Have a new puppy? Before you try to train him not to mark his turf by peeing on everything he sees (you won’t succeed anyhow; he’s just obeying his natural instinct to let everybody who’s top dog in the neighborhood), look around your cubicle.
Are there family photos? Awards? A unique-to-you screen saver and mouse pad?
If there are, you’ve peed on your own turf. Unseemly as it sounds, you’ve made a statement about dominance.
After the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles, Rodney King plaintively asked, “Can’t we just all get along”?
(I lived in LA at the time and was driving home from work on the 405 Freeway the afternoon the city burned, which is why I remember this.)
The answer is no, either for us or any other higher animal.
Fighting for Dominance
Lions, bull elephants and silver back gorillas shed blood both for territory and the right to mate with females.
Bull elephants ram each other with their tusks, often for hours at a time. Monkeys shriek to drive interlopers away. Silver back gorillas bare their teeth and pound their chests.
Though turf-defending is obviously the province of land animals, pods of orcas have been seen sharing a “pebble-scratching” beach off British Columbia, whether to mark turf or for some other reason.
What’s Behind the Drive for Turf?
Like us, animals fight for dominance as individuals, in pairs, or as groups. Why? Dozens of reasons have been offered. Among the most frequent:
- dominance and status
- ensuring the food supply
- the right to mate and pass on genes
What the Winners Get
Whatever the motive, the result is the same.
Only the winners get access to space, scarce resources and the right to breed. And winners get to be winners by vanquishing enemies.
Except for the breeding part, it sounds like the guy in the corner office, doesn’t it?
Are our genes the reason we work so hard to defend what we have? If they are, we have an excuse to justify the aggression, brutality and war that are as old as humankind.
But if we learned the behavior so many eons ago that by now it’s part of human culture, then what?
The Positive Side
There is a positive side to the itch for turf. It helps animals build stronger populations by emphasizing the good genes and help to stave off famine. It gives us another tool to succeed.
Whatever is behind the need to establish turf, we might think about it the next time we think about buying a bigger house. Are we really just trying to pee on all the hydrants?