As the famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz told us in his classic 1963 book, On Aggression, we humans are closer to prey than predator—but that makes us more dangerous in some terrible ways.
A “real” carnivore—a massive cat with long razor claws and fangs measured in inches, or a wolf with a long row of exposed flesh-ripping teeth and jaws that can break bones—very rarely kills members of its own species. They have instinctive signals that allow for surrender and subservience. The dominant animal will almost never cross that signal to kill another of its species.
Prey, however, do not expose their jugular vein to fellow members of their species. And since they do not possess fearsome weapons with which to hunt, kill, and consume prey, they have no instinct to see that line of abject surrender. Prey, such as pigeons, if they can be induced to attack a fellow member of their own species, will “torture them to death,” wrote Lorenz, and this propensity comes down to the natural repertoire of humans too. Pigeons, if manipulated into attacking a fellow pigeon, will peck it into a sodden lifeless mass of bloody flesh and feathers. We humans only became fearsome predators by inventing weapons and we only develop proscriptions on annihilating each other by wrestling with conscience, social norms, and empathy in a long slow process of conscious evolution.
We see this complexity borne out in our societies from top to bottom, replete with exemplars from the convicted criminals in prisons, their guards, cops, soldiers, intelligence interrogators, billionaires on Wall Street, and including politicians. We struggle to control that inclination so we have laws, moral leadership, and public discourse such as happens in these very pages.
Lorenz goes a long way toward explaining Donald Trump’s unchecked tendency to peck at anyone in his way, from a reporter with disabilities who asks a tough question, to another journalist who happens to be a woman and asks a slightly challenging question, to Miss Universe who decides to endorse Hillary Clinton, to a judge who happens to have some Mexican ancestors, and on and on. He was not raised to deal with the social norms, courtesies, and accepted behaviors of civilized people—like royalty born into extreme privilege but never educated or disciplined toward decency, he is simply following his wiring and lack of training. He is a pigeon with zero idea that most people want to see a leader show authentic regard and respect for most others.
This is not a problem except Trump is now a serious contender to rule the US, be Commander-in-Chief, pick Supreme Court nominees, issue powerful unilateral Presidential Findings, as well as veto legislation. This includes the power to control the nuclear arsenal with launch codes instructing thousands of omnicidal weapons on submarines, bombers, and in ground-based missiles in the western US.
A responsible electorate would deny these capacities to someone like Trump. Let us pray that this prey never accesses that unbridled power. He shows all the signs of being capable of pecking the most powerful and apocalyptic destructive force on Earth into doing its worst.
So we must do our best.