War And The Imperfect Nature Of Man
January 29, 2008, 04:00 AM
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There have been thousands of books on military tactics and the history of warfare, as well as philosophical tracts as to what constitutes a just war. Yet few books address the question of why, despite the horrors of war, human beings continually kill each other on a mass scale.

David Livingstone Smith, who teaches philosophy at the University of New England, attempts to do this in The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War. Smith uses the field of evolutionary psychology—the science of looking at social behavior and psychological traits through the lens of natural selection—to figure out why humans are capable of war.

Firstly, Smith disposes of the Rousseauian view that humans are naturally peaceful creatures who have been corrupted by modern society. He notes that anthropological evidence has found evidence of war as far back as we have found human remains, and that our closest related species—chimpanzees—engage in a form of territorial warfare themselves.

But Smith also dismisses the Hobbesian view that man is naturally violent and restrains his urge to kill. Even in war, when society not only permits but demands killing, many if not most soldiers are at least initially averse to killing their fellow humans.

Smith looks at the actions of groups of chimps who divide along kin lines and kill other tribes in competition for mates, resources, and territory. Yet human warfare is more complex. The obvious reason for this is that humans are capable of more complex ideas and societies. While some wars are fought for territory and resources, many are fought over ideologies, religions, or subtle ethnic hatreds. Even in wars fought over resources, the losers and sometimes even the victors often lose much more than they have gained.

Smith`s answer to this paradox is far too complex to summarize concisely. To grossly oversimplify, he argues that humans are able to deceive themselves to viewing the enemy as subhuman or parasitic. This harkens back to our natural revulsions, fears of predators, and desires to hunt prey.

You might find many flaws in this, or even think it a "just so story." But it is certainly a compelling and interesting theory that will get you thinking.

While this book is broad in its scope, there is one glaring omission. Smith is obviously right to note that human nature is fixed and many aspects of it are universal. But he avoids any discussion as to whether there are any systematic differences between the behavior of different human groups.

In his recent book,  The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why, Richard Nisbett looks at how seemingly antiquated notions like "national character" are supported by modern psychometric testing. Although Nisbett rejects a genetic explanation (he even wrote during the James Watson controversy that "All Brains Are The Same Color") research on the Human Genome Project shows that much of this has been evolved.

This point could have been very interesting in explaining how different cultures act in war. For example, Smith talks a great deal about the remarkable self-deception involved in justifying war on the grounds that it will bring good to those actually being attacked. But this quirk is almost solely confined to Europeans. The Old Right libertarian essayist Garet Garett wrote,

"The Roman Empire never doubted that it was the defender of civilization. Its good intentions were peace, law and order. The Spanish Empire added salvation. The British Empire added the noble myth of the white man`s burden. We have added freedom and democracy. Yet the more that might be added to it the more it is the same language still. A language of power."[The People`s Pottage, (PDF) 1953]

When the Mongols invaded Europe or the Tutsis attack the Hutus, there is no "higher justification" beyond nationalism and expansion of power that was used.

This is demonstrated perfectly in Iraq. The US starts a war in the guise of spreading freedom and democracy while the Iraqis are busy killing each other along ethnic lines. This is not to say the West is free of ethnic warfare—in fact, no matter how "Operation: Iraqi Freedom" was justified, it was able to gain public support largely because Americans wanted to kill Arabs after 9-11.

Furthermore, while Smith does acknowledge that xenophobia, nationalism, and bias are products of our evolved human nature, he sometimes downplays them as arbitrary in group/outgroup traits. Smith notes that "social animals are often xenophobic"—chimps engage in raids and violence among kin line. When he discusses the "abstract and imaginary" goods that humans fight for, he includes "God, honor, race, democracy, and destiny." Smith suggests that humans try to tie these in-group/out group abstractions to kinship:

"Internationalists talk about `the international brotherhood,` `the brotherhood of man,` `the family of man`; participants in the Black Power movement called one another `brother` and `sister,` as do members of Christian religious orders. Americans ask their nation to `crown thy good with brotherhood` and citizens of the former Soviet Union lifted their voices to `sing to our motherland, home of the free.` "

Yet if you accept Steve Sailer`s definition that "a racial group is an extended family that is inbred to some degree", African Americans calling their co-racials "brothers" isn`t so far off. (And let`s be honest, "Soul Distant Cousin" doesn`t have the same ring to it as "Soul Brother".) It is significant that the Soviet Union called itself the "motherland". It was supposed to be the home of an international revolution. Yet when it was attacked by Germany, it rallied the proletariat to war by appeals to nationalism, not ideology.

