New Internationalist

Forever Blowing Bubbles

Issue 123

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LAND [image, unknown] The instinct for personal territory

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Forever blowing bubbles
Each human being creates his or her own ‘bubble’ of personal space - a process related to an animar s instinct to defend its territory. But, as Debbie Taylor explains, an instinct that leads to mutual respect in the animal kingdom can lead to mutual destruction in humans.

Each person creates their own bubble of personal space. In some cultures the bubbles are much bigger than others.
Cartoon: Angelo Cinque

A MAN called Michael Fagan outraged the English-speaking world last year. He sat down on the Queen’s bed and offered her a glass of wine. Poor Michael Fagan. Unarmed, a touch insane and with the most romantic of intentions, he had violated every territorial rule in the book.

He went past flags, coats of arms and sentries stiff with regalia - ignoring the nation’s no-entry signs. Onward across the royal lawn, skirting the royal flower beds and in - without invitation - to the Palace itself.

This raised questions of security, of course, If poor, muddle-headed Michael could do it, then a homicidal maniac, IRA terrorist or KGB agent could do the same - brandishing something rather more lethal than a cork-screw. But security was not the point Michael had tapped a more primitive well of reaction; he had ignored rules about personal territory - rules to which we adhere so instinctively that they do not even need to be written down.

‘Instinctively’ is the operative word. It implies that our civilised humanity is stretched thinly over a pulsating animal psyche. Social scientists like Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey remind us that it was not so long ago that we ran naked across the grasslands eating our meat raw, grabbing a handful of berries, fighting and making love -like any baboon troupe today. Much of our behaviour, they say, is inherited - or instinctive.

Instinct is a preprogrammed short-cut Young swifts, for example, instead of going through the laborious process of learning to fly, can simply launch themselves into the air on automatic pilot and survive to soar off to Africa at the summer’s end. Because such abilities are inherited, closely-related species tend to have many of them in common. Indeed certain instincts can be traced through large portions of the animal kingdom.

The territorial instinct is thought by some to be near-universal. When one animal invades the space of another of the same species the defences are roused. The behaviour may be different- the stickleback turns red with rage and puffs out his chest, the stag roars and struts - but the intention is the same.

The human defends his or her chosen space just as energetically: whether it is the ‘egocentric bubble’ of personal space that we create around us or the gaily-painted front door that guards family territory.

Our invisible personal bubble excludes all but intimate and trusted friends. It allows us to keep people literally at arms length. You can feel it threatened in a train when a stranger asks ‘is someone sitting here?’ making you move the elaborate wall of coat, scarf and bag you have constructed on the seat beside you. You can feel it when a handshake lasts a moment too long. when someone stands too near at a party.

When the bubbles are threatened we usually retreat- you can see bubbles bouncing off each other in the street. But some cultures’ bubbles are smaller than others’: the typical Arab version is so small that a Syrian Embassy party in Europe is more like a snooker game, with Syrians inside their small bubbles knocking against the larger bubbles of their stand-offish Western counterparts, forcing them to retreat until they are pinned against the wall. When we can physically retreat no further - in a crowded rush-hour train or an elevator- we protect ourselves by averting eyes or crossing arms. We need to do this because only for an embrace or a fight would we voluntarily move in this close.

Homo sapiens is not the only bubble-toting species. Most social animals are the same: a row of pigeons will continually jostle to balance their feather-filled bubbles on a rooftop; a shoal of silver fish will hang perfectly spaced apart in a patch of warm water. For animals which have to live in a group to survive the bubbles make for a peaceful life.

Beyond the personal boundary lies the one around the household or family territory. You may think of your house as your home but to the social scientist this is your mating territory - with a display area (living room and hall) packed with your rivals and attract your mate, and a nest area (bedrooms) for copulation and rearing of young.

