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AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR

Volume 25, pages 233235 (1999)

Book Review
AGGRESSION AND VIOLENCE: GENETIC, NEUROBIOLOGICAL, AND BIOSOCIAL PERSPECTIVES, edited by
David M. Stoff and Robert B. Cairns. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, 1996, xv + 403 pp.
According to the editors, this volume had its inception when biological research on
human aggression and violence was drawn into political controversy that questioned
the very notion of such research. The editors reasoned that such controversy stemmed
largely from common misunderstandings about biological research on aggression and a
series of myths that permeated both the popular and professional literatures. These misunderstandings and myths related primarily to oversimplifications of biological events
and oversimplifications of aggression and violence. That is, in detailing the myths that
the volume was designed to dispel, Stoff and Cairns argue for a recognition of the
complexity of biological influences on a social behavior, the conditionality of those
influences on the developmental and social state of the organism, and the critical need
to recognize that there are different kinds of aggression that might be influenced differently by different biological processes. Although the clear thrust of this volume is the
understanding of human aggression and violence, the work that is represented considers both human and nonhuman data.
As suggested by the subtitle, the volume is organized into three major divisions. The first
section provides three chapters on the role of genetics on aggression. The first chapter
largely reviews available research on human genetic and family studies of aggression that
support hypothesized genetic influences on antisocial behavior, personality, and human
violence. Importantly, this chapter also identifies the complexity of the research, the confounding factors that compromise strong conclusions, and the areas where future study is
needed. The second chapter in this section provides coverage of modern methodologies for
the identification of genetic loci having specific influences as well as detailing research on
the heritability of personality and behavioral traits. Importantly, this second chapter outlines how the genetic influence on behavior may be a reflection of genetic influences on
specific neurochemical processes, thus providing a biological framework for the expression of the genotype. The final chapter in this section describes the experimental study of
genes and aggression in mice and demonstrates that the phenotypic aggressivity of the
subjects can be a function of a genetic factor whose expression is determined by the timing
of specific experiences in development. Taken together, these three chapters provide a
coherent introduction to the probable importance of genetic influences on aggression, putative neurochemical mediators, and the probable malleability of those influences in determining an aggressive phenotype.
1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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Book Review

The neurobiological section includes nine chapters, three of which focus on the
role of neurotransmitters in human aggression, two of which summarize research
on the psychophysiological study of autonomic processes in the context of aggression, and three of which relate to neuroanatomical correlates of aggression and the
use of contemporary imaging (e.g., magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] and positron
emission tomography [PET]) to study central function and aggression. One chapter examines the complexity of the alcohol-aggression link in human and nonhuman research. With such a diversity of foci and paradigms, there is no clear single
thrust in this section. Although the putative role of the serotonergic system in the
moderation of aggressivity is the most well-developed thrust, limited coverage of
the nonhuman literature and of aggression operationalized as suicide, criminal activity, personality test scores, projective story telling, or various forms of homicide makes the serotonin aggression link less clear than some authors assert.
Although evidence on the possible role of frontotemporal and frontal cortex damage in atypical human aggression is marshaled effectively, differences in defining
aggression compromises these chapters as well. The promise of modern imaging
techniques for the biological study of aggression is unmistakable; unfortunately,
the available data are limited and the chapters reflect the limitations of the empirical base. Some studies are explicitly described as pilot work, but other research is
also limited by small and, perhaps, unrepresentative samples. Thus, conclusions
derived from those imaging chapters would be premature.
The final section focuses on the biosocial context of aggression. Two chapters, drawing primarily on nonhuman studies, relate to the role of hormones in aggression and the
degree to which the hormonal influence is mediated by social experiences and the degree to which social experiences can be mediated by the hormonal status. Paralleling
the chapter on the genetic influences, the important role of developmental processes in
determining the effect of hormones on aggression is established. Subtle inconsistencies
between the two chapters on hormones and aggression are not easily reconciled, and
some of the extrapolations from maternal aggression in mice to indirect aggression in
girls and women are not well anchored. Still, these are interesting and stimulating chapters. The remaining chapter in this section examines the probable influence of biological risk factors (i.e., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and social events that
contribute to the emergence of antisocial and aggressive youth.
The scope of this volume is great and the goals detailed by the editors were ambitious. To some extent, those goals were not fully realized. Although the editors noted
the importance of considering different kinds of aggression, most of the chapters fail to
be anchored to any of the available taxonomies of aggression. Additionally, some of the
chapters define aggression in rather limiting idiosyncratic ways. For example, although
there is growing interest in impulsive aggression in the literature, the term impulsive
aggression is used in different ways by different authors in this volume. For some
authors impulsive aggression would be emotional and irritable aggression, but for others it was limited to aggression where there was no provocation, no premeditation, no
economic benefit, and the victim was unknown to the perpetrator. In the context of the
epidemiology of violence and aggression, the latter definition is extraordinarily limiting. Similarly, although suicide can be a hostile aggressive act, not all suicides can be
characterized as such. Thus, considering suicide to be aggression is another limiting
definitional problem in some of the offerings. Additionally, antisocial, criminal, and

Book Review

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delinquent behavior can be aggressive, but they are not necessarily aggressive. In some
chapters, criminal acts are considered to be synonymous with aggression.
Although the chapters are uneven and although the collection does not articulate
totally with the stated objectives of the editors, the book has much to recommend it.
Each chapter provides some consideration of the empirical limitations extant in the
area, and each identifies good prospects for future research. Additionally, several of the
chapters provide excellent summaries of current research on biological factors in human aggression. Although I would judge this book to be unsuitable as a text for my
advanced undergraduate class on the psychology of aggression, it could be a suitable
book for a graduate seminar on aggression. If the seminar were designed to help students embark on new studies of human aggression and to help them be mindful of the
possible role that biological factors can play in human aggression, it could be an excellent choice.
John F. Knutson
Department of Psychology
University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa

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