Peace Ethology: Findings Span Species and Cross Disciplines

A scholarly collection of timely essays on the behavioral science of peace.

Posted Aug 16, 2018

"The popular belief persists that, by nature, humans are not pre-disposed to peace. However, archeological and paleontological evidence reveals that the vast majority of our time as a species has been spent in small hunter-gatherer bands that are basically peaceful and egalitarian in nature. The text also reveals that most of the earth’s people are living in more peaceful societies than in centuries past." 

I just received a copy of a most important transdisciplinary book of original scholarly essays edited by Drs. Peter Verbeek at the University of Alabama (Birmingham) and Benjamin Peters at the University of Michigan called Peace Ethology: Behavioral Processes and Systems of Peace. This forward-looking and immensely rich volume stems from a conference held at the Lorentz Center at Leiden University in the Netherlands. I was at this gathering because of some of my work on the evolution and ethology of peaceful behavior — wild justice — in nonhuman animals (animals) and I left with more than 50 pages of notes.

My own interests in the ethology of peace stem from my long-term research on social play behavior, specifically fair play, mainly in dogs, coyotes, and wolves, and how these canids are able to agree to play rather than to fight or compete with one another while they are enjoying themselves and zooming around here and there. In essence, they are fine-tuning play on the run so that they are able to feel safe and so that play remains the name of the game (please also see). The late anthropologist, Dr. Robert Sussman, was very important in getting me to think more about the evolution and ecology of peace in animals. The book he co-edited with C. Robert Cloninger, Origins of Altruism and Cooperation, was a landmark volume in this growing field. 

Chapter titles that reflect the book's focus on evolutionary, ecological, psychological, sociological, and comparative aspects of peace ethology include "The Nature of Peace," "Inclusion as a Pathway to Peace: The Psychological Experiences of Exclusion and Inclusion in Culturally Diverse Social Settings," "The Developmental Niche for Peace," "Children's Peacekeeping and Peacemaking," "Reintegration of Former Child Soldiers: Communal Approaches to Healing the Wounds and Building Peace in Postconflict Societies," "Keeping the Peace or Enforcing Order? Overcoming Social Tension Between Police and Civilians," "Building Peace Benefits," "The Evolutionary Logic of Human Peaceful Behavior," and "Trans-Species Peacemaking: Our Evolutionary Heritage" (in which the importance of social play is discussed). I enjoyed all of the essays and one that caught my eye is that by Michael Wessells and Kathleen Kostelny about child soldiers. I never had read much about this topic and I couldn't believe some of what I read about how youngsters are recruited, how they are treated, and then how people who are truly heroes work to reintegrate these individuals back into society. 

And, as I read the essays I realized that I was taking copious notes and using my yellow highlighter far too often, so I asked Drs. Verbeek and Peters if they could answer a few questions about their book. Gladly, they said yes, and our interview went as follows. 

Peter Verbeek
Peace Ethology (cover)
Source: Peter Verbeek

"Peace ethology is a systematic scientific approach to the study of peace that uses the methods of ethology, which is the biology of behavior." 

Why did you edit Peace Ethology?

The book was inspired by the Lorentz Center at Leiden University workshop (March 18-22, 2013) entitled ‘Obstacles and Catalysts of Peaceful Behavior’ that brought together fifty‐three scientists from three continents and a range of disciplines, including anthropology, ethology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, political science, and psychology. Of the 23 authors in the book, 13 attended the workshop. The 5-day workshop stood out from previous conferences on “peace and conflict” by means of its exclusive focus on peaceful behavior. The participants agreed that its synergistic mixture of topics held much promise for the scientific study of peace, and the aim of this book is to channel this synergy further by presenting a peace ethology approach to the behavioral processes and systems of peace. Also, we invited contributors to this volume who did not attend the 2013 workshop but whose work highlights their distinct contributions to the behavioral science of peace and to widen the network of scholars and scientists working and collaborating together to advance the field.

What is "peace ethology?”

Peace ethology is a systematic scientific approach to the study of peace that uses the methods of ethology, which is the biology of behavior. Peace ethology is best seen as a ‘peace-specific’ application of the scientific method, rather than a scientific discipline in and of itself. Peace ethology allows for the meaningful integration of diverse knowledge systems on peace and can scaffold interdisciplinary research on peace.  

Please tell readers how different disciplines contribute to this growing and important field and about how you chose your contributors. 

