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Group displays aggression

The evolutionary explanation of aggression believes that humans display aggression in groups for a number of reasons.  One of these reasons is to gain access to resources.  Whilst resources can be classified as a number of different things, likely resources gained through group displays of aggression include land, women and money.  The acquisition of these resources is important for the survival of a group and to ensure the continued existence of future generations.  The explanation also argues that displays of aggression towards potential threats are one of the best ways in which to secure the resources which are much desired by groups.

Displays of aggression may occur due to xenophobia - also known as the threat of the unknown.  It is evolutionarily advantageous to be wary of something which is not known to us and to display aggression when faced with something which could potentially be a threat to our survival and/or reproduction.  Aggression displayed as a direct result of xenophobia would ensure that the group is protected and would send a signal to other potentially threatening out-groups that the in-group is prepared to defend itself.  Again, this would have the direct benefit of increasing the chance of survival and future reproduction of all members of the group.  

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Group displays aggression

Displays of group aggression can be seen in both sporting events and warfare.  The evolutionary explanation would argue that xenophobia plays a large part in aggression displayed by sporting groups as they are scared of the unknown opposition which poses a threat to them.  Group aggression is also continuously seen in war, whereby one group attacks another in order to gain the resources they pose.  This would have many evolutionary benefits including the expansion of one’s own in-group, the acquisition of desired resources and the opportunity to become a larger and more powerful group which is less likely to be attacked by the opposition.  All of these benefits would greatly increase the survival opportunities of the in-group, proving aggression to be a valuable and necessary behaviour to display.

The evolutionary explanation of group display is supported by research into both sporting events and warfare.  Foldesi (1996) conducted research into forty football matches which occurred between both Club sides and National sides.  The researcher found that there were a greater number of violent incidents and aggressive behaviours reported when National side matches were played.  The evolutionary explanation would argue that this behaviour is a 

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direct result of the xenophobia experienced by coming into contact with the opposing team.  This was seen more when the opposing team involved Gypsy, Jewish or Russian individuals and may have been because contact with Gypsy, Jewish and/or Russian members of society occurs less often in the lives of the football supporters, thus producing a perceived threat to their survival which would not otherwise occur.

Support for the evolutionary explanation of group displays of aggression can also be seen in studies which have looked at warfare.  Chignon (1975) conducted a longitudinal study of the Yanomamo tribe who have a long history of war with other tribes.  He found that the married male members of the tribe were far more likely to have been to war and have killed members of the opposing tribe, suggesting that displays of aggression are perceived as an attractive behaviour in a mate.  Through studying the tribe, he discovered that war had many benefits such as the acquisition of land and of women who could then be used to expand the members of the existing tribe.  

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Chignon’s findings would be explained by the evolutionary explanation as beneficial in terms of the survival and reproduction of its members.  Males who survived war were considered more attractive by women and were more likely to be able to reproduce with women from both their tribe and the recently conquered tribe.  The winning tribe would also have access to additional land in which to expand, allowing the members to use its resources in order to support and provide for additional generations. Both Foldesi (1996) and Chignon’s (1975) studies help to add support for the evolutionary theory as they identify how the evolution and maintenance of aggressive displays has helped to maintain the survival and success of the groups in question.  This in turn, strengthens the theory and its application to a number of different settings.

Despite much supporting evidence, research into the evolutionary explanation of group display should not be considered conclusive as there is much research which questions the validity of the explanation. After studying incidences of aggression in sporting events, Marsh claimed that aggression could be viewed as an alternative career structure for working class males. Aggression displayed by such males is arguably therefore not based on xenophobia but is 

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instead a form of ritualised aggression which serves little evolutionary purpose other than as a potential career pathway.

The evolutionary explanation can also be criticised as it fails to take into account other factors which may be a cause of the group displays of aggression.  Social psychological influences would help to explain how and why group aggression occurs through a psychological rather than evolutionary manner yet are ignored.  It is perfectly plausible that group displays of aggression are a result of the observation and imitation of such behaviours from a role model or as a result of deindividuation which is brought on by being in a large group.  Deindividuation theory is a logical explanation for group displays of aggression as it states that individuals in a large group are less likely to be identified and therefore more likely to behave in ways which they would not ordinarily, e.g. aggressively.  Neither the social learning or deindividuation theories are taken into account within the evolutionary theory and this weakens its overall application and effectiveness.

In addition to the criticisms identified above, the explanation can be considered to be partially reductionist as it ignores the vital influence of day to day experience in the development and displays of group aggression.  It does however consider biological elements and therefore 

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cannot be argued to be completely reductionist.  Determinism is a key criticism of the evolutionary explanation as it takes the view that humans have evolved to behave in aggressive ways and that this will be seen in all groups.  Displays of aggression do not occur in all groups e.g. religious groups and this reduces the overall applicability of the explanation.  It is important not to underestimate the role of free-will in any behaviour and taking the viewpoint that aggressive behaviour is necessary could be considered irresponsible as it potentially exonerates anyone who considers it acceptable to behave in an aggressive manner.  

The evolutionary explanation can also be criticised for being a post-hoc explanation, thus making it difficult to test.  This is because we cannot be sure that we have evolved to display aggressive behaviours in order to gain resources and as it is impossible to travel back in time and scientifically test this explanation we will never be able to completely verify its accuracy.  The reduced validity and reliability of the explanation makes it likely that more that just evolutionary factors are responsible for the aggression we see today and therefore more than just the one explanation should be considered when attempting to explain group displays of aggression.

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