Somewhere in the heart of the great Serengeti plains in Africa, a wild animal galloping at great speed, suddenly gets hit by a dart, falls down and loses consciousness while thousands of its friends get away in a hurry from the scene. Similarly, in another part of the world in a ward inside a mental asylum in one corner of Chennai, a patient whose behaviour is uncontrollably violent, suddenly becomes quiet and goes into a deep sleep after being given an injection.
What do these two have in common? The wild animal in the African plains as well as the patient in the psychiatric ward have both reacted predictably to a medicine—in this case a tranquilliser – administered directly into the bloodstream making them go into a deep slumber. The question is whether it is possible to invent a general pill that can control or even abolish aggression in humans. It is relevant in the present-day context for, if such a pill can be invented, we might have a peaceful earth, a planet without war or even fights in the barroom. It, however, appears that it would not be possible to invent such a pill at least in the near future.
Before reconciling ourselves to such a grim possibility or even to understand this aspect in the proper perspective, we would have to study a few developments in related fields.
A few years ago, scientists in the Netherlands and in a few other countries made claims of having invented a pill that appeared, at first glance, like the ideal candidate for the so-called ‘anti-aggression’ drug. These scientists noticed some remarkable anti-aggression properties in an experimental chemical compound, which they named DU 27716.
This compound, DU 27716, indeed appeared to be remarkable because it seemed to have much more precise effects than drugs then being used for controlling aggression. Researches showed that a male mouse, when administered DU 27716, did not attack another mouse introduced into the cage—a very ‘unmouselike’ behaviour. What was also remarkable and strange was that the drug in question did not just reduce offensiveness in the mouse but in actual fact, totally abolished it. Studies also revealed that the drug’s effects on rats in identical circumstances were slightly different. While it reduced offensiveness dramatically, it did not totally eliminate the response as in the case of mice.
It was also noticed that whereas drugs then being used to control aggression took days, and sometimes even weeks, to start working, DU 27716 was able to alter normal aggression patterns within minutes. Researchers were also intrigued by the finding that the drug appeared to have little effect on most other kinds of behaviour. For example, some drugs that have traditionally been used to control aggression work by sedating the subject, e.g. the somnolent wildebeast of Serengeti or the drowsy patient in the psychiatric ward. On the other hand, a tranquillised mouse was obviously not a pugnacious mouse whereas a mouse treated with DU 27716, though it suffered a reduction in aggression, was perfectly perky and put in an apparently normal mouse day, without signs of sedation. It is very significant that the drug appeared to have little effect on defensive behaviour, at least when given in small doses, although it had a pronounced effect on offensive behaviour. For example, a mouse treated with DU 27716 was still able to defend itself against attack by an untreated mouse into whose cage it had been placed. The drug, however, had one very considerable drawback that surfaced in the case of rats. It ruined the sex life of male rats while, however, having no effect on the sex life of female rats.
No studies have yet been conducted as to whether DU 27716 would affect human beings in the same way! The drug has not been tried out on other primates such as orangutans and apes . Since mice and rats react somewhat differently to the new drug, it seemed quite reasonable to assume that other species would respond differently too. However, the fact that mice and rats do not have identical reactions to DU 27716 should enable scientists to understand why this drug—or any other anti-aggression drug—will never eliminate all outward manifestations of antagonism or hostility. If the drug totally abolishes defensive attack in the mouse but merely reduces the same behaviour in the rat, it logically follows that the biochemistry underlying this response must be different in mice and rats despite the close evolutionary kinship between these genera.
Even within a single species diversity remains a fundamental characteristic of aggressive behaviour. Very simply, the word aggression covers a wide spectrum of behavioural patterns. Consider, for example, a wife who knocks her husband over the head with a frying pan in a fit of rage and kills him. Is she engaging in the same behaviour as a thief who shoots down a storekeeper who obstructs him during a robbery? How do those two acts compare with a killing carried out by an assassin for mercenary considerations? We might be tempted to call all the three acts ‘murder’ and they are clear examples of aggression. But despite the identical label we apply, they are all quite different kinds of actions with different motives and different accompanying emotions. Different types of body chemistry almost certainly influence each one as well. This inference implies that no single drug can control the behaviour of all three aforementioned killers.
Such an inference becomes particularly obvious if we compare any one of those murderous acts with quite another kind of killing—the killing carried out by soldiers in war time. None has any similarity to the coldly rational calculations that motivate the commanders of modern military machines. Today’s warfare often involves attempts by two armies to destroy each other without the slightest personal animosity. The combatants themselves would probably much rather be somewhere else, but for the strange circumstances that have accidentally landed them in that peculiar situation. In modern warfare, nations are expected to fight an even more impersonal war through push-button technology with an enemy half a world away Even if DU 27716 worked in humans as it does in rodents, it would be difficult to imagine that this drug or any other drug related to this compound could possibly prevent this sort of institutional remote, cold-blooded and dispassionate murder.
One hopes that some day, perhaps even before it is too late, we may develop drugs that can control certain narrowly defined aggressive behaviour patterns. It would be difficult to predict at this stage whether a drug such as DU 27716 would find a place among them or not.
In any case, such drugs will raise disturbing moral questions with regard to how and on whom should they be used and what ethical considerations will be involved.
One cannot forget that the process of curbing aggression in all its varieties is bound to be slow, laborious and piece-meal. Each kind of aggression has a unique cause and requires a unique solution. Moreover, some forms of aggression such as defence are socially valuable and require no solution at all. Therefore, ultimately, we must come around to the sad truth that it would be extremely difficult to invent a drug that will not only have a selective action but will also give us peace in the bar-room or on the battlefield, unless man himself reaches a higher ethical plane by some unique evolutionary process, totally eliminating the need for the role of aggression in human behaviour.
In this connection a mention has to be made of the discovery of a new generation of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The first drug in this new group known as Fluoxetine Hydrochloride (sold as Prozac) has proved to be a boon to millions of people suffering from various forms of depression. When administered properly under medical supervision, it has shown great promise of improving one’s zest amd therefore quality of life, automatically reducing aggression.