Can a scientific approach to understanding conflict accurately conclude that we are not destined to perpetual war?
A survey I carried out for the show “RadioLab” was typical. I approached a score of pedestrians on the streets of Hoboken, where I teach, and asked them if humans would ever stop fighting wars. I got three tentative Yeses and seventeen immediate, adamant Nos. “No,” replied Mark, a sixty-year-old dentist, “because of greed, and one-upmanship, and the hierarchy of power, in which everybody wants more.” War “is a universal law of life,” agreed Patel, a twenty-four-year-old computer scientist. “To get something, you have to fight for something.”
Young people seem especially fatalistic. I teach a course called “War and Human Nature” at my university. One assignment requires my students to ask ten or more classmates: “Will humans ever stop fighting wars, once and for all? Why or why not?” More than 90 percent of the four hundred or so respondents said “no.” The justifications were diverse: “We’re naturally evil” was especially common. “People are always going to hate and try to destroy ‘inferiors.’” “Monkeys fight with each other and because humans are animals too, we follow that pattern.” “Men are power crazy and women are not in power.” “People would just get bored with no war.
Could it be that male dominance is the problem? Would a world run by women solve this problem? Horgan isn’t optimistic on this solution.
Is this approach a pie-in-the-sky, peacenik pipe dream? Isn’t war part of human nature? David Barash writes in the Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog the following:
The End of War is neither unrealistic nor unadulterated Pollyanna; Horgan looks hard at a variety of explanations for war, concluding that to some extent it has become a nasty meme, a cultural tradition, and a self-fulfilling prophecy. “We kill and torture,” he suggests, “because we’re sheep, not psychopathic wolves.” He gives ample attention to the “bad barrel” theory recently elaborated by Philip Zimbardo of Stanford Prison Experiment fame, along with homage to Stanley Milgram (“obedience to authority”) and the hopeful aspects of the justly renowned Robber’s Cave Experiment, conducted by Muzafer Sherif.
Kudos for Horgan for taking this important discussion not only to media channels for consideration–but also to online audiences through Reddit.