The latest edition of Discover (June 2012) investigates a fundamental question about human nature–are we inherently warlike or are we ultimately peace loving beings?
The twin articles are written by biologist E. O. Wilson who promulgates the bellicose perspective and John Horgan who argues that war is not inevitable. Unfortunately I believe the preponderance of evidence, both historical and evolutionary point to our species, homo sapiens, as profoundly aggressive and warlike. I agree with Wilson that history is replete with endless examples of brutality, genocide, ruthless slaughter of innocents, etc. etc. It has to do with, what I believe, is a tribal gene.
Peace seems to occur only after we have completely exhausted ourselves through orgies of death and destruction.
The quality that probably allowed us to conquer and destroy our physically more powerful cousins, the Neanderthal, produced in its offspring (us) a quality of ruthlessness that is unmatched in the animal kingdom.
The study of our evolutionary cousins the chimpanzees reveals how frighteningly similar their single file silent march into enemy territory seems. They cleverly avoid larger more powerful rival troops but seek to enlarge their own territory at all costs. Rival chimps once captured are brutally ripped apart.
Horgan, on the other hand, points to our less aggressive but genetically related cousins, the bonobo chimps. They are notoriously famous for their highly sexual dealings with friends and foe. " Make love not war " is clearly their mantra. It would be preferable to be in Horgan's camp. And it would certainly preferable to have inherited the bonobos ingrained sexual release for possible aggression.
Unfortunately human history reveals the flaw in his argument. Wilson is, sadly, correct. We are beasts who are capable of love for those within our tribe, and brutal aggression towards anyone we deem our rivals. Our capability of dehumanizing the "other" allows otherwise normal, ethical, self-proclaimed civilized beings to brutalize other human beings. Genocides, holocausts, mass exterminations are undertaken by "normal" members of our species. They are not psychotic or metally deranged. They are operating under the auspices of a tribal gene.
Is there any hope whatsoever for eventual peace? Perhaps the first step is to recognize who we are.
There is also hope that we teach our children that war and killing does not have to occur. Children who experience others from different racial and religious groups and who recognize their common humanity are much more likely to be tolerant of those who are "different" later in life. Sadly, reports of children being brainwashed that the "other" is their mortal enemy will only feed into the unrelenting path our species has followed.
We are literally brothers and sisters.
Our DNAs are virtually identical. We need to remind ourselves that the human drive to find differences among each other is powerful and pernicious because it is usually unrecognized. We cover it over with proclamations and descriptions of the "other" as completely different from ourselves. We inherently fear the "other". That fear turns into rage because anger feels better than retreat and passivity. Rage turns into genocide and war.
Outsiders to a conflict may observe little difference between warring African tribes, the citizens of Northern Ireland, Arabs and Israelis. Ah, but we look for those differences and rest assured we find them–time and again.
The cycle can only be broken when ALL of humanity awakens to its futility. One side is reluctant to make peace when the "other" remains a threat. And so the cycle continues.
Sadly, unless our species experience some cosmic revelation of insight, we are doomed to follow the path that Wilson and our chimp ancestors have laid out for us.