- Deadly wars may be the result of modern
technology blended with our Stone Age instincts. Humankind has just
lived through a hideously violent century.
- World War I, WWII, wars in Vietnam, Cambodia,
China, Bangladesh, Korea, Nigeria and elsewhere have extinguished millions
upon millions of lives. The killings continue today in Sierra Leone, East
Timor and Sudan, to name a few.
- Waging war is nothing new for us humans.
Bloody conflicts from the Crusades to Kosovo have been a hallmark of our
history. Which raises the questions: Is such behavior simply part of human
nature? Are we hard-wired for war?
- There,s certainly no definitive answer.
But enough scientists have looked into our past " and present "
to shed a bit of light on why we do what we do.
- New Environment, Old Brain
- When interpreting human behavior, it,s
best to remember that the strongest human instincts are to survive and
reproduce. What we need to satisfy those instincts hasn,t changed much
since our primitive ancestors roamed the globe; it,s about getting enough
food, water and mates.
- Like it or not, write Leda Cosmides and
John Tooby, co-directors of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at University
of California, Santa Barbara, "our modern skulls house a Stone Age
- Though modern-day aggressors may not
be aware of it, those primitive instincts drive their behaviors too. A
strong group benefits from attacking a weaker group if in the process
the aggressors gain fertile lands, reliable water, greater market share
" any resources that improve their collective livelihood.
- There,s no denying that aggression has
been a good survival strategy. Which is why we humans are genetically hard-wired
- But what triggers that aggression and
what can magnify it to the point of a Rwanda or a Kosovo?
- Richard Wrangham of Harvard University
sees two conditions necessary for what he calls "coalitional aggression,
or violence perpetrated by groups rather than individuals. One condition
is hostility between neighbors.
- Human aggression got more organized with
the introduction of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, says J. William
Gibson, author of Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam
America. With farming came the concept of land ownership " and defense
" and the development of more complex and organized societies. Suddenly,
there was more to covet, more to protect and more people around to help
- The other condition for group violence
is an imbalance of power great enough that aggressors believe they can
attack with virtually no risk to themselves. Majorities have persecuted
minority groups, whether religious, ethnic or tribal, again and again,
believing they,re immune from punishment. The tangled turmoil in the former
Yugoslavia is only the most immediate example.
- Animals Do it, Too
- Humans aren,t the only ones who gang
up. Chimpanzees, with whom we share 98.4 percent of our DNA, are another.
Wrangham, who wrote Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence,
describes five chimps attacking one. Four will hold the victim while the
fifth breaks bones and rips out the victim,s throat or testicles.
- Examples of taking such advantage of
imbalances of power are rare in the animal kingdom because that kind of
behavior requires a sophisticated level of coordination and cooperation.
However, both chimps and humans are certainly capable of it.
- "There,s always conflict in societies,
says Neil Wiener, an associate professor of psychology at York University.
"The issue is, when do these conflicts erupt into violence?
- War deaths have risen dramatically in
the 20th century.
- *There is no information available for
number of deaths per 1,000 people in the 1st-15th centuries. **20th century
data is up to 1995. (Source: William Eckhardt, "War-Related Deaths
Since 3000 BC," Bulletin of Peace Proposals, December 1991 and Ruth
Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures 1996)
- Young Men More Likely to Wage War
- According to Weiner, a critical factor
in the escalation from conflict to violence, is the percentage of young,
unmarried males in a population. He and co-author Christian Mesquida studied
the demographics of 153 nations since the 1960s, comparing those that have
remained peaceful and those that have been at war. Turns out, there is
- "Whenever young people represent
a relatively small portion of the population times are relatively tranquil,
they wrote in their study. "But when a large portion of a country,s
population is young there is likely to be turmoil and political violence.
- Examples include the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan,
even the former Yugoslavia.
- Aggressive wars seem to happen when the
percentage of young men " ages 15 to 29 " reaches 35 to 55 percent
of the adult male population. "I think that young males are hard-wired
to form groups and under the right circumstances, to act aggressively
in groups, Wiener says.
- If Wiener is right, some areas ripe for
conflict are China and India - the world,s two most populous nations -
as well as Pakistan, parts of the Middle East and Africa.
- So with evolution and demographics against
us, what can be done to lessen the chances of war?
- Natural selection over millions of years
has brought us to this violent point and it won,t be swinging the other
way any time soon.
- Besides, says Weiner, "what drives
this stuff ultimately is demographics.
- That may be, but there are certain actions
that can be taken to derail our baser human tendencies.
- Peace has a better chance in a more interconnected
world, where all nations keep tabs on one another. International watchdogs
big and small " the United Nations, NATO, Amnesty International and
others " are already helping to keep imbalances of power in check.
- Population control can reduce conflicts
by making sure that every nation has adequate resources.
- Such efforts may not bear fruit for generations,
but they do provide seeds of hope for a more peaceful 21st century.
- War and Young Men
- A demographic study shows a strong correlation
between the percentage of a nation's male population that is between the
ages of 15 and 29 and incidences of collective aggression - war, ethnic
NATION % AGES 15-29 RECENT
15-29 COLLECTIVE AGGRESSION?
Cambodia 55 Yes
Somolia 55 Yes
Uganda 55 Yes
Iraq 54 Yes
Rwanda 54 Yes
West Bank 54 Yes
Congo 53 Yes
Gaza 53 Yes
Algeria 50 Yes
Colombia 49 Yes
Angola 48 Yes
Ethiopia 48 Yes
Pakistan 48 Yes
Eritrea 46 Yes
Indonesia 46 Yes
Chechnya 44 Yes
China 43 Low level
India 43 Low level
USA 32 No
Canada 31 No
Russia 31 No
Sweden 26 No
- Source: Christian Mesquida & Neil
Wiener. Data: 1990, showing percentage of young men in the adult male population.