Like Predator, Like Prey: The Biology of Bullying

Gratian D’Souza

Evolutionary biology teaches modern humans descended from now long-extinct primates, and so the conclusion that we are merely sophisticated animals is an idea not to be contested but accepted. As animals, we arrange ourselves within the animal kingdom (not to mention within our own milieus) employing identical strategies to our baser counterparts. Deciphering those is made complicated by our spiritual proclivities and quests for meaning. Nevertheless, we tickle and taunt, battle and procreate, form social rituals and cliques — consistent parallels between Homo sapiens and other species across the Metazoa. Instinctual infighting within a species serves to identify offspring most resistant to change and offensive stimuli, and those not so evolutionarily advantaged.

In layman’s terms, all animals bully each other by way of natural selection, and as some say incorrectly, is a “consequence of the food chain.” The bullying of human children is almost universally disfavored. We attempt to stifle its prevalence and seek solutions to rectify its effects. There are chiefly two causes for this hostile reaction: romanticizing aspects of human existence due to our highly sentient nature, and the tendency to prioritize human life often to the detriment of lesser organisms. When observing lion cubs rolling around in the African savannah, gnashing their teeth, we do not prevent them from engaging in the activity out of fear they will be traumatized. In fact, we find it endearing.

Up In Arms

If one partakes in birding, it becomes obvious hummingbirds are easily roused to aggression and will compete with each other for a particular flower or feeder. Ants chase their fellows and pretend to bite. Rats attack and defend the nape of the neck, nuzzling their opponents.

Jonatan Pie on Unsplash

Anthropologists and psychologists have termed this rough-and-tumble play. Not only does this behavior function as practice in defense-building against predatory forces, but also in establishing an animal’s rank in the social hierarchy. This is most immediately observable in mammals but also in birds, insects, and aquatic creatures. The manifestation of this in humans is viewed differently based on sentient value judgments, but the instinctual parallels are incontestable. Humans fill hierarchical roles as both social predators and prey, and these biological processes give rise to our feral impulses, as well as to evolutionary weed-pulling (otherwise known as natural selection).

A notable contrast is one of age. Research conducted in the late 20th century found that it is rare for juveniles to escalate R&T into real aggression. The same cannot be said for adolescents, who tend to oscillate between modes, somewhat distinguishable by facial expressions. Young children possess a sense of egalitarianism and are less likely to bully each other, whereas school-aged children (teens included) begin establishing dominance or self-preservation. As children age, especially boys, the distinction between R&T and aggression blurs and the intermingling of the two becomes clear.

A mature derivative of rough-and-tumble play is competition. Anthropologist Douglas P. Fry writes in the anthology The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans about contests used as a form of dispute resolution:

Contests have rules that promote restraint, and spectators take a role in enforcing the rules, if necessary… The metacommunicative context of contests is that they are simultaneously “serious yet not serious,” or at least not as serious as unbridled aggression. In this way, contests directly parallel the R&T of adolescents, in that both may vacillate back and forth between play and aggression in the gray area of exercising restraint while simultaneously seeking to dominate an opponent. Winning by the rules enhances esteem, but winning through cheating may have an opposite effect when the spectators and the social group are one and the same.

In this view, it is understood bullying taken to extreme ends, such as that which concludes with tangible injury or death, results from a miscommunication of personal boundaries, not malevolent intent. All personalities perceive and judge the world with differing methodologies, that of which is virtually indecipherable to us until given a framework to make sense of those processes. It is therefore expected that through our development, we fumble around in the darkness, grasping at living shadows in hopes they hold answers to our questions about the very nature of existence.

The Dazzle Strategy

The functionality of a zebra’s stripes has been long debated. Several theories have been offered up: Some posit insect repellant; others say they are visual markers for fellow zebras. While flies despise coats of high contrast colors, and it is unlikely a zebra will be mistaken for a gazelle, these stripes also lend the animal a unique form of crypsis: dazzling camouflage.

Zebra herds are called dazzles, the term stemming from one zebra’s ability to blend with the rest of the herd, forming a striped amalgam indistinguishable from its parts. A study by Martin J. How, an interdisciplinary zoologist with a specialty in sensory biology, explains that as light reflects off the coat of the now consolidated Zebra Beast, two unexpected visual distortions occur: spatiotemporal aliasing (e.g., the illusion created by spinning wheels that seem to turn slowly) and the aperture effect (the event in which light enters a variably-sized lens and the degree to which that determines the quality of an image). This dizzying, or dazzling, effect seems to perplex predators. In spite of this, Robert Sapolsky inadvertently discovered lions would target and eat a zebra when a red spot was painted on its haunch.

