Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


20.2.2  Competition and Aggression

Among lifeforms that engage in reproductive activities, the crisis of ecological scarcity manifests itself as population pressure (a special case of the more general problem of "biomass pressure," which affects reproducers and nonreproducers alike). The evolutionary drive to increase order and decrease entropy, among reproducing species, normally involves the production of offspring. The crisis arrives when there is no longer enough bioenergy to sustain these offspring (it may be local, regional, or global in extent). Most commonly, the limiting physical resource is food.

There are at least six different ways by which population pressure may be partially or wholly relieved in nature:

          1. Natural modification of the environment (drought/flood cycles, volcanoes, earthquakes, ice ages)

          2. Disease and malnutrition

          3. Predation by higher-level consumers (overabundance of prey may attract more predators)

          4. Emigration (especially useful in homogeneous barrierless environments, such as the sea)

          5. Competition (among species at the same trophic level)

          6. Technology (artificial modification of the environment)

The list is arranged in a kind of natural hierarchy. Successful use of one method obviates the need for others below it. For instance, if environmental changeability or disease are sufficient to raise the death rate equal to the birth rate in a given species, then predation probably will not play a major role. Or, if predation is severe enough to relieve population pressure, then emigration and competition may not be necessary. The most sophisticated pressure-reduction technique -- technology -- may be viewed as a method of last resort.

Furthermore, the last four methods on the list are active strategies. They are largely under the control of the lifeform, rather than the random forces of the environment, and so may evolve as part of the psychology of an alien race. That is, predatory, emigratory, competitive, or technologic "instincts" or predispositions may be "learned" by a species over periods of evolutionary time.

For example, cats raised in isolation will chase and kill rats even though they’ve never seen a rodent before (instinctual predation). Lemming migrations and bee swarming apparently demonstrate the existence of some genetically preprogrammed flocking behavior keyed to population density (instinctual emigration). Mating ceremonies involving ritual combat between males, as among stags, illustrate a predisposition to controlled aggression (instinctual competition). The human hand is preadapted for easy manipulation of tools, and ants, termites and bees automatically build hills, nests and hives according to precise -- and genetically predetermined -- specifications (instinctual technology). Depending upon the situation, extraterrestrial species may incorporate any of these active behavioral strategies into the basic psychology of the race.* A fine example in science fiction is the "engineer" subrace of the alien Moties (in Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye.668), whose members clearly display an instinctual technologic sense from birth. And since any one strategy may not be completely effective by itself, ET psychologies may consist of hodgepodge combinations of two or more methods which, taken together, do work.

While any method or combination of methods of relieving the problem of population pressure may give rise to equally complex behavioral repertoires, a complete treatment of all possibilities is clearly beyond the scope of this book. In order to reduce the task to manageable proportions, we shall consider here, briefly, only one of the methods in more detail: Competition.

The term "competition," as used by xenopsychologists and sociobiologists, has a very specific meaning: The active demand by two or more individuals, either of the same species (intraspecies competition) or of two or more species at the same trophic level (interspecies competition), for a common resource or necessity of life that is actually or potentially limited.565 Competition reduces population pressure by reallocating scarce energy resources among the stronger or more intelligent organisms, and, more indirectly, serves to apportion or limit the supply of reproductive mates.

Extraterrestrial races may manifest their competitive urges in a wide variety of different behaviors. These need not necessarily include "aggression" (first or unprovoked attack, assault, invasion, fight, or other hostile encroachment). For instance, sentient ETs may engage in "scrambling," a non-aggressive form of competition that involves "getting there first," The idea is to outperform all competitors while avoiding direct confrontation.

Another kind of nonaggressive competition is called "repulsion." Using this technique, Pharaoh’s ant (Monomoriun pharaonis) is an unusually effective competitor with nearby species for local food sites. Arriving at the site, colony members release a potent chemical substance from their poison glands and spread it around the entire food collection area. The horrible odor, to which Pharaoh’s ants are inured, repels all intruders.2933 Repulsion behavior has been discovered in other Earthly species. If a recently impregnated female mouse is placed with a new male of a different strain than the first suitor, she will usually abort the fetus spontaneously and become sexually receptive again. The aborting stimulus is a pheromone produced in male urine that is sniffed by the female, activating her pituitary gland and corpora lutea.2932 Similarly, a male-to-male inhibitory pheromone is used by male armyworm moths (Psuedaletia unipuncta) to ward off sexual competitors.3218 Extraterrestrials, too, may prefer repulsion to direct aggression. Chemical repulsion may be used, but any means of accosting the senses may be employed -- ultrasound, bright light, vibrations, etc.

Nevertheless, on this planet and doubtless many others the dominant forms of competition do entail physical aggression in varying degrees of intensity. Among the most common forms of aggressive competition are "territoriality," "dominance," and "fighting." Note that these behaviors, though distinct, are not mutually exclusive: A territory may be defended by a social group with an internal dominance order maintained by ritualized fighting. But each alien species may have its own unique blend of these three and possibly other forms of aggression. (Any social structure maintained or controlled by direct physical confrontation between individuals may be considered aggressive.)

Territoriality is the defense of a certain resource-containing area, by an individual or group, against intruders. Dominance is the establishment of a scarce resource distribution hierarchy within a single social group, based on "power" (physical strength, cunning, wealth, or whatever). Both techniques reduce the need for fighting (which injures the group) while achieving the same results as continuous raw physical aggression. On Earth, both are widespread among the vertebrates and among invertebrates with more highly evolved and larger body sizes (chiefly crustaceans and social insects).

