War and human nature

Reading The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, by David Livingstone Smith. The author is a philosopher but here incorporates cognitive social sciences and neurology to assemble a compelling presentation about human aggression and violence. Smith’s perspective is evolutionary biology but his control of the literature from philosophy to anthropology to history and beyond makes the book very cogent, organized, informative, and compelling.

As a premise, Smith states that “it is both possible and desirable to understand our capacity for war scientifically,” which he sees as an “innate biologically-based potential” and not strictly cultural. War and aggression have neurological bases in both evolution and observed evidence in primate group behavior. (Humans share nearly 98.77 percent of our genes with chimpanzees.) The emergence of territorial groups in chimpanzees culminated in raids and mass killing, even atrocities and mutilations of non-group individuals, as Jane Goodall first observed. Smith correctly notes that humans are not part of the Carnivora family but the Primates, and thus aggression and violence has nothing to do with the behavior of lions, tigers, or wolves but rather with the behavior of chimpanzee and their brain functions, genetics, and social behavior as hunter-gatherers.

One can appreciate Smith’s points here because so much New Age thought blames human violence on the emergence of civilization, agriculture, and cities. All the evidence from anthropology shows that hunter-gatherers (human and primate) were fiercely territorial and xenophobic. The transition from hunter-gatherer to hierarchical did not introduce new behavioral instincts but only exacerbated them.

In their famous correspondence titled Why War?, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud identified three factors or triggers to war:

  1. resources: territory, food, fertility, expansion — and in humans — the idea of resources and the creation of intangible ideals
  2. evolution of behavior that fosters reproductive success, and
  3. evolutionary transformation of motive (provided by biology) into pretexts contrived by humans in appropriate or opportune circumstances.

One mistake made concerning evolution is the notion that evolution represents progress or improvement rather than merely adaptive change across generations. As Smith puts it, “change is horizontal nor vertical.” The expectation that humans ought to be moving into an ethical paradigm that separates them from chimpanzee behavior is itself an assumption. But in fact the development of intellect has merely provided sophisticated justifications for aggression and war.

Even before these justifications enter human social behavior, the vestiges of primate social behavior remain quite strong. Smith offers examples such as male dominance in war, the endorsement of war by women, the genetic sexual attraction of soldiers to women and groups, and the proliferation of rape and atrocities as instinctual reproductive success are all vestiges of primate behavior that goes unquestioned in human society. But furthermore, the development of self-deception, of “coalitionary violence,” as Smith calls it, and of reciprocity makes morality itself a justification rather than a curb on violence and war.

Morality becomes the justification for three central expressions of aggression: ethnocentric, xenophobic, and nepotistic. Society exacerbates these by fostering competition at every social and age level, emphasizing group over individual, and exploiting mirror neurons (the existence of which, however, few people are even aware). Unlike chimpanzees, humans contrive a “web of beliefs” overlaid on social behavior concerning “good, evil, pride, humiliation, friends, heroes, villains and martyrs.”

Smith concludes that chimpanzee warfare transitioned to primitive human warfare, which then was systematized with concepts of sufficient cognitive sophistication that the concepts attained ideological dimension. The social and cultural process seeks out channels of aggression and war and exacerbates them further through dehumanization, demonization, and predator imagery. These are fascinating chapters that Smith amply illustrates with clear examples from history.

Smith’s conclusion is simple and sober: “Taking my cues from the past, I am far from optimistic about the future.” He continues: “We will never stop men from enjoying wars, and trying to do so is a fool’s errand. … The most that we can hope for in the end, is for men to detest it more than enjoy it, and the only way to shift that balance is to expose the self-deception that makes killing bearable.”

Exposing the self-deception is exposing the entire conceptual construct that drives cultures: beliefs, social identity, and all the mechanisms Smith enumerates, such as xenophobia, territoriality, and the whole apparatus of good and evil conjured to bolster what are base neurological instincts.

All of this is pressingly relevant to the issue of what the individual derives from society and the group. Group behavior overrides the potential behavior of the individual, especially constructed to override the behavior of the individual who is thoughtful, serious, reflective, and solitary. Coalitionary violence in chimpanzees is instinctual, but in humans it is manufactured and refined to override common sense and reflection. Smith even refers to social animals in general as xenophobic, versus “loner” animals that do not reflect such instincts. Humans are “hierarchical, ethnocentric animals” as Smith puts it, social rather than individual in its instinctual characteristics.

Of course, no individual escapes socialization and the inevitable identification with groups, nor the inevitable tagging of that individual with group labels. But the potential for not going in that direction, for honestly examining what we do as instinctual or provoked potential, is real and available. Can Smith’s pessimistic conclusion be addressed? Only in the individual.

For the individual, the way to address instincts or potentials is in ways of thinking and working with nature, people, and self. In part, this work calls for an understanding of the brain as a kind of material condition. The neurosciences are increasingly helpful in that regard. We are also pressed to address the status of those parts of the brain (those parts of our lives and personalities) that harbor the most primitive instincts or potentials. What motivates our lives? What behaviors and thoughts mimic the causes of aggression enumerated by Einstein and Freud? What characteristics of society do we see reproduced in ourselves?

As mentioned we are pressed for a method or process, and the neurosciences can help by showing where to work and how. This is also why the Dalai Lama’s frequent meetings with neuroscientists is so helpful. The wisdom traditions of the world can help us in this work by providing archetypal models of how to work with the brain, the self, and all that is around us.