Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Does Peace Have a Chance?

There's an interesting article in Slate today asking whether predisposition to war is truly ingrained in human nature.

I didn't know this, but:
"...there is little or no clear-cut evidence of lethal group aggression among any societies prior to 12,000 years ago. War emerged and rapidly spread over the next few thousand years among hunter-gatherers and other groups, particularly in regions where people abandoned a nomadic lifestyle for a more sedentary one and populations grew. War arose, according to this perspective, because of changing environmental and cultural conditions rather than because of 'human nature'."
Assuming that's correct (and we can really draw authoritative conclusions about human behavior so far back), it makes sense that sedentary, higher-population areas naturally give rise to nationalism. And nationalism ("we're great") necessarily contains the seeds of xenophobia ("we're great compared to them"). The 20th century showed us where that dynamic ultimately winds up.

The development of the notion of an "us" relies upon the contrasting presence of a "them". From primitive societies to American anti-Muslim bigots, one hallmark of provincialism is the dehumanization of the barbaric tribe across the river - and by staying in one place and growing an insular population, tribal instinct stagnates into cohesive nationalism. By contrast, nomads see more of the world, and while there's nothing more tribal than a group of nomads, demonization of The Other may be less likely to develop in those who've personally encountered lots of others.

The writer of the piece, John Horgan, argues that war was just a 12,000 year trend, and, given the drop in war deaths over the past fifty years, it may be winding down. I can't say I'm persuaded, given that 1. we evolved to the top of the food chain via extraordinarily competitiveness and aggressivity (i.e. it's burned in to who we are
*), and 2. five decades isn't statistically significant re: a 1200 decade trend.

On the other hand, the past half-century has brought an unprecedented erosion of insularity, with cheaper/faster means of travel plus the vicarious travel made possible by TV, movies, and Internet. Cultural nomadism is fast becoming the norm, and that could indeed be making a huge difference (e.g. read about these lovely, net-savvy Middle Eastern kids, tired of extremism and stereotypes, who I'll write about separately next week).

* - This may account for the lack of indications of intelligent life in the universe. As technology improves, so does the means to kill efficiently, and since intelligent life represents the ultimate victor in the ruthless arena of evolution, there'll always be someone ruthless enough to press any given "kill" button at some point.


howler said...

i don't understand the footnoted comment: are you suggesting that intelligent life is scarcely found because its been killed off?!

Jim Leff said...

Yes. The same evolutionary process that makes us intelligent also makes us ruthless, competitive and aggressive (even you laid-back hedgies!).

And given that intelligence leads to tech advancement, and tech advancement means, over time, increasingly efficient means to kill, the ruthless, competitive and aggressive victors of the evolutionary struggle will always snuff themselves out as technology advances.

Here's a sophisticated riff on why it's a GOOD thing we haven't spotted extraterrestrial life:

Edward Beshers said...

If we define war as organized violence, then I think we can safely say that it is a part of human nature. As animals, we have an instinct towards anger and aggression. As intelligent, social creatures, we have an historical movement toward a greater level of organization and cooperation. Combine those two traits together and you get war, just as surely for humans as for ants or apes. Indeed, given its prevalence in our past, it is impossible to deny mankind's predisposition towards war.

The most important point, however, is that humanity has the ability to evolve and change. The "cultural nomadism" (good phrase, btw) of the information age is redefining the tribal lines that spawn the "us" versus "them" mentality. The good news, of course, is that anger can be channeled away from violence and towards more productive pursuits. As we become further interconnected and therefore more deeply aware of each other's humanity, I believe there is cause to hope that we will see more wars on poverty, and less on the specter of a foreign enemy.

Jim Leff said...

"The most important point, however, is that humanity has the ability to evolve and change."

I strongly agree. But I'm afraid the impact, in terms of war, will be limited, because war isn't made by masses, it's made by individuals. And if the masses have eons of ruthless aggressive competitiveness to transcend, consider the uber-sharks who successfully snarl and fight to the top of even that hierarchy.

And in terms of my digression re: our eventually hoisting ourselves via our technological petard, that, too, is a numbers game. Even if 95% of the human race turns downright Aquarian, there will always be a scumbag or two out there ready/willing/able to trigger the unthinkable. And as time goes by, it will become increasingly easier and cheaper for one random shmuck to kill more and more people more and more efficiently. There's a Moore's law for that, alas.

In both cases, it only takes one evil character. So we unfortunately can't count on human spiritual development to save us.

Sorry to be bleak. There's lots of great stuff about being human, too. So even though we may be doomed, count on incredible beauty the whole way down. They say the angels are jealous of us, because while they have peace and stability, only we, scampering down here in the muck, have that (fatal) capacity for passion and beauty.

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