Ardrey Argues That Humans Are Naturally Territorial

Robert Ardrey claimed that human site and place attachment reflects deep-seated biological needs, which should be considered in the context of natural, or instinctual, animal behavior.

Summary of Event

In 1966, Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations was published by Atheneum Press Atheneum Press . The book was the noted American playwright’s second major foray into popular anthropological writing and appeared while his first effort, African Genesis
African Genesis (Ardrey) (1961), was still a best seller. Like his previous work, Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative placed humanity and its institutions within the instinctual context of animal behavior (ethology Ethology ). This time, however, he focused on the origins and implications of territoriality rather than the predatory legacy of humankind’s hominid ancestors. Territorial Imperative, The (Ardrey)
Instinct and human behavior
Genetics;and behavior[behavior]
[kw]Ardrey Argues That Humans Are Naturally Territorial (1966)
[kw]Humans Are Naturally Territorial, Ardrey Argues That (1966)
Territorial Imperative, The (Ardrey)
Instinct and human behavior
Genetics;and behavior[behavior]
[g]North America;1966: Ardrey Argues That Humans Are Naturally Territorial[08740]
[g]United States;1966: Ardrey Argues That Humans Are Naturally Territorial[08740]
[c]Anthropology;1966: Ardrey Argues That Humans Are Naturally Territorial[08740]
[c]Geography;1966: Ardrey Argues That Humans Are Naturally Territorial[08740]
[c]Psychology and psychiatry;1966: Ardrey Argues That Humans Are Naturally Territorial[08740]
Ardrey, Robert
Tinbergen, Nikolaas
Montagu, Ashley

The central thesis of The Territorial Imperative is quite straightforward: In territorial species such as Homo sapiens, the urge to acquire and defend a specific area of space is an ineradicable, genetically based drive reflecting a biological need for identity, security, and stimulation. Territory is acquired instinctively, without the intention of attracting mates or assuring sufficient supplies of food. Accrued benefits such as access to sexual partners and natural resources are by-products of, rather than reasons for, the acquisition of territory. Ardrey’s reversal of commonly held axioms of courtship behavior and population economics extended to consequences as well as causes: Cooperation, species propagation, and the effective exploitation of available resources do not flow directly from the simple occupation of a territory. Rather, these things result from the instinctual energy released by the possession and defense of that territory.

For Ardrey, acknowledgment of the importance of this inborn drive was indispensable to both an understanding of humankind’s evolutionary heritage and the prospects for its continued survival. His emphasis on the relevance of ethological analyses to the human condition identified his work as a sociobiological treatise. He insisted that on both the individual and the group levels, people must learn to respect their instinctive constraints and act within them. Otherwise, they will lose the advantages that have allowed natural selection to operate in humanity’s favor.

To explore the nature and boundaries of those constraints, Ardrey drew on a wide spectrum of observed animal behavior, ranging from the spacing patterns of slime molds to the tactics of perimeter defense practiced by chacma baboons. His approach was twofold: to survey the major varieties of animal territoriality and to tease out from those patterns the threads that affect human conduct. In approaching that task, Ardrey adopted Nikolaas Tinbergen’s definition of an instinct as an ordered nervous mechanism that is responsive to certain internal and external priming and release impulses, reacts to those impulses in coordinated movements, and promotes either individual or group survival by its activity.

Ardrey also used the twin concepts of closed and open instinctual systems. According to Ardrey, a closed system provides an invariant response to stimuli, while an open one allows for behavior modification through learning. The first case, which throws instinctual behavior into sharp relief, illuminates the second one, in which the instinctual elements are normally obscured by learned components. Since the more flexible and adaptive open system prevails in higher animals, fresh insight into the activities of humans and other primates can be obtained by observing the behavior of animals such as planarian worms. By postulating comparable instinctive elements in “lower” and “higher” organisms, Ardrey placed animal behavior on a continuum that allowed the drawing of conclusions by analogy along its whole length.

In large part, The Territorial Imperative is a tour along that ethological continuum, with pauses for the extraction of behavior pertinent to the human condition. Thus, an extensively detailed description of the mating behavior of an African antelope, the Ugandan kob, reveals the principle that ritualized aggression on a defended territory reduces injury. That example is then supplemented by accounts of aggression displacement activity along territorial boundaries by roe deer, sticklebacks, and herring gulls. The descriptions of gulls tearing at grass rather than at their neighbors, roebucks attacking trees instead of other roebucks, and male sticklebacks standing on their heads and churning sand alongside their rivals are then linked to related features of the Olympic Games and Soviet-American space competition.

