War, Peace, and Human Nature


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.

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4 Responses to War, Peace, and Human Nature

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    One of my daily activities during an early 1970s stint in the Peace Corps was fishing at dusk with a Marshallese friend. One evening I mentioned to him that Americans had just landed a couple of people on the moon. He was skeptical that this could be so. When I asked him why, he told me that it was impossible for a couple of Americans to land on the moon because the people living there would kill them as soon as they landed.

    While this response may seem humorous to modern Americans, it was fully in keeping with the mindset of a member of an indigenous culture that had experienced constant warfare for hundreds of years. The inhabitants of the Marshall Islands were so fiercely zenophobic that western whaling ships avoided the area completely until the Marshallese were eventually “pacified” by Christian missionaries who managed to infiltrate the islands and convert them to Christianity.

    One might ask why were the Marshallese so warlike? The answer was the “scarcity and unequal access to essential resources and land” that you deny as a possible cause. The numerous tropical atolls that make up the Marshall Islands have very little land area. Prior to european contact, the population was always in a state of Malthusian equilibrium with food resources. Famines were a frequent event. One way to expand access to food resources was to take land away from someone else on another island.

    This competition over resources has been part of human history, even primate history, for many thousands of years. In the New Guinea highlands, tribes from adjacent valleys were so fiercely protective of their territory that their deliberate separation from their neighbors resulted in the evolution of hundreds of distinct languages.

    I think you need to reconsider the basic physical reasons why warfare exists. Hate and fear may well be part of the equation, but competition for land, food and other resources are at the root of it.

  2. Renaee says:

    “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.”

    Love this para and the next one that followed. Potent reminder when my mother energy has veered into attachment and vendetta, rather than instictive protection. This perspective is so desperately needed in the world, and I faulter from it constantly. It’s fucking hard being in the culture wars, after a while there is a feeling of being so unclean and saturated with it. Life is not Personal, it’s not about me. Thanks – a breath of fresh air.

  3. Jack Alpert says:

    I think Joe Clarkson above is correct. Increasing scarcity creates conflict and decreasing scarcity decreases it. All the psycho- social parameters reflect changes in scarcity.

    Getting Rid of Atrocities

    Today’s Israel Gaza atrocities are the latest examples of this history.
    1. Each atrocity follows from a conflict.
    2. Each conflict follows from a scarcity.
    3. Each scarcity follows from “too many people” dividing earth’s services.

    There are a dozen other causes of scarcity. However, if these other causes were resolved “too many people” would cause scarcity without them.

    The “too many people condition” is determined by billions of personal birth choices. Births are rewarded by immediate easily understood personal benefits. Atrocities, being temporally distant, and non personal have little influence.

    —- the atrocities will not stop until perception of the injuries caused by birth choices diminish population enough to eliminate scarcity.

    Jack Alpert. http://www.skil.org
    (C) 913 708 2554 jackalpert@me.com

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Joe and Jack: I don’t think our views are inconsistent. My sense is that (i) scarcity and stress, (ii) trauma, (iii) our conditioning, and (iv) atrocities (wars and violent acts) ALL contribute to worsen EACH OTHER in a vicious cycle. It’s all a matter of which one sees as the ‘horse’ versus the ‘cart’.

    I’ve tried to make this point in my articles explaining how almost all animals behave very differently in an environment of abundance versus one of scarcity — the whole ‘rats in a cage’ argument. My diagram (https://howtosavetheworld.ca/images/Civilizations-Trauma-Cycle-II.png) was designed to demonstrate how scarcity (foremost among the stressors inherent in civilization cultures), trauma, conditioning, and atrocities including war, are inevitably connected. You’ve convinced me to amend this diagram (again) to show a two-way causal connection between all four of these elements. (The new diagram is here: https://howtosavetheworld.ca/images/Civilizations-Trauma-Cycle-III.png)

    Thanks for the nudge.

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