Are we inherently warlike?

The biological roots of war seem to run deep. Biology can answer some of our questions about the reasons we go to war and commit acts of violence against one another. This post reviews two books that consider the effects of our biology on our apparent propensity to war. It is possible, however, that the premise that we are prone to war is mistaken, and we will consider evidence for that as well.

In Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden attempt to explain the roots of modern warfare by looking at human biology. First, killing seems to have an adaptive function, meaning, in the end, that men who kill end up having more children, and thus passing on their genes. The most competitive and aggressive males tend to make the largest contribution to the human gene pool, thus reinforcing our tendencies to violence. For instance, some 8% of Central Asians can trace their genes to Genghis Khan. Because evolution favours only those who reproduce, for men “at the bottom of the social pile” it is rational to risk everything, including violent death, when the alternative is not to pass on their genes.

95% of human history has been spent living and fighting in small clans. Now we live in a modern age that does not require the same aggressive behaviour, and we benefit far more from cooperation than violent competition, but nature is slow to evolve. Culture, however, evolves quickly, and its influences on our behaviour can help us “rein in our Stone Age behaviours”, such as murder and rape. Rape is common during wartime, and logically a man’s reproductive success will increase if he kills other men and rapes women. “This does not mean that men have evolved to rape,” say Potts and Hayden, “but it does suggest that many if not all men have at least the biological potential to experience the aggression, loose emotional control and dissociation from empathy that presumably underlie the act.”

Testosterone is one factor that might account for aggression, particularly differences in aggression between men and women. Testosterone is twenty times higher in men than in women. It accounts for men’s greater muscle strength, drive for status and aggression, as well as weaker control over their impulses. Unmarried men aged 20 to 24 are three times as likely to murder someone as married men of the same age. Studies also find high levels of testosterone in men convicted for violent offenses. Testosterone increases among male soccer players before and during a game. They fall among losers, but the winners experience elevated levels sometimes for days after the match. Even the fans experience rising testosterone, as we identify so strongly with our side, even when we are not fighting. High testosterone correlates strongly with assertiveness, competitiveness and the desire to manipulate others.

Chimpanzees–but bonobos too

Potts and Hayden draw much of their writing from observations of chimpanzees. We share a common ancestor with chimpanzees from about five to seven million years ago, and according to biologists, 99.6% of our DNA. Some chimp behaviour is a mirror to our own, particularly the hunting and killing–sometimes with appalling brutality–of members of the same species. Chimpanzees jockey for influence and status, impose hierarchy and reward loyalty. They also work to establish peace after fighting. In what Potts and Hayden call “the chimpanzee equivalent of international relations” we can see a reflection of human war. Each chimpanzee troop recognises its territory and borders, which it patrols. All adult male chimps display a keenness to participate in team raids on others’ territory that could end in bloody, torturous death. They fight over territory and access to resources. As a troop’s territory grows, so too does its access to food and mates, and as such expanding territory through team aggression is a way to have more offspring that survive. Surprise attacks and the use of overwhelming force are features of chimpanzee “wars”. Such brutality in chimps, as in humans, depends on the ability to turn off empathy for the enemy. Chimps display generosity to others in their ingroup, which comprises their blood relations, and hostility to their outgroup. Humans are much the same, except that our associations need not be familial. Nationalism, or its counterparts in race, religion and other associations, creates a sense of family that we are willing to kill for.

Chimpanzees even “de-chimpanzee-ise” in the same way we dehumanise. “Indeed, it might well be impossible for an intelligent, highly social animal to kill its own kind systematically unless it evolved some sort of neural machinery to de-identify those it is about to kill.” Combine the dangers of dehumanisation with our desire to go along with our group and deference to authority, and humans can become mindless killing machines.

Douglas P. Fry, however, questions the usefulness of comparing humans with chimps. ”At best, chimpanzees provide only tangential insights about human behaviour in the evolutionary past.” The idea that chimpanzee raiding has the same root as human warfare may be to obscure the differences between the two species (they have evolved separately for millions of years, after all) and ignore humans’ similarities to bonobos, to which they are roughly equally related. “Linking humans to chimpanzees instead of to bonobos is an arbitrary decision that is begging for a convincing rationale.” Bonobos do not engage in raiding. Fry quotes Frans de Waal, who in Our Inner Ape says “I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation.”

