Anatomy of Human Destructiveness

Anatomy of Human Destructiveness

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by Erich Fromm

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In this provocative book, the distinguished author writes to break the deadlock in the struggle between the instinctivism of Konrad Lorenz and behavior psychologist B.F. Skinner.  See more details below


In this provocative book, the distinguished author writes to break the deadlock in the struggle between the instinctivism of Konrad Lorenz and behavior psychologist B.F. Skinner.

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“If any single work could bring mankind to its senses, this book might qualify for that miracle. . . . This book is the product of one of the most penetrating, most mature minds of our time.” —Lewis Mumford

“In this perhaps most important of his pioneering theoretical works, the distinguished author writes with brilliant insight in attempting to break the deadlock in the struggle between the instinctivism of Konrad Lorenz . . . and behaviorist B.F. Skinner. He moves toward a provocative conclusion which involves a critical revision of Freud's theory of a "death instinct" in man. . . . Fromm's studies of Stalin and Himmler, and especially his penetrating psychobiography of Hitler, fascinatingy support his thesis.” —Publisher's Weekly

“Rich and provocative . . . a major book from the pen of a major writer.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Fromm is an original thinker. . . . His analysis of the causes of destructiveness is unique, and he has an enviable skill in the lucid presentation of intricate material.” —Atlantic Monthly

“By far the best book I have ever read on the subject and by far the most absorbing.” —Ashley Montagu

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The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness

By Erich Fromm


Copyright © 1992 Estate of Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0193-8


The Instinctivists

The Older Instinctivists

I will forgo presenting here a history of instinct theory as the reader can find it in many textbooks. This history began far back in philosophical thought, but as far as modern thought is concerned, it dates from the work of Charles Darwin. All post-Darwinian research on instincts has been based on Darwin's theory of evolution.

William James (1890), William McDougall (1913, 1932) and others have drawn up long lists in which each individual instinct was supposed to motivate corresponding kinds of behavior, such as James's instincts of imitation, rivalry, pugnacity, sympathy, hunting, fear, acquisitiveness, kleptomania, constructiveness, play, curiosity, sociability, secretiveness, cleanliness, modesty, love, and jealousy—a strange mixture of universal human qualities and specific socially conditioned character traits. (J. J. McDermott, ed., 1967.) Although these lists of instincts appear today somewhat naive, the work of these instinctivists is highly sophisticated, rich in theoretical constructions, and still impressive by its level of theoretical thought; it is by no means dated. Thus, for instance, James simply was quite aware that there might be an element of learning even in the first performance of an instinct, and McDougall was not unaware of the molding influence of different experiences and cultural backgrounds. The instinctivism of the latter forms a bridge to Freud's theory. As Fletcher has emphasized, McDougall did not identify instinct with a "motor mechanism" and a rigidly fixed motor response. For him the core of an instinct was a "propensity," a "craving," and this affective-connative core of each instinct "seems capable of functioning in relative independence of both the cognitive and the motor part of the total instinctive disposition." (W. McDougall, 1932.)

Before discussing the two best-known modern representatives of the instinctivistic theory, the "neoinstinctivists" Sigmund Freud and Konrad Lorenz, let us look at a feature common to both them and the older instinctivists: the conception of the instinctivistic model in mechanistic-hydraulic terms. McDougall envisaged energy held back by "sluice gates" and "bubbling over" (W. McDougall, 1913) under certain conditions. Later he used an analogy in which each instinct was pictured as a "chamber in which gas is constantly liberated." (W. McDougall, 1923.) Freud, in his concept of the libido theory, also followed a hydraulic scheme. The libido increases -> tension rises -> unpleasure increases; the sexual act decreases tension and unpleasure until the tension begins to rise again. Similarly, Lorenz thought of reaction specific energy like "a gas constantly being pumped into a container" or as a liquid in a reservoir that can discharge through a spring-loaded valve at the bottom. (K. Lorenz, 1950.) R. A. Hinde has pointed out that in spite of various differences, these and other instinct models "share the idea of a substance capable of energizing behaviors, held back in a container and subsequently released in action." (R. A. Hinde, 1960.)

The Neoinstinctivists: Sigmund Freud and Konrad Lorenz

Freud's Concept of Aggression

The great step forward made by Freud beyond the older instinctivists, and particularly McDougall, was that he unified all "instincts" under two categories—the sexual instincts and the instinct for self-preservation. Thus Freud's theory can be considered the last step in the development of the history of the instinct theory; as I shall show later, this very unification of the instincts under one (with the exception of the ego instinct) was also the first step in overcoming the whole instinctivistic concept, even though Freud was not aware of this. In the following I shall deal only with Freud's concept of aggression, since his libido theory is well known to many readers and can be read in other works, best of all in Freud's Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1915-1916, 1916-1917, and 1933).

