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LostInParadise's avatar

Is there an evolutionary explanation for why we feel anger?

Asked by LostInParadise (27896points) April 13th, 2015

Of all human emotions, anger seems the most dispensable. What use does it serve? If, for example, you feel you are being treated unfairly, is it really necessary to feel anger in order to request that you be treated better? We would surely be better off without the anger that fuels bigotry.

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29 Answers

XOIIO's avatar

Increases testosterone, heightens senses and improves reaction time, and dulls physical pain. Few other things I can’t recall, but it’s a useful emotion that helped when we needed to fend for our lives.

JLeslie's avatar

I would assume anger gives us an adrenaline rush, which increases strength, alertness, and some other things that give us a better ability to fight.

Get angry that someone is invading your cave and you are more likely to be able to either physically fight him off or get the cave lawyers to serve them some papers to stay the hell off your land.

Anger helps give me the strength to protect myself in all sorts of ways. Gives me the energy to do it.

Anger also is a very useful step in grieving. It’s one of the final ones before acceptance. When something awful happens and the person has not become angry yet, I worry they are having trouble getting past the heartache, and having trouble moving forward.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

I can’t speak for everyone, but anger makes me want to change the world. It motivates me to make things better for myself and others.

@JLeslie Not everyone experiences all of the stages of grief. I never experienced anger, but I still reached acceptance. It’s a different process for everyone.

SmashTheState's avatar

There are only a few primal human drives. Anthropologists and sociologists refer to them informally as the “four Fs”: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and Fucking. Everything else we experience (with the possible exception of cognitive dissonance, which is a fifth hypothesized primal human drive) is a sublimation of one of those four motivations. Anger then, being associated with fighting, is one of the basic colours of the emotional palette and serves the function of encouraging both defensive actions and aggressive actions likely to increase the probability of survival.

rojo's avatar

Anger is, at a basic level, a fast-response mechanism directed at both perceived and actual threat situations and is designed to help insure the survival of the individual.

Is it a part of our genetic make-up or is it a meme? I am not sure. It would be helpful to determine first if other animals exhibit an emotion that can be labeled anger. I believe some of our closest biological cousins, the great apes, do but I am not certain that it extends further than primates.

As an aside, I think it is ignorance that fuels bigotry, not anger.

Bill1939's avatar

@rojo though I am not aware of studies that identify hormones like testosterone in humans that arise when animals become aggressive, I suspect they exist. My assumption is that what we identify as anger is the same thing. Since affection has been demonstrated to exist in many domesticated animals, wild animals likely have this emotion. It seems likely that its opposite also exists in non-human species.

LostInParadise's avatar

@rojo, Anger can indeed be a fast response mechanism, and I would argue that it is the one that we most often regret acting upon.

In humans there are also slower anger responses, and it is interesting how they can be altered. Suppose you agree to meet someone and you are stood up. Anger is likely to be an initial response. If you later find out that the person was not able to meet you because of some emergency that arose, you now are likely to let go of your anger.

SavoirFaire's avatar

While I do think the above answer are helpful, I would also question the implicit premise that evolution selected for our emotions on an individual basis. Some features just come along with other features. Consider the minting of coins: you can’t make an obverse without getting a reverse (we could choose not to put a design on the reverse, of course, but we can’t avoid having a reverse altogether so long as we have an obverse).

These sorts of things have been dubbed “spandrels” by Stephen Jay Gould. Sometimes these spandrels turn out to be anchors for future adaptive selections. Indeed, Daniel Dennett has gone so far as to point out that so-called spandrels are actually the normal way that adaptations occur. After all, calling something an adaptation is a judgment. Mutation happens first and selection follows. We then call something an adaptation if it increased survivability.

So the real answer is just this: we mutated in a way that brought about emotions; one of those emotions was anger; anger has not proved maladaptive enough to kill those who have it; therefore, anger is still around. It may turn out to have certain benefits (this was the central argument between Aristotle and the Stoics), or maybe it will turn out that it is only harmful to things that don’t get in the way of reproduction (just because it isn’t maladaptive doesn’t mean it’s good). But the evolutionary explanation stops at “anger doesn’t stop you from reproducing.”

rojo's avatar

Should we see anger change over a long timeframe? Were we, as a species, more or less angry than our ancestors? Was Homo sapiens angrier than Homo heidelbergensis and H. heidelbergensis meaner that H. erectus? Did the anger make it easier or harder to survive and reproduce? Was anger introduced in the genetic make-up of Genus Homo or were the Australopithecines just as pissed off at times? Will we ever evolve to a point where anger is no longer necessary?
In other words, did we really mutate in order to have/get emotions or have they existed for as long as we have?

LostInParadise's avatar

There is also the difference between being adaptive for the individual versus being adaptive for the species. It is possible that getting angry and intimidating others may increase the chances of reproductive success of an individual, but may not be beneficial to the species overall. The question of whether evolution can occur at a group level is a point of controversy among biologists. There is a mathematical model for multi-level selection, but it is not agreed upon whether the prerequisite conditions for the model can be satisfied in the real world.