Creating the ingroup

Much of Potts and Hayden’s comparisons of humans with chimpanzees considers raids. Both humans and chimps engage in violent raids on enemy territory. War may be just an extension, an “evolution”, of team raids. Though wars can involve millions of people, fighting units (to whom loyalty is apportioned most strongly) are often small groups, like raiding parties. Fighters are the same age and condition, bonded by a sense of kinship. Raids are dangerous and depend on being able to trust every member of the team, so it is not surprising that the sense of honour is strongest among young men at the prime of their physical strength. Virtues such as loyalty, courage and camaraderie, essential to a psychological understanding of war, evolved as ways for us to protect those in our family. As Richard Dawkins explains in The Selfish Gene, because our bodies are just vehicles for our genes, we will go to great lengths, including self-sacrifice, to protect our genes. Our genes are carried by our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and so on. Therefore, we will sacrifice to save them. We can have the same feelings toward anyone we consider equivalent to kin: our friends, nation or team.

This transfer of feelings of kinship to non-blood-related associates manifests itself most evidently in the “band of brothers”. Relations in small military units are characterised by mutual support and respect, deep loyalty and shunning of anyone not seen as contributing. Men might go to war for idealistic patriotism, financial need, conscription and so on; but when the guns start firing, it is about your team.

In fact, any shared experience can create an ingroup. German and British soldiers notably left their trenches during Christmas of 1914, exchanged food and played football. They saw themselves, however briefly, as sharing the experience of being in the trenches, rather than as polar opposites bound to kill each other. (And why not, given that most of them would have had more in common with each other than with their generals.) Military trainers understand this, and as such, training usually disorients, exhausts and demeans recruits while breaking their links with the outside world. “[T]he main point is to awaken and intensify the instinctive predispositions of team aggression, producing warriors imbued with intense loyalty to those who have gone through the same training.” (Watch Full Metal Jacket for an illustration of this phenomenon.)

The important thing, of course, is to get ’em while they’re young. When boys hit puberty, the “innocence” of childhood turns into the sexual drive, competitiveness and risk-taking behaviours of early adulthood. “Their experience is limited, the drives are strong, and the rewards can seem great and death remote.” Growing up and living in the right conditions, young men could become master chess players or manipulated as a lethal force. Turning ex-child soldiers into normal boys again is an uphill battle waged against memories of the thrill and camaraderie of blowing things up with friends and wielding absolute power of life and death over terrified masses.The Nazis involved boys in military training from an early age. By 1936, 90% of German boys were in the Hitler Youth, and a few years later, 900,000 of them took part in a Nuremberg rally. It was a camping holiday filled with games and singing. What boy would not have enjoyed it? The Nazis actively encouraged the natural tendency for boys to rebel against their parents. Obedience to the group (and the Führer, of course) was essential, and cowards were ostracised. They fought furiously as part of the Wehrmacht as Hitler became more desperate and recruited younger soldiers, believing in “final victory”, while more mature minds knew it was naive. (Mao’s charisma and ideals–not to mention propaganda–recruited millions into the Red Guard in China during the Cultural Revolution.) These leaders understood human nature and how to manipulate it.

Potts and Hayden are disappointingly brief and non-committal on the biological roots of terrorism. Terrorism is more like tribal raiding than conventional war. They describe it as “a particular kind of team aggression–built very much upon ingroup identity, the desire for revenge, and a lack of empathy for the outgroup–[that] has taken on a profile out of all proportion to the number of warriors involved.” They touch on suicide bombing, as it is hard to see at first how suicide attacks could represent a successful evolutionary strategy. The sexual allure of the suicide bomber might suggest that embracing death can create new reproductive opportunities. It could also be altruistic behaviour that aids the survival of the killer’s genes. It may only be a stretch of the imagination (but not of the genes) to extend that idea to the entire national group.

The Yanomamo–our modern ancestors?

