Monday, March 17, 2008

War and Peace

There is a new article by John Horgan, in the Discover Magazine regarding the eternal question of whether aggressiveness is in our genes and inevitable or can be done away with and lead to peaceful human existence.

I was introduced to psychology by reading Eric Fromm's excellent treatise on the same titled The Anatomy of human destructivity, in which he passionately argues that the animals are not cruel or destructive; but that it is a uniquely human trait. that book is a classic and I recommend it whole heartedly to anyone who has interest in the matter.

The Discover magazine article in particular quotes too of my favorite scientists: Robert Sapolsky and Frans De walls and they are on the side of 'peaceful humans' . It also has discusses those hwo belive in a darker view of human nature.

Some excerpts follow:

Frans de Waal stands in a watchtower at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center north of Atlanta, talking about war. As three hulking male chimpanzees and a dozen females loll below him, the renowned primatologist rejects the idea that war stems from “some sort of blind aggressive drive.” Observations of lethal fighting among chimpanzees, our close genetic relatives, have persuaded many people that war has deep biological roots. But de Waal says that primates, and especially humans, are “very calculating” and will abandon aggressive strategies that no longer serve their interests. “War is evitable,” de Waal says, “if conditions are such that the costs of making war are higher than the benefits.”
De Waal acknowledges that “we have a tendency, and all the primates have a tendency, to be hostile to non–group members.” But he and other experts insist that humans and their primate cousins are much less bellicose than the public has come to believe. Studies of monkeys, apes, and Homo sapiens offer ample hope that we can overcome our aggressive tendencies and greatly reduce or maybe even eliminate warfare.

Biologist Robert Sapolsky is a leading challenger of what he calls the “urban myth of inevitable aggression.” At his Stanford University office, peering out from a tangle of gray-flecked hair and beard, he tells me that primate studies contradict simple biological theories of male belligerence—for example, those that blame the hormone testosterone. Aggression in primates may actually be the cause of elevated testosterone, rather than vice versa. Moreover, artificially increasing or decreasing testosterone levels within the normal range usually just reinforces previous patterns of aggression rather than dramatically transforming behavior; beta males may still be milquetoasts, and alphas still bullies. “Social conditioning can more than make up for the hormone,” Sapolsky says.

De Waal suspects that environmental factors contribute to the bonobos’ benign character; food is more abundant in their dense forest habitat than in the semi-open woodlands where chimpanzees live. Indeed, his experiments on captive primates have established the power of environmental factors. In one experiment, rhesus monkeys, which are ordinarily incorrigibly aggressive, grew up to be kinder and gentler when raised with mild-mannered stump-tailed monkeys.

De Waal has also reduced conflict among monkeys by increasing their interdependence and ensuring equal access to food. Applying these lessons to humans, de Waal sees promise in alliances, such as the European Union, that promote trade and travel and hence interdependence. “Foster economic ties,” he says, “and the reason for warfare, which is usually resources, will probably dissipate.”

Fry has also identified 74 “nonwarring cultures” that—while only a fraction of all known societies—nonetheless contradict the depiction of war as universal. His list includes nomadic hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung in Africa and Aborigines in Australia. These examples are crucial, Fry says, because our ancestors are thought to have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers from the emergence of the Homo lineage just over 2 million years ago in Africa until the appearance of agriculture and permanent settlements about 12,000 years ago. That time span constitutes 99 percent of our history.

Lethal violence certainly occurred among those nomadic hunter-gatherers, Fry acknowledges, but for the most part it consisted not of genuine warfare but of fights between two men, often over a woman. These fights would sometimes precipitate feuds between friends and relatives of the initial antagonists, but members of the band had ways to avoid these feuds or cut them short. For example, Fry says, third parties might step between the rivals and say, “‘Let’s talk this out’ or ‘You guys wrestle, and the winner gets the woman.’”

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