SmashTheState's avatar

@LostInParadise Game theory modelling has pretty definitely demonstrated group evolutionary strategies. For example, I read a paper a couple of years ago showing that groups with small numbers of homosexual males and bisexual females outperform strictly heterosexual groups by “soaking up” excess during periods of gender imbalance, preventing over-competition. Communities which harbour genes predisposing individuals to homosexuality are more likely to survive, and therefore the genes persist despite homosexual relationships being very unlikely to directly produce offspring.

LostInParadise's avatar

I hope that group selection does prove to be true. Mathematically it opens up an intriguing fractal nature to evolution acting on multiple levels. In addition to the case that you mentioned, it also provides a mechanism for a small percentage of selfless individuals to increase the chances of survival of the species. I am not qualified to make a judgement. A number of prominent biologists, including Richard Dawkins, who introduced the term selfish gene, are dead set against the idea.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, anger lets us pump ourselves up enough to do something we wouldn’t normally do.

JLeslie's avatar

@DrasticDreamer I wouldn’t argue that point. I agree mourning is different for different people.

ibstubro's avatar

Anger is the residual after ‘fight or flight’.

Zaku's avatar

Anger isn’t just a human feature. I can’t think of any animal that lacks anger. Anger is helpful for focusing aggression, and for signalling problems. It’s a very basic part of being an animal… and I imagine it may even be a pre-animal feature.

As for evolutionary explanations, I recommend not looking for those so hard. As in, while certainly many features persist or not based on survival value, there seems to be way too much concentration of modern thought and discourse around needing to understand everything about people or animals as needing to have survival value at its core, which leads to very unbalanced and inaccurate conclusions in many cases.

JLeslie's avatar

@DrasticDreamer Just thinking a little more, it’s when someone is stuck in their mourning for many months that I worry that they haven’t moved to anger. Going straight from sadness to acceptance is fine, if you get to that acceptance stage. Also, the stages aren’t always clear cut and in perfect order, but in my experience the stages of grief for very upsetting events tend to follow the stages.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@JLeslie I can see your thinking to some degree, but I think it’s even more involved than that. The newest thinking is that it’s possible that not everyone experiences all of the stages, which I personally identify with. However, when referring to my best friend’s suicide, I mourned for years, not months. It took me something like three or four years to start to heal, but I finally did, and anger was never a part of it.

rojo's avatar

@Zaku I am not certain that you can say that animals experience anger, at least not in the form we associate it with in humans. To do so you would have to say that they, animals, have to have cognitive experiences and abilities of humans and be able to perceive and think about the object of their anger as we do and to distinguish between such emotional concepts as right/wrong, fair/unfair, deserved/undeserved.

JLeslie's avatar

@DrasticDreamer I think mourning for years from the death of a very close lived one is very normal. I usually say in those cases it takes a minimum if 2 years to start to really feel like you are getting past it.

You has no anger when he died? No anger about the situation? What he went through to bring him to that point? Or, anger about having to go through the loss?

Bill1939's avatar

Perhaps millennia or two will see a significant change in our genetic makeup, but in the few hundreds of years of “civilization” human behavior has remained unchanged. Emotion is an essential component in the behavior of many animals. Grief, joy, aggression and caring are common in most warm-blooded creatures. They have language, albeit rudimentary, and communicate with their kind. They have memories of past events and may be able to imagine future ones. Studies have demonstrated that at least some have a sense of fairness and altruism. Many are able to solve problems and use tools.

What we term as anger is a reflex that may be interceded by an executive function that might be more developed in humans. However, despite this higher cognitive function we seem able to maintain grudges for hundreds of generations. While most regard anger as an undesirable emotion, it is an intrinsic reaction unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

rojo's avatar

@Bill1939 ”[humans] seem able to maintain grudges for hundreds of generations” How true, and how sad.

Zaku's avatar

@rojo Many things make human experience different from animal experience. Social contexts (including moral codes), language and its effects on memory and ego-identity. So yes, the experiences of anger, and the thinking around it, are different.

I would agree that animals have much less of the dysfunction we have that is related to anger.

However, I would say that anger itself is a basic emotion which animals do also experience. They can certainly get annoyed and lash out and/or become fierce when treated badly, even by other animals.

Anger itself is a basic emotion that signals something is wrong and upsetting, and can be quite healthy and appropriate and useful when it’s used to get a useful response to a situation and move on.

The unhelpful aspects of anger that the question asks about, I would say are not about basic anger itself being a problem, but about dysfunctional behavior that can develop when anger isn’t resolved well, particularly due to situations where the same problem keeps occurring, or where we keep interpreting things as the same problem occurring, and when we haven’t processed the anger, so it stays there and builds up, and then lashes out at inappropriate targets. That kind of dysfunction is mainly caused by mistakes of language, and repressive culture/parenting that discourages expressing anger. Anger, like all emotions, are meant to be energy in motion, and need to be moved through, expressed and acknowledged. When they aren’t, they fester, build, and later erupt. That’s the problem, rather than the anger itself.

