2013 scientific attention was focused on a pair of books that addressed why
humans have war. Edward O. Wilson, in his book The Social Conquest of Earth, maintained that war was a human
instinct, and that humans have had war as long as we have existed as a separate
species. (This was not the main thing Wilson’s book was about.) In contrast,
science writer John Horgan, in his book The
End of War, argued that war is something that humans learned to do and that
we can unlearn.
this seems like an important debate, I fear that it is mostly over semantics.
Humans have had violent conflict as long as we have existed (a fact Horgan does
not deny), but full-scale wars have occurred only in the last 11,000 years or
so. Did I miss something? When human population started to increase, and humans
started living in defined locations such as cities, then violent conflicts
became big enough to be classified as wars. Isn’t war just a big violent
conflict? Was the conflict between the Cherokees and the Creeks, culminating in
the Battle of Taliwa in 1755, a war or an intertribal conflict? I don’t think
this would have made any difference to Nanyehi, my 6th great
grandmother, whose saw her husband killed in that battle, and who became a Cherokee
war hero right at that moment. She was a war hero, even though no massive troop
engagements were involved. She, also at that moment, became an advocate for
peace, because whether it was a war or a mere conflict, she was a widow and her
two children were orphans.
Horgan does get us to think about a few very interesting things. He makes the
invalid argument that, if violence is part of human nature, then why has war
been so sporadic? I think it is obvious why he is wrong. We all feel the
occasional zeal of violence; the fact that we do not always put it into action
does not mean that it is not part of our nature. But the interesting point is
this: war does not always occur when resources are scarce or when there is
hostility. War is an emergent property, I
think, that must be induced under the
right circumstances. Not every conflict of interests between tribes or nations
turns into war, just as not every dry grassy field burns. But when war is
induced, the violent component of human nature is waiting there as fuel.
Horgan brings up a good point, when we consider that war is not something that
automatically happens but something that we must decide to do. To a certain
extent, it is something that we have to learn. Sometimes it becomes a tradition
into which we are trapped. That is, war is something that our leaders lead us
into. Most people (except psychopaths) have a natural tendency to want to not harm other people. But this
resistance to major acts of violence can be overcome by intense training,
commands from authority figures, long-range weapons, and propaganda. The
long-range weapons allow us to kill others without having to see them die.
makes the point that we start wars not because we are wolves but because we are
sheep. We may be inclined to seek peaceful solutions, but we do whatever our
leaders tell us to. This is the aspect that can make a whole population become
violent, not just the one to two percent who are psychopathic.
violence that leads easily to war is part of human nature. But peace is also
part of human nature. Because of this, war may not be inevitable, if we can
break the cause-and-effect chain that keeps war going. This chain goes all the
way back to the story of Cain and Abel, which fundamentalists accept as history
and I accept as an image. You can think of each human as half Cain, half Abel.
Which half will we choose? Perhaps we will always have war, but there is room
for diminishing its intensity and frequency.
to do so we need to cultivate empathy. We need to practice it, think about it,
incorporate it into our movies and novels and music and art. We cannot
eradicate our violent nature, but maybe we can encyst it so that it does not
poison the rest of our collective person. We have to tell ourselves, in
celebration, that we all feel the same things. We all love our children and
most of our neighbors and most of the people we work with. (As for the ones we
don’t love, maybe we can tolerate them.) As Nanyehi said, “The white men are
our brothers. The same house shelters them, and the same sky covers us all.”