Cartoon from Tom Gauld, seen on the memebrary.
Thousands of books have been written about why we go to war. I’ve been trying to explore whether my evolving understanding of basic human nature offers any insights on this subject, particularly as we seem more inclined to start wars than ever before, and as we now seem perilously close to nuclear annihilation provoked by this unfortunate propensity.
I should start by defining the term war. By war, I mean an organized outbreak of violence between two or more groups of people. That can be two groups taking up arms against each other (as in gang wars and ‘declared’ wars). Or it can be unilateral — an armed attack by one group on another. Or the two groups can be co-located geographically (as in ‘civil’ and ‘revolutionary’ wars). And it can be continuous or intermittent violence, with periods of formal or effective peace between confrontations.
There are a million theories about the ’causes’ of war, but most of them, foolishly IMO, attempt to find rational explanations for the outbreaks of violence. My sense is that groups of like-minded people don’t need a ‘reason’ to commit violent acts against others. They do so mostly for emotional reasons — because they hate or fear the other group. There may be ‘reasons’ for those emotions — the hated group has all the resources and wealth while the group preparing for war are suffering with nothing, or the hated group has been systematically abusing and oppressing the group preparing for war, or the hated group has an ideology that is incompatible with and threatening to the group preparing for war — but I would say it is the hatred and/or fear that actually drives them to commit acts of war. The ‘reasons’ are just the rationalizations, not the catalysts.
As with my other explorations of human behaviour, I started this one by considering how our behaviour differs from that of other animal species.
Most of the ‘parallels’ that have been drawn between non-human and human lethal behaviours can, I think, be put down to convenient anthropomorphism. There are mountains of evidence that other animals’ behaviour is instinctive, and not driven by hate or fear.
I subscribe to the scientific Gaia theory — that evolution has unfolded the way it has to enable the maximum possible amount of pleasure and least possible amount of pain for the greatest and most complex diversity of life possible. There is no ‘reason’ for that being so; it is simply the playing out of the rules of evolution that have produced the mix of life that is present today. Had the rules been different, the make-up of life on earth would be different.
War (as defined above) is inconsistent with that theory: It is painful, unpleasant (and not just for the combatants), destructive, and often reduces diversity. There are arguments to be made that a horrifically overpopulated species might ‘instinctively’ go to war to reduce its own numbers and bring its population back into balance with the resources that can sustain it, but that’s a convoluted and unnecessary complex explanation, I think.
All animals, most biologists agree, feel three fundamental emotions analogous to what we call fear, rage, and sadness. These are instinctive reactions to immediate events, and they help to protect the animals and ensure their survival. But, I would argue, these instinctive emotions are not judgemental — they do not ascribe reasons for the behaviour that prompted these reactions. The tiger is not ‘blamed’ for eating the enraged and terrified mother animal’s babies. The emotions the mother feels produce a fight, flight or freeze response for purely evolutionary reasons. The bereaved mother does not ‘hate’ the tiger for what it has done.
In fact, there is some evidence that, other than the human animal, all of earth’s creatures do not identify themselves as individuals separate or apart from the rest of life on earth at all, any more than our kidney identifies itself as somehow separate and independent from the rest of the body. So, after the initial instinctive rage and terror, the bereaved mother animal simply accepts the loss of her babies, without blaming or hating or plotting revenge on the tiger. Both she and the tiger are just part of the larger organism called Gaia, just as the phagocyte cells of the body that eat dying cells (to make room for healthy ones) are just part of the human organism like all the other cells and organs, doing what they do in such a way that balance is sustained. The mother’s rage, terror and bereavement, which serve an important short-term evolutionary purpose, quickly abate, and do not metastasize into sustained hatred, obsessive fear, or inconsolable grief.
We humans are different. We judge people’s motives. We hold grudges. We plot revenge and vendettas. We demand recompense, justice, punishment, apology. We wallow in our grief, ‘our’ loss, sometimes for a lifetime. We take things personally. And we pass along our judgements, our hatreds, our all-consuming fears, and our despair, in our conditioning of others, so they fester for generations. In doing so, the ‘personal’ trauma that has possessed us, which seems almost impossible to heal, gets propagated to others, infecting them with our trauma and infecting us with theirs. This, I believe, is the tinder necessary to fuel wars, and I think it is uniquely human.
I have argued elsewhere that I think it is likely that the evolution of humans’ sense of self, separation from ‘everything else’, mortality, and personal vulnerability, came about as an evolutionary misstep. These false senses, I would assert, are essential preconditions for taking things ‘personally’, and hence for the type of fear and hatred that must be conditioned in any creature in order for them to foment or participate in war.
Anthropological studies have suggested that human wars, while more frequent in recent millennia than previously, have been around as long as human civilizations. It is possible that civilizations and wars both stem from this evolutionary misstep that led our species to believe, falsely, that we are separate individuals with free will, choice, responsibility and accountability for our actions, and neither would have been possible without this profound and terrifying intellectual misunderstanding.
When we look at the supposed ’causes’ of wars — nationalistic and religious ‘pride’, scarcity and unequal access to essential resources and land, unaccountability, glory, revenge, racism/classism/caste-ism, misunderstandings, uncertainty and the perceived need for preemption, and ‘self-defence’ — they all trace back to a conditioned, self-perpetuating, pathological, traumatized and traumatizing fear or hatred of another group, usually for what that other group believes, or what it has purportedly done, or what we fear it might do in future to ‘our’ group.
In short, war is an acting out of our trauma. And that trauma, I believe, is a uniquely human aberration, which has arisen because we have come to falsely believe in our separation, our personal vulnerability, our free will and our responsibility for our actions.
There is no ‘cure’ for this. In a recent article Richard Heinberg describes the Warring States period in China, and how Taoism may have arisen in part out of frustration over endless war and the search for a peaceful way that is reconnected to nature and non-judgemental (“non-attached”). This suggests to me that the early Taoists may have understood instinctively that our judgements, personal hatreds and propensity for war represent a form of mental illness unique to humans, one that might be healed by seeking “the way” of being that is not conducive to hatred, fear, trauma, and war.
If only it were that simple. If only we could reverse the evolutionary error of the entanglement of the human brain, which gave rise to the illusion of self and separation, which produced the mental illness that drives us to create civilizations, invent astonishing technologies, hate and fear and traumatize each other, and, in so doing, destroy the basis for all life on our fragile little planet.
Or end it all in war.