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Human Nature and War

Abstract

This paper explores a range of works by authors with polar views on the nature of people with regard to war, human nature theories, and cognitive theories. Reviewed publications embrace a period from 1963 to 2012. Nature scientists (Wilson, 1978; Lorenz, 1963; Ghiglieri, 2000) largely depend on evolutionary arguments in their explanations of innate violence of human beings by hereditary transference of such qualities from animals. Ghiglieri explores the idea of special aggressiveness inherent in males whom he considers to be natural-born warriors. Cognitive and peace theorists focus on the idea that the notion of innateness of violence is implanted in people, and they attempt to critically analyze relevant situations. Fry (2007) and Zinn (1990) do not disregard the human potential for violence, but they note that it can be revealed only under certain circumstances. Grossman (2009), Ryan and Weimberg (2007) dedicated their works to studying the mechanism of killing and conclude that reluctance to murder as an indispensable feature of human beings is harder to overcome than it can be assumed by those who support the idea of “men the warriors.” Fahey and Armstrong (1992) and Koehler (2012) insist that the matter of a civilized and peaceful conflict solution is a matter of one’s conscious choice.

Introduction

Undoubtedly, wars are significant events in the history of mankind. They change borders of countries and define the character of international relations for many subsequent decades. However, outcomes of a war are not limited to the circle of interests of political science. The issue of the origin of violent behavior of such kind is also important to investigate. In this regard, scientists may take sides in a rather biological argument whether the roots of violence are hidden in human nature or there are certain mechanisms which promote or trigger violence and aggression in people. As the explanation of the war phenomenon is one of the central tasks of the study of international relations, it seems logical to define which of the sides has been supported by more proofs.

Opinion of Human Nature Theorists

Some scholars are convinced that the inclination to violence is an integral part of human nature; therefore, nothing can be done to change or eradicate it. Steven Pinker is one of the defenders of this theory. Presenting examples from the history of violence, the scientist maintains that the current period is the most peaceful one ever known to humankind. Comparing several last centuries with the previous eras, Pinker claims that with the exception of some cruel episodes in politics, people definitely tend to become less violent.

Moreover, providing examples of some findings of anthropologists, the scholar states that in the past proportionally much more people died in wars than now. Pinker states that sacred texts of all religions evidence violent practices. With some of the most violent expression having faded into history only five centuries ago, “global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century” (2007). The author quotes data provided by social psychologists claiming that 80 percent of people have murderous fantasies, although increased self-control is a factor suppressing the realization of such thoughts. The urge for violence is enhanced by modern art and the media. Even from a biological point of view, the more aggressive an individual is, the more chances there are for them to stay alive.

Finally, the scholar offers explanations of the phenomenon of violence. One of them is presented by the natural self-defense mechanism and can be eliminated when the state is granted the monopoly of violence. Another theory implies that thanks to the possibility to prolong life, people have begun to value it more. The third idea supports the viewpoint that peace is an economic benefit. Finally, the last one suggests that society has become too empathetic. Concluding his article, Pinker encourages contemplation about the present situation through the prism of centuries and tries to explore our non-aggressive side.

The author continues his strain of thoughts in other works. One of the chapters in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature dedicated to violence begins with some historical evidence to prove the innate violence in human beings. The author also mentions that war is only one of the proofs and that a lot of smaller-scale conflicts can have the same disastrous effects. He argues that the opinion implying that “violence is a behavior taught by the culture” supported by some scientists does not have enough evidence. In support of his idea, Pinker maintains that American culture that is deemed to be extremely violent has the same number of positive personages as negative ones and addresses the widespread delusion that the availability of weapon can trigger violence.

However, the psychologist suggests not getting too excited with the theory of natural-born violence and ascribes violent behavior to some groups of humans in more way than to others. Thus, he emphasizes the universality of aggressive behavior. Pinker also mentions the so-called Hobbesian trap turning violence into a vicious circle and maintaining that “the best defense is good offence.” A historically developed mechanism of waging wars out of honorable considerations also finds its explanation in this work. Finally, the scientist addresses the way the government can influence violence citing numerous incidents of violence and the role of world leaders in it. Pinker again insists that exploring the driving force behind violence, which begins with admitting that it is part of human nature, might become useful in terms of developing strategies of dealing with it. Thus, in both works, the author maintains the idea that violence has accompanied people since times immemorial. Although it is very unlikely that it can be eliminated completely, some ways to control it should be found.