Connections drawn between points along a continuum were used also to illustrate the instinctual bases of labor and attachment to place. A beaver’s dedication to the proper maintenance of its lodge, the increased ferocity of crickets near their niches, the return of salmon and seals to specific breeding grounds, and the savage territoriality shown by sexually immature green sunfish were cited as pertinent examples of invariant instinctual systems. Lessons drawn from these closed system reactions were then applied to analogous human responses such as the increased productivity of family farms over state-run agricultural enterprises and Finland’s unflinching resistance to invasion by the Soviet Union in the Winter War of 1939-1940.

Sociobiological inferences usually generate controversy. Ardrey’s claims, however, that a territory establishes identity, its periphery offers opportunities for stimulation, and its interior represents security become especially provocative when applied to human societies. He identified two types of territorially based social organizations: the noyau (knot) and the biological nation.

The noyau, a fragmented society based on inward antagonisms, furthers individual expression at the expense of group solidarity and safety. It is composed of a coterie of small, noisy neighborhoods, and its participants gain stimulation from argumentative interaction with adjoining neighbors, identity and security from attachment to a specific site, and status from performance in periphery defense and small group dynamics. The noyau is a viable response to the territorial imperative, although its internal divisions make it susceptible to incursions. Ardrey identified black-headed gulls, satin bowerbirds, and callicebus monkeys as species that form noyaus. He also maintained that Italy’s tradition of political disunity and cultural dynamism is a result of its noyau format and asserted that societies normally organized at a higher level can revert to noyau status. The noyau’s weaknesses are avoided by the biological nation, the highest evolutionary expression of the territorial instinct.

In the biological nation, the group’s energies are directed to the defense of a continuous territory, and it remains isolated from other groups through outward antagonisms. Such societies achieve high levels of cooperation and inward harmony and exhibit a remarkable capacity for coordinated defensive action. Introduced into primate behavior by lemurs, the biological nation offers humanity the best available individual and group response to the problems of survival. While considerable individual freedom is lost in the pressure to conform, extraordinary levels of amity and security are obtained, and the instinctual energies released by the territorial imperative are efficiently used. Ardrey cited the United States, Athens in the Hellenic period, the white minority in South Africa, and the Vietnamese as pertinent applications of the biological nation model.

Ardrey’s major sociobiological conclusions are easily summarized: Human societies that respect the instinctual undergirdings of territoriality by preserving the principle of private property are more effective than those that do not; regardless of motivations, aggressors attacking biological nations are at a severe disadvantage, for their incursions release powerful instinctual energies in the territorial defenders; and because humans are predators who will intrude, appropriate instinct-based methods of ritualizing and limiting conflict must be developed.


In part because it was extremely well written and its arguments were presented with rare passion and conviction, The Territorial Imperative created a literary sensation. Several other facts, however, contributed to its early success.

In the first place, the appearance of The Territorial Imperative coincided with the English language publication of Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression
On Aggression (Lorenz) (1966), which argued that aggressive behavior was an instinctive, pragmatic response to problems of survival. Second, sales of Ardrey’s new work were aided by the continued popularity of African Genesis, a defense of aggression based on the anthropological speculations of Australian anatomist Raymond Arthur Dart, the discoverer of an early hominid, Australopithecus, who theorized that human aggression was inherited from ancestral predatory apes. Third, The Territorial Imperative supplied a new interpretation for the great wars of the twentieth century and, by extension, a disturbing prognosis for the intensified U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese conflict. Finally, Ardrey’s sociobiological thesis reopened the nature-nurture debate in the sharpest possible way—by presenting learned behavior as the handmaiden of the instincts.

For several years after its publication, The Territorial Imperative was widely cited in books and articles, ranging from political science to psychiatry, and became an established artifact in American popular culture. It soon became clear, however, that Ardrey’s conclusions were vulnerable to challenges from several directions. Because he lacked solid scientific credentials and his evidence was often anecdotal in character, he was considered an enthusiastic amateur unfamiliar with research methodology. A related criticism was that he distorted the evidence by presenting those facts that supported his assertions while ignoring contrary information. His fundamental premise that valid conclusions could be reached by analogy also came under attack, as it was doubtful whether the bases of animal motivation were fully understood; until that time arrived, comparisons and conclusions were questionable.

