By Khaled Diab
Does scientific evidence that war is hardwired into human society mean that we are doomed to live in perpetual conflict?
If war is a product of human culture, then there endures the possibility – no matter how remote it may seem at present – that we will, one day, learn to eradicate that scourge on our societies through cultural change and evolution.
But what if it turns out that our species has a natural propensity to wage war and that warfare has had a profound influence on how humanity has evolved? According to an emerging theory, “not only is war as ancient as human kind… but it has played an integral role in our evolution”, New Scientist reported last week.
Experts from numerous disciplines – anthropologists, archaeologists, primatologists, psychologists and political scientists – now seem to agree that warfare has affected our evolution and is, hence, hard-wired into our societies and behaviour. And it does not take a massive leap of logic to understand where they are coming from.
One can quite easily imagine that competition over food and other scarce resources led our ancestors to take up arms against rival groups. This rivalry triggered an evolutionary cycle in which different groups would develop more elaborate ways of attacking their rivals and defending themselves against attack.
This has taken us from the informal, small-scale group violence of our forebears – which was similar to that of related species, such as chimps – using simple stone weapons or spears, to the highly organised mobilisation of armies counting in the millions, armed with high-tech weaponry.
Well, it's not all bad news. Despite its huge cost to society, war can have some benefits, but whether these can ever outweigh the costs, especially of modern warfare, is doubtful. Just as military research sometimes creates useful spin-offs for society, evidence suggests that our evolution into effective warriors has helped equip us with out highly evolved ability to co-operate within society and work together towards common goals.
If warfare, as this theory suggests, is a deeply ingrained aspect of human culture, does that mean we are doomed to live in perpetual conflict?
The notion that war is a natural human tendency makes belief in its inevitability tempting, which can give warmongers an additional justification when beating the drums of conflict and it can take some of the wind out of opposition to war.
But this would be an extremely flawed way of looking at this theory. Even if we are natural born warriors, we are also born pacifists and peacemakers. The species that cursed us with Adolf Hitler also blessed us with Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, the vast majority of humans and societies spend more time in peace than at war.
In addition, a deeper understanding of what drives us to violence can help us develop the mechanisms to cope with it and dispel its causes. For instance, the type of warfare we are “naturally” predisposed to is more akin to gang wars which bear little resemblance to contemporary warfare.
As Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, emphasised, the decision to go to war is not simply some primal reflex, but is based on “some interplay between warfare and the alternative benefits of peace”.
Given the massive costs in terms of both human lives and resources of modern warfare, we can only expect – and hope – that the “alternative benefits of peace” will increasingly get the upper hand. There are a number of promising examples of societies that have learnt that lesson, albeit the hard way.
Germany and Japan, once the personification of jingoism, are spectacular examples of how societies geared to war can prosper and thrive when they turn their backs on conflict and transform their “swords into ploughshares”. And, for all its faults, the EU project has helped peace to reign on a continent once plagued by incessant warfare, including two world wars.
Deeply ingrained as the war instinct is, we can evolve out of it, like we once evolved into it. Perceptions of group identity – the fearful ‘us' versus ‘them' dichotomy – play a major role, and are manipulated, in the march to war. If we can somehow elevate appreciation of our common humanity – and the common good – above the narrow self-interests of individual societies, then we have a hope of reining in the massive destructiveness of modern conflict.
We have taken tentative steps along these lines, such as through the acknowledgement of our common humanity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now we need the necessary cultural shift and robust international legal order to make these principles a reality.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 22 November 2008. Read the related discussion.
This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest