This is the last of a trilogy of posts on death and destruction. Then we can move on to something serious…
So, I spent the time since my last post reading War in Human Civilization, by Azar Gat. Gat is Ezer Weitzman Professor of National Security in the Department of Political Sciences, Tel Aviv University. I wanted closure on this theme before moving on, so I pulled this title (purchased long ago) from my digital bookshelf and dove into it. What I found was not only closure, but also validation.
Gat offers a rare multi-disciplary perspective on this topic, combining a history of intrahuman fighting at every scale with insights from anthropology, archeology, psychology, ethology, economics, history and political science, and a dash of genetics…an undertaking of some 10 years. He spans prehistoric aboriginal fighting to 21st century nuclear proliferation and terrorism. And in the end, his conclusions are forthright. Simplest is to quote directly from his concluding chapter:
“…there is nothing special about deadly human violence and war. Fundamentally, the solution to the ‘enigma of war’ is that no such enigma exists. Violent competion, alias conflict–including intraspecific conflict–is the rule throughout nature, as organisms vie among themselves to survive and reproduce under ever-present conditions of acute scarcity, conditions accentuated by their own process of propagation.” Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization, Oxford University Press 2006.
In essence, his thesis throughout is this: Human conflict is an evolutionarily-derived phenomenon driven by competition for power, wealth and women. Demarcation among these drivers was clearer in earlier times: Resources were effectively limited; societies were more clearly delineated (i.e., tribal and/or kin based); and social hierarchies (e.g., among rich vs. poor, ruling vs. non-ruling) were fuzzier. Also, the interrelationships among these drivers have often been far from simple: What constitutes wealth has varied among societies; competition for “women” has meant variously a search for wives to an outlet for the sexual drive; and power has virtually always been the universal means of satisfying the other two.
But with the advent of the industrial revolution and subsequent social change, the dynamic, the politics and the economics of war changed: wealth and resources increased, individuals became more invested in home and business, young men gained ready access to sex at home, and global trade created economic interdependence among previous rivals. In essence, among developed and prospering countries, the ancient drivers of wealth, power and sex still remain, but prospering countries have generally found other ways to satisfy them. Physical conflict is too great a risk to the status quo. However, among those societies that have not benefitted by social and economic change, the drivers remain and change to the status quo is often actively sought. Therein lies the risk of current and future conflict, all the more dangerous because of our modern capabilities. Indeed, as he implies in his last sentence, the final history of warfare has yet to be written.
Mine is a poor summary of this extremely enlightening book. But my point here is not to critique Gat, but to underline a personal philosophy: We are, first and foremost, animals like any other. Civilization is merely an assemblage of social constructs to constrain our innate predispositions, social conventions that allow us to live together without dissolving into interpersonal and factional rivalries. (True, one wonders if such dissolution is not happening before our eyes, but that’s a different post.)
I am not ready to suggest solutions to today’s social and political problems. But I do believe our collective efforts would be more productive if we dropped idealistic notions of a “better nature” and accepted ourselves for what we are. Whether or not we liked the end products, at least we’d go into discussions with out eyes open, and what we’d get to would be more realistic and lasting.