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Normal Competitive Madness

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

The Biology of Human Conflict: An Anatomy of Behavior, Individual and Social. By Trigant Burrow. New York and London; The Macmillan. Company. $3.50.

This is an age of unprecedented developments in

every field of man’s activity, in international rela-

tionships, in national governments, in the domains of science, and in the study of man himself. Much that is happening is far from reassuring: treaties are made only to be abrogated, wars are fought without provocative act, the sanctity of contracts both public and private is fast going into the discard. On nearly every side we see evidences of conflict: conflict within the individual, denoted as neurosis and psychosis; conflict between classes, such as that between the criminal class and the law-abiding or the great labor-employer contests which have recently taken place in this country; and international conflicts, represented by invasion of weaker nations accompanied by wholesale homicide, or the less obvious but no less sinister acts of peace-time aggression. Because our accustomed means of dealing with such conflicts seem to be futile and outmoded, we should welcome Trigant Burrow’s book, “The Biology of Human Conflict,” which presents a study of this vast problem. The fact that the volume embodies the results of fifteen years of direct investigation in the field of human behavior at once recommends it to the thoughtful reader. Dr. Burrow shows that these conflicts cannot simply be blamed on the “mental” patient or the criminal class or the “aggressive” nations. The processes involved—though as yet unfamiliar to us—are universal, and the real difficulty is represented in a conflict that extends throughout the phylum man.

Dr. Burrow’s thesis, though exceedingly comprehensive, may be stated briefly. Man embodies in himself two major trends which are in constant conflict one with the other. One trend is that of our inherent, hereditary, racial sense of solidarity; this has come down to us through many hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of years of our prehistoric life as a species. The presence of such a trend is being sensed here and there by modern writers on anthropology. This trend, as it exists in the race, indicates not forethought for the aggrandizement of the self—of the individual, in contradistinction to one’s fellows—but concern for the interests of man as an organismic whole, as a race or phylum.

The other great trend is that of the mass of conditioned reflexes which have been superimposed upon man through the development of his use—and misuse—of the symbol. The symbol has been of inestimable assistance to man in his communication with his fellows, in dealing with the external universe, and in negotiating the many details of his life. But man, in his thinking, has also come to put symbols in place of himself and of others, and the symbol has thus come to assume a differentiating and opposing function. The symbol “I” contrasts itself with a world of other symbols denoted by “you” and other “you’s.” The individual is conditioned to react to these symbols as if they were actual, though the symbol cannot at any time represent more than a very small part of the individual for whom it stands. The symbol “I,” as contrasted with “you,” leaves out of account the or-ganismic interdependence of individuals which has been the most essential factor in maintaining man upon earth. The symbol “I” has been made for each of us the most important symbol or object in all the world, and we are conditioned to believe that we are always right in seeking its advantage. This mode manipulates us as individuals at the expense of the race as a whole. These conditioned reflexes, in which all of us are trained until we react automatically to the stimulus word or circumstance, represent not isolated reactions, but the reactions common to all of us, which we have somehow come to call life and actuality. Among them are the narrow feelings of competitive hate, as indeed of competitive love; in brief, they comprise all that goes under the name of op-positeness and possessivism.

These two trends, the racial or total organismic and the egocentric or partitive, as Dr. Burrow terms it, are inevitably in conflict. The processes embodying the partitive dominance produce competition, crime, and war; and if carried to their logical conclusion they would soon bring about the extermination of the race. The other urge maintains the life and function of both the individual and the race. This, which is the deeper and wiser trend, and the preserver of the species, the author calls the “central constant,” employing this term much as Cannon speaks of the “wisdom of the body” in his book of that title. However, while Cannon refers to the remarkable capacity of the body of the individual to keep itself in repair and in complex chemical adjustment, Dr. Burrow uses the term “central constant” in the sense of organismic wisdom in interindividual co-ordination—a wisdom that has a broad racial basis in relation to what he calls the total organism, and that is fundamentally in contrast to all the bloodshed and dissension now rampant.

Dr. Burrow’s thesis relates our great emotional outbursts —wars, insanities, and economic upheavals—to this basic internal conflict between conditioned reflexes and man’s organismic trends. And this the author reduces to a conflict of internal tensional patterns that are perceptible within the individual and within groups. Words and actions are expressions or outgrowths of emotional attitudes, and the latter are synonymous with physiological alterations of many kinds. The internal tensional patterns which Dr. Burrow has unearthed are similar alterations. The tensional pattern accompanying the organismic trend, he points out, can be differentiated from the tensional pattern which is part and parcel of the egocentric, competitive, or partitive trend.

This is a very important step and one which the average reader inexperienced in this field may question, but I should warn him not to feel disappointed if these tensions do not disclose themselves on his first search for them. Were they so easy of access as this, perhaps man would not have reached the state of chaos which characterizes his relationships today. Dr. Burrow’s investigations are experiential and his method cannot be acquired or evaluated merely by reading about it. The technique must be practiced and the findings incorporated in one’s living. The book is really an experiment in living, the author stressing the need for the layman to become a student of his own processes. For many years in his more technical writings, including “The Social Basis of Consciousness” and “The Structure of Insanity,” Dr. Burrow has had the temerity to point out that man’s present mode of reaction is pathological. In “The Biology of Human Conflict,” he even goes so far as to designate the disorder “Dementia Competitiva Normalis”! This book records the first consistent confronting by man of his own self-made conditioning—a conditioning which man has interposed between himself and his environment, and which now tends to destroy him.

It is our tendency as individuals, separated in our feeling, to look away from such grave and extensive problems, and to cloud our realization of them through artificial conviviality and social reassurances. But this does not remove the issue. Dr. Haven Emerson, in his presidential address some years ago before the American Public Health Association, emphasized the principle that “public health awaits social courage.” Dr. Burrow’s book, though of a broader scope or-ganismically, refers no less to health on a physiological basis, and this larger health may possibly await a social courage of still sterner stuff. World events, however, must soon quicken the interest of all of us in this great problem, and the time may shortly come when our social enterprise will be given unexpected impetus by force of necessity.


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