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War or Peace?

Everyone has an opinion about whether we are peaceful or warlike. It matters.

Just recently, I happened upon this, in a blog written by historian Victor Davis Hanson: “In a word, peace studies is a well-intentioned, therapeutic exercise—based on a misunderstanding of human nature, and fueled by the common post-Enlightenment notion that with enough education, money, government power, and good intentions elites can eliminate, often by fiat, distasteful elements of the human experience, war especially.” Dr. Hanson, a rightwing arm-chair interventionist who never met a war he didn’t like (so long as it was fought by someone else), was revealing – actually, reveling in – a common misunderstanding of “human nature,” especially pronounced as well as especially dangerous when applied to matters of war and peace.

I am thinking specifically of the canard that Homo sapiens is instinctively aggressive and warlike. The reality, of course, is that human beings really are instinctively aggressive and warlike … just as we are also instinctively nonviolent and peaceful. As I have written in War, Peace, and Human Nature, a compendium edited by anthropologist Douglas Fry, when it comes to matters of war and peace, our evolutionary bequest - as with many other behavioral inclinations - is Janus-faced: it looks in two, quite different directions, in this case toward war as well as toward peace. (This volume summarizes a huge research literature, all pointing toward the reality of “primitive” human peace as something every bit as real as our supposedly instinctive tendency for war.)

All too often, people are less likely to take lessons from biology than to impose their own biases and political ideologies onto the evolutionary process. In this regard, errors don’t count for much when they involve debate about whether our species is “naturally” altruistic or selfish, fundamentally social or solitary, and so forth. But when it comes to our reputed war-proneness, presuppositions become prescriptions, and the consequences of error can be far-reaching. I have lost track of how many students have told me that they hold out no hope of moving to a truly peacetime world system because “war is in our genes.” They are, of course, correct. But so is peace.

The much-criticized – and also much-defended – research of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon is especially relevant in this regard. Professor Chagnon’s decades-long studies of the Yanomamo people of the Amazon, in which they are portrayed (accurately, I believe) as the “fierce people,” have molded the world-views of generations of readers, who, in the process, have assumed that such ferocity is characteristic of all “primitive” – which is to say, pretechnological – humanity.

I have some passing familiarity with the Yanomamo, from my own time in the Amazon more than 40 years ago, just as I have some passing familiarity with Chagnon himself. And I have no doubt that these people – just as people more generally – are capable of warlike ferocity under certain circumstances, as they are capable of peaceful kindness and nonviolent conflict reconciliation at other times. One problem is that in this regard, even serious scientific researchers look at various human societies and see themselves as in a fun-house mirror, with their own image distorted. I suspect, moreover, that many male researchers – suffering as they do from X-chromosome deficiency syndrome – are especially impressed by stories of violence and derring-do, as a result of which they repeat and elaborate upon such accounts to the detriment of other, more peaceful alternatives … which are no less real.

Psychologist B. F. Skinner once wrote that “no science changes what it is a science about,” a statement that certainly applies to astronomy or theoretical physics, but not to the scientific investigation of ourselves. Our view of ourselves powerfully influences our own actions, never more so than when it comes to the question of our own “inherent” violence or peacefulness. Subscribe to the notion that we are doomed to a Hobbesian “warre of each against each,” and the next step is to support sky-high military budgets as well as highly punitive criminal codes, and to look askance, à la Dr. Hanson, at peace-building, peace-keeping, even negotiations toward such ends.

The ancient Roman general Vegetius once announced “If you want peace, prepare for war,” which the American sociologist William Sumner amended to “If you want peace, prepare for peace, for what you prepare for is what you shall get.” Ideally, we should prepare for both, since we know that both are possible. My point, however, is that too many of us – myself included – have latched onto a vision of instinctive human ferocity and war-proneness, which in turn has had the effect of precluding realistic hope for an alternative and more peaceful future.

The reality is both hopeful and more than a bit amorphous. We human beings have been, currently are, and will undoubtedly continue to be both nasty and nice, war-mongering and peace-seeking, spawn of the devil and responsive to the better angels of our nature. As Jean-Paul Sartre memorably put it: “You are free. Decide.”

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is "Homo mysterious: evolutionary puzzles of human nature" (Oxford University Press, 2012), and "Peace and Conflict Studies," 3rd edition (Sage Publications, 2013)