One of the many curious discoveries made, earlier this century, by ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen was that fighting in animals is restrained and, as they called it, 'ritualised'. Animal contests, over such valuable resources as food, territory or mates, almost resemble tournaments, which pass through a regular series of harmless stages, before one animal emerges as the winner, and the other retreats unharmed as the loser. Take the cichlid fish Cichlasoma biocellatum, whose contests are described by Lorenz in his book On Aggression. A fight between two males passes through three main stages, at any of which one of the contestants may back out. They start with broadside displays, move on to tail beating, and then to harmless mouth fighting, in which the pair grip and pull each other by the mouth. The rules of the contest are, according to Lorenz, strictly obeyed. Each fish only moves on to the next stage when the other is ready. More strikingly still, if one of the fish finds itself in possession of a temporary but irregular advantage, it will not unfairly press it home. In Lorenz's own words, 'one of them may be inclined to go on to mouth-pulling a few seconds before the other one. He now turns from his broadside position and thrusts with open jaws at his rival who, however, continues his broadsides threatening, so that his unprotected flank is presented to the teeth of his enemy. But the aggressor never takes advantage of this; he always stops his thrust before his teeth have touched the skin of his adversary.' Behaviour does not come much more gentlemanly than that.
LRB 21 July 1983 | PDF Download