How do we learn to think about war, peace, and civilization?

Once upon a time, Margaret Mead was in conversation, with James Baldwin, about the responsibility they felt for the future of their children.

He said “The world is scarcely habitable for the conscious young… There is a tremendous national, global, moral waste.”1032416766-change_-_james_baldwin-640405-300x253

Mead replied: “I know.”
Baldwin went on: “And the question is, how can it be arrested? That’s the enormous question. Look, you and I both are whatever we have become, and whatever happens to us now doesn’t really matter. We’re done. It’s a matter of the curtain coming down eventually. But what should we do about the children? We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.”
Mead eventually said: “then we come to a point where I would say it matters to know where we came from. That it matters to know the long, long road that we’ve come through. And this is the thing that gives me hope we can go further.” [1] They were discussing racially motivated murders that happened during the Civil Rights movement, and they were discussing war and suffering around the world.meadbaldwin

Mead’s comment about the importance of knowing “the long, long road that we’ve come through” really jumped out at me, because Mead was an anthropologist. Her “long road” is, therefore, not merely historical, it is evolutionary. Racism, terrorism, warfare and genocide are the scourges of history, but are they the scourges of our entire evolutionary past? Do they represent some inevitable and enduring aspect of human nature? There are many people who would affirm that humans have always been xenophobic and violent, both individually and collectively; that these are characteristics deeply engrained in our nature.

To explain human capacity for tolerance, charity, and gentleness many scholars refer to the effects of civilization. Thus, Thomas Hobbes, for example, believed that humans in a “state of nature,” or what today we would call hunter-gatherer societies, lived a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” in which there existed a “war of all against all.” This led him to conclude, as many apologists for states have since, that a stable society required leadership in order to control the rapacious violence that was inherent to human nature.

By way of contrast, in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Aynn Rand wrote that “Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.” Rand advocated industrial capitalism to free humans of such fetters.

Meanwhile others were insisting that the human mind was a blank slate receptive to any social system to which it was exposed.

What a confused and tangled set of misconceptions about human nature! When otherwise educated people have a misconception, they tend not to take kindly to information that contradicts it. Of course, this is because they do not consider this to be a misconception, but rather a received truth.

And, in the case of war, genocide, and xenophobia, after many thousands of years of such practices being widespread in those same societies responsible for recorded history, the idea that such behavior arises primarily out of human nature is an understandable position. 10491975_10152620481200549_8124917204948740086_n1235330_10151813105460549_642176742_n

So what do we have to counter it? There are about a half dozen pieces of information: equally undeniable, that should give pause to even the most stalwart followers of Rand or Hobbes. These refute the fallacies that many people still believe today.

Fallacy  #1) Collectivism suppresses individuality.

This is clearly a fallacy. The human species is intensely pro-social, thus all human societies are collective endeavors, even capitalism. Thus the attribute “collectivism” does not entail suppression of creativity and individuality – even the most “simple” economies have innovation as well as conservation of knowledge and technologies. Their values and ideologies tend to channel, not prevent, individualism.

Fallacy 2) That modern civilization decreases violence.

The main effect of violence in human societies that concerns most people, is higher mortality. There is, in humans, a difference between three main causes of deliberate death by conspecifics. These are a) interpersonal violence, b) lethal social controls, and c) warfare. Genocide can occur due to lethal social control of whole sub-communities, or it can occur in the context of warfare.

While the first two categories of violent death appear to occur in most cultures, the final one, most definitely, does not.

There is also, however, another whole category of causality that has an effect on mortality, and that is “structural” violence. This is down to racism, socio-economic inequality, and finally, discrimination against “deviant” forms of sexuality, minority religious beliefs (or atheism), or even political ideology. These structural hardships and social rejection create extreme stress for disadvantaged people. Their lives are often shortened. Even the life expectancy of their descendants, if they manage to have any, can be reduced.

Fallacy 3) Humans are naturally prone to xenophobia.

Preference for, and defense of, known and familiar companions is not the same as hostility to unknown or unfamiliar people. There is no evidence that people, even in “a state of nature” are inevitably hostile towards strangers or neighbors.

Early encounters between explorers like Columbus and the native people of the Caribbean, for example, reported curiosity, friendly offers to trade, and high levels of hospitality – to the point that Columbus was enthusiastic about the potential enslavement of such innocents.

The later hostility that greeted European settlers had as much to do with these early experiences of misunderstanding as it did with the high handed attitude of outsiders who came, clearly, with intent to usurp the lands of the people.

Experiments have shown that assignment of people to outsider status does appear to happen quickly in very young children, and to possibly represent an evolved adaptation. Children do not show fear of age mates based on skin color, dress, or other aspects of superficial appearance unless specifically taught that these indicate inferior or wicked people.

However, this is not the same as xenophobia based on different appearance or language; it is usually based on adult assignment of inferior moral or intellectual abilities to others easily differentiated by some aspect of appearance or behaviour.

Certain antagonistic group role playing experiments have such profound effects (potentially creating “inhuman’ cruelty) that they are no longer considered ethical. oddly enough, role playing exercises are still hugely popular – especially re-enactments of some of the deadliest wars of recent history. And films about deadly conflicts are popular forms of entertainment.


National elites have understood the role-playing element of building inter-group hostility for a long time.

They combine condemnation of groups who are tagged as enemies with appeals to identification with particular state, religious, or ethnic groups. This makes for a formula of propaganda that works well to coordinate both war and genocidal violence.


