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Is war determined by our genetic makeup? Is war an innate part of humans and subsequently of the human condition? Well respected science writer John Horgan says no, and in turning the matter into one of science rather than morality demonstrates that war is more often avoided than engaged in.
Horgan takes the reader through not only his own research, but that of countless others in various fields including anthropology, sociology, and psychology to demonstrate both how some have concluded that war is indeed innate and also to counter their arguments with substantive evidence. He explores the question of nature vs. nurture and examines societal causes of war.
On the latter point, Horgan posits and demonstrates that the very societal causes of war – such as religion, for example – have also been solutions. He cites the Christian crusades for instance as an example of religion as an impetus for war, but also cites examples of Christian pacifism and religious anti-war protests.
Yet what of the nature vs. nurture question? Just how innate is the need for war in humans? Horgan cites long noted studies of chimps by scientists showing that war is in their biological make-up. Since chimps and humans are so close genetically, the natural conclusion is that such a drive toward war is also innate to humans. Horgan, however, convincingly illustrates that studies of chimps have not always taken into account human interference nor have the studies adequately calculated actual aggressive activities between groups of chimps. Horgan cites Jane Goodall, for example, who noted that her own contribution of bananas to the chimps she was observing may have made them more aggressive. Horgan actually demonstrates that not only are chimps less aggressive than is widely assumed, but also provides the reader with another human relative that is far more peaceful: the bonobos. In other words, if the argument is that humans are as aggressive as chimps because the two are genetically so close, then the counter argument is equally true: humans are just as peaceful as bonobos because they are just as equally related to them as to chimps.
War has come to be accepted by society as something that is a necessary part of civilization. Horgan argues that this is not so and that war as part of human history is only roughly 13,000 years old.
What then is the cause of war? How do societies stop engaging in wars? Most importantly, is it possible that wars will become obsolete, as Horgan argues? If so, how will this happen? These questions, Horgan’s research and suggestions make for a well-articulated argument that war can become a relic of a shameful human past, something humans remember and study in wonder, but no longer have to live through.
John Horgan is a long-time senior writer for Scientific American. He has also written for The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, New Scientist, just to name a few. Horgan is also the director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology (http://www.stevens.edu/sit/).
Scott Horton is the host of Antiwar Radio on the Liberty Radio Network and on Pacifica in Los Angeles. He is assistant editor at Antiwar.com. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, investigative journalist Larisa Alexandrovna.