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Biology 103
2003 Second Paper
On Serendip

Is War Unavoidable?

Maria Scott-Wittenborn

The question that I sought to answer with this paper was whether humans are biologically destined to wage war on one another. Admittedly, something of a broad topic. It seemed to me from news headlines and various history classes over the years that wars, in general, are fought over race, ethnicity or religion. Obviously, often the divides that exist between two ethnic groups don't surface in the form of war or conflict until an issue such as territory comes up. Yet even in territory disputes, the conflict itself still is rooted in the distinction the two sides see in one another: "no, you can't share this lake with us because you look differently/speak differently/worship a different god". Race is not a voluntary trait; it is genetically determined. Ethnicity is, to some degree, a plastic concept; created by human perception of boundaries and distinctions. Religion is an identity that one actively assumes, it involves participation and the adoption of a belief system. From this, one can see that the nature of the distinction is not so important as the distinction itself being made. From this, it would be easy to slip into the assumption that all it takes is the presence of difference to incite violence between populations; but this, I think, does not give humanity enough credit. My goal in this paper is to present an argument that while perhaps inclined, humans are by no means destined to wage war on one another.

Violence and war are, by most people, considered along with reproduction to be two of humanities most fundamental instincts. People point to our bloody past as well as to the prevalence of violence among other animal to whom we are genetically similar as evidence of the futility in pursuing a peaceful future for the world. It is true that even animals such as chimps-who share 98 percent of the same genes with humans- have been known to hunt down and exterminate different groups within their own population (1). Chimps also can be sexually aggressive and violent and dominate females who otherwise would not mate with them (4). But another species, the bonobo, uses sex to deal with conflict that arises and does not often resort to violence. There is no reason that we be more like the warring chimps than the bonobo, or ideally, a nice middle ground where we rely not solely on violence or sex to resolve problems. The hamadryas baboon shows even more restraint, even though they are fond of peanuts, if one is thrown before two males, both will ignore it as it is not worth the fight that would ensue (1). Even Jane Goodall, who spent years studying the acts of chimps in their natural habitats does not feel that the violence that is part of their natures has any definitive impact on the behaviour of humans (3). What makes chimps especially interesting in terms of their behaviour towards their peers is that they do have an emotional awareness that many animals are without. It poses a question that was well articulated by Dr. Goodall, "How should we relate to beings who look into mirrors and see themselves as individuals, who mourn companions and may die of grief, who have a consciousness of 'self'? (2)" How much of the behaviour of the animals can we see as interesting and relevant to our own? While studying the behaviour of animals can perhaps provide insight into the issue of our biological predilection for death and destruction, it is also important to remember that these are monkeys and we are not.

While most countries have had wars, indeed, almost all have, that does not mean that we are destined in the future to do so. It does not mean that there is a biologic basis for war. There are inborn tendencies to defend offspring, to be territorial and these have resulted in wars, no doubt, but if there was another way to deal with those conflicts, would wars still persist? Even if there is not any compelling animalistic impulse to go to war or to hurt one another, human history would suggest that there is some compelling force that must make warfare appealing or at least appear necessary to the human mind; something that makes people regardless of location, race or nationality, prone to warring. Chris Hedges, author of 'War is A Force that Gives Us Meaning' (and incidentally, the man about to marry the mother of my little brother's best friend.) describes the appeal of war as giving "us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living" (1). So then it perhaps is not an impulse to wage war that is so central to the human nature, but an impulse to have a sense of meaning, a sense of self-both of which can be found on the battlefield, but not only on the battlefield. It is the process of establishing what you are by identifying and attacking those that you aren't.

There is the disturbing fact that militarism appears to have existed in roughly 95% of the societies that we know of (1). Within mane of those societies, warriors, traditionally, have been heralded as heroes (1). And yet, the militaristic prowess (or lack thereof) of many countries today is very different from their past. The Swedes have not fought a war for almost two hundred years, yet they are descended from the Vikings, who fought all the time (1). The militaristic sentiments of past generations clearly don't translate genetically to future generations, it is a matter of culture and of choice-two things that we can if not determine, then at least control.

While it would be idle to argue that there is not a side to human nature that craves conflict, it would also be inaccurate to say that our biology makes endless war inevitable. The behaviour of those animals to whom we are genetically similar-in this case primates- can provide proof for both arguments; both that we are capable of atrocities (which we already knew) and that we are capable of peaceful conflict resolution. Even now there is evidence surfacing in the form of studies that are hopeful. In particular the results of a game theory experiment in which the subjects were able to risk everything to gain more for themselves, or to settle for a lesser gain that was reliable and harmed no one else in the group. Around the world, the majority of subjects chose the latter option (1). Proving that while we are far from perfect, that it is not our fate to perpetually engage in self-destructive behaviors.

1) NYT article: 'Is War Our Biologic Destiny?'

2)Official Chimp Site of Jane Goodall

3) Jane Goodall's main page

4) NYT article 'Are Men Necessary?...'

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