We’ve heard repeatedly that humans are intrinsically a violent species and that war is an inevitability. While this conventional wisdom has been used to justify and shrug off acts of war, some scientists are finally contesting this notion. Their research suggests that peace is not such an elusive state for mankind after all.
Recently, a scientific team led by Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg examined the presence or absence of war in ancient societies. Inspecting anthropological clues of more than 20 hunter-gather civilizations, they believe that the evidence doesn’t suggest that warfare occurred. While skeletal remains do demonstrate that some ancient people were brutally murdered, these deaths seemed to stem from “individual conflicts” rather than coordinated war efforts.
“By showing that war is the exception rather than the norm in societies with a lifestyle resembling our ancestral past, the study supports a more optimistic view on the human potential for peace,” said Soderberg.
Other researchers, however, disagree with the team’s conclusions. They take issue with the way Soderberg and Fry ruled certain violent deaths not acts of warfare. “If you find a spearhead or arrowhead in someone’s bones, which is common, is that war or interpersonal dispute?” asks anthropologist Michael Wilson. “You just don’t know.”
Wilson chalks up the researchers’ findings to wishful thinking. He believes they are trying to disassociate war from human nature to somehow justify not needing to have war. “It’s clear that warfare occurs very commonly wherever there are people, but it doesn’t always occur,” he adds. “If we can find why people are less likely to go to war in some instances, then we’ll be doing something useful.”
Fortunately, that’s precisely the direction another research team has adopted. Political psychologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst noticed that most work in their field focuses on the causes of war rather than peace. They believe that having a better comprehension of how people avoid engaging in violence and resolve conflicts is a valuable tool moving forward.
The UMass Amherst psychologists suspect that the human mind has been taught to look at the world from a war-based perspective. Fortunately, early research suggests that the reverse can take place, too: the brain can learn to embrace a peaceful viewpoint, as well. Therefore, the psychologists laud peaceful leaders like Nelson Mandela who model non-violent resistance and lifestyles while inspiring others to do the same.
These researchers theorize war is a state of mind, not a human condition. “It is our contention that psychology can and should be applied to promote peace, not war,” said Linda Tropp, one of the university’s psychologists.
Perhaps that’s a big part of our war problem – the military industrial complex has taken a firm grasp of society and does not want the human mind to consider other options for handling conflicts. With billions of dollars at stake, the only psychology they wish to promote is one where violence is not only the answer, but the only answer.
Unfortunately, no amount of research can allow us to definitively state whether or not humans were born peaceful or peaceful minds can be developed by example. However, these studies do give some hope that war is not necessarily inevitable for human society. Considering the dreary drones and genocide going on in the world around us, sometimes a dose of research-based optimism is helpful to get through the day.