aggressiveness of a cat with a mouse, which has a ritual hunt, is very different from the same cat when paired with a female feline or when faced with a dog. Food, sex and safety. Are not these the three keys to survival?

Well, if we are cruel, its roots are deep.
Also the possibility to not be cruel. Not all animals, and even less humans, react the same way to a violent situation. If aggressive behavior patterns seem to represent the default mode in 70% of situations, in a full 30% there is also a wide range of non-violent responses.

Seven to three, the bad guys win.
They are not necessarily bad or sick. It is not worth theorizing about what seems to be good or bad. There is so much to take into account before arriving at a moral judgment. When we kill to eat, or to survive, the pejorative sense of murder is reversed. Moreover, we are cruel; instinctively, we can enjoy the pain of others (there have been experiments that prove this) but, at the same time, feel a boundless compassion for someone weak and helpless, or even give our lives for someone or something. Between these extremes exists a whole range of behaviors.

Is there compassion among animals?
Episodes of Down Syndrome have been found among macaque monkeys, a species with a social structure. Well, without having been instructed by anyone, without knowing that it is a disease, the monkeys treat those with Down Syndrome with a special affection. The affected members of the group are accorded more attention; the others are more protective of them and do not get angry with them. In other species of social behavior, there also has been detected a common sense of protection against helpless, wounded or disabled members of the herd, with babies of another pair and even with babies of a different species.

But the lion that is proclaimed leader of the pride usually kills the offspring of another male, and, in many birds species, the strongest baby throws the weaker one out of nest just to secure a greater share of food.
The behaviors are not governed by a good-bad dichotomy, but by the imperatives of biochemical regulation. The strongest baby bird or new dominant lion do what evolution dictates. Their behavior does not stop being a survival mechanism for as cruel as it may appear to us.

Then we should forget about laws and punishments.
In the case of humans, anger management is a bit more sophisticated. Hormones, genes, and learning stimuli play a part, but also so do the use of drugs or alcohol, frustration or social marginality and the patterns of behavior that are depicted in the media. Social organization, and we are social animals, requires a mediated hierarchical punishment for a breach of the rules. Without police, laws and prisons, society would crumble.

In your lecture, you attributed aggressive behavior to testosterone, the male sex hormone. Is to be male to be violent?
Testosterone plays a key role in the regulation of aggressive behavior. Men are 10% larger and more aggressive than women due to testosterone. But it also involves other hormones and, to a lesser extent, women also secrete testosterone. In any case, it is evident that people with very high testosterone levels are more likely to be violent thugs.

As well as having better success with the ladies.
Their intuition also has a hormonal chemical basis. These men are also better reproducers and more sexually active.

Are women with more testosterone than normal also more aggressive?
Sometimes the effect is different. For example, they can be less generous or affectionate than usual. Then there is the case of spotted hyenas ...

Spotted hyenas?
Not many years ago, scientists incorrectly believed that spotted hyenas were hermaphrodites, because both males and females have masculine sexual attributes [penises]. It has been shown that females of this species have more testosterone than males, and therefore are larger than males and dominate the herd.

And, if someone is dominant, does the possibility of domestic violence disappear?
Dominating, or leading, let us not forget, can be an effective form of violence, as occurred in older social and family structures. Today, women are on a level playing field that previously they had no access to. This fact allows women to deal with men on equal terms. What happens is that women and men inflict violence in different ways and this clash of rituals can lead to abuses. The woman can hurt with words, but a male can end an argument with a punch, which is the way in which man instinctively defends himself. While the woman's social revolution has triumphed as far as women are concerned, it has not succeeded to the same degree in man's capacity to assimilate it. Today, the social tolerance level for hurtful words is far superior to that slapping or other physical assaults.

URBE ET ORBI Tobeña’s conference opened the Congress on Conduct which lasted from May 6 to 8 in the Abbey of Sant Benet in Sant Fruítos del Bages, in Spain’s Catalonia region. The mayor of this town, Josep Rafart, welcomed 700 experts (psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers and social workers) from across Spain and inaugurated a discussion by Amaia Hervas, specialist in autism spectrum disorders, Elleanor Mittendorfer, Swedish specialist in suicide, Miquel Casas, Head of Psychiatry at the Vall d'Hebron Hospital in Barcelona, and Jim Mansell, author of the Mansell Report commissioned by the British Parliament to assess the situation of the mentally disabled in that country. The Congress was brought to a close by the Councilor for Health of the Catalan Generalitat, Marina Geli.

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1 comment

dani 21/05/2010
molt interessant

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