The careful reader will notice that the title of this essay ends with question marks, not an explanation point, not so much as a period. The man in the street, and the average woman too, are certain that there have been wars all throughout history, even before civilization. They point to the World Wars of the 20th century, the Thirty Years War in Europe in the 17th century, the Hundred Years War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries, the conquests of Ancient Rome, the Greek and Persian Wars, the Wars of the Assyrians and the Babylonians … Americans, of course, don’t much talk about the the minor wars that the US started: Panama, Granada, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq (2).
“Well, what can you expect from two-legged creatures who used weapons to kill other animals to eat?” say the majority of Americans. Obviously, violence is in our genes. War is just instinctual, intrinsic to our species — and so, there will always be war.
Just in case some Americans who are open to hearing from the archeologists, the brain-chemists, the geneticists, the primatologists, and the evolutionary anthropologists, it happens they have some relevant evidence. In 1986, a group of scientists from different disciplines met in Seville Spain, under the auspices of UNESCO, and forged a definitive Statement on the matter. The Seville Statement begins with a direct contradiction of commonly held beliefs about war and human nature:
It is scientifically incorrect:
– to say we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal
– to say that war or any other violent behavior is genetically
programmed into our human nature,
– to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection
for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior,
– to say that humans have a “violent brain,”
– to say that war is caused by instinct or any single motivation.
But we don’t have to take the word of academics with lots of book learning and fancy titles such as: neurophysiologist, biological anthropologist, behavioral geneticist, and (especially) political psychologist. We can just use plain common sense.
Let’s start with what everyone knows. Humans entered the world as Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago, and they wandered around Africa and then, the whole world on two legs. It is also accepted by archeologists that the genome that guides our thoughts and feelings expanded during the period from 100,000 to 50,000 BP (before the present). Our brain was becoming more complex — our ability at conceptual thought and abstraction came into its own, and our ability to know that others thought and felt as we did was sharpened.
In 2013, the British Museum presented a show called “Ice Age Art – the arrival of the modern mind.” It took several rooms to display the many artifacts which dated from 40,000 to 12,000. Artists of the time engraved, sculpted, and painted many objects and surfaces of clay, stone, bone and ivory with geometric designs and figurative art — all in the many millennia when we were hunters and gatherers. Out of the dozens of objects, none showed outward violence. There was one of running lions engraved on a bone, but that’s as close to violence as was in the exhibit. Many small sculptures of women, often pregnant, were quite artistically rendered. Early humans had their minds on love, not on war. Other early finds emphasize peaceable enjoyment — sculptures of dancers and a few early flutes about 40,000 (BP). How could early men have a call to arms with flutes? Song and dance are more likely.
The next part of the common sense equation concerns our small population numbers. The geneticists estimate the total population of Homo sapiens was not more than 10,000 individuals — numbers barely on the edge of extinction, given the giant cave bears, angry rhinos, and animals with deadly horns and hooves that objected to having spears thrown at them. The one thing early mankind had going for them was that they were social beings. They were highly cooperative in every activity, from hunting to child care. If a hunt was successful, the men brought the steaks & chops home to share with the women and children. If the hunters came home empty handed from a failed hunt, the women gatherers would share the bounty of the earth – the fruits they had picked and roots they dug — with the unlucky hunters.
Also, the women nurtured the children, children were who were unlikely to survive their early years, what with all the accidents, diseases, and fearsome ill-tempered lower animals around the neighborhood. There was a high degree of cooperation, well beyond that of other primates.
With kindness and caring from mothers and assistance from sisters, aunts, and their mothers — enough children and mothers survived. Hey, we’re still here. We must not forget that fully half of the human genome was contributed by the female of the species.
There are also studies by military officers that show that humans have an aversion to killing other human beings, even as we are omnivores and hunted for food. If you can’t believe Generals and Colonels, whom can you believe?
Looking at the big picture, early humans had no weapons such as great strength, long canine teeth, or sharp claws, that any self respecting carnivore had. Nor did they have speed-a-foot to escape danger themselves — living as they did in a beastly world. The only thing they had going for them was cooperation and peace between and among themselves. That advantage must have gotten into their genes, though, and they stayed around for a while. After a few dozen millennia, though, they discovered farming, increased their population, and developed weapons that put fangs and claws to shame. They could afford to become unkind to each other and to have wars of terrible brutality — all in a brief period of the past 5,000 years. If war is so recent an invention, why couldn’t we try peace? We wouldn’t have to invent it — it’s still in our genes.