”It has become almost obligatory to mention the South American Yanomamo in any evolutionary discussion of warfare,” says Douglas P. Fry. The Yanomamo are an ethnic group in the Amazon who have fascinated anthropologists with their apparently violent ways. “Violence is ubiquitous in Yanomamo society,” claim Potts and Hayden. Yanomamo men are said to beat their wives as a warning to stay away from other men and capture women as wives in raiding parties. Men hold chest-pounding duels, wherein one men runs up to the other and punches him in the chest as hard as possible. (This form of non-lethal fighting is probably an antidote or alternative to more pernicious violence. After all, some men engage in hand-to-hand combat with their friends for fun.) Like their discussion of terrorism, the authors’ look at the Yanomamo is somewhat superficial, not explained clearly in evolutionary terms and better examined elsewhere.

In Beyond War, Fry takes up the claims against the Yanomamo. Commentators tend to assume the Yanomamo accurately represent our putatively-warlike ancestors, even though they are sedentary horticulturalists and our ancestors were hunter-gatherers; and despite the fact that bands (like our ancestors) do not form coalitions as readily as tribes (which are bigger, like the Yanomamo). Arguments from Yanomamo violence also tend to ignore differences in social organisation, and Yanomamo social organisation did not exist in ancient times. In his discussion of them, Fry points out that much of what is “known” about the Yanomamo comes from a study by Napoleon Chagnon, which has been much contested since. Chagnon found that unokais, Yanomamo men who have participated in killing and undergone a purification ritual, tended to have more than two and a half times the number of wives and three times the number of children as non-unokais of the same age. Fry takes issue with this study, pointing out that the two sample groups were not of the same age, and that the unokais as a group are at least 10 years older than the non-unokais. Neither did Chagnon’s study take into account that tribal leaders tend to have more wives and children than other men. There may be no difference between the reproductive success of those who have killed and those who have not.

Is war in our nature?

Fry, in fact, is not convinced that we evolved a propensity to war at all. The widespread (not universal) occurrence of warfare does not mean engaging in warfare is adaptive or provides reproductive benefits. Moreover, it seems to have occurred only very recently in human history, and was not present hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The fact that men are bigger, stronger and more aggressive than women is also no indication that they are adapted to war. These differences hold true over innumerable animal species that lack anything resembling war. Since male aggressivity is flexible, and can manifest itself in sports, business, and so on, it is the environmental conditions under which violence and war occur that need to be taken into account when considering human nature and violence.

Contrary to what Konrad Lorenz said in his influential tome On Aggression, human aggression is not inevitable, and contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, humans are not warlike by nature. Saying that we are means there is no point trying to reduce or eliminate war. Why attempt the impossible? But these are simply cultural beliefs that we are socialised to hold.

Fry takes a macroscopic anthropological view of human aggression, suggesting war can be replaced by “more effective, less brutal ways of seeking security, defending rights and providing justice for the people of this planet.” All humans seek justice, though their methods vary. Some favour violence and some don’t. Much of the violence humans inflict on each other, which may have been called “senseless” or “evil”, is a consequence of the desire to right wrongs.

War is part of our culture

The media distort our perceptions of the amount of violence in society because so much of what we watch features violence. And yet, most adults spend almost every day without purposefully inflicting injury on others, being the victim of aggression or even witnessing someone else’s victimisation. Not only is this true of us in our culture, but the same holds even for the most statistically violent cultures in the world. The cross-cultural data show that “violence [is] the shocking exception” among the countless peaceful solutions we find to our conflicts such as negotiating, agreeing to provide compensation for damages, reaching compromises, forgiving and reconciling with friends and strangers alike. “Humans have a solid capacity for getting along with each other peacefully, preventing physical aggression, limiting the scope and spread of violence, and restoring peace following aggression.” These findings should not only change our understanding of war but our ideas about the necessity of standing armies, the purpose of military intervention and the possibility for non-violent conflict resolution.

