Blog

Is war in our genes?

Sebastian Junger, embedded.

Science writer John Horgan on Sebastian Junger on war:

Describing himself as an antiwar liberal (who thinks the U.S. botched its occupation of Afghanistan but fears that worse bloodshed will result if the U.S. abruptly withdraws), [Junger] said his reporting and research led him to the disturbing conclusion that war stems from innate male urges. I disagree. Here are some counterarguments to Junger’s contention that we’re “hardwired” for war:

• The evidence that war is in our genes is flimsy to nonexistent. Lethal raiding among chimpanzees, our closest relatives, is often cited as strong evidence that human warfare is ancient and innate. But as I pointed out in a previous post, scientists have observed a total of 31 chimpicides over the past half century; many chimp communities have never been observed engaging in deadly raids. Even Wrangham has acknowledged that chimpanzee raids are “certainly rare.”

• The oldest clear-cut evidence for lethal group violence by humans dates back not millions or hundreds of thousands of years but only 13,000 years. Moreover, as an excellent recent article on this Web site points out, tribal societies in regions such as the U.S. Southwest did not fight continuously; they lived peacefully for centuries before erupting into violence. These patterns are not consistent with behavior that is instinctual or “hardwired.”

• Young men who are willing and even eager to fight certainly help make wars possible, but that doesn’t mean that these young men cause wars or that all young men are itching for a fight. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney launched the current U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they went to great lengths as young men to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. (This irony brings to mind something that World War II hero Sen. George McGovern said in 1971: “I’m tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to fight.”)

• Junger claims that the “moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers [in Afghanistan] much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of almost zero.” The Americans in Restrepo may be fighting for fighting’s sake, but surely that isn’t true of their Taliban and al Qaeda opponents. Moreover, does anyone really think that the young men who have been battling in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria lately are not fighting for a higher cause?

Read more at Scientific American.