September 28, 2012


Warmonger or idealist: the roots of human conflict (Dan Jones, 9/25/12, New Scientist)

CONSIDER yourself lucky. You are living in the most peaceful era of our species' existence. Today, you are less likely to die at the hands of another person than at any time in human history. So argues Steven Pinker in his monumental history of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Drawing on a mountain of statistics, Pinker shows that deaths attributable to violent conflicts - from revenge killing and blood feuds to genocides and wars - have been declining for at least the past 6000 years. [...]

We are not the only species that engages in collective aggression. Wolves in one pack will team up to take out members of a rival group. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, fight neighbouring troops. Indeed, primatologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University believes we share with chimps an evolved coalitional psychology that fuels collective attacks. But whereas chimp groups fight to take over territory, our aims are far more complex. "Human aggression is unique in that it can involve conflict over ideas, beliefs and symbols of cultural identity," says Michele Gelfand of the University of Maryland in College Park.

What's more, conflict seems to be an integral part of our social organisation. "We're one species, yet we bind ourselves into exclusive, conflicting groups," says anthropologist Scott Atran of the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris, France. Group hostility and aggression are horribly easy to induce, as social psychologists have long been aware. More than 40 years ago, the late Henri Tajfel showed how people put into teams according to whether they preferred the paintings of Klee or Kandinsky behaved favourably towards team-mates, while treating members of the other team harshly. Since then, numerous experiments have revealed how the flimsiest badges of cultural identity can create hostility towards outsiders - even the colour of randomly assigned shirts can do it.

Paradoxically, these antagonistic tendencies may be intimately linked with another, much more noble side of human nature: our unparalleled capacity for large-scale cooperation and altruistic self-sacrifice. Few activities draw on these traits like fighting on behalf of our group, with the high risk of injury or death that entails. Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, argues that love for one's own group could easily have co-evolved with hostility towards outsiders, creating an unusual mix of kindness and violence. "It's Mother Theresa meets Rambo," he says.

Consider that America responded to the 9-11 attacks by liberating the "group" that perpetrated it in a series of different nations.  War, at least as the West wages it, often is altruism.

Posted by at September 28, 2012 5:02 AM

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