Another supporter of the innate character of violence, Edward Osborne Wilson, begins his argument with a seemingly distant explanation of the way the human brain works. By such an introduction, the scholar tries to maintain that society is a product of our behavior. Wilson exemplifies slavery to prove the inherent character of violence by maintaining that slavery has its cycle, and if we were constantly ruled by circumstances, it would be permanent. The scholar addresses the whole anthropological history of mankind in order to show the way the human brain developed together with the appearance of different types of societies with gender roles allocated at early stages.

The same mechanisms are applied to explaining sources of nationalism and racism which, Wilson believes, “are the culturally nurtured outgrowths of simple tribalism” (1978). The anthropological approach is also applied when addressing the issue of the violent human nature: Humankind has been violent during all stages of its development. Nevertheless, the scholar denies that aggressive instincts are general. Interestingly, Wilson criticizes the ideas of Lorenz, his co-camper in the human nature theory, which are yet to be discussed. As a representative of different branches of science, the author tends to incorporate numerous theories into one. Thus, for example, he sees the roots of the human view on territory in animal ecology.

Providing three hypotheses about cultural traditions of primitive warfare, Wilson concludes that the source of violent aggression is rather a group than an individual. Giving an example of the Maoris of New Zealand in pre-European times, the scholar insists that the more developed society is, the more sophisticated weaponry and methods of warfare it uses and the greater its territorial claims are. Wilson concludes stating that “human beings are strongly predisposed to respond with unreasoning hatred to external threats.” Tired of the urge for conflict, it is no wonder that humankind strives for peace. Thus, arguments of this scientist supporting the idea of innateness of violence in human beings can be regarded as multilateral since they stretch far beyond politics.

The concepts of Darwin are also mentioned by Konrad Lorenz. He explores the benefits of aggression, its spontaneous character, and relations between fighting and morality. The Austrian biologist tries to explain the nature of violence in human beings through various patterns of aggressive behavior of animals. He describes at length the main reasons for animals to fight against each other and emphasizes that in most cases such a reaction is dictated by fear. Lorenz sees parallels between protection of natural habitat of animals and professional circles of human beings. According to him, all violent manifestations of both people and animals can be narrowed down to intra-specific competition, which is aggression directed towards representatives of the same species.

When the book On Aggression was published, the whole scale of neurological diseases was gaining momentum. With regard to these plagues of his time, the scientist tried to explain the roots of human aggression and inclination to barbarism by the fact that people “have no more time for cultural interests” (1963). However, it is not culture that influences people; the explanation of aggressiveness should be found in life-preserving instincts, which makes it a positive feature. The negative side of violence is its unpredictability.

Lorenz criticizes the ways Americans bring up their children in total indulgence. He supports his idea of natural-born aggressiveness by the fact that when children leave their parents’ house, they inevitably face the non-indulgence of everyone around. Despite being brought up in peace and absence of conflicts, they react to the new harsh reality rather violently. The scholar also addresses the issue of ritualized fights having some parallels with Pinker’s honor fight theory. Ritualized fights have the same prevalence among animals as among humans. Gender-based violence, however, seems to have been subjected to certain changes in human society compared to the animal world.

Lorenz discusses different forms of gender aggression in the fauna in detail and with multiple examples. Animal patterns of behavior are clearly traced in various life situations of primitive societies. Explaining the ways of the inhibition of aggression, Lorenz refers to a simple psychological mechanism of forming bonds: If there are some connections between two individuals the roles of which cannot be easily replaced, violence is less likely. Thus, the study of violence by Konrad Lorenz implies inheritance of human aggression from animals.

The majority of people would agree that men are usually more prone to violent behavior than women. This theory became a basis for the book by Michael Ghiglieri. In a brisk and casual tone, judging from his own scientific and personal experience, this scholar tells about fundamental differences between male and female behavior since childhood implying that certain patterns are innate and not developed through socialization. Ghiglieri argues that it is profoundly wrong to ascribe all behavioral manifestations to nurture, and he proves the great role of the so-called sexual selection by stating that “men are designed by nature for higher performance in aggressive, physically demanding action” (2000).

Also, the author offers a wide range of anthropological proofs of this idea, just as Wilson and Lorenz did. Finally, approaching the subject of war, he calls it a reproductive strategy inherent in men. The scholar draws parallels between chimpanzees that are natural-born warriors and various groups of men, for instance, gangs. He states that killing is a serious endeavor which is mostly avoided, but a war situation changes this perception. However, in order for soldiers to keep their sanity, they need to justify every killing. In order to increase chances for success in a war, men tend to bond together and express reciprocal altruism. Ghiglieri also suggests that the choice of the enemy is very careful, thus approaching the issue of genocide triggered by human ethnocentrism and xenophobia.