We project backwards. Because we are accustomed to seeing war in our world, we assume that war is eternal. In 1925, Professor Raymond Dart discovered fossil skulls from two to three million years ago he named Australopithecus africanus. He interpreted fractured skulls and shattered bones as proof that our ancestors killed and ate each other. But his extrapolations were disputed. Some of the shattering of the bones was undoubtedly due to the rock and dirt that pile on top of bones during fossilisation. Large predators plausibly account for the holes in the skulls. Dart believed, like most of his contemporaries, that man was inherently warlike and vicious. After all, World War One had ended only a few years earlier. A violent world was the world with which Dart was most familiar. But it is not necessarily the world of the australopithecines. Dart himself, in fact, accepted the alternative explanations when he realised they were more likely. We view our world as simply a technologically advanced version of the ancient world, but there is no reason why we should limit our imaginations this way. (Potts and Hayden mention Dart but do not discuss the controversy of his initial beliefs.)

Some anthropologists who claim that war is universal tend to include homicide in the definition of war. But homicide and war have different causes. Meanwhile, as Fry quotes Johan van der Dennen, “[p]eaceable preindustrial people constitute a nuisance to most theories of warfare, and they are thus either explained away, denied or negated.”

Do all cultures have war?

Studies show that nonwarring societies do exist. The very fact that they exist seems to disprove, or at least call into question, the idea that man is naturally warlike. All human societies have believers in the supernatural, music and property, as well as rape, revenge and murder. Not all societies have warfare. In fact, at least 70 cultural groups do not engage in war at all. Apart from many smaller groups such as the Semai of Malaysia or the Amish, one could cite Sweden and Switzerland, having gone many years without war, Iceland, 800 years without war, and Costa Rica, which disbanded its military after World War Two.

One of many examples of cultural groups who have not developed war is Australian Aborigines. Aborigines, under very different conditions from our own, developed relatively peaceful cultures. Bands that could have fought traded instead. They tended to respect each other’s territory. Band membership was open and fluid, and people had relatives and contacts in other groups (which is one reason I doubt the US and China will go to war). They also had advanced dispute-resolution mechanisms, such as duels, contests, meetings and reconciliation ceremonies.

Potts and Hayden consider archaeological and anthropological evidence but in less detail. They discuss several individual cases of group violence, arguing that the evidence that man has a penchant for blood is “abundant”. Fry’s approach seems to take a wider look but both points of view may be valid.

Can we move beyond war?

Not only is war unnecessary and lethal, it is possible to change our behaviour. Humans are so flexible that they can do various jobs in all kinds of societies and cultures. Says Fry, “the transition from the millenia-old lifeways of the nomadic forager band to the conditions of the urban, industrial nation is truly staggering. Yet we high-tech folks of the twenty-first century rarely pause to consider the immense plasticity in the nature of our species that allows a hunter-gatherer primate to live in this Internet world of strangers, stock exchanges and cruise missiles.” As long as we know it is possible to end war and make peace, we are capable of it.

Hezbollah is the greatest threat to peace in Lebanon

UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said recently that the continued existence of armed militias in Lebanon were a threat to regional peace. What he meant was that Hezbollah’s continued presence in Lebanon was a threat to Lebanon’s fragile peace and stability.

In 1989, to end the 15 year civil war that tore Lebanon apart, the ethno-religious militias agreed to disarm under the Taif Agreement. Most or all did so, except Hezbollah, which called itself a “resistance force” whose job it was to end Israeli occupation and all the rest of it. Hezbollah has remained armed and popular, particularly in southern Lebanon, where it is seen as the only competent defender of Shii Muslims against Israeli aggression. But it is precisely this popularity that imperils Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s boldness stems partly from its popularity. When Israeli forces attacked in 1982 and occupied parts of Lebanon after that until 2000, returning six years later to punish southern Lebanon in a devastating counter-attack, Hezbollah was the resister. Israeli commanders believed in 2006 that punishing Lebanese for supporting Hezbollah would turn them against the organisation, which was a serious miscalculation. From then till now, Hezbollah has been the hero of the people of southern Lebanon. It not only opposes Israel, it builds houses, provides health care and does everything Muslim charity (zakat) requires.

