Of monkeys and men

Refutation of Peter Nicholls' claims that human beings are naturally violent)

By Anatol Rapoport | 1994-11-01 12:00:00

In arguing against prohibition of violence-ridden entertainment, Peter Nicholls (Peace, Sept/Oct 1994) points out some positive function of such entertainment-such as providing catharsis for aggressive impulses or inducing feelings of guilt about violence by depicting its gory consequences. The problem with commercial entertainment, Nicholls maintains, is not that it is violent but that it is trashy, and all trash, not only the violent sort, is morally repugnant. I would put it differently. I would say that commercial violent entertainment is morally repugnant because it exploits base destructive impulses for gain, as the tobacco industry and drug rackets exploit people's pathological addictions to make money.

Dealing with the violent entertainment racket is a difficult problem. Besides being vulnerable to the charge, however specious, of stifling freedom of expression, censorship is likely to be no more successful than prohibition. Perhaps a more effective approach would be to make it unprofitable by excessive taxation. It seems reasonable, however, to suppose that especially in societies where pursuit of profit is the most conspicuous motivation for a great variety of activities, many noxious practices can be effectively inhibited by making them unprofitable, at times by choking off their life support systems.

Nicholls approaches both the problem of violence-ridden entertainment and the problem of war as an issue related to the biological roots of aggressiveness. The chart illustrating Nicholls' article depicts evidence for both biologically and culturally determined violence. Along one dimension we see the peaks of homicide frequencies in the same age spans (young males) among both Detroit and Canadian populations-evidence of biological determinants. Along the other dimension we see a tremendous difference of homicide frequencies at all ages and in both sexes between the Detroit and the Canadian population-evidence of cultural determinants. The different incidence of homicide at various ages and both sexes may be also due to culture (e.g., what is "expected" of a young man). Likewise, some of the difference between Detroit and Canada conceivably may be attributed to genetic factors. These matters show the complexity of explaining violence. Simplistic, ideologically imposed answers will not solve the problems associated either with chronic violence or with its acute explosive manifestations, such as war.

This brings me to one of Nicholls' conclusions to which I take strong exception. He writes:

War... has patterns, reflecting human aggression since antiquity, and this does not mean that individual wars cannot be avoided, or that the likelihood of war cannot be changed. But this does mean that abolition of murder and war will be exceptionally difficult, perhaps globally impossible.

This is an echo of the homily, "You can't change human nature." I do not say that the homily is wrong (that you can change human nature) but that it is irrelevant to dealing with social problems. If there is such a thing as human nature, a property of the human psyche unique to our species, it is its practically unlimited malleability. This does not mean that human nature keeps changing all the time. On the contrary, it stays virtually the same, namely infinitely malleable, continually shaped by the evolving cultural environment. In fact, cultural evolution, completely overshadowing our biological evolution, is the unique hallmark of our species. In the light of this dimension of evolution we must examine the possible biological basis of human aggression, particularly its supposed manifestation in war.

In his brilliant Sociobiology, E.O. Wilson, the founder of the field writes:

Throughout recorded history the conduct of war has been common among tribes and nearly universal among chiefdoms and states. The spread of genes has always been of paramount importance. For example, after the conquest of the Midianites, Moses gave instructions identical in result to the aggression and genetic occupation by male langur monkeys (pp. 572-73).

Male langur monkeys attack a foreign group, kill all the males and carry off the females, thus spreading their genes. This aggression confers evolutionary advantage on the aggressor; his genes have a reproductive advantage over the genes of the less aggressive. In this way aggressive urges presumably became biologically fixed in the primate male, the ancestor we share with langur monkeys.

This is an elegant argument for the biological basis of war, but the example chosen reyeals something else: a cultural element in the evolution of war. Here is the Old Testament passage to which Wilson presumably refers:

And they warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses and slew every male... and the children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones....

So far they behaved like langur monkeys. But read on:

And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, who came from the service of the war. And Moses said unto them.... Have you saved the women alive?.... Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him, but all the woman children that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves (Numbers 31:7, 14, 17-18).

Marauding langur monkeys do not kill non-virgin females. The distinction between virgins and non-virgins is a cultural contribution to the evolution of genocidal war. The next book of the Old Testament illustrates the next phase in the evolution of this institution:

... of the cities... that the Lord thy God hath given thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth, but thou shalt utterly destroy them... as the Lord thy God commanded thee. That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods... (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18).

How can this policy be traced to reproductive advantage? Evidently we witness something else-the evolution of an institution adapting to a specific historical environment. The Israelites of the Old Testament were nomads aspiring to a settled agricultural way of life. Possession of land was an imperative and the local inhabitants were an obstacle to be removed. Genocide was probably seen as analogous to the clearing of woodland, unrelated to gratification of aggressive urges. In fact, reference to the Lord's commands may be evidence of attempts to overcome the inhibition against killing one's own kind, which may be a component of our mammalian heritage.

During the next stage of the evolution of war, genocide gave way to enslavement of conquered populations to provide mass labor for public works, e.g., irrigation. During the age of empires, conquered populations were typically taxed rather than enslaved. The viability of war speaks for its flexibility in adapting to the evolving forms of social organization, in the last few centuries to the sovereign state.

There is no convincing evidence that the institution of war continues to depend on an aggressive urge presumably rooted in the human psyche. The idea that this urge confers reproductive advantage is no longer tenable. Modern human males do not engage in physical combat to acquire mates. Further, even in war, aggressiveness is no longer necessary for perpetrating murder and destruction. Modern technology makes it possible to kill everyone without hating anyone. Finally, those who do the killing are mostly impressed into service rather than volunteers. Conscription would not be necessary if war provided an outlet for deeply ingrained urges.

I agree with Nicholls that murder may be impossible to eradicate, since aggressive urges may still exist, at least in some humans (perhaps as a vestige, like the vermiform appendix or the ability to wiggle ears), and may erupt under certain conditions. But war is not simply murder writ large. It is an institution, which under certain conditions generates mass murder independently of anyone's compulsion to kill. But institutions are mortal: witness slavery, hereditary absolute monarchy, the Holy Inquisition, human sacrifice, dueling. Eventually, in consequence of political action we can expect capital punishment, mutilation of female genitalia, etc. to follow the others into oblivion. And also, it is to be ardently hoped, war.

Once the will to abolish an institution reaches a certain threshold, it can be destroyed by simply withdrawing its sustenance. So far just two tiny states have abolished their military-Costa Rica and Panama. The recent referendum in Switzerland to abolish its army was defeated, but the attempts will doubtless continue. In Canada, Science for Peace made a serious proposal to abolish the army.

No one expects this proposal to be taken seriously by the present government. However, the abolition of war as an institution, like labor and human rights legislation, is likely to come in stages of increasing restrictions. Some are already in place, such as the virtual outlawing of wars of conquest. Increasing restrictions of arms trade, of military research and development may follow. Progressive curtailment of funds would impair the prestige of the military profession and its technologies, and so would facilitate further curtailments. Once "positive feedback" of this sort sets in, the days of the institution would be numbered. This scenario is not a prognosis. But it does reflect a pious hope and motivation for persistent action.

Anatol Rapoport is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1994

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1994, page 25. Some rights reserved.

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