Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Biology of War

In 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.

While 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.

Nevertheless, 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.

Still, 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.

Horgan 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.

The 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.

And 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.”

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