Hezbollah was required to destroy its weapons by UN Security Council Resolution 1559, but instead it waged a propaganda campaign against it. Terje Roed-Larsen said that, as long as Hezbollah retained its weapons, “there will always be tension”. Leaving aside Lebanon’s chronic instability and perennial conflict, as if that could be separated from wider regional issues, Hezbollah is always one move away from provoking another attack by Israel. Israeli raids on southern Lebanon have been a recurring feature of life there since violent resistance to Israel by Palestinian commandos began after the formation of the state of Israel. The Israeli government has always made it clear that it held the Lebanese state responsible for attacks from Lebanon on Israel, and in January it reiterated its policy. Yes, Israel shares the blame for the thousands it has killed; but Hezbollah usually throws the first punch. Hezbollah knows Israel will mount a huge offensive at small provocation like kidnapping and cardboard rockets, so they continue to poke the IDF. Other Palestinian militias exist in Lebanon but they do not cause a fraction of the trouble Hezbollah does. If it disarmed and renounced violence (which it will not as long as it exists), Israel would have no reason to invade Lebanon again.

But Hezbollah refuses to disarm. What is to be done? Disarm the group by force? Though this course is suggested by some, it would almost certainly provoke another major regional conflagration. Of course, failing to do so could mean little more than a delay of the same. Besides, given Hezbollah’s size, strength and support from Iran and Syria, it is unlikely that the Lebanese Armed Forces could disarm them. Could Hezbollah be given the incentive to accept a permanent peace?

Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.


Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010.

Releasing Gilad Shalit and the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace

A major security issue in Israel at the moment is the fate of Gilad Shalit. As I write in my recent essay on last year’s war in Gaza, Shalit is a corporal in the IDF who was captured by Palestinian militants in a border raid on the Gaza Strip in 2006. He has been in captivity ever since. A few weeks ago, it looked as though negotiators had reached a breakthrough, and Shalit would be released in exchange for 450 Palestinians in Israeli jails, though that number may be as low as 100 now. (The uneven numbers give you one idea of how important this issue is to Israelis; more below.) That deal fell through, but there is more hopeful talk of releasing Shalit all the time (here, for instance). Some say a prisoner swap could be the key to peace. I disagree.

Call me a realist, but as readers of the Menso Guide to War know, I have never been hopeful about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. I study, among other things, the cultural roots of conflict. Culture can legitimise war or peace, and needs to be taken into account when prospecting for either. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian culture is conducive to a real, lasting end to the war. The bitterness would not simply end because one condition for ceasefire has been met. Militant Israelis will continue to push for anything that will protect every last Jewish life. Militant Palestinians will continue to do anything they can to end the occupation. Where does that leave Shalit?

Gilad Shalit has become a kind of national hero in Israel. One TV news anchor ends every broadcast by tearfully counting how many days Shalit has been under lock and key. Haaretz, considered one of the more dovish of Israeli newspapers, runs a counter at displaying the same time to the second. On his birthday in August 2009, Twitter’s second highest trend was Gilad Shalit. Over a Jewish holiday in 2009, newspapers displayed pictures of Gilad as a toddler, dressed in a sad clown costume. Poor Gilad: an innocent boy kidnapped by terrorists. (The 7700 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, apparently, are all guilty.)

So surely, when Hamas releases Gilad Shalit, Israelis will be so grateful they will demand an end to the blockade of Gaza, right? Why would they? The thing they care most about Gaza will have been returned to them. Hamas’ one bargaining chip will be gone. Where is the incentive to continue negotiations? Though a majority of Israelis favour the current deal, the hardliners are not willing to give up Palestinians with “blood on their hands” to get Shalit back. Many Israelis would see the release of 100 Palestinians as a huge concession to a group everyone hates (Hamas). But attacks on Israeli targets would not end, because they will never end while the occupation continues and in the West Bank, expands. The Israeli right wing would probably push even harder to punish Hamas and refuse to talk. Impoverished Palestinians would be caught in the middle again. Under these conditions, extremism will not go away.

The best we can hope for is that the prisoner swap succeeds and leads to more negotiations. There have been very few moves toward peace of late, but if earnest negotiators can persuade their constituents to give up more for peace, there will be progress. Meanwhile, long term solutions such as intercultural education are necessary to end the cycle of racism that portrays the other as only understanding force. Finally, what Shalit says when he is released will influence public opinion. He could be Nelson Mandela and say that he feels no bitterness, only greater understanding; or he could say nothing constructive and perpetuate the culture of anger. We must hope for the former. Release Gilad Shalit, release the Palestinian prisoners and see it as a chance to end the war.

