Prince Kropotkin's Ghost
With all the violence in the world, it is natural to wonder, as Pat Shipman did recently in these pages (Macroscope, November–December 2001), whether aggression is deeply rooted in human nature. Perhaps it is. But we would argue that human aggressive inclinations are balanced by equally strong tendencies to cooperate with one another—an argument Prince Piotr Kropotkin made a century ago in Mutual Aid, a survey of altruistic societies. This view flies in the face of much current thinking on the subject, which presupposes there are deep biological roots to violence. Molecular biologists have, for example, sought to identify genes that control aggression in mice on the assumption that similar mechanisms operate in human beings. Indeed, scientists have regularly attempted to explain people's more savage tendencies by making comparisons with animals, particularly since Konrad Lorenz (an Austrian zoologist and Nobel laureate) theorized about the evolutionary roots of such behavior in his 1966 classic On Aggression.
Lorenz's view was that aggression is an inevitable character trait for most creatures because it is functional: A combative disposition helps males acquire resources, and it aids females in protecting their young. Guided by the assumption that aggression is a basic animal instinct, Lorenz and those who followed in his footsteps readily applied this principle to explain the behavior of men and women. The many violent acts making the daily headlines would only seem to confirm their suppositions.
Fortunately, and counter to prevailing ideas, there is now a large body of work on the psychological development of children that suggests otherwise. This research demonstrates that children do not automatically resort to aggression when conflicts arise between them. Instead, they often use an array of strategies to prevent, mitigate and resolve discord and to minimize its effects on their social relations.
The developmental psychologists who have brought such behavior to light are not trying to convince anyone that relations between children are completely peaceful. But they are trying to get across the point that conflict is not just a disruptive aspect of social life (as aggression has typically been viewed). Rather, conflict has the potential to aid children, because it can provide them with the opportunity to take the perspective of others, to negotiate and to construct for themselves concepts of justice and equality.