Because Ardrey aligned himself so thoroughly with nature over nurture, he also attracted ideological criticism—the best known being that of the American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who accused him of reintroducing the outmoded concept of innate depravity into scientific discourse by claiming that humans are influenced by instincts. Montagu also charged Ardrey with trying to fabricate ancestral capitalistic genes by positing an instinctual basis for territoriality. The various attacks proved convincing: The Territorial Imperative was rarely cited by the early 1970’s, and later works by Ardrey on related themes provoked little interest.

Although The Territorial Imperative failed in its bid for scientific respectability, many of the issues it raised gained new vigor with the appearance, in 1975, of Edward O. Wilson’s Wilson, Edward O.
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Sociobiology (Wilson) Wilson, a noted American expert on insect behavior who established the legitimacy of sociobiological inquiry in a way that Ardrey could not, found that the reception of his work was influenced by Ardrey’s earlier effort. By arousing interest in sociobiological issues, The Territorial Imperative prepared the ground for the later reception of analogous views. In a sense, Ardrey’s work was to Wilson’s what British writer Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) was to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859)—a flawed yet inspired effort that eased the way for a greater successor. Territorial Imperative, The (Ardrey)
Instinct and human behavior
Genetics;and behavior[behavior]

Further Reading

  • Archer, John. The Behavioural Biology of Aggression. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. This excellent book provides a historical perspective on aggression research and its relation to territoriality. Clearly written and comprehensive, with charts, tables, diagrams, references, indexes, and suggestions for further reading.
  • Ardrey, Robert. African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man. New York: Atheneum Press, 1961. Ardrey’s first anthropological work popularized the notion that the behavior patterns of ancestral killer apes remain an essential part of humankind’s instinctive heritage. Assertions about humanity’s predatory nature reappear as underlying assumptions in The Territorial Imperative. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, an index, and a biographical note.
  • _______. The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations. New York: Atheneum, 1966. Ardrey’s classic work, with drawings by Berdine Ardrey.
  • Burnet, Sir Macfarlane. Dominant Mammal: The Biology of Human Destiny. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971. Attempts to incorporate principles of primate behavior into the making of public policy. Burnet, a corecipient of the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, appreciates Ardrey’s sociobiological efforts, although he doubts their validity. Contains charts, tables, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. A clear and concise introduction to places and human experience, focusing on the “micro” territories of everyday life. An interesting perspective on the larger-scale concept of territory, which is discussed in the David Delaney book Territory.
  • Delaney, David. Territory: A Short Introduction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. A brief, clear introduction to the complex idea of territory. Focuses, especially, on the intersection between territory and power. A good companion to Tim Cresswell’s Place.
  • Hinde, R. A. Biological Bases of Human Social Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. A scholarly book that cites Ardrey as an authority on the relationship between human and animal behavior. The numerous reservations and caveats expressed in Hinde’s work reflect clearly the uncertain state of sociobiological inquiries and the tentativeness of their conclusions during the early 1970’s. Includes numerous illustrations, tables, diagrams, a bibliography, and indexes.
  • Khaler, Miles, and Barbara F. Walter, eds. Territoriality and Conflict in an Era of Globalization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. An analysis of the persistence of human territoriality in the face of increasing globalization. Asks why humans continue to fight for the places they inhabit in an era assumed to embrace the breaking down of barriers and attachments to place.
  • Montagu, Ashley, ed. Man and Aggression. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. A key work in assessing The Territorial Imperative. Contains twenty essays specifically aimed at refuting Ardrey’s and Lorenz’s assertions about the instinctual bases of human behavior. Often a polemical attack on the notion of territoriality and a passionate defense of nurture over nature. Maps, tables, diagrams, bibliographical references.
  • Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002. A controversial work that argues for the significance of human nature and biology in explaining how and why humans behave the way they do.
  • Ruse, Michael. Sociobiology: Sense or Nonsense? 2d ed. Boston: D. Reidel, 1984. An excellent treatment of the topic by a leading figure in the philosophy of science. Ruse deliberately ignores Ardrey’s efforts, maintaining that Wilson’s sociobiological writings placed the issue on altogether different epistemological foundations. Tables, diagrams, charts, indexes.
  • Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. 1975. New ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2000. The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the indispensable work on sociobiology that covers, in extensive scholarly detail, the major issues that Ardrey grappled with in The Territorial Imperative. Wilson recognizes the power of Ardrey’s passionate conviction but maintains that intensity of belief is no substitute for careful scholarly research. Well illustrated, with tables, charts, diagrams, bibliography, and index.

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