Why do humans engage in war? A typical answer has been that resource scarcity drives war. This is the Malthusian model—if you have more water or oil or farm land than I do, I might be tempted to take yours. But studies have shown no clear correlation between war and scarcity.
Maybe there’s some sort of masculine drive for conquest. But this doesn’t explain why war is relatively recent in human history. If war were just “boys being boys,” we should see more widespread evidence in the archeological record. Indeed, some societies today have violence but are unaware of the concept of war.
Let’s consider another explanation, Margaret Mead’s 1940 theory about war.
With so many examples of war throughout history, you might expect that we could find the traits that always accompany belligerent societies and never accompany peaceful ones. Societies can be highly- or poorly-developed, resource rich or resource poor, large or small, and so on, but any of these societies can engage in war or not. From Scientific American’s Cross-Check blog:
War is both underdetermined and overdetermined. That is, many conditions are sufficient for war to occur, but none are necessary. Some societies remain peaceful even when significant risk factors are present, such as high population density, resource scarcity, and economic and ethnic divisions between people. Conversely, other societies fight in the absence of these conditions. What theory can account for this complex pattern of social behavior?
What’s the answer? Mead argued that war is an invention, not an innate part of humanity. Once invented, war is contagious. When your neighbors become infected, your society must get infected for its own safety. Adopt it or get wiped out—the war meme wins either way. A society reluctant to go to war might conclude that a preemptive strike would be the safest move, making the idea of war self-fulfilling.
One approach is to turn war on its head to come to a peaceful result, to push it to be so destructive as to be unthinkable. Alfred Nobel said, “Perhaps my [dynamite] factories will put an end to war sooner than [peace] congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” This hope has been expressed about poison gas, machine guns, and Nobel’s dynamite, though these have only served to make war more efficient.
Getting past war
Let’s return to Mead’s theory. If war is innate, we’re stuck with it, and war will be a perpetual threat. But Mead argues that it’s not innate. It’s an invention, and society can rid itself of it—maybe not easily, but theoretically.Consider our closest primate relatives. Chimpanzees seem to have in inherent violent streak, but bonobos have a “make love, not war” attitude. We’re genetically equally close to each species.
And we’ve actually done this sort of thing before. We’ve gotten rid of poor social inventions such as slavery, genocide, mental illness as demon possession, witchcraft as a capital crime, and so on. We’ve adopted lots of good social ideas: democracy, universal education, universal suffrage, trial by jury, bankruptcy instead of prison, and prison instead of capital punishment (in some regions, at least). We can change.
War certainly isn’t obsolete, though Steven Pinker argues that it’s trending that way. Maybe the answer is something as straightforward as: democracies never attack each other, so make all countries democracies. That’s not easy, but it’s conceivable.
Getting past religion
Now that we’ve asked the remarkable question, “Is war simply a poor invention for which we can invent a replacement?” let’s ask the same about religion. Is religion innate and an inherent part of human makeup? Many Christians think that we are given God-radar, which points us unerringly to the Creator of the Universe, but that’s obviously false given the many incompatible religious directions to which this imagined “radar” sends us. Others say that we’re built with a vague and undirected desire for the divine, but we mustn’t confuse this spirituality with the existence of the supernatural.
If religion is innate, we could suppress it, but then it would reassert itself. But if it’s an invention, perhaps it would stay gone once we replaced it with something better.
Christianity once ruled Europe, but today it’s seen in much of Europe as a quaint custom from the past, like chamber pots or chewing tobacco. Perhaps it’s not too optimistic to see religion as nothing more than an invention that needs improving.
it could be a city street,
it could be the face of another human being—
everything is full of wonder.
— A. C. Grayling
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 7/2/14.)