(Mookie’s article on a short history of warfare caused me to think about whether or not war is really part of human nature, or what human nature actually is)
I doubt most of us really reflect on what it means to be human. We are born into a world, find ourselves enmeshed a cultural-historical context which shapes much of who we become. Those born in the industrialized West will have an orientation towards individualism, materialism, and progress as an expectation. Being human for us is to strive to improve ourselves, succeed in material terms, and look for life to get better as time goes on. We usually expand this to the next generation — we want our children to have a better life than we do.
It’s really easy to take those cultural perspectives and posit them as reflecting “human nature.” It seems natural for us to “want more stuff” to “compete to succeed” and expect progress. Yet at other times in history centuries would pass in which the future was expected to be the same as the past. Progress was non-existent, maintenance of tradition and culture was the norm. Material prosperity might exist for a ruling class, but most people did not have excess consumption — your material goods were there to provide needs: food, shelter, clothing and tools. Success was survival, and communities operated in a tight knit communal manner — individualism was vastly constrained. Often the spiritual or religious was far more important than the material. What does the 45 years on this planet matter in comparison to an eternity of paradise?
The vast array of human cultures and historical traditions provide a hodge podge of ‘human natures,’ all of which might seem fundamental to the essence of being human if you live in that culture. Warrior cultures care less about life than about honor, some cultures embrace and respect human sacrifice, with the victims often welcoming their chance to play that role.
So can we say anything about a core human nature? Are we simply products of our time and place, constructed by socio-cultural forces we cannot control? Perhaps during a life we can transform our cultures a bit (though only if we can get a lot of other people to join the effort), but usually we learn to reproduce our world and it’s basic shared understandings and beliefs. We reproduce it without question if we think it natural.
Biologically one can talk about human nature in terms of some basic elements necessary for survival. We need to eat, we need to procreate, we need shelter, and we need a certain modicum of hygiene to avoid sickness. Psychologically we need to be part of a community. Human children left alone do not develop. If they live, they cannot function. Humans are also adaptable. We build cognitive maps based on the world we experience, which allows humans born into vastly different cultures to adapt and conform to the expectations within which they find themselves. That adaptability is part of our evolutionary success.
From there — the need to satisfy biological requirements, the need for community, and the capacity for adaption — we get a starting picture of a kind of fundamental human nature. Any culture we build has to allow us to thrive biologically and must entail a community. Therefore culture is an aspect of human nature. We don’t exist outside of a community with defined ways of life, ranging from basic and primitive to complex and sophisticated. We can adapt to all of them which satisfy our basic biological and psychological needs.
Another need is a need for meaning. This is a bit more controversial, since one can survive without thinking about what life or reality means. It could be that a sense of meaning a spiritual dimension of human nature, connecting the transcient and corporal with the eternal. Or perhaps the need for meaning comes from our need of community — there is no reason to connect with others unless that connection has meaning. It can be very basic, connected to our biological needs. We help each other survive. Yet from the start that gets translated into notions of identity (our tribe/clan) and then myths about why the world is as it is (proto-religious beliefs, God stories). Regardless of the culture, we seek to create a sense of meaning for our lives and that culture.
From all of this we can see why conflict and war can occur and even be common amongst humans. First, due to scarcity we may have to choose between having our biological needs fulfilled or letting someone else fulfill theirs. Humans are willing to sacrifice for others, even to the point of starvation. However, that only occurs when people identify with others, they are part of their family or community. One might risk death to save the tribe’s winter stock, the tribe is more important than the individual. Most of us parents would definitely put our childrens’ lives above our own.
Moreover, since we are meaning-creators, building myths and traditions to link and give rationale for the existence of a community, it’s also possible to fight over differences in meaning. For instance, most tribes created Gods to worship and to credit for acts of nature. As tribes interacted this led at first to polytheism — we have our Gods, they have theirs. But as communities developed agriculture, meaning that property rights came into being (we tilled this field, what grows here is our field), tribes started to see their God as stronger. The ancient Hebrews, originally a polytheistic tribe (the God of Israel was simply their God) moved to monotheism, or a claim that of all the peoples on the planet with different Gods, theirs was the one true God. As societies became more complex so did the mythologies. They coalesced into the great world religions. Now people could either fight over resources, or about the meaning of life, based on religious beliefs.
Even as we secularized in the last millennium myth came to dominate war causes, especially in the forms of nationalism or ideology. Ideology could be used to rationalize the holocaust, Stalinist purges, or the mass slaughter of the Cambodian genocide. Ideology could also be used to rationalize one community’s self-interest at the expense of another’s. If meaning is constructed in a way that defines those outside ones’ given community as unimportant, it’s possible to kill, terrorize, rape or enslave them without conscience. The difference between a terrorist, someone who gives their life to save another’s or a soldier who sacrifices for his or her country is that they have internalized a set of meanings which defines what they are doing as something noble and serving of their community. On the other hand, if individuals define meaning in terms of individualism, denying the necessity of community, it’s possible to rationalize doing anything to others — true sociopathic behavior.
So if human nature comes down to biology, psychology, and a need for meaning, then the various forms of conflict and human cruelty are not natural, but cultural expressions of fundamentally benign expressions of our core nature. We need food. We need shelter and security. We need community. We need to create meaning for our lives. We don’t need to do so in a way to rationalize genocides or warfare, those are the choices we’ve made — choices often made more likely by the belief that one’s cultural norms reflect “true” human nature.
If we are over going to overcome the problems of warfare and exploitation, we have to find a way to provide for peoples’ biological needs, sense of community, and quest for meaning in a manner that does not de-humanize others or posit ones’ own cultural world view as the true expression of human nature. That gives a sense of short term pessimism, but long term optimism. Given the prevalence of extremist religious, ideological and nationalist beliefs, and the scarcities on this planet, the likelihood we’ll overcome war and repressive governments any time soon is low. Cultures change slowly, and we’re in a period of instability and rapid change.
Yet in the long run we should be able to do it. It’s not that hard to grasp. We already hold it in some of our slogans — live and let live, to each his own, it takes all kinds to make up a world, etc. Perhaps one day we’ll look back on this era as part of the dark and violent pre-history of human kind.