The human form of the dazzle strategy manifests specifically as the strive for social acceptance (known colloquially as the popularity contest). There is a biological instinct that whispers to us, If you stand out, the lions will kill you. This drives forth the desire to become uniform, and our often cookie-cutter approach to cure the worst forms of explicit in-group alienation is precisely the approach taken by less advanced species to ensure survival: we attempt to be like everyone else.

By no means is this an argument in favor of contorting ourselves to meet the criteria of society’s standards. A lesson begs to be learned from the zebra and the lion. While we seek security from the herd, we lose awareness of our individuality and the dangers of encircling predators. Despite the brightest dazzling, a desperate lion will nonetheless attack and make quick work of a complacent zebra who unintentionally strays too far from the center. Exposure begets risk, but both evolutionary progress and social reform suffer from such willful ignorance.

For many years I sought the validation that emerges from signing the social contract and understanding the laws therein, yet once I began to accept the consequences of my own nature, I began to reap the benefits. I was blinded by the dazzle and gradually, without notice, came to think myself superior to others predicated solely on matters of materialism, identifying most with the basest aspects of my personality and partly with the in-group consensus. Becoming conscious of this undoubtedly saved me from the bowels of psychological neurosis.

When In The Company of Lions

Separating our unmistakable ferity from childhood experiences of being alienated by our peers can be difficult, however worthwhile the effort may be.

As a rather asthenic youngster, I was subject to plenty of predatory behavior. I managed somehow to become ostensibly popular, by association. It is a wonder it ever came to this at all, for I was a precocious, solitary, and ideationally obstreperous child and teen. My mind mimics a library: there is at once the Circulation Desk, which oversees the steady input of new information and the filing away of the old; the Archives, the repository for statistics and factoids, names and dates; and the Restricted Section, the shadowy corner no one dares enter without proper clearance.

I also understand now that I without any doubt possess lower latent inhibition than those around me. I have tamed this aspect of my psyche so as not to explode from information overload, as well as hindered the expression of it to avoid becoming a nuisance. This is not without its drawbacks, but I digress.

These factors converge to me finding myself on the receiving end of others’ vitriol. Predators abound, and my defenses are well-primed to either fight or flee. (Knowing which is a useful skill.) I choose to flee in most cases to maintain my peace of mind. I am well capable of defending myself verbally, as one can imagine, though I often find it expedient to weather the storm.

I poignantly remember middle school, changing into my Physical Education uniform, which consisted of a bright orange t-shirt with black drawstring athletic shorts. Most of the boys would unabashedly change out in the open. I never mustered such courage. There was a narrow stall situated in the corner of the locker room with (of course) a broken bolt latch. At first, I was relatively safe there, but soon enough it became unspoken knowledge the stall was my changing quarters.

Each day brought dread of those few long minutes in that dank stall, watching shadows move across the concrete floor, waiting for the inevitable moment someone would poke his head in from above or below, or yank the door ajar. I would first remove my shirt, quickly replacing it with the gym shirt. Proving troublesome was my pants, as I would have to remove my shoes. This might not have been so terrible had the floors been antiseptic, but it was not uncommon for boys to purposefully relieve themselves on the space in front of the toilet where I had to stand. I first endeavored to pull my foot — shoe and all — through my pant leg, but it was futile. I finally resorted to pulling my shoes off and stepping on them to change into the shorts. This triggered other anxieties. What would I tell my mother if I broke the backs of my shoes, if she asked why? How would I come to terms with the burden of being bound by fear?

Do not pity me, though. You see, I was the prey surrounded by predators — and I survived because I was fittest.

Through more than a century of multispecies research across the taxonomic kingdom Animalia and every cultural designation, scientists continue to illuminate the always striking, sometimes humorous irony of biology. That it reliably transcends political discourse and remains unchanged by public opinion is a marvel in the modern era.

Something essential is to be said for the altogether primitive instincts we utilize still today that ensure our survival as a species. Beyond culture and technology, we are beasts of the wild. Whether we choose to ignore this or allow it to reshape our perception of the human condition is fodder for debate. So long as we exist, humanity will be defined by its will to wage war or foster peace, an ultimatum resting entirely on our willingness to tame the predator in us all.

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