In his book, On Genetic Interests Frank Salter of the Max Planck Institute has looked at the comparative genetic differences of ingroup ethnic populations, or ethnies, compared to other ethnies. Salter found that the differences between even relatively similar ethnies like Brits and Danes are equal to the differences within the group. Therefore, some level of ethnic nationalism is no different from familial loyalty. Salter has gone as far as describing ideologies as "fitness profiles" that are created to unify an ethny. In moderation, this level of nationalism is healthy for a population. But like most genetic traits it can go to extremes, which can lead to ethnic violence.

A great many wars are ethnic and racial conflicts. A firm understanding of race and ethnicity would add a great deal to our understanding of war. One possible conclusion: don`t unnecessarily put ethnic groups in shared territories. Yet Smith suggests that apartheid (which literally means "separateness") was a form of warfare.

The fields of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology are not common knowledge, even among highly educated people. The purpose of a "public intellectual" is to take an academic discipline and make it accessible to the general public. Smith certainly does the job.

Unlike most specialists in sociobiology whose specialty is usually in biology or psychology, Smith is a philosopher by training. He makes his book flow quickly by taking reflections on war by famous statesmen, soldiers, authors, and intellectuals as starting points, then discussing how those thoughts correspond to his understanding of the nature of war. This works remarkably well. It is surprising how he finds wisdom even in those whose views one would think he`d dismiss—for example, Williams Jennings Bryan.

This book is primarily about war. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are merely the main tool Smith uses to analyze his subject. Nonetheless, I suspect most readers not familiar with the discipline may have some questions about it. It would have been wise to recommend a book like E.O. Wilson`s On Human Nature or Steven Pinker`s The Blank Slate in the pages.

Many conservatives will not like this book. Obviously those who question the theory of evolution will be averse to a book that is premised on Darwin`s dangerous idea. Even those who are willing to accept that the origin of species is natural selection may question Smith`s description of human nature, morality, and even religion as products of evolutionary adaptation.

Many believers will dismiss the book outright, which would be a shame. Unlike his fellow Darwinian popularizer Richard Dawkins, Smith does not stigmatize religion. But his nonchalant dismissal of God as "imaginary" may upset theists even more. There is a great debate among evolutionists about whether their theory disproves the existence of God. Smith clearly believes it does. While he is entitled to his view, it was unnecessary to put it into the book, and his matter-of-fact rejection of a higher power without any justification makes him—fairly or not—seem oblivious to the deepest convictions of most Americans.

Other conservatives would complain that Smith is a moral relativist. He explicitly denies there is objective morality, and finds the terms terrorism and genocide to be pejorative and useless in our understanding of war. He does not view actions by Al Qaeda, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia as uniquely evil or even radically different by some actions perpetrated by the US government. Libertarians will not be happy with his insistence on differentiating "the state`s monopoly on violence" from individual acts of murder.

Nonetheless, The Most Dangerous Animal is in many ways a very conservative book. Russell Kirk`s sixth principle of conservative thought was "conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability." This book tells us a great deal of how imperfect we are, and from there we can learn how to best live with our shortcomings.

In his conclusion Smith notes that "in a book like this it is conventional to close with reflections on the future of war". But admirably he avoids any predictions, or ideological and policy prescriptions. There are no suggestions on how to reduce warfare beyond reiterating the two simple facts: Man is averse to war because of the horror, death, and destruction it brings upon us; yet it is nonetheless pleasurable because of our natural desire to hunt prey.

The only way to avoid war, he concludes, is to highlight the horrors of war so that they will outweigh its allure in our subconscious. All Quiet on the Western Front is considered an antiwar book, not so much for its philosophizing on warfare, but for simply giving an accurate depiction of what it`s like. Pro-war pundits today call treason when newspapers merely display military coffins being unloaded.

I can heartily agree with this recommendation and would go one step further. Russell Kirk expounded on his sixth principle,

"Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created… All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose. "

Our nation`s founders knew that war was part of our nature, but did not wish to repeat the perpetual fratricides of Europe. Following these principles, they made it very difficult to declare war. Despite our many interventions since World War II, the United States has been relatively peaceful during its existence. When it has been at war, it is usually been because those "moral safeguards" such as checks on executive power have been neglected.

It is not an accident that Ron Paul is both the most consistent proponent of strict constructionism and non-intervention in Congress.

Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations whose son was killed in the Iraq War, blurbed on the back of the book that its conclusions were "disturbing".

Yet I don`t believe they are. No-one but the most cockeyed utopian thinks that we can eliminate war. The fact that war is in our nature does not mean that our country must always be at war.

But with a better understanding of why we fight, we would be wise to avoid fighting for futile causes like ending endemic ethnic conflicts—much less "wars to end all wars."

Marcus Epstein [send him mail] is the founder of the Robert A Taft Club and the executive director of the The American Cause and Team America PAC. A selection of his articles can be seen here. The views he expresses are his own.