Hierarchies, population control, war: Debating territorial aggression in behavioral sciences (1965–75)

Thesis event information

Date and time of the thesis defence

Place of the thesis defence


Topic of the dissertation

Hierarchies, population control, war: Debating territorial aggression in behavioral sciences (1965–75)

Doctoral candidate

MA Annukka Sailo

Faculty and unit

University of Oulu Graduate School, Faculty of Humanities, History, Culture and Communications

Subject of study

History of Science and Ideas


Professor Erika Milam, Princeton University


Professor Petteri Pietikäinen, University of Oulu

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Debate over territorial aggression brought together different disciplines

In the 1960s, human aggression and violence became a topic of intense scientific interest and debate. Evolutionary explanations of human aggression came to challenge previous aggression theories. This dissertation examines the ethology-derived idea of territorial aggression, its dissemination to various scientific disciplines, and the cross-disciplinary controversies it caused. The dissertation explores the various topics that the idea of territorial aggression was used to explain, ranging from democracy and war to disparities and schizophrenia.

However, it views three themes as central in the debates on territorial aggression: hierarchies, war and the overpopulation problem. The study shows that the attention and popularity that the idea of territorial aggression gained among lay audiences, combined with the apocalyptic fears connected to it, instigated scientists in various disciplines to participate in the debate. The topic gained special attention in social and physical anthropology and environmental psychology but was also discussed in political science, psychiatry and sociology for example.

In addition to the co-existence of distinct disciplinary goals and various sub-debates, the debate over territorial aggression was also genuinely interdisciplinary and thus a phenomenon worth studying as such. In addition to scientific disagreements, the controversy over territorial aggression was marked by moral statements, political accusations, and disagreements over the nature of human nature.

However, this dissertation shows that scholars on both sides of the debate shared a common concern over the ‘human condition’ and often voiced similar criticisms of modern society. This dissertation argues that a notable feature of the debate and research on territorial aggression was that interdisciplinary influences often travelled in popular form. This caused misunderstandings and further polarized the discussion.

The study raises the wider question of the problematic role that popularizations and the popular press may play in disseminating scientific knowledge and especially in defining relevant research problems in cross-disciplinary research. Although this study is about a now discarded scientific idea, it suggests that many of the claims connected with territorial aggression reflect persistent folk psychological views that have not vanished.
Last updated: 1.3.2023