Dr. Judith Hand is a scientist, novelist, and self-dubbed “peace ethologist.” Frankly, I sat down for her program with a very skeptical attitude. I have no use for the “Let’s Abolish War” trope, which is no help in coming to grips with the very difficult moral challenges that human conflict presents us with.
Dr. Hand started by asking people to raise their hands if they believe we can end war. Of course I didn’t raise my hand.
And then she surprised me. Instead of presenting the usual empty pacifist pieties, she proceeded to an excellent analysis of human biological and cultural evolution, dissecting why war happens and, importantly, why it’s in fact happening less and less. (Her arguments were indeed extremely similar to those in my own chapter discussing war and why it’s on the wane; in fact, she hit on some nuances that I missed. My short summary here doesn’t do justice to the depth of her presentation.)
While Dr. Hand did talk some about the evolutionary basis for aggression, she spent more time emphasizing why humans evolved to be cooperative, empathetic and even altruistic. No other animal is so good at grasping what others want, why they want it, and why it’s usually a good idea to help them. And even in endeavors where aggression is important – hunting and, yes, war – cooperation is also highly important.
Dr. Hand also emphasized alloparental care. This refers to child care by people other than the actual parents. While other primates engage in this, humans do it more than any other creature. Cooperative breeders like this, she said, are faster breeders. This would have been important for survival in our early very difficult environmental conditions. Again, the alloparental model gives a big boost to empathetic and cooperative impulses.
She also talked about the evolution of a shared sense of fairness, justice, and morality, referring to experimental evidence that monkeys understand and act upon concepts of fairness. But these traits are most highly developed in humans.
So – why war? Dr. Hand cited evidence that war has rarely occurred in “simple” nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, and only arises when people settle down, with a rich food source, developing hierarchies and political systems – creating a new environment very different from what prevailed throughout most of our evolutionary history.
It’s true that men and women differ, but “aggressiveness” per se is not the main issue. The two genders have very different reproductive priorities. For a woman, having a child is very expensive in time, resources, and risk; so she wants a peaceful environment of social stability, compromise and accommodation with others. Men don’t invest as heavily in individual young, and their “selfish gene” biological imperative is to impregnate as many females as possible. This leads to the quest for dominance and status. However, Dr. Hand said, this doesn’t mean alpha males necessarily love war and killing; most in fact have an abhorrence of killing; but she said it’s a small minority of “hyper-alpha” males, maybe 10% — the Hitlers of the world. (I’d actually put the percentage far lower.)
What does the foregoing mean, in modern culture? One crucial feature of modernity is a rising democratization. I have argued at length that democratization is the key to curbing war, as truly democratic societies do not give each other reasons for war. And this effect is magnified with a rising role for women in societal decision making. In general, it was only in the last century that women even got the vote and began to move into positions of authority. Put that together with the paragraph above, and the upshot is obvious.
But it’s not only the admixture of the female mentality that has changed the prevailing cultural weather. The Enlightenment, the rise of the scientific method, has encouraged more and more people to think for themselves and to think differently. This has accelerated in our own time, with the advent of the Internet and other communications media, binding the world together.
Some say, “nothing ever changes.” But, in fact, the biggest reason why the human animal was such a success in the natural selection game is that creature’s plasticity, the ability to change when circumstances change. We are living in a world very different from past epochs. We are changing and progressing, in a grand virtuous circle.