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What's Your Noyau?: Territory & Human Aggreression by Mark Hatmaker


If you’re like me, that word “noyau” may be as unfamiliar to you as it was to me a mere six months ago, but once we understand the word and its wider meaning we begin to recognize its explanatory importance in global and everyday matters, not to mention conflict resolution.

Before we get to the definition of the concept let’s first ponder this quote:

Antagonism must have some value to living things: why otherwise would evolution have tolerated so much of it?”-Robert Ardrey The Territorial Imperative

Keep that thought in the back of your mind as it underpins the noyau concept.

In 1944 a German ornithologist by the name of Dieter Burckhardt offered up the observation that each species of bird seems to have an “individual distance.” That is, a territorial divide within a larger shared territory.

A beach seemingly crowded willy-nilly with swarming emperor penguins is actually adhering to species-specific rules regarding nest position and permitted distance between individuals; what appears to the human eye as crowded chaos actually follows determined rules of avian society. “Individual distances” vary per species from the tight tight quarters for some nesting shore birds, to the miles between nesting/hunting territories for birds of prey.

Let’s also observe that it is not only birds that obey the “individual distance” rule. We see reptiles, amphibians, and, of course, mammals all staking out nesting and territorial distances, and what is intriguing about all of these is that each individual species seems to have an upper-limit-of-toleration. Meaning that specific distances between nests/dens/homes must be observed and…there is also an upper limit as to how many of the same species will be permitted within a given hunting range.

Back to the emperor penguins, there is an instinctually defined distance between nests, but there is also a somewhat static limit as to how many emperor penguins overall will be tolerated on a given beach.

This given permitted/allowable/tolerated load of species in a given range is the noyau. It can loosely be defined in human terms as a neighborhood. Once this upper-limit has been defined a curious thing occurs. Within the noyau we may witness numerous individual spats and territorial signaling—while these can take on an aggressive tone at times they are for the larger part non-violent, more noise than actual physical encounter.

Now, let’s say members from another noyau [we’ll keep consistent and say visiting emperor penguins from the other side of the island] arrive and attempt to stake out nesting sites on this beach, something mighty interesting occurs. Even if the out-noyau penguins obey proper nesting distance rules, they are subject to aggressive confrontation by the original noyau birds. These confrontations can turn physical and we often see birds that had spatted within the noyau [and they may very well do so again tomorrow] join forces to expel this “threat” to the noyau.

Mighty familiar, huh?

Humans, being animals and with our own complex noyaus, seem subject to similar population pressures. We can live peacefully in neighborhoods but allow one neighbor to start parking his car in our spot, or to let his grass grow too high, or some other such thing that seems trivial to the outsider, it is taken very seriously by those inside the noyau, just as the penguins take nesting distances seriously.

Just as with the penguins, these petty slights seldom turn violent within the neighborhood, but neither do they go unnoticed and seldom without remark—penguins squawk, humans bitch and litigate.

Now, for a thought experiment, let’s picture a neighborhood with all of its concomitant petty gossip, tiny “They leave their Christmas lights up too long” beeves and picture another neighborhood two blocks away. For some reason they decide, to show up in the original neighborhood to seize a portion of the playground. Once this happens, just as with the penguin noyau, humans in the “invaded” neighborhood shed the petty grievances and unite as a veritable unit to repel the invaders, whether it be physical action or community petition and appearances at the local city council meeting.

In a nutshell, the noyau concept states that within a noyau individual species will be subject to petty aggressive acts that are rarely more than territorial signaling. But anything outside of the noyau that threatens the whole of the noyau is a spur to ally into a unified front.

Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Paris Attacks, natural disasters make us all one. At least temporarily. Once the initial threat has been averted or placed in the rear view mirror of time, we separate into noyaus yet again and get back to passive-aggressive toleration of one another.

Let’s recall the opening observation from Robert Ardrey: “Antagonism must have some value to living things: why otherwise would evolution have tolerated so much of it?”

Chances are this antagonistic streak in surviving species indicates that a certain amount of combativeness is necessary to protect the self, the brood, the noyau. In times of actual strife this penchant for aggression is a boon, but when times are easy, as it is for most of we 21st century pampered gods, this antagonistic streak does not bode well for good cheer and contentment.

If it is an instinctual part of our being it will never be quite tamed, nor would we want to tame it as it is a necessary spur to action when the chips are truly down.

But I think we can all agree that petty antagonisms that intrude into daily lives, “micro-aggressions” that have no real world import do not add to the quality of life. We may never quite kick this superficial “Hey, I saw that parking spot first!” behavior to the curb as it is part of our make-up, but perhaps an awareness of why it’s there in the first place can allow us to stand down just a bit in some cases.

When we feel that twinge to bark over what is essentially a nothing “offense”, we might call to mind “Oh, I was getting ready to squawk loudly like a territorial penguin at someone I consider for the most part an OK human being. Perhaps, I should take a breath here.”

Our inborn antagonism was and is meant for actual threats and not to continually intrude into daily bland life—but, it does.

Knowledge of how the noyau works can also allow us to reason through how some real world confrontations might go down.

Animals that defend their noyau almost invariably fight more aggressively and successfully than invaders. This biological observation is important. Easy to imagine that we would fight harder to repel an invasion on our shores than one across the pond. Food for foreign policy thought.

The more distant from the noyau a species travels the less investment we see. If I were a penguin [or a human] I fight hard to protect my nest, I will come to the aid of my neighbor and fight hard [hard but perhaps without the same investment as for my own nest], the guy’s nest who lives in Saskatchewan, well, he’s on his own. Sorry Saskatchewan guy.

The noyau concept says we will defend our own nest to the utmost. It also says that we might be full of petty gripes about those in our noyau but when the chips are down we will unite to repel a threat.

It also suggests that, if we are the aggressor for some reason, the further we can lure the target from home territory the less defensive-alacrity we may see in the confrontation.

The problem with humans is that we also allow abstract ideas to become noyaus. Some of us will defend the home and an abstract noun with the same fervor—it all depends on how much we have allowed the idea/ideal to tie into our “identities.”

In the concrete world such things as “honor,” “patriotism,” “the best chili ever!” simply do not exist except as constructs in our minds. And yet, these concepts and many other non-concrete “things” do settle into human skulls and can raise ire as much as a physical brick through a front window.

With the human penchant for creating noyaus out of abstracts in mind, it is wise for the individual who is interested in self-protection to keep in mind that the same proximity calibration takes place in the abstract world as in the physical. The closer we come to invading/encroaching on the abstract noyau the more resistance we can expect to see.

I may simply decide to make no comment on your prized “Star Wars” t-shirt, or offer a low-key “It’s not my thing, glad you like it” and so far so good. But if I trip into “That shirt looks like s### and Star Wars is for losers” well, then it just might be on.

Penguins and humans, we’re not so different. We can’t consciously change our response to noyau encroachment, but with a bit of self-knowledge we might mitigate it when we are in meaningless spats and save up some of that survival energy for real-world concrete threats, and, at the very least, get a handle on why this species can be so damn touchy at times.

The truth, it seems, is that we have evolved to be that way. A buncha crowded penguins on a noisy beach squatting over our nests for dear life.
[For more on the practical nexus between science and old-school combat see the RAW Subscription service.]

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