Four additional fallacies concern hypotheses about historical trends, that interrelate with one another to underpin the myth of progress:

Fallacy #4) that human life span has been increasing since “the Stone Age”.

This one is very pervasive. In fact, however, it is life expectancy at birth which varies a great deal between cultures, not the age to which people CAN live. Life span appears to be species specific: humans can live about 30 years longer than most great apes; but many decades short of the life span of certain species of trees and tortoises. Life expectancy on the other hand, is a feature of death rates at various ages, and thus represents at statistical probability of surviving to various ages.In a cultural ecology with high rates of malnutrition, stress, or infection, life expectancy will be low. This was the case in 17th century France, where life expectancy for males was under 30, as it is among some Pygmies in the Congo. Life expectancy varies with income throughout the industrial world, and tends to be lowest among colonized people, whether they are Scots in the UK or native Canadians or Australians today.

Life expectancy might very well have got far lower in industrialized economies had it not been for the invention of vaccines and the discovery of antibiotics. Highest rates of mortality tend to occur at the youngest ages, when immune systems get their training wheels.  Thus, prevention of these early deaths caused a massive jump in life expectancy over the past hundred years.

Fallacy #5) that all economies, prior to the industrial, were inadequate in meeting human needs for food, shelter, and individuality.

The entire colonial program summarized by the unfortunate phrase “White Man’s Burden” as well as the overt racism in Rand’s view of “primitives” stems from this. This is related to the previous point, in that it mistakes the causes of innovation. Rand’s assumption was that things tend to be invented due to individual striving for perfection and are manifestations of genius. The historically accurate view is that innovations tend to occur to solve problems.

Seen thus, the whole industrial era could be seen as a scramble to innovate fast enough to solve all the problems arising from previous innovations! Not so much progress as redress, then. And it is not just the industrial age that experienced this.

Fallacy #6) that there was some kind of evolutionary master plan programmed into humans. The evolutionary trajectory – both physical and economic, is pictured as “progress”. Thus cultural “evolution” is tacked on to models of prehistory showing descent of bipedal creatures from tree-dwelling apes, gradual increases in brain size and technological sophistication, and the emergence of anatomically modern humans.

This creates the impression that there was increased cognitive prowess responsible for the change from a mobile “immediate return” hunter-gatherer economy to more intensive land use technologies, food storage systems, sedentism, plant and animal domestication, control of rivers and ecosystems, denser settlements, building of monumental structures, development of literacy, complex division of labour, hierarchical class, and centralized political states, and so on.

International food aid programs, the activities undertaken by the many institutes, created by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation, to spread “green revolution” technologies, were all predicated on the assumption that traditional societies had woefully inadequate systems of farming and animal husbandry. The idea was that this was responsible for malnutrition in the “third world”. In fact, there is considerable evidence that neither slash and burn horticulture, nor nomadic pastoral, or forager, economies were inadequate.

Certainly these economies featured higher rates of infant and childhood mortality. But the humanitarian concerns leading to widespread vaccination and health care also caused unprecedented population growth.

The fact that this in turn led to changes in land use and local competition over resources, which resulted in malnutrition, local competition, and suffering due to structural violence (incorporating racism and other xenophobia, as well as escalating levels of income inequality) tends to be overlooked.

Furthermore, all this humanitarian fervor ignores the fact that most such peoples have become encapsulated by various state societies over the past two centuries. The priorities of the leadership of these states do not always coincide with the welfare of those, whose land use is less intensive than the state determines to be optimal for maximum Gross Domestic Production.

Fallacy #7) Deaths by violence appear to have declined in a linear fashion historically, as a result of either cultural or genetic evolution.

This is not so much an empirical fallacy, but it is a statistical one, popularized by Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature.

Transforming data on violent death, from the absolute numbers into percentages of total population, tends to produce a picture of declining rates. This is perhaps partly an artifact of the simple fact that population growth, in most agricultural economic systems, has far exceeded the increases in violent deaths for several thousand years now.

Accepting this idea of declining rates further implies that there is actually some sort of inevitable rate of murder and violent death built into human nature. If so, we then must ask what might be the cause of such rates, if indeed they are some inevitable part of the human condition. But, are they? And if they are real, have they got anything to do with warfare? If we plot deaths caused by epidemics and famines, we could play the same statistical game.

Indeed, some people have done so. But what evidence do we have that such things as epidemics of disease, and natural disasters resulting in starvation, occur at some regular rate?

Here we enter the intellectual territory well trodden by students of animal ecology. Population regulation is well understood. It appears to be achieved, in most natural wild populations of animals, as a function of predation, food supply, and disease. Most animal populations appear to exist well below carrying capacity. There are aspects of mortality that appear density dependent: as the numbers approach carrying capacity, deaths due to stress-induced aggressive competition and diseases increase, even if food supplies remain adequate.

“Calhoun, a research psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health for 40 years, discovered that severe crowding produced horrific behavioral changes among animals. The changes were so profound that social order broke down, and ultimately the entire rodent population collapsed.” 

The experimental research on mice and rats done years ago, and of relationships between wild hares and lynx, are interesting in this regard. They show that populations begin to fall long before food supplies run out.

In fact it appears now many of the deaths – even in epidemics, result not from the introduction of novel microbes but occur because of an over-reactive immune system or a stress of over-crowding: deaths by violence also increase in many species when they are overcrowded. Can we really posit that humans are so different from other animals that density does not matter? Does the idea that density dependent changes in behaviour occur in humans seem so threatening to modern people, most of whom live in densely populated urban areas… so threatening that we cannot even explore it?

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