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The Evolution of Human Aggression
Dominic Johnson
Dominic Johnson
is Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in evolutionary perspectives on human aggression. In 2009 the Tanner Forum sponsored a groundbreaking conference on the evolution of human aggression at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The conference brought together leading experts in aggression from fields as diverse as paleontology, primatology, anthropology, and psychology, including Steve Pinker, Frans de Waal and Richard Wrangham.

This spring, key outcomes of the conference have been published in a special issue of the journal Human Nature. The papers bring together approaches ranging from physiology and taxonomy to evolutionary psychology and political science, and they reveal several similarities between human and nonhuman aggression, including our response to physical strength as an indicator of fighting ability, testosterone response to competition, a sensitivity to paternity, and baseline features of intergroup aggression in foragers and chimps. But they also highlight many differences between human and nonhuman aggression which are explored by the authors. Despite their diversity, the papers tend to stress the importance of differential responses to environmental circumstances, and how those circumstances shape the costs and benefits of aggression. While there is considerable evidence of evolved adaptations associated with aggression, the authors generally agree that human nature does not imply we are doomed to continued violence, but rather that variation in aggression has evolutionary roots. What is critical is understanding and utilizing this knowledge, which suggests some novel methods for conflict resolution in the future.

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