Freud had paid relatively little attention to the phenomenon of aggression as long as he considered sexuality (libido) and self-preservation the two forces dominating man. From the 1920s on, this picture changed completely. In The Ego and the Id (1923) and in his later writings, he postulated a new dichotomy: that of life instinct(s) (Eros) and death instinct(s). Freud described the new theoretical phase in the following terms: "Starting from speculations on the beginning of life and from biological parallels I drew the conclusion that, besides the instinct to preserve living substance, there must exist another, contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primaeval, inorganic state. That is to say, as well as Eros there was an instinct of death." (S. Freud, 1930.)

The death instinct is directed against the organism itself and thus is a self-destructive drive, or it is directed outward, and in this case tends to destroy others rather than oneself. When blended with sexuality, the death instinct is transformed into more harmless impulses expressed in sadism or masochism. Even though Freud suggested at various times that the power of the death instinct can be reduced (S. Freud, 1927), the basic assumption remained: man was under the sway of an impulse to destroy either himself or others, and he could do little to escape this tragic alternative. It follows that, from the position of the death instinct, aggression was not essentially a reaction to stimuli but a constantly flowing impulse rooted in the constitution of the human organism.

The majority of psychoanalysts, while following Freud in every other way, refused to accept the theory of the death instinct; perhaps this was because this theory transcended the old mechanistic frame of reference and required biological thinking that was unacceptable to most, for whom "biological" was identical with the physiology of the instincts. Nevertheless, they did not altogether reject Freud's new position. They made a compromise by acknowledging a "destructive instinct" as the other pole of the sexual instinct, and thus they could accept Freud's new emphasis on aggression without submitting to an entirely new kind of thinking.

Freud had taken an important step forward, passing from a purely physiological-mechanistic to a biological approach that considers the organism as a whole and analyzes the biological sources of love and hate. His theory, however, suffers from severe defects. It is based on rather abstract speculations and offers hardly any convincing empirical evidence. Furthermore, while Freud brilliantly tried to interpret human impulses in terms of the new theory, his hypothesis is inconsistent with animal behavior. For him, the death instinct is a biological force in all living organisms: this should mean that animals, too, express their death instinct either against themselves or against others. Hence one should find more illness or early death in less outwardly aggressive animals, and vice versa; but, of course, there are no data supporting this idea.

That aggression and destructiveness are not biologically given and spontaneously flowing impulses will be demonstrated in the next chapter. At this point I only want to add that Freud has greatly obscured the analysis of the phenomenon of aggression by following the custom of using the term for the most different kinds of aggression, thus facilitating his attempt to explain them all by one instinct. Since he was certainly not behavioristically inclined, we may assume that the reason was his general tendency to arrive at a dualistic concept in which two basic forces are opposed to each other. This dichotomy was at first that between self-preservation and libido, and later that between life and death instincts. For the elegance of these concepts, Freud had to pay the price of subsuming every passion under one of the two poles, and hence of putting together trends which in reality do not belong together.

Lorenz's Theory of Aggression

While Freud's theory of aggression was and still is very influential, it was complex and difficult and has never been popular in the sense that it was read by and impressed a popular audience. On the contrary, Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression (K. Lorenz, 1966) became within a short time of its publication one of the most widely read books in the field of social psychology.

The reasons for this popularity are not difficult to discern. First of all, On Aggression is an immensely readable book, much like Lorenz's earlier, charming King Solomon's Ring (1952), and quite different in this respect from Freud's heavy treatises on the death instinct or, for that matter, Lorenz's own papers and books written for the specialist. Furthermore, as was pointed out earlier in the introduction, it appeals to the thinking of many people today who prefer to believe that our drift toward violence and nuclear war is due to biological factors beyond our control, rather than to open their eyes and see that it is due to social, political, and economic circumstances of our own making.

For Lorenz, as for Freud, human aggressiveness is an instinct fed by an ever-flowing fountain of energy, and not necessarily the result of a reaction to outer stimuli. Lorenz holds that energy specific for an instinctive act accumulates continuously in the neural centers related to that behavior pattern, and if enough energy has been accumulated an explosion is likely to occur even without the presence of a stimulus. However, the animal and man usually find stimuli which release the dammed-up energy of the drive; they do not have to wait passively until the proper stimulus appears. They search for, and even produce stimuli. Following W. Craig, Lorenz called this behavior "appetite behavior." Man, he says, creates political parties in order to find stimuli for the release of dammed-up energy, rather than political parties being the cause of aggression. But in cases where no outside stimulus can be found or produced, the energy of the dammed-up aggressive drive is so great that it will explode, as it were, and be acted out in vacuo, i.e., "without demonstrable external stimulation ... the vacuum activity performed without an object—exhibits truly photographic similarity to normal performance of the motor actions involved ... This demonstrates that the motor coordination patterns of the instinctive behavior pattern are hereditarily determined down to the finest detail." (K. Lorenz, 1970; originally in German, 1931-42.)

