Monday, December 22, 2008

The Biology of Peace


They did terrible things to each other because they could not have children. But before the war - during the war - they had done terrible things to each other even though they could have children. The Human Contradiction held them. Intelligence at the service of hierarchical behavior. They were not free. All he could do for them, if he could do anything, was to let them be bound in their own ways. Perhaps next time their intelligence would be in balance with their hierarchical behavior, and they would not destroy themselves.

~ Adulthood Rites, by Octavia Butler
In Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (aka Lilith's Brood) the very alien Oankali collect the remnants of humanity that have survived global nuclear war. The remaining humans are stored aboard their interstellar ship while both they and the flora and fauna of the Earth are "repaired" using the Oankali's superior biological engineering skills. The humans are eventually given a choice: they can join the Oankali, living with them in bioengineered settlements and trading their genes to create Human-Oankali Construct children, or they can live as resistors, with an extended life span and free from the aliens' presence, but completely sterile. They are not allowed to have children because the Oankali believe that the "Human Contradiction" - intelligence coupled with hierarchical behavior, inherited from our ape-like ancestors - would always ultimately lead to the destruction of the human race.
"The Oankali believe . . . the Oankali know to the bone that it's wrong to help the Human species regenerate unchanged because it will destroy itself again. To them it's like deliberately causing the conception of a child who is so defective that it must die in infancy."
~ Imago, by Octavia Butler
Now a new nonfiction book by science writer Thomas Hayden and reproductive biologist Malcolm Potts - Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World - makes essentially the same argument. In an article for the December 19th issue of New Scientist they present an overview of their thesis that is based, in part, on our similarity to our close biological cousins, the chimps:

Chimpanzees -- and virtually every hunter-gatherer society studied -- live in male-dominated social groups, in which the males are blood relatives and females move from one group to another. The dominant males largely monopolize breeding opportunities, leaving younger males with little choice but to work their way up the in-group hierarchy, or to launch attacks on neighboring out-groups if they are to secure the resources, territory, and females they require to survive and pass on their genes.

We are all descended, in other words, from the victors in conflicts over resources, territory, and mates. The majority of those battles was instigated and fought by males, with the most skilled, ferocious and cunning surviving to pass on their genes. Human males today bear the marks of this legacy in the behaviors and impulses that still spur us on to lethal conflict -- including the widespread and devastating association between war and rape -- even when other solutions might be both available and preferable.
It sounds very much like they are arguing that biology is destiny - male biology, anyway. It would seem that the Butler's Oankali are right, our evolutionary heritage has doomed to a continuous cycle of war and violence. But that would be too downbeat to make a very good (or at least salable) book. Hayden and Potts don't think it's all that bleak. They argue that the proper kind of "nurture" can win out over "nature":
But crucially, the fact that war is an evolved behavior does not in any sense condemn us to a future as bloody as our collective past. Behavioral predispositions function in response to environmental stimuli: change the environment, and you change the biological response. In Sex and War; we show that a series of relatively simple strategies, including the empowerment of women and slowing population growth, can help the biology of peace win out over the biology of war.
I confess that to some skepticism, though, about both their hypothesis and their solutions. That's pretty much a knee-jerk response on my part to anyone who gives seemingly simple evolutionary explanations for what are often complex human behaviors. I'll have to read the book before I can actually give a knowledgeable opinion one way or the other. I will say that empowerment of women sounds like a far better solution to create peace than losing our humanity altogether.

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Image (top): "The 'Real' American Soldier" by Aaron Escobar on Flickr
Image (bottom): Chimp Maaike by belgianchocolate on Flickr
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