There are reasons to claim that the theory of this scientist resembles the one offered by his Austrian colleague by an important idea: It is always easier to make someone an object of rivalry based on certain differences, for any kind of proximity would rather work as an inhibiting factor. Ghiglieri acknowledges terrorism, which is one of the modern types of warfare, as a genocide-like practice. Summarizing the concepts of this research, it should be said that Ghiglieri proves the natural character of inclination to violence in people and males in particular by a range of examples from the history of mankind and warfare.

Another facet of the issue is presented by Stoessinger who begins with clearly differentiating between the notions of aggression and war claiming that the former is inherent in humans, while the latter is a form of a learnt behavior. Such an approach distinguishes his book from the works of the authors mentioned above. The researcher mentions differences between wars of the twentieth century with clear beginnings and endings and the war on terrorism marking the new millennium and blurring all the existing boundaries.

Emphasizing that the previous century witnessed people who started wars to become defeated, Stoessinger focuses on the Iraqi campaign. Regarding the crucial moment of the war outbreak, he argues that the personality of a military leader seems to outweigh external factors, and in the twentieth century, there had been chances to avoid the violent solution if it had not been for determined leaders.

Misperception of the real situation also plays a great role in the beginning of military expansion, and sometimes the extent of it become absurd and stem from total ignorance in international relations. Harboring mutual contempt and hatred may result in a situation described as the Hobbesian trap by Steven Pinker: A leader might declare a war utterly out of fear that the enemy might attack first. Applying arguments to the history of war in Iraq, Stoessinger mentions that “a leader’s misperception of his adversary’s power is the quintessential cause of war” (2005). Paradoxically, in such a situation, a war serves as an instrument of revealing reality. Modern warfare, the scholar mentions, causes international conflicts to turn into national.

Assessing the situation in America, the researcher states that currently the country is at the crossroads of its history. He offers some solutions for establishing a democratic order in Iraq peacefully and cautiously mentions that disregard of cultural, national, and historical heritage while war-waging in a different part of the world might result in cruel protests of the civilians. Fully realizing that the alternative scenarios he offers are inapplicable now, Stoessinger emphasizes that potentially no event in international relations is inevitable. Thus, the ideas of this scholar are very modern and fact-supported; they stem from his personal experience of years of work in the United Nations Organization.

Opinion of Cognitive Theorists

Before proceeding with the opposite viewpoint, it would be reasonable to assess methods that cognitive theorists apply in their findings. The cognitive theory implies that human behavior is subject to changes under various factors. Merely analyzing facts and information concerning different issues (and war in particular) by common people can also be warped and manipulated, as findings of Dan Kahan’s research show. The scholar is convinced that people’s opinion is greatly influenced by the “group factor”, that is, people tend to support ideas which are closer to them. Thus, people’s judgments are always biased. What is more, the majority cannot correctly evaluate scientific data and “tend to follow the lead of credible experts” (2010). Thus, Kahan as well as cognitive theorists of war encourages open-mindedness in asserting every phenomenon.

Supporters of the human virtue are consistent in their arguments. For Howard Zinn, it is crucial to introduce his own opinion on the subject through comparing viewpoints of the most prominent scientists of the century, that is, Sigmund Freud who believed in instincts including the one that causes people to start a war and Albert Einstein who saw the roots of it in culture. One can observe a literary battle of the two scientists, which in Zinn’s book appears as denial of Wilson’s ideas and questioning the understanding of the core concepts used by the scholar. The former scientist insists that no matter how potentially violent a human being is, this predisposition can only be revealed under corresponding circumstances.

The author believes in the “power of moral judgment” proving that people are “not at the mercy of hormones and genes” (1990). Zinn also manages to find faults with the study by Conrad Lorenz. Denying evolutionary evidence, the researcher states that war is an utterly human premise and that animals are not engaged in organized violence. He exemplifies a whole range of war situations described in literature to prove his point. Not completely rejecting the evidence provided by human nature theorists, Zinn suggests that kindness should be of the same capacity in the human psyche as violence.

The vigorous discussion on the nature of human violence is continued by other authors. Robert M. Sapolsky, for instance, emphasizes in the foreword to the book of Douglas P. Fry that Conrad Lorenz was a convinced racist and nationalist. Notably, defensive arguments of cognitive theorists follow the similar pattern of indulgence: Sapolsky claims that it is no wonder that in our “blood-drenched world,” people tend to think that human violence is inevitable (Fry, 2007). However, he is the one to suggest that not all species of animals are driven by violence, as human nature theorists are prone to insist, and even exemplifies species of chimpanzees with the matriarchal order and low aggression levels.