Within a person’s home the laws of hospitality rule. There are strong prescriptions for the guest as well as for the host - all of which emphasise the dominance of the householder on home territory. The guest must knock before entering and must ask permission to do the simplest things - like sitting down or going to the toilet. And there is a strong unspoken prohibition against going into the host’s bedroom. In return for these signs of submission the hosts puts on a display- of food, drink, music and attention. On neutral territory - such as a beach or a park - each family group recreates its nest, marking out boundaries with deckchairs and towels and keeping a safe distance from neighbouring alfresco nests.

So important is the home territory to homo sapiens that it has been suggested that the bond between woman and man is as much cemented by their joint urge to defend and embellish their nest as it is by their commitment to each other and their offspring. Indeed, in many species - including man -mating can only occur when a suitable territory has been secured.

Beyond the net curtains, brass knockers, fence, trellis and walls of family territory the boundary lines proliferate and cross - creating a jigsaw of official and unofficial tribal territories. According to zoologist Desmond Morris the neighbourhood ghettos, working-men’s clubs, football stadiums, street corners, public bars and golf clubs each represent remnants of our ancient tribal hunting and gathering territories.

Much of our hunting and gathering in the West now takes place behind an office desk or in the aisles of a supermarket and is too far removed from the activities of our ancestors for any sensible comparison. But our urge to congregate to protect our tribal territory can be as strong as ever - with clear territorial displays, from the chants and scarves of the football crowd to the membership card and uniform of the golf club, and strong resentment against any uninvited intruder.

According to Morris this proliferation of tribal groups is because our national boundaries have grown to encompass too many for us to have any strong sense of tribal loyalty on a day to day basis, Belonging to a small group defending a small territory gives us the sense of purpose, comradeship and belonging that we need.

At the national level it is only when we feel our national boundaries threatened that our patriotic tribal identities flower into fully blown territorial aggression. It is then that the exhortation to ‘fight them on the beaches’ arouses a passionate response. And few people think it strange that grown men and women should consider it perfectly reasonable to kill and be killed defending those beaches.

But territorial disputes in the animal kingdom almost never end in bloodshed. In fact there is seldom even an argument: deterrence in this sense really works. And where simple threat fails to deter a would-be invader, the combat that results is usually brief and bloodless. Only where every natural behaviour has been distorted and undermined by the extreme deprivations of zoo and laboratory do animals of the same species fight to the death.

So something is going seriously wrong with our territorial instinct- such as it is. The essential morality of the territorial instinct in the animal world has been distorted out of all recognition in most human societies.

It may seem strange to talk about instinct- a pre- programmed act - and morality - a personal choice - in the same breath. But as part of a delicately-tuned, finely-evolved web - that ties anatomy to behaviour, behaviour to environment, environment to anatomy to keep all balanced together on the knife-edge of survival- the territorial instinct is a powerful urge with equally powerful inhibitions. And those inhibitions are an absolutely vital part of the web.

In the animal kingdom all power carries with it equivalent responsibility. No animal is more gentle with a pink-faced newborn chimpanzee that the huge, rugged, battle-scarred, dominant male in the troupe. And few can be more ferocious when defending that baby’s life from the jaws of a marauding hyena. That ferocity is matched exactly by an ability to inhibit the aggression and turn it into utter tenderness. It must be.

And the territorial instinct is the same. It does not lead to crude expansionism, with the strong driving the weak off their land. No, it protects the weak by inhibiting the strong from intruding and by lending the weak the confidence, security and autonomy to defend what is rightfully theirs.

So strong is the inhibition against crossing territorial boundaries that a single pair of wolves can be left alone to roam their territory in peace with a pack of 25 as neighbours. And one study showed that an intruding fish had to be four times as large as its neighbour before it dared cross the boundary between their territories.

The possession of a territory means a very real autonomy, security and control over an animal’s means of survival. It is the control of the means of survival that is important - not the piece of land. And respect for another’s means of life ensures that as many as possible survive. When these rules of mutual respect are adhered to, the result is as near to equality as you are likely to find.


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