Xenopsychologists, with modern sociobiologists, believe that such behaviors similarly will be common, though by no means universal, among extraterrestrial races genetically predisposed toward aggressive reaction. Species on many worlds may never turn to competition and aggression to solve the problem of biomass pressure. But among those that do, many will choose territoriality or dominance behavior, or both, to regulate the severity and social costs of fighting.

What determines the choice? Unfortunately, sociobiology is yet a infant science. We don’t have all the answers. Sociobiologists are fairly certain that the local characteristics of the environment may significantly tip the balance one way or the other. According to two researchers:

When important resources are distributed uniformly in space, there is little opportunity for resource monopolization. If the resources are sufficiently abundant and stable through time, territoriality typically occurs. When important resources are highly clumped, the possibility arises for a small percentage of the population to monopolize a large proportion of the available resources. {e.g., dominance/distribution chains}2918

But we must keep in mind that the "choice" is genetic, not volitional, Basic patterns and predispositions of behavior evolve because they are more adaptive for the species as a whole in the struggle to survive. For instance, consider the sociobiological explanation of herding behavior. It appears that herding, flocking and schooling are genetically preprogrammed tendencies, by which the group avoids predation by utilizing marginal individuals as a living shield against danger. Says Wilson:

Since predators tend to seize the first individual they encounter, there is a great advantage for each individual to press toward the center of its group. The result in evolution would be a "herd instinct" that centripetally collapses populations into local aggregations....Centripetal movement generates not only herds of cattle but also fish and squid schools, bird flocks, heronries, gulleries, terneries, locust swarms, and many other kinds of elementary motion groups and nesting associations.565

Similarly, xenopsychologists believe that extraterrestrial races evolutionarily will "choose" territoriality, dominance, fighting, etc. based on survivability criteria determined by the local environment.** These generalized behavior patterns, once fixed in the alien species’ gene pool, will remain permanent fixtures of the creatures’ psychology. They may decrease in importance with increasing sentience but, at least until the ET race discovers bioneering or some equivalent technology, the primitive urges and predispositions will remain:

The cultural evolution of aggression appears to be guided jointly by the following three forces: (1) genetic predisposition toward learning some form of communal aggression {among species having such predisposition}; (2) the necessities imposed by the environment in which the society finds itself; and (3) the previous history of the group, which biases it toward the adoption of one cultural innovation as opposed to another. To return to metaphor, the society undergoing cultural evolution can be said to be moving down the slope of a very long developmental landscape. The channels of formalized aggression are deep; culture is likely to turn into one or the other but not to avoid them completely. These channels are shaped by interaction between the genetic predisposition to learn aggressive responses and the physical properties of the home range that favor particular forms of the responses. Society is influenced to take a particular direction by idiosyncratic features of its pre-existing culture.3198

Which alien species are most likely to carry a genetic predisposition toward aggressive behavior? Researches into the patterns of Earthly lifeforms have yielded a few tantalizing clues. For example, aggression is more common among carnivores than among herbivores or omnivores, and it is also more intensely expressed. Also, field studies have shown that aggression is more likely among species inhabiting stable ecosystems than among those populating unstable ecosystems. (Stable environments, all else equal, are more likely to require competition to regulate population pressure.) Further, aggression should increase when food is clumped rather than scattered, allowing domination of food or food-bearing land to become profitable.565 Finally, combative interactions in most aggressive animal species peak during the breeding season -- usually among males during the female estrus.1830 Sexually reproducing species may be more aggressive. Continuous estrus (as among humans) leads to continuous sexual competition, but at lower intensity.

So aggression is not necessarily, as is often said, a bad thing. It is simply one of many highly useful survival-oriented evolutionarily fashioned behavioral adaptations. And we may be in for a few real surprises. As Nobelist Konrad Lorenz once suggested, personal bonding and individual friendships are found "only in animals with highly developed intraspecies aggression, never among peaceable herd creatures, . . .perhaps by way of ritualization of a redirected attack or threatening."455 While modern sociobiologists challenge such categorical conclusions, xenopsychologists today recognize that the very concept of friendship may not be nearly as universal as was once thought.2913


*Social traits can evolve relatively quickly, as fast as 10-100 generations. This is because differential mortality rates can reach 10% or higher in certain natural settings (selective advantage s = 0.1). According to Dr. E.O. Wilson, well-known Harvard sociobiologist, single-gene substitution can be mostly completed in 10 generations. Wholly new behavioral patterns -- the honeybee waggle dance, human speech, etc. -- will normally require from 1000-10,000 generations to evolve.565

** Population-density-dependent or "spectrum" responses are extremely common adaptations on Earth. For example, free-living wolves are mostly pack-territorial with little social ranking. Crowded into a zoo with plenty of food but little territory, dominance hierarchies quickly emerge. Wilson offers a more complex (but hypothetical) instance in a single species:

At low population densities, all aggressive behavior is suspended. At moderate densities, it takes a mild form such as intermittent territorial defense. At high densities, territorial defense is sharp, while some joint occupancy of land is also permitted under the regime of dominance hierarchies. Finally, at extremely high densities, the system may break down almost completely, transforming the pattern of aggressive encounters into homosexuality, cannibalism, and other symptoms of "social pathology."565


Last updated on 6 December 2008