Inappropriate anger spikes about unfairness, or bigoted behavior, isn’t actually about the immediate trigger – it’s about stored anger from long before, that wasn’t given full expression and is now a sore wound that’s hidden.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@JLeslie No, no anger. Just horrible, horrible sadness and loss. A lot of our mutual friends felt anger toward him for what he did, but I never did.

JLeslie's avatar

@DrasticDreamer Not towards him (although it doesn’t surprise me some people felt that way) I meant any type of anger. Some people get angry at God, some at the unfairness of the suffering he was going through, the anger can be directed anywhere.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@JLeslie No, not even then, really. There were some things from his past that I learned about while he was alive that made me angry at the time, but I didn’t experience the anger all over again when he died. I think I just didn’t experience anger because in my heart I didn’t believe it had a place. I thought I would be really angry when I learned that his father would be at his funeral. I thought I would be so angry that it might be hard for me to not say something about his presence. But when it came down to it, I wasn’t. It was just the same unbearable sadness – even for his dad, in a way.

JLeslie's avatar

@DrasticDreamer I get that. When I think about I have list people and mourned and not experienced anger. I think I go through the anger stage very noticeably when the person is still alive.

Bill1939's avatar

My mother was mentally ill. I experience abuse at her hand even as a toddler. As I began to understand some of the elements in her young life that contributed to this my anger towards her diminished. I did not experience anger when she died, but instead felt relief. Her suffering ended.

Esedess's avatar

This reminds me of a story from “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. The section I’m refering to is included below, but the important part is in bold. Feel free to read the rest if you have a taste for that sort of thing. In short, it goes to show how hatred, jealousy, and anger can be a driving mechanism for progress.

America in the closing decades of the century there arose a rivalry even more spectacularly venomous, if not quite as destructive. It was between two strange and ruthless men, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh.
They had much in common. Both were spoiled, driven, self-centered, quarrelsome, jealous, mistrustful, and ever unhappy. Between them they changed the world of paleontology.
They began as mutual friends and admirers, even naming fossil species after each other, and spent a pleasant week together in 1868. However, something then went wrong between them—nobody is quite sure what—and by the following year they had developed an enmity that would grow into consuming hatred over the next thirty years. It is probably safe to say that no two people in the natural sciences have ever despised each other more.
Marsh, the elder of the two by eight years, was a retiring and bookish fellow, with a trim beard and dapper manner, who spent little time in the field and was seldom very good at finding things when he was there. On a visit to the famous dinosaur fields of Como Bluff, Wyoming, he failed to notice the bones that were, in the words of one historian, “lying everywhere like logs.” But he had the means to buy almost anything he wanted. Although he came from a modest background—his father was a farmer in upstate New York—his uncle
was the supremely rich and extraordinarily indulgent financier George Peabody. When Marsh showed an interest in natural history, Peabody had a museum built for him at Yale and provided funds sufficient for Marsh to fill it with almost whatever took his fancy.
Cope was born more directly into privilege—his father was a rich Philadelphia businessman—and was by far the more adventurous of the two. In the summer of 1876 in Montana while George Armstrong Custer and his troops were being cut down at Little Big Horn, Cope was out hunting for bones nearby. When it was pointed out to him that this was probably not the most prudent time to be taking treasures from Indian lands, Cope thought for a minute and decided to press on anyway. He was having too good a season. At one point he ran into a party of suspicious Crow Indians, but he managed to win them over by repeatedly taking out and replacing his false teeth.
For a decade or so, Marsh and Cope’s mutual dislike primarily took the form of quiet sniping, but in 1877 it erupted into grandiose dimensions. In that year a Colorado schoolteacher named Arthur Lakes found bones near Morrison while out hiking with a friend. Recognizing the bones as coming from a “gigantic saurian,” Lakes thoughtfully dispatched some samples to both Marsh and Cope. A delighted Cope sent Lakes a hundred dollars for his trouble and asked him not to tell anyone of his discovery, especially Marsh. Confused, Lakes now asked Marsh to pass the bones on to Cope. Marsh did so, but it was an affront that he would never forget.
It also marked the start of a war between the two that became increasingly bitter, underhand, and often ridiculous. They sometimes stooped to one team’s diggers throwing rocks at the other team’s. Cope was caught at one point jimmying open crates that belonged to Marsh. They insulted each other in print and each poured scorn on the other’s results. Seldom—perhaps never—has science been driven forward more swiftly and successfully by animosity. Over the next several years the two men between them increased the number of known dinosaur species in America from 9 to almost 150. Nearly every dinosaur that the average person can name—stegosaurus, brontosaurus, diplodocus, triceratops—was found by one or the other of them.1 Unfortunately, they worked in such reckless haste that they often failed to note that a new discovery was something already known. Between them they managed to “discover” a species calledUintatheres anceps no fewer than twenty-two times. It took years to sort out some of the classification messes they made. Some are not sorted out yet.

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