Fry suggests that there is a great capacity in humans to solve conflicts in a non-violent manner and promotes thinking about alternatives of war. He quotes data provided by his colleagues supporting the idea that warfare is not characteristic of every modern society and seeks to find some proofs of it in human paleontology. The researcher connects the appearance of warfare with certain forms of society claiming that as soon as there appears a hierarchical division (as in the case of complex hunters-gatherers), warlike conflicts are likely to happen. Even with such data, Fry insists that during human prehistory, war was rather “a rare anomaly.” He criticizes the theory of Ghiglieri about “man the warrior” stating that if warlike conflicts did exist in the past, there is not enough evidence concerning causes of these conflicts and, moreover, no proofs are found that disagreements could reach the scale of a full-fledged war.

Fry refuses to believe that war might have performed evolutionary functions arguing that a lot of widespread phenomena have not made any contributions to the evolution. Referring to the issue of male aggressiveness, the scholar mentions that human beings have become significantly more vulnerable to the influence of environment. Contrary to supporters of the “man the warrior” idea, not every prehistoric form of society necessarily faced outbursts of male violence. The central anthropological message of the work by Fry is that human beings have the potential to avert wars. All it takes for mankind to live peacefully is to obtain a wider outlook and be ready for some concessions of global international character. Quoting Einstein, the scholar maintains that people need to change “a mode of thinking” continuing that often political leaders themselves brainwash people into believing that wars are a necessity.

The topic of war is the domain of politics, and Margaret G. Hermann emphasizes the exceptional role of politicians in our everyday life. This author brings the leadership style into focus of her research and claims that “motives shape their character”. Hermann states that leaders can be divided according to personal responsibility, self-confidence levels, need for power, and so on, which makes up seven crucial characteristics for building a profile of a political figure.

The scientist presents her findings exemplifying profiles of William Jefferson Clinton and Saddam Hussein, who were leaders with quite different views on politics and being in authority. Although Hermann is not concerned with the problem of innateness or learned character of human violent behavior, her findings imply that the international arena and the state of domestic politics to great extent define actions and decisions of politicians. In their desire to keep their political image stable, they tend to adjust to circumstances. Thus, Hermann does not support the idea that the desire to start and wage a war is wired into the human brain.

War is inevitably connected with the phenomenon of killing. David Grossman considers it to be one of the burning issues of contemporary society. The suppression of behavior leading to killing has made people invent other ways of expressing the violent part of their nature, for instance, through gory horror movies.

Interviewing war veterans, the scholar came to the conclusion that studies of killing and studies of sex have much in common; at least, topics are very private. A retired officer himself, Grossman investigates in detail the history of war and arms and their psychological effect on soldiers. Contradicting the theory of Ghiglieri implying that war changes the attitude of people to killing, the scholar gives numerous examples of how soldiers avoided firing during battles even facing the danger of being attacked by the enemy. The psychologist tries to convey that a widespread belief of people who have never been in combat that killing is easy stems from Hollywood blockbusters.

Referring to Milgram’s experiment, Grossman maintains that the pressure of authority might become the overcoming factor of human reluctance to kill. He also addresses the issues of accountability and anonymity on the battlefield claiming that combat bonds are so tight that they continue to exist throughout life. The scholar agrees with some representatives of the human nature direction in the fact that proximity is inversely proportional to the likeliness of a violent attack. He notes, however, that distance can have different forms and it is sometimes created artificially with antagonizing considerations.

Grossman also refers to Pavlov’s instinct theory adjusting it to people on battlefields. He claims that conditioning and the imitation mechanism described by the famous psychologist are applicable to children’s perception of violence in the media. He quotes the results of some study conducted by the American Psychological Association and stating that there is a definite connection between aggressive attitudes and exposure to violence in the media. The conclusions of the scholar maintain that people “have become systematically desensitized to the pain and suffering of the others” (2009).

Not only David Grossman refers to the topic of negative influences of war on everyday life of people. Defense Monitor Staff also seems to be very alarmed by the “glorification of military in American society” and severely criticizes permanent war economy characteristic of the USA (Fahey & Armstrong, 1992). The authors also consider propaganda of violence in films to be destructive to the human psyche. They believe that assimilation of various military attributes into everyday life only corrupts society, especially young people. Moreover, favoring war in all spheres is encouraged by the government making military concerns dominating in America’s foreign and domestic policy and allocating huge amounts of money for facilitating military programs.

Exultation of American militarism is also an issue of concern of Chris Floyd who is convinced that war is such a vice that even winners inevitably become corrupted by it. He criticizes the government acceptance of torture as a “tool of national policy” (2010) and suggests that the seeming ban on torture in America rather turns out to be a change of the notion which narrows the concept. As for “terrorism”, according to Floyd, the meaning of this notion has been widened, which was also a governmental initiative. The researcher continues that militarization of society has become a widespread phenomenon in the world. Basically, Floyd states that the idea of the natural character of war is a kind of stable opinion implanted into human minds, but he believes that the nature of people is potentially fixable and can be cleared from this conviction.