For Lorenz, then, aggression is primarily not a reaction to outside stimuli, but a "built-in" inner excitation that seeks for release and will find expression regardless of how adequate the outer stimulus is: "It is the spontaneity of the instinct that makes it so dangerous." (K. Lorenz, 1966. Italics added.) Lorenz's model of aggression, like Freud's model of the libido, has been rightly called a hydraulic model, in analogy to the pressure exercised by dammed-up water or steam in a closed container.

This hydraulic concept of aggression is, as it were, one pillar on which Lorenz's theory rests; it refers to the mechanism through which aggression is produced. The other pillar is the idea that aggression is in the service of life, that it serves the survival of the individual and of the species. Broadly speaking, Lorenz assumes that intraspecific aggression (aggression among members of the same species) has the function of furthering the survival of the species. Lorenz proposes that aggression fulfills this function by the spacing out of individuals of one species over the available habitat; by selection of the "better man," relevant in conjunction with the defense of the female, and by establishing a social rank order. (K. Lorenz, 1964.) Aggression can have this preservative function all the more effectively because in the process of evolution deadly aggression has been transformed into behavior consisting of symbolic and ritual threats which fulfill the same function without harming the species.

But Lorenz argues, the instinct that served the animal's survival has become "grotesquely exaggerated," and has "gone wild" in man. Aggression has been transformed into a threat rather than a help to survival.

It seems as if Lorenz himself had not been satisfied with these explanations of human aggression and felt a need to add another that leads, however, outside the field of ethology. He writes:

Above all, it is more than probable that the destructive intensity of the aggressive drive, still a hereditary evil of mankind, is the consequence of a process of intra-specific selection which worked on our forefathers for roughly forty thousand years, that is, throughout the Early Stone Age. [Lorenz probably means the Late Stone Age.] When man had reached the stage of having weapons, clothing, and social organization, so overcoming the dangers of starving, freezing, and being eaten by wild animals, and these dangers ceased to he the essential factors influencing selection, an evil infra-specific selection must have set in. The factor influencing selection was now the wars waged between hostile neighboring tribes. These must have evolved in an extreme form of all those so-called "warrior virtues" which unfortunately many people still regard as desirable ideals. (K. Lorenz, 1966)

This picture of the constant war among the "savage" hunters-food-gatherers since the full emergence of homo sapiens around 40,000 or 50,000 B.C. is a widely accepted cliché adopted by Lorenz without reference to the investigations which tend to show that there is no evidence for it. Lorenz's assumption of forty thousand years of organized warfare is nothing but the old Hobbesian cliché of war as the natural state of man, presented as an argument to prove the innateness of human aggressiveness. The logic of Lorenz's assumption is that man is aggressive because he was aggressive; and he was aggressive because he is aggressive.

Even if Lorenz were right in his thesis of continuous warfare in the Late Paleolithic, his genetic reasoning is open to question. If a certain trait is to have a selective advantage this must be based on the increased production of fertile offspring of the carriers of the trait. But in view of the likelihood of a higher loss of the aggressive individuals in wars, it is doubtful whether selection could account for the maintenance of a high incidence of this trait. In fact, if one considers such a loss as negative selection, the gene frequency should diminish. Actually, the population density in that age was extremely low, and for many of the human tribes after the full emergence of Homo sapiens there was little need to compete and to fight each other for food or space.

Lorenz has combined two elements in his theory. The first is that animals as well as men are innately endowed with aggression, serving the survival of the individual and the species. As I shall show later, the neurophysiological findings show that this defensive aggression is a reaction to threats to the animal's vital interests, and does not flow spontaneously and continually. The other element, the hydraulic character of dammed-up aggression, is used to explain the murderous and cruel impulses of man, but little supporting evidence is presented. Both a life-serving and a destructive aggression are subsumed under one category, and what connects them is mainly a word: "aggression." In contrast to Lorenz, Tinbergen has expressed the problem in full clarity: "On the one hand, man is akin to many species of animals in that he fights his own species. But on the other hand, he is, among the thousands of species that fight, the only one in which fighting is disruptive ... Man is the only species that is a mass murderer, the only misfit in his own society. Why should this be so?" (N. Tinbergen, 1968.)

Freud and Lorenz: Their Similarities and Differences

The relationship between Lorenz's and Freud's theories is a complicated one. They have in common the hydraulic concept of aggression, even though they explain the origin of the drive differently. But they seem to be diametrically opposed to each other in another aspect. Freud hypothesized a destructive instinct, an assumption which Lorenz declares to be untenable on biological grounds. His aggressive drive serves life, and Freud's death instinct is the servant of death.


Excerpted from The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm. Copyright © 1992 Estate of Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Erich Fromm was a German-born U.S. psychoanalyst and social philosopher who explored the interaction between psychology and society. His other major works include The Art of Loving, Escape from Freedom, and Man for Himself. He died in 1980.

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