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.


Research 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 Samoa. Mead describes the Polynesian island as a blissful utopia, whose inhabitants make love, not war. Actually, as critics of Mead have pointed out, Samoa has historically been wracked by warfare.


Indeed, 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 the University of Illinois, estimates that up to ninety-five percent of primitive societies engaged in at least occasional warfare, and many fought constantly. Tribal combat usually involved skirmishes and ambushes rather than pitched battles. But over time, the chronic fighting could produce mortality rates as high as fifty percent.


Unfortunately, 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,” Harvard University anthropologist Richard Wrangham contends in Demonic Males, “because with extraordinary power comes extraordinary reproductive success.”


As evidence for this hypothesis, Wrangham cites studies of societies such as the Yanomamo, a tribe scattered across the Amazonian region of Brazil and Venezuela. Yanomamo men from different villages often engage in protracted feuds, marked by lethal raids and counterraids. Like most tribal societies, the Yanomamo are polygamous. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who has observed the Yanomamo for decades, found that killers had, on average, twice as many wives and three times as many children as nonkillers.


But 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 Europe during the Middle Ages, but their Scandinavian descendants are among the most peaceful people on Earth. Similarly, early twentieth-century Japan was extremely belligerent; even Zen Buddhist leaders such as D.T. Suzuki, who later helped to popularize Buddhism in the West, encouraged attacks on China and other countries. But since its traumatic defeat in World War II, Japan has embraced pacifism.


In 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 Europe during the twentieth century was one percent. Worldwide, about 100 million men, women, and children died from warrelated causes, including disease and famine, in the last century. The total would have been 2 billion if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society.




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?


Or 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 Yale University neuroscientist Jose Delgado. To show his scheme’s feasibility, Delgado implanted electrodes in the brains of psychiatric patients and manipulated their limbs and emotions with a remote-controlled device. He also carried out a demonstration—reported on the front page of The New York Times—with a bull that had electrodes embedded in its brain. When the bull charged, Delgado pushed a button on a remote control, and the bull stopped in its tracks. The question is: Who gets the electrodes in the brain, and who gets the remote control?


In 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 New York, a bunch of friends and I enjoy venting our aggression every winter by playing pond hockey. Aggression can even serve the cause of peace. I’ve known some extremely aggressive peace activists.


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.


After 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 combat in Vietnam fired at the enemy. But Grossman contends that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam paid a heavy price for being transformed into more effective killers; a majority of combat veterans are thought to have suffered some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, flashbacks, panic, depression, and guilt. Mental health experts are already predicting that American soldiers fighting in Iraq will experience similar rates of posttraumatic stress disorder.


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.


One perennial plan is for all nations to yield power to a global institution that can enforce peace. This was the vision that inspired the League of Nations and the United Nations. But neither the United States nor any other major power is likely to entrust its national security to an international entity anytime soon. And even if they did, how would they ensure that a global military force does not become repressive? One encouraging finding to emerge from political science is that democracies rarely, if ever, fight each other. But does that mean democracies such as the United States should use military means to force countries with no democratic tradition to accept this form of governance? If history teaches us anything, it is that war often begets more war. Religion has been prescribed as a solution to war and aggression. After all, most religions preach love and forgiveness and prohibit killing, at least in principle. But, in practice, religion has often inspired, rather than inhibited, bloodshed.


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.”


In 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 Rwanda, Somalia, and other African nations in the last decade. The ultimate cause is that overpopulation has led to deforestation, overgrazing, and soil depletion, and, hence, a Hobbesian struggle over dwindling resources. But resource scarcity has not played a significant role in other modern conflicts, such as the civil war that raged in the Balkans during the 1990s.


War, 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 United States establish a kind of Manhattan Project aimed at solving it once and for all. The project could be administered by the United States Institute of Peace, a low-profile federal institution that Congress quietly created in 1984. Just as a percentage of the budget for the Human Genome Project is allocated to ethical issues, so too should part of the Department of Defense’s budget be allocated to peace studies. One tenth of one percent— or $500 million, roughly twenty times the institute’s current budget—should be sufficient.


The institute could support and coordinate the efforts of other research programs. The Correlates of War project, founded at the University of Michigan by political scientist J. David Singer, has stockpiled statistical information about more than 1,000 conflicts—ranging from small-scale civil wars up to the World Wars—that have occurred since 1815. Even broader in its scope is the Human Relations Area Files, based at Yale University, which has compiled ethnographic reports on more than 1,000 different societies around the world, from the Navajo to the African !Kung. These databases can help researchers formulate and test hypotheses linking war to, say, child-rearing practices, women’s rights, criminal punishment, education, freedom of the press, environmental management, economic policies, and religious beliefs.


Through grants and publications, a generously resourced Institute of Peace would encourage ambitious young scientists to see peace as a challenge at least as worthy of pursuit as a cure for AIDS or a cheap, clean, renewable source of energy. War research would be the ultimate multidisciplinary enterprise, drawing upon such diverse fields as game theory, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, theology, ecology, political science, and economics. The short-term goal of peace researchers would be to find ways to reduce conflict in the world today, wherever it might occur. The long-term goal would be to explore how nations can make the transition toward permanent disarmament: the elimination of armies, arms, and arms industries.


In his recent book The Blank Slate, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker argues for what he calls a “tragic” view of human nature, which accepts that we are limited by our biological heritage. Pinker uses the term “utopian” to describe the belief that we can transcend human nature and create a perfect world. By utopian, Pinker means hopelessly naive. Many scientists no doubt dismiss the goal of global disarmament as utopian in this sense. These skeptics will argue that we will always need some military force to protect us from our own aggressive instincts; at the very least, some transnational organization should always retain a military force, perhaps equipped with nuclear weapons, to deter or suppress attacks from outlaw states or organizations, such as North Korea and al-Qaida.


Certainly, 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 Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended peacefully. Apartheid also ended in South Africa without significant violence, and human rights have advanced elsewhere around the world.


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