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Science writer John Horgan wears his scholarship lightly, and in this small but weighty book thoughtful readers can feel refreshed while learning in depth about a topic often covered with gore, myth and fatalism. Horgan estimates that eighty percent of Americans believe war will always be with us, that it's innate, instinctive, and hard-wired. He counters this with research reaching from primitive tribes—both warring and peaceful--to the present, showing that war is not innate. "Lethal group violence dates back not to the emergence of the Homo genus millions of years ago nor to the emergence of our species hundreds of thousands of years ago, but less than 13,000 years ago." (p. 15). There is no drive or instinct that accounts for war. Our decisions are the cause.
Research during and since World War II, and going back to going back to Napoleon and our Civil War, indicates that most combat troops did not shoot to kill. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman wrote in On Killing (2nd ed., 2009) there are plenty of conscientious objectors. "Wars all begin with human decisions. Choices," says Horgan, Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation.
Sensitive to the interaction of genes and experience, Horgan is rightly concerned that people give undue weight to the former, believing that war is innate--and thus set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Studies show that believers in the innate disposition to war are less likely to work for peace. In 1986 a group of scientists aware of this issue stated: "biology does not condemn humanity to war" and humanity "can be freed from the bondage of biological pessimism."
Horgan discusses "bad apples"--men who thrive on, provoke and enjoy war. Against this is the finding that war traumatizes soldiers and that many of whom are strongly inhibited from killing. The two percent who could tolerate prolonged combat without problems show a profound lack of empathy and remorse (in common with psychopaths). Horgan also denies that a few bad guys drag the majority into lethal fights. He points out that "war itself, rather than an innate lust for violence, turns most people into bad guys"--and then only temporarily. An exemplary student and interpreter of social science, Horgan also notes that women aren't hard-wired for pacifism any more than men are for fighting.
Does overcrowding and competition for resources lead to war? Malthus thought so, but some people see war itself as destroying limited resources: Horgan's response: "There is no clear-cut correlation between resource scarcity and warfare." Disasters that cause scarcity do not themselves precipitate war, but the recent memory of disaster may do so. The latter are wars of choice, driven by fear rather than current threats. Though he does not mention it, one thinks of Israel and the power of fear based on past history.
Horgan believes that neither "naturalist" (biological, innate) nor "materialist" (economic, ecologic) theories of war can explain its complexity. "Many conditions appear to be sufficient for war to occur, but none are necessary." He then turns to Margaret Mead on human society and behavior, adopting her theory that war is a "cultural contagion." Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) argued that we are not slaves of our genes or immured in struggles for superiority (Social Darwinism), but are capable of changing ourselves and our environments. Not a "genophile" like Stephen Pinker or Richard Wrangham (who give more weight to genes than to experience) she thought war was an invention like cooking, farming or writing.
"Mead's cultural model is simple and powerful," writes Horgan. Once invented, "war becomes a tradition, a custom, a habit, and its own cause." Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of "meme" (self-perpetuating cultural beliefs and behaviors); Horgan applies the term to militarism--the culture of war. It spreads like an infection, going where people do not want but must then choose between submission, flight, fight, or nonviolent resistance. War may become an end in itself, infused with values of strength and honor even when it has no real social worth other than, perhaps real or imagined vengeance. John Keegan, the noted military historian, supports Mead and Horgan, arguing that war stems from the institution of war, not from human nature, scarcity, or cultural/religious conflict.
Unfortunately, armed as we are with nuclear weapons we face an ultimate catastrophe. Stanley Milgram's famous experiments starkly reveal the tendency of people to defer to authority, even against their own morals. It's not bad apples that cause war so much as bad barrels (Freud's death instinct, formulated after World War I, notwithstanding). It's a cultural twist that takes away the natural empathy that inhibits killing. "War is the ultimate bad barrel."
In 2008 the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development reported that the risk of war deaths is now relatively low--half the risk of dying by homicide and one-third by suicide! Money and profit influence policy toward war, while democracy and human rights mitigate those tendencies; Horgan cites political scientist John Mueller's finding that since World War I fewer political leaders have extolled the virtues of war. Mueller believes that war is becoming obsolete, and that the U.S. over-reacted to terrorist threats--an indication that excess fear of war is a threat to peace.
Horgan concludes with a fine chapter on nonviolence, citing, though not always agreeing with, Gene Sharp, the longtime theorist and practitioner of nonviolence, whose latest book is From Dictatorship to Democracy. If people can be convinced that nonviolence is effective, they will adopt it. Horgan is no pacifist, and rejects the position of Quaker Alastair McIntosh (non-punishment of violent criminals in favor of redemptive engagement) and Gandhi's readiness to sacrifice civilians until Japanese soldiers quit killing in disgust. Horgan partly offsets Dave Grossman's findings of soldiers' inhibitions against killing, arguing that "individuals, groups, and entire nations can become psychopathic," adding the example of Albert Einstein's conversion from pacifism to willingness to fight Nazi Germany. (I give more weight to Grossman's findings, having read the 2nd. Edition (See my review); Horgan cites only the first--1995). Even so, with fewer military interventions, and even those controlled by an ideal of minimal harm, Horgan is optimistic. He condemns U.S. over-reaction to 9/11, and urges us to cut back the military, stop arms sales abroad, and get rid of our nuclear weapons as an example to others. He urges the abolition of the death penalty and sees hope in collaboration between religious activists and non-believers in the effort to end war.
In an epilogue on free will, Horgan takes aim at scientists who consider it an illusion. He sides with Daniel Dennett, who understands will as an emergent property of the brain, like consciousness. Without it ideas of ethics and morality--and the thrust of this excellent and challenging book--have no meaning. John Horgan ranges far and wide, writes with depth of knowledge and a light touch that invite a second reading. More comprehensive and persuasive than some heavier tomes in this field, this small book carries profound ideas with amazing ease. Its realism, common sense, exhortation and optimism provide a model for social scientists, writers and religious leaders everywhere.
© 2012 E. James Lieberman
E. James Lieberman is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry emeritus, George Washington University, and co-editor of The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank: Inside Psychoanalysis (2012). His review of Dave Grossman’s On Killing is at http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=book&id=5243&cn=396