MBB Junior Symposium 2009: Aggression


Monday, August 31, 2009, 9:00am to 3:30pm


210 Emerson Hall, Harvard Yard

The MBB junior symposium is an all-day meeting that features talks by and discussions with a variety of scholars on an interdisciplinary theme in mind/brain/behavior. The symposium will include speaker presentations, a lunch with speakers and MBB faculty, discussion groups, and closing panel. It is open to MBB juniors and those MBB seniors who did not attend the 2008 symposium. It is required of students pursuing the Certificate in MBB (students in honors MBB tracks) and is also open to students pursuing or considering a secondary field in MBB.

Eligible students, please register at the bottom of the page by Monday, August 24th.
This event is not open to the public.

Aggression is an innate behavior used by essentially all species of animals for access to desired resources like food, territory and mates. Among humans, aggression often escalates to interpersonal violence and war, leading to serious societal problems. In this symposium we have planned three presentations offering different perspectives on aggression. The first describes a model system for the study of aggression that allows examination of the roles of genes, social experience and hormones in molding the behavior shown by individual animals. Does one learn anything of value for the study of aggression in humans from such model systems? The next two presentations bring us to studies of primates, including humans, and explores the roots of aggressive behavior and its particularly human manifestations – interpersonal violence and war.

Edward A. Kravitz
George Packer Berry Professor of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School

The fruit fly fight club: sex and war in a single gene and other stories
Male and female flies compete over resources when flies of the same sex are placed together in experimental arenas. In such arenas, males establish dominance relationships while females do not. Genetic manipulation of a single gene, fruitless, can cause males to fight using behavioral patterns usually seen in female fights, and females to fight like males. How male flies make behavioral choices between courtship and aggression, and the circuitry underlying these sexually dimorphic behaviors are current topics of investigation.

Richard W. Wrangham
Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

The imbalance-of-power hypothesis and the evolution of war
Among vertebrates, lethal intergroup aggression has traditionally been regarded as being unique to humans, and human warfare has therefore been widely interpreted as an evolutionary aberration due to social construction. The discovery since the 1970s that chimpanzees kill adult members of neighboring social groups has challenged the social construction hypothesis. I will review the imbalance-of-power hypothesis, which states that an evolutionary history of communal territoriality combined with fission-fusion grouping favors the tendency to kill rivals when the costs are perceptibly low. Current data on chimpanzees, bonobos and other mammals support the imbalance-of-power hypothesis and suggest that in certain species natural selection has favored a drive to dominate neighboring communities through attempts to kill. I suggest that the imbalance-of-power hypothesis also provides a useful basis for understanding intergroup violence in small-scale human societies, but that it needs to be modified to take account of human-specific attributes such as reward systems and political complexities. The proposal that human intergroup aggression has its evolutionary origins in an imbalance-of-power system means that violence will emerge predictably when groups have sufficient power, but that violence is suppressed in conditions without intense power imbalances.

Suggested prereading:

Why apes and humans kill
Intergroup aggression in primates and humans: the case for a unified theory

Alan A. Stone
Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry, Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School

Theories of violence: why evolutionary psychology is not the answer
During the past half century we have seen the rise and fall of different theories of violence. Professor Stone will present his critical and personal perspective on this history from the Harvard football team through psychoanalysis to law and the prediction and prevention of dangerous behavior. The focus is on how different scientific theories in vogue at Harvard have attempted to guide law and policy. The bottom line is to teach/suggest that we think critically about the received wisdom on violence-aggression-coercive behavior.

Suggested prereading


Albert Galaburda
Emily Fisher Landau Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School

Edward Kravitz
George Packer Berry Professor of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School

Susanna Siegel
Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University

Robert Stickgold
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

9:00 am Registration (outside Emerson 210)
9:15 Welcome and Introduction by Susanna Siegel (Emerson 210)

Edward A. Kravitz
The fruit fly fight club: sex and war in a single gene and other stories

Richard W. Wrangham
The imbalance-of-power hypothesis and the evolution of war

Alan A. Stone
Theories of violence: why evolutionary psychology is not the answer
12:30 pm Lunch (Ticknor Lounge, Boylston Hall)
2:00 Closing Panel moderated by Albert Galaburda (Emerson 210)