Joseph Fahey investigated correlations between war and conscience presenting three relevant positions: total war, just war, and pacifistic. The scientist claims that the latter is largely ignored in historical books, although such an attitude contradicts the whole upbringing system implying that people should be kind towards each other. Kruegler and Parkman argue that not only violence and war can be effective manifestations of political power. Moreover, the authors insist that history is full of facts to prove the “limits of military methods as superpower”, for instance, the Vietnam War (1992).

The researchers also provide a list of non-violent solutions to international conflicts and describe the potential of nonviolent sanctions. They claim that the study of this problem should be regarded with more interest in educational and academic circles. In general, the collection of works on peace studies edited by Fahey & Armstrong presents different approaches to non-violent conflict solution and pays a lot of attention to pacifist attitudes. Thus, they claim that there are always alternatives to wars.

The attitude to war can change when one applies different additional factors to the situation. Paradoxically, people generally treat war and murder associated with it as a vice. However, from the point of view of nationalism, these violent acts are regarded as honorable and justifiable. Robert C. Koehler mentions this contradiction in his article “Empire and Its Consequences,” The journalist does not reject the need for national security and military stability in the country, but he opposes the way armed forces operate, that is, through promoting murder and hatred. Koehler insists that such a defense policy is not only erroneous from a moral point of view, but it is also “strategically untenable” (2012). Agreeing with Floyd, the author states that the final result of any military campaign, even a victorious one, is a failure. The bottom line of his argument is that no matter how valuable the benefits of war are, they cannot justify the casualties it brings.

The evidence Koehler presents is clearly directed against the military policy of the USA. Quoting the disastrous statistics of suicide among veterans, the journalist emphasizes the fact that physical and psychological effects of the battle reach beyond the conventional level. The scope of the damage brought to war veterans is summarized by his statement that “we cannot dehumanize others without doing the same to ourselves,” What is more frightening is that dehumanization does not require battlefield experience, for the process starts at the stage of military training. According to Koehler, this ruthless approach should be eliminated for the sake of humanity.

The documentary Soldiers of Conscience released in 2007 addressed the whole scope of war-related issues based on the example of the American campaign in Iraq. Focusing on the military service and behavior on the battlefield, the film reveals various viewpoints, from total disapproval of serving in the army through the discipline/authority questions of psychology of executing orders to participation in hostilities. The movie presents interviews with soldiers whose consciousness was subject to certain serious changes after returning from the battlefield. A very conflicting problem of national duty versus personal persuasion is addressed in the documentary. Opinions of the respondents were opposite and equally divided. Reluctance to take the life of another person, a strong psychological mechanism referred to by a lot of peace studies, appears to be a well-known fact and a headache to commanding officers.

The idea supported by the authors is that some soldiers at least had a chance to dispel their illusions concerning war and turn to the pacifist side, although the way of acquiring this new attitude was through a traumatic experience. The burden of killing became their eternal companion. The topic addressed by the directors is not a new one in modern society, for numerous discussions about participating in hostilities arise after every military campaign. Following this trend, the authors of the film managed to transcend the experience of war in Iraq to the general attitude to morality of warfare. In the best traditions of documentary cinematography, Soldiers of Conscience does not impose any ideas, but gives an unbiased view on the subject.

Conclusion

Both human nature theorists and cognitive theorists have evidence to support their viewpoints. The first group refers to a long history of wars marking the development of civilization and connects such a desire to fight with the mechanisms inherited by people from animals, thus focusing on the ideas of evolution of species. On the other hand, proponents of the virtue of human nature marred by the implanted urge to fight claim that there are a lot of examples of non-violent societies. Scientists belonging to this group emphasize a great role of politicians in our lives implying that they are engaged in social mind-shaping. Cognitive theorists also suggest that there are a lot of alternatives to violent solutions.

An engaging tendency was discovered while reviewing the sources: Contemporary researchers refer to works of their colleagues which were published earlier with their critical remarks. Notably, supporters of the cognitive theory appeared to be more active in this domain. They recommend developing a more critical approach to information that we are given, especially to information which has been firmly set in the public opinion.

Based on the gathered evidence, the cognitive theory presents a more logical and compelling explanation for human conflicts which lead to war. With all the animal heritage of violent behavior, it is possible to control the urge to fight. Thus, aggressive behavior is revealed only under certain favorable circumstances.

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