One of the premises of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity is that much of our worldview is influenced by the collective beliefs of our culture. We are programmed to think the way people in our culture do. A trip to another country is an interesting way to see this programming in action. Culture shock is the way we describe the experience of visiting people who have different assumptions about reality. A favorite example of mine is the time I went to Fiji, and saw big strapping policemen wearing skirts. That conflicted with one of my culture’s sillier assumptions, that men can’t wear skirts.
But the assumptions that make up our collective reality are not all silly by any means. In fact they have profound consequences in how we think and interact with each other.
One that has been on my mind lately has to do with war. As I noted in a recent post, after Syria used chemical weapons why was the Obama administration so focused on bombing to the exclusion of diplomacy? Why do we have so few non-violent mechanisms for enforcing international norms?
David Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled Are We Hard-Wired for War? that argues that our fundamental assumptions about human nature affect our attitudes toward violence in general and war in particular.He wrote,
This year, an article in The National Interest titled “What Our Primate Relatives Say About War” answered the question “Why war?” with “Because we are human.” In recent years, a piece in New Scientist asserted that warfare has “played an integral part in our evolution” and an article in the journal Science claimed that “death in warfare is so common in hunter-gatherer societies that it was an important evolutionary pressure on early Homo sapiens.”
The emerging popular consensus about our biological predisposition to warfare is troubling. It is not just scientifically weak; it is also morally unfortunate, as it fosters an unjustifiably limited vision of human potential…
While it is plausible that Homo sapiens owed much of its rapid brain evolution to natural selection’s favoring individuals that were smart enough to defeat their human rivals in violent competition, it is also plausible that we became highly intelligent because selection favored those of our ancestors who were especially adroit at communicating and cooperating.
Conflict avoidance, reconciliation and cooperative problem solving could also have been altogether “biological” and positively selected for…
The idea that humans are inherently warlike did not start with evolutionary biology of course. The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously declared that without a strong government to keep humans in check our lives would be “brutish and short,” because “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war is of every man against every man.” I’ve always found this an ugly view of humankind, one that sees the “state of nature” as one long “Lord of the Flies.”
Barash goes on to give some examples of human societies that are peaceful and have developed techniques for non-violent resolutions of conflict.
The problem with envisioning Homo sapiens as inherently and irrevocably warlike isn’t simply that it is wrong, but also that it threatens to constrain our sense of whether peacemaking is possible and, accordingly, worth trying…
This is the power of the collective belief in action. Because we’re naturally violent, the belief says, war is the natural way to settle grievances between countries. If we didn’t bomb Syria after they used chemical weapons, the belief says, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad wouldn’t take us seriously.
There is a story, believed to be of Cherokee origin, in which a girl is troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fight viciously. Seeking an explanation, she goes to her grandfather, highly regarded for his wisdom, who explains that there are two forces within each of us, struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other, war. At this, the girl is even more distressed, and asks her grandfather who wins. His answer: “The one you feed.”
One of the questions I started with was “why do we have so few non-violent mechanisms for enforcing international norms? This Cherokee story gives the answer: because we haven’t been feeding the force for peace. What would happen if we stopped feeding the belief in the inherent violence of human nature?