Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Propensity for Violence is Not Our Biological Fate

To truly be activists, advocates, and peacemakers—to create a just and sustainable and peaceful world— we must learn to question our assumptions and challenge what we are told when it becomes clear that the truth is not immediately evident.

I have been told throughout my life, by the news and in various aspects of my education, that humans are inherently violent.  The people who have assured me that war is simply the natural way of things have broken the news to me in a multitude of ways-- by scoffing at my naivete, or unleashing a barrage of historical and scientific “evidence,” or by simply sighing about the inevitability of violent conflict as if it is something entirely commonplace.  Those who maintain that humans are inherently violent cite three primary reasons for this belief: that we have inherited a tendency towards violence from our animal ancestors, that war and violent or destructive behavior is programmed into our genes, and that war is instinctual or caused by some innate human drive towards violent behavior.  When I put the pieces together, these claims are easily discredited. 

In terms of ancestry, our primate ancestors were not violent.  Unless the term “violence” includes killing to eat, predatory feeding on other species is not an example of the roots of human aggression. Any aggression that does exist comes about only as a result of the species’ environment being altered by outside influences. In addition, no animal has ever been found to craft tools to be used as weapons of organized violence against another animal.  Violence is not something that we have inherited-- it is a product of culture, as evidenced by its evolution over time.  

The claim that violence is in our genes can be thrown out with the simple matter of lack of any scientific evidence.  As UNESCO’s Seville Statement on Violence so eloquently puts it, “While genes are co-involved in establishing our behavioral capacities, they do not themselves specify the outcome.”  Think about it this way: just because cultures have been known to make pottery, that does not mean that that there is a specific pottery-making gene.  The same can be said for waging war.

The third claim is particularly ludicrous. We cannot presume that war is caused by some innate human instinct for violence.  War is engineered using a strict institution of manipulation created on the basis that humans can be trained to be violent.  Violence is the consequence, not the cause of, military training.  Although humans are able to act violently, this capability for violent behavior is shaped by how we have been socialized and conditioned and is in almost all cases able to be filtered before it is acted upon.  Indeed, if violence was a human instinct, aggression and war would be universal.  This is not the case-- throughout the world and historically there exist myriad peaceful societies in which violence is believed to be an unnatural phenomenon.

With all of this being said, we can conclude without hesitation that a propensity for violence is not our biological fate. When we view it as such it tends to become a highly destructive self-fulfilling prophesy.  Instead, we must go forth into our uncertain future with the strong belief that we who created war can also create peace.  We must live what we believe-- a just, sustainable, and peaceful world will be born out of constant questioning of our outmoded ways of thinking.


Alfie Kohn, Human Nature Isn't Inherently Violent, Detroit Free Press, 1988

Louisa (Lulu) Dewey is an incoming undergraduate student at UC Berkeley and an intern at NAPF.


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