War or Peace
Neither doomed to violence nor peaceful by nature, we are shaped by the civilizations we create. Modern society spends a good deal of time, effort, and scientific resource on finding better ways to wage war. What if we directed just a fraction of that energy toward finding a better way to wage peace?
As a science writer, I am sometimes asked what I consider to be the most important unsolved scientific problem. I used to rattle off pure science’s major mysteries: Why did the big bang bang? How did life begin on Earth, and does it exist anywhere else in the cosmos? How does a brain make a mind? Sometime after 9/11, however, I started replying that by far the biggest problem facing scientists—and all of humanity—is the persistence of warfare, or the threat thereof, as a means for resolving disputes between people.
Skeptics might object that war is not a scientific issue. Certainly, it is a dauntingly complex phenomenon, with political, economic, and social ramifications. But the same could be said of problems such as global warming, population growth, and AIDS, all of which are being rigorously addressed by scientists. Moreover, I believe that the problem of warfare— unlike mysteries such as the origin of the universe or life or consciousness, which may prove to be intractable—can and will be solved.
has already revealed enough about warfare to dispel two persistent,
contradictory myths. One is the idea of the noble savage, which blames warfare
on civilization and holds that humans in their primordial state were peaceful
and loving. This is the implicit theme of Margaret Mead’s classic bestseller
Coming of Age in
as far back as anthropologists have peered into human history and prehistory,
they have found evidence of group bloodshed. In War Before
Civilization, Lawrence Keeley, an anthropologist at
these revelations about the ubiquity of warfare have led some scholars to
perpetuate a much more insidious myth: Warfare is a constant of the human
condition that can at best be controlled, but never eradicated. Fatalists who
take this position often describe war in Darwinian terms—as an inevitable
consequence of innate male ambition and aggression. “Males have evolved to
possess strong appetites for power,”
evidence for this hypothesis, Wrangham cites studies
of societies such as the Yanomamo, a tribe scattered
across the Amazonian region of
Chagnon, significantly, has rejected the notion that
aggressive instincts compel Yanomamo warriors to
fight. Truly compulsive, out-of-control killers, Chagnon
explains, are quickly killed themselves, and don’t live long enough to have
many wives and children. Successful warriors are usually quite controlled and
calculating; they fight because that is how a male advances in their society.
Moreover, many Yanomamo men have confessed to Chagnon that they loathe war and wish it could be abolished
from their culture—and, in fact, rates of violence have recently dropped
dramatically, as Yanomamo villages have accepted the
laws and mores of the outside world. History offers many other examples of
warlike societies that rapidly became peaceful. Vikings were the scourge of
fact, hard as it may be to believe, humanity as a whole has become much less
violent than it used to be. Despite the massive slaughter that resulted from
World Wars I and II, the rate of violent death for males in North America and
These statistics contradict the myth that war is a constant of the human condition. But they also suggest, contrary to the myth of the noble savage, that civilization has not created the problem of warfare; it is helping us solve it. We need more civilization, not less, if we wish to eradicate war. Civilization has given us legal institutions that resolve disputes by establishing laws, negotiating agreements, and enforcing them. These institutions, which range from local courts to the United Nations, have vastly reduced the risk of violence both within and between nations. They are what keep us from succumbing to the chronic violence that afflicts societies like the Yanomamo.
Obviously, our institutions are far from perfect. Nations around the world still maintain huge arsenals, including weapons of mass destruction, and war keeps breaking out. So what should we do? Maybe we need more drastic measures to abolish war once and for all. One possibility would be to tinker with our physiologies to make ourselves less aggressive. Scientists have linked various genes and neurochemicals to violent tendencies. For example, many violent criminals have low levels of serotonin. Should we try to curb our aggressive instincts by altering our neurochemistry or genes?
maybe we should all have electrodes implanted in our brains, zapping us when we
act or even think aggressively. This idea was actually proposed back in 1969 in
Physical Control of the Mind, a book by
his classic book On Aggression, biologist Konrad
Lorenz acknowledges that it might be possible to “breed out the aggressive
drive by eugenic planning.” But that would be a huge mistake, Lorenz argues,
because aggression is a vital part of our humanity. It plays a role in almost
all human endeavors, including science, the arts, business, politics, and
sports. In my hometown in upstate
Moreover, one of the most positive findings to emerge from recent studies of warfare is that few men relish lethal combat— and not just because they fear being wounded or killed. In On Killing, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a psychologist, military science expert, and former U.S. Army ranger, asserts that most men abhor killing, even when it is sanctioned by their society. As evidence, Grossman cites military surveys, which reveal that during the American Civil War and both World Wars, as many as eighty percent of men in combat deliberately avoided firing at the enemy.
World War II, Grossman notes, the armed services revamped its training to make
soldiers less reluctant to kill. As a result, most American soldiers who saw
Even if warfare is at least in part biologically based—and what human behavior isn’t?—we cannot end it by altering our biology. Modern war is primarily a social and political phenomenon, and we need social and political solutions to end it. Many such solutions have been proposed, but all are problematic.
perennial plan is for all nations to yield power to a global institution that
can enforce peace. This was the vision that inspired the
Many feminists have predicted that as women gain more political power, we will evolve toward a more peaceful world. Females in all societies engage in violence much less than males do. In his book War and Gender, political scientist Joshua Goldstein estimates that females have accounted for fewer than one percent of all those who have fought in wars throughout history. But he notes that women have also helped to perpetuate war throughout history by favoring warriors as mates and shunning cowards. During World War I, for example, women in Britain and the United States organized a campaign to hand out white feathers to men not wearing a uniform, shaming them for avoiding military service.
Moreover, those few women who have risen to positions of great power in the modern era—notably Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi—demonstrated that they could be just as aggressive as their male counterparts in leading their countries into war. Goldstein concludes that women “do not appear to be more peaceful, more oriented to nonviolent resolution of international conflicts, or less committed to state sovereignty and territorial integrity than are male leaders.”
his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond
argues that many wars, both ancient and modern, spring from mismanagement of
environmental resources. He notes, for example, that ethnic conflicts are only
the proximate causes of the hostilities that have ravaged
it seems fair to say, is overdetermined—that is, it
can spring from many different causes. Peace, if it is to be permanent, must be
overdetermined too. Given the enormous complexity of
the problem of war, I would like to see the
institute could support and coordinate the efforts of other research programs.
The Correlates of War project, founded at the
grants and publications, a generously resourced
his recent book The Blank Slate,
total disarmament seems a remote possibility now. But can we really accept
armies and armaments, including weapons of mass destruction, as permanent
features of civilization? As recently as the late 1980s, global nuclear war
still seemed like a distinct possibility. Then, incredibly, the
Just in the last century, we humans have split the atom, landed spacecraft on the moon and Mars, and cracked the genetic code. Deep down—perhaps because I have two young children—I have faith that we will solve the problem of war. If the capacity for war is in our genes, as many seem to fear these days, so is the capacity—and the desire—for peace. Even our most hawkish leaders claim that peace is their ultimate goal. As an agnostic, I have a hard time believing in God, but I believe in humanity’s common sense, moral decency, and instinct for self-preservation. We will abolish war someday. The only question is how, and how soon.
by John Horgan