The implications of human nature for conflict resolution

Three years ago, I wrote a post on this blog claiming that human nature did not exist. In that post, one of this blog’s most popular and controversial, I said that no one really knows human nature and its being invoked by so many people renders it meaningless. I was wrong because I thought human nature meant what was the same about everyone, and the same in all cultures, and different from what all other animals do.

I have read copiously on psychology and anthropology since then, however, and, fascinated by the study of human nature, realise that my definition of it was wrong; or at least, my definition was different from that of the psychologists. I now have a better definition. Human nature is, basically, what we all have in common, across cultures, based on our evolution. People vary considerably within cultures but each group has certain things in common, because we have a shared ancestry. We all hunt: we do not all hunt the same way, because different environments mean different ways of hunting, but we all hunt. We all sing and dance: taste in music and dance varies wildly, but it is a feature of every culture anthropologists can find.

In fact, there is a long list of human universals by American professor of anthropology Donald Brown that gives us some idea of what we all have inside us. This list, found here, was originally assembled in 1989 and has grown since then. The ideas may not seem revolutionary to you, until you realise that all of these things are common to all human cultures. This understanding can be used to cross cultural boundaries, making it essential for conflict resolution. If we know certain things we can find in any culture, we know practices that are probably recommended or proscribed, and how to negotiate and deal with anyone else more smoothly.

We must separate the myths of human nature from the facts. Steven Pinker, perhaps my favourite scholar on the subject, in his book the Blank Slate, effectively discards the commonly held belief that tribal societies from less complex civilisations (eg. a small group living on the savannah or in the jungle) are less violent than those in more complex societies. The thinking behind this “noble savage” misconception is that, given the damage done by modern warfare, there must be something inherently corrupting about modern life that leads us to kill one another. However, if one looks at the proportion of males killed in war, that of modern society does not even approach that of certain tribal societies such as the Dugum Dani of New Guinea, the Jivaro of Peru and Ecuador and the Yanomamo people of the Amazon. While a tiny fraction of men from the US and Europe were killed in the world wars of the 20th century, that proportion rises to over 20 percent for the Dani and Yanomamo, and over 50 percent for the Jivaro. (Pinker, 39) Furthermore, some 90 percent of hunter gatherer societies engage in warfare and raiding. (ibid.) Returning to a pastoral, hunter gatherer life would not eliminate widescale violence.

The point that I have always emphasised as most important regarding human nature is that, however much we understand it (and many of us do not), we must never use it as an excuse. It may be “human nature” that we cannot sprout wings and fly around the room, but to say that, for instance, nationalism, racism or other forms of collectivism are human nature risks legitimising them. We must not be slaves to our nature but use our ability to think critically to make the right decisions. We are smart and strong enough to resist the pull of our nature if it would lead to morally questionable actions.

Or are we? As I said, we all hunt because humans evolved as hunters. But most of us do not hunt the same way we used to. Some of us hunt criminals or enemies of the state; others collect coins and stamps. To a scholar of human nature, these two acts are both manifestations of the hunting instinct. Desmond Morris, in the Human Animal, a zoologist’s analysis of human life and behaviour, says that war is not an act of aggression, such as the dishonour or anger that might lead a man into a fistfight with another man, but a highly organised hunt. We needed an awareness of geography, an ability to plan and organise, and an ability to kill in order to hunt successfully. These qualities are still around, and so is the killing.

Though we are not slaves to our nature, we operate in quite predictable ways. In the Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo shows how truly flexible we are when confronted with environments that are unfamiliar, systems that exert their will on us, and situations we are not in control of. We are always at risk of influence by others that can make us do violence, and we must be vigilant or risk perverting our values. One can be a mafia boss, ordering the killing of whole families; a prison guard beating people up for not eating their bread; a politician ordering thousands to kill thousands more; and still go home to our families and feel good about ourselves. The line between the angels and the demons of our nature is thin.

The biggest question is, how can we use our knowledge of human nature to minimise violent conflict? If we understand our most basic urges and the trouble they could get us in, we can minimise their destructive effects and perhaps benefit from them. Here are some features of our nature, how they can be destructive, and how we can change our behaviour.