In peace ethology, peace is operationally defined as “Behavioral processes and systems through which species, individuals, families, groups, and communities negate direct and structural violence (direct peace; structural peace), keep aggression in check or restore tolerance in its aftermath (sociative peace), maintain just institutions and equity (structural peace), and engage in reciprocally beneficial and harmonious interactions (sociative peace). 

It is obvious from this working definition that peace is a complex concept and that its scientific study requires the input and expertise of social scientists and natural scientists and even insights from the humanities. In fact, during the past five decades, behavioral scientists from a wide range of different disciplines have contributed findings that together can form the foundation for a veritable behavioral science of peace. Our choice of contributors for the book reflects the growing pool of scientists working on behavioral processes and systems of peace, and is based, in part, on our own interdisciplinary collaborations and interests. The specific aim for the book was to include both scientists that participated in the Lorentz Center workshop and to invite others working on peaceful behavior who did not attend so as to enlarge the overall scope of the book.  

What is the importance of comparative research and how does the study of nonhuman animals contribute to the field?

"Ravens, wolves, and red-necked wallaby, for example, are not closely related at all, but each of these species shows the kind of post-conflict reconciliation that we also see in humans and apes. What this suggests is that post-conflict reconciliation as an aspect of sociative peace may benefit fitness-the survival and reproductive success of individuals-across a wide range of species."

Of course, as humans, one of our main concerns is with understanding peace in human life. It is important, though, not to forget that we are a manifestation of nature; we have not been parachuted in. It follows that human nature, our species‐typical being, is the result of natural, evolutionary processes. Part of the method of peace ethology is to study the evolution of peaceful as well as aggressive behavior. One way to do that is by going back in time, for example, by inferring behavior from the analysis of objects and fossils uncovered in archeological research. Another way of getting at the evolution of behavior is by comparing the behavior of different species, for example, species that are genetically closely related because they share a common ancestor. Similarities in behavior among closely related species suggest a shared evolutionary history of the behavior in question. An example of this is “peacemaking,” or “post-conflict reconciliation” that is shown by humans as well as by the closely related chimpanzees and bonobos. This behavior helps to repair the damage done by aggression to valuable social relationships in each of these species, and, as such, is likely to have been selected for in the shared evolutionary history of these closely related species.

Similarities in behavior among species that are not closely related are also of interest, of course. Ravens, wolves, and red-necked wallaby, for example, are not closely related at all, but each of these species shows the kind of post-conflict reconciliation that we also see in humans and apes. What this suggests is that post-conflict reconciliation as an aspect of sociative peace may benefit fitness-the survival and reproductive success of individuals-across a wide range of species.

What are some of your major messages?

We want to stress that peace is behavior and as such can be studied scientifically just like any other aspect of behavior. We also want to stress that while the inherent complexity of peace may seem to make its scientific study a daunting undertaking, peace ethology allows through its methods for a truly interdisciplinary approach that can unite social science with natural science on peace.

Who is your intended audience?

Our intended audience includes, but is certainly not limited to, researchers, students, teachers and practitioners in the behavioral sciences-broadly defined. All of the contributors made an effort to write in a style that is accessible for an educated general audience, and we hope that the book will have a broad appeal and that our readers will contact us with their questions and comments. Peace ethology, like peace itself, will flourish through dialogue and whither through monologue.  

Are you hopeful that peace ethology will gain traction in a world that is in such need of peace?

Yes! The scientific activity on peace is already there.  Now we need to spread the word and get more funding and get more people involved!  People everywhere are deeply interested in peace. Type "peace" in a search engine and you’ll see what we mean. When findings from peace ethology become more widely known, the support for it is bound to grow. We hope and expect that our book will contribute to that.

What are some of your current and future projects?

Another Lorentz Center workshop is in the making. We will spend a week in Leiden in April of next year with close to 40 scientists from again a wide range of social science and natural science disciplines to discuss and study research on ‘Bystander Roles in Peace and Conflict.’ Stay tuned! We are also continuing our own research on peace, including the study of reconciliation and consolation following interpersonal violence and crime, using surveillance camera footage.  Much to be done . . .

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Peace is not a passive state but an active process. You probably engaged in aspects of it today. Keep practicing peace and read about it and study it. Our lives and that of our fellow earthlings depend on it.

Thanks Peter and Benjamin for your most insightful interview and superb book. Your answers cover most of what readers need to know to get them to get a copy and to read it carefully. I really enjoyed the vast scope of the essays and how readable they were. I also appreciated the blend of academic and applied aspects of peace ethology. It's nice to know that making the world more peaceful is a distinct possibility. I hope that Peace Ethology will enjoy a broad global audience. It would be a perfect book for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in a wide variety of departments and programs. 

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