April 12, 2010
The human tendency toward war is based on biology, but the right family planning policies can redirect the world toward peace.
Close your eyes for a moment and cast your mind back to the dominant news stories of early 2010. The economy in tatters? Certainly. Global stalemate on climate negotiations and unbreakable gridlock in Congress? Of course. And don’t forget the terror — on Christmas Eve, 2009, a lone Nigerian man boards an airplane in Lagos and travels some 18 hours toward Detroit in what can only have been a dizzying combination of anxiety, fear and elation, and a grandiose sense of his own destiny. It all ends with a little ineffectual fumbling in the underpants, cut short by the heroism of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s fellow passengers.
The official response to the underwear bomber reveals the usual inability of large bureaucracies to connect the dots or take meaningful action on real threats. Instead of understanding and reassessment, we get yet another late, inappropriate and costly escalation in airport security and political infighting about the treatment of Abdulmutallab — all of it embedded in an unacknowledged but resolute refusal to see the bigger picture.
Meanwhile, the real killing continues to elude the headlines. It is on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province where allied Western soldiers struggle with the almost impossible task of attacking the Taliban without killing civilians. It is in Darfur and the Congo, where death tolls are in the millions, not the thousands, and it is in Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims meet. Here is primeval warfare in full abundance, where bands of men are knit together by ancient bonds of shared violence. They are motivated to kill their neighbors systematically and deliberately, not just by lust for land and resources but also by hatred of the “other” and a too-seldom acknowledged love of war and warring ways. It is in these places, and scores of others where the violence simmers just below the surface, that people live close to one of the darkest realities of human nature.
Humans — human males, really — are not peaceful animals. They are in fact a spectacularly violent species, and very nearly uniquely so. Despite high-minded modern wishes and the received wisdom of three generations of anthropologists and sociologists, warfare is not an aberration in human development, nor is it a learned, culturally determined behavior. War and its ancillary behaviors — including racism, slavery, mass rape and the subjugation of women — are not cultural problems and thus do not have neat, sociological solutions. Along with terrorism, these most destructive of human behaviors derive clearly and directly from our biology, bequeathed to us by an evolutionary pathway that we share with just one other extant species, the chimpanzees.
War, simply put, is in our genes. It is a complex behavior built up out of a series of emotions and impulses that are, in general, expressed more in men than in women, and more in young men than in old. It arose early in our evolutionary history because the most violent of our pre-human male ancestors had more offspring than their more peaceful or timid competitors; it has been with us as long as we have been a species and in all probability will be with us as long as we remain one. Our warlike impulses cannot be stopped with enhanced airport imaging, extrajudicial treatment of terrorism suspects or any attempt at a literal “war on terror.”
From biology, medicine, history, literature, political theory, sociology and evolutionary psychology, a clear picture emerges: War is a biological behavior. As robust science demonstrates — and common sense and the experience of warriors around the world and throughout history attest — war is part of the human condition. But does this mean that war is inevitable and peace an unattainable dream?
Emphatically, and demonstrably, no. Most of the world, despite economic challenges, is remarkably peaceful, and as improbable as it seems, the past century has actually been the most peaceful in known human history. The last soldiers who experienced the horrors of trench warfare in France have died, the guns are silent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the leaders of Pakistan and India are trying to talk to one another. The Vikings, who once personified the merciless terror of war for an entire continent, have become the Scandinavians, as resolute as anyone in the quest for tolerance at home, and peace and openness around the world.
Crucially, war’s deep roots in our evolutionary past do not condemn us to a future as filled with warfare as our history has been. On the contrary, recognizing and accepting the centrality of war in human nature sheds new light on real, practicable policy prescriptions that can help make war less common in the future and less brutal when it does occur. Humans are complex, adaptable animals. And all genes, behavioral or not, are influenced by their environments. If humans truly want peace, they must seek to understand the biology of war and use that understanding to devise policies — chief among them, improved access to family planning services that can control some demographic drivers of war — so as to help the biology of peace win out.