Behaving predictably. One reason a small act of violence in the form of terrorism can be so effective is that it usually provokes a predictable response. The disproportional retaliations of, for instance, the Bush administration to terrorism played right into the hands of the terrorists. Many popular books on psychology and economics attempt to explain that, while we are ultimately free to choose, we succumb to innumerable pitfalls in our thinking because we are not aware of them.

If you think human behaviour is not predictable, you can test it for yourself. If you are a man, go up to another man bigger than you, surrounded by his friends, also bigger than you, and push him. I bet you that 99% of the time, what you think will happen will happen. If a friend tells you something he believes to be true, say “not only do I disagree, but that was a really stupid thing to say. Do you even know what you’re saying? What’s wrong with you?” Unless you are talking to the Dalai Lama, you are likely to make your friend angry, defensive and more convinced than ever that he or she is right.

Dr Zimbardo says that anyone is susceptible to manipulation, influence by unsavoury characters and contemptible behaviour. The less aware we are being manipulated, or the stronger we think we are to counter it, the more compliant we are likely to be. There are many books on persuasion and influence that can teach us to be aware of evil forces acting on and through us. The best I have read is the Lucifer Effect.

Categorising and simplifying. We have an urge to put things conveniently away into drawers and pigeonholes in order to save ourselves the trouble of thinking too much. We talk in simple language and simple thinking about the Muslim world or the Arab world, the West, Africa, the black community, Asian values, such and such a civilisation, and so on. Speaking this way is easier, but if we do not recognise the nuances, the enormous variety within these groups, we are liable to make serious mistakes.

I write further on this subject in Why Interculturalism Will Work. You can read it at Suffice it to say, if we simplify the world too much, we risk making the wrong decisions, leading to misunderstandings, disrespect, conflict and war.

Cognitive dissonance and self-serving bias. In a previous post, I described part of this shortcoming as windows and mirrors. Windows are what we use to look at others, and we are very good at seeing their faults. But when it comes to our own, looking in the mirror, we see ourselves–and significantly, the groups we are loyal to–as pristine. This happens because we have an inborn tendency to legitimise everything we do as right and noble, to write off our own weaknesses as not really weaknesses and, put simply, to lie to ourselves about ourselves.

The book Mistakes Were Made (But not by Me) is a book about the damage cognitive dissonance can do. It shows how we can believe, for instance, that we go to war for freedom, kill for peace, terrorise for justice and are never at fault when we are wrong. Sure, some people died in the war I started, but they were probably mostly bad people. Sure, what I am doing is bad for others, but if I didn’t do it, someone else would. Sure, it looks like I’m stealing money from my company’s shareholders, but I work hard and deserve it. Really, I should be taking more, but I’m holding back. What a nice guy I am.

This phenomenon may also help explain why dictators are usually unrepentant and incorrigible. They have spent their whole careers killing, suppressing, torturing, dividing, concealing and so on, and have their consciences well under control. We all have self-serving bias which means, among other things, we forget or brush aside our failures and failings. We remember the things we have done that make us good people and forget the things that make us seem bad.

Likewise, supporters of a dictator, members of an ethnic group at war, followers of a religion or ideology can easily find instances of where their people or ideas have done good, and get angry when one brings up the seemingly insignificant or irrelevant instances where they have done wrong. After all, I am a good person, so whatever movement I am a part of must be noble and right.

But knowing our limitations is how we can overcome them. Checking cognitive dissonance requires awareness of how and when we do it. If we have any nagging doubts as to whether your actions were morally justified, we might be right. It is wrong to simply write off everything we do as a legitimate means to some greater end. Imagine someone else doing the same thing. Imagine your enemies, if you have any, doing the same actions. Are they still legitimate? Is it possible to understand the point of view of someone who does similar actions?

Collectivism. Whether or not it is an excuse, collectivism appears to be a big part of our nature. When I say collectivism, I mean treating people in terms of in-groups and out-groups. To a collectivist, there are people in my group that are inherently superior to those outside my group. I care for those in my group like I care for myself–we are human beings deserving respect and dignity. Those outside the group, however are less than human. Our love of team sports, with separate uniforms, chants and rivalries that occasionally erupt in violence are an example of this.

As much as we try to shed them, we seem to have brains stuffed with stereotypes. What this means is that anyone outside the group we consider ourselves part of could be made to seem less important, less complex and less human. As a result, any kind of national, ethnic or religious group will have trouble reconciling its differences with another, especially when the groups have less opportunity to mix. Moreover, men possessed of stereotypes about women are likely to see women as weak, which increases the likelihood of rape.

The evolution of this feeling is understandable. We used to live in small bands where those we knew were family. However, our idea of community has changed over time to what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities”. Imagined communities are groups that consider themselves to have an essential similarity that makes them equal (and by extension, more important than others), though they may never meet. Soldiers go to war to protect their nations, even though the only thing they are certain to have in common is nationality. Zealots engage in holy wars partly because followers of their gods are threatened. See this post for more on collectivism and conflict.

If we can harness collectivist sentiment and language, we can use it to mean everyone. After all, our groups do not have to be exclusive. We can be a brotherhood of men, a community of the world, a united human race.

Proving oneself. Young men, from teenage years to young adulthood, have an urge to prove themselves. That was the age they were most likely to perfect their skill at hunting and find mates. These boys are most likely to want to do violence. In Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff describes the killing that took place in the former Yugoslavia.

[U]ntil I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips, I had not understood how deeply pleasureable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone hates and fears violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns.

Perhaps liberals have not understood the force of male resentment which has accumulated through the centuries of gradual European pacification. The history of our civilisation is the history of the confiscation of the means of violence by the state. But it is an achievement which an irreducible core of young males has always resented. Liberals have not reckoned with the male loathing of peace and domesticity or with the anger of young males at the modern state’s confiscation of their weapons. One of the hidden rationales behind nationalist revolts is that they tap into this deeper sub-stratum of male resentment at the civility and order of the modern state itself. For it seems obvious that the state’s order is the order of the father, and that nationalism is the rebellion of the sons. How else are we to account for the staggering gratuitousness and bestiality of nationalist violence, its constant overstepping of the bounds of either military logic or legitimate self-defence, unless we give some room in our account for the possibility that nationalism exists to warrant and legitimise the son’s vengeance against the father. (Ignatieff, 187-8)

Boys who are occupied and motivated by other things, however, do not kill. Paul Collier, author of Wars, Guns and Votes, says that in post-conflict situations, one of the highest priorities is jobs for young men. “[T]he reason [such situations] so often revert to conflict is not because elderly women get upset, it’s because young men get upset. Why are they upset? Because they’ve nothing to do.” His suggestion is job creation in construction: it is necessary after the destruction of conflict, and the jobs are not subject to international competition.

Some parts of the Arab world have employment laws that favour men. In other words, men get first pick of all the best jobs. Though this of course is a sexist policy, it is probably a good one: the last thing the world needs is more unemployed young men with holy books.

Proving oneself is really another way to say reaching one’s potential, just like one can do in a job. At this key age, young people can be coaxed into anything with the right attention and care. That is why, in strong communities, they play sports and video games, do homework, have jobs and volunteer for their community. Suppressing all teenage rebellion in a society that values freedom is impossible. Therefore, our task is to divert the people most at risk of committing acts of violence and give them occupations that, to their genes, are equivalent to hunting, but to the rest of us are productive rather than harmful.

Ignoring the truth, hunting each other, behaving predictably, dividing the world into us and them and simplifying the world away are just a few sides of our nature with implications for analysing and resolving conflict. Exploring the depths of human nature can help us understand, mitigate and reverse the tragic consequences of some of our most basic, and most dangerous urges.

Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities

Collier, Paul: War, Guns and Votes: democracy in dangerous places

Fine, Cordelia: A Mind of Its Own: how your brain distorts and deceives

Ignatieff, Michael: Blood and Belonging: journeys into the new nationalism

Morris, Desmond: The Human Animal: a personal view of the human species

Pinker, Steven: The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature

Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

Zimbardo, Philip: The Lucifer Effect: understanding how good people turn evil