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Are wars a basic human instinct

Renewed Instinct of War Reveals Human’s Inability to Evolve as Moral Being Aside of Physical Evolution

Probably human beings are a variation of animals. Although the fact that we think and reason makes us unique, the problem is that we usually fail before our conscience and are guided by lower expression of thought. Only in ignorance, we develop a false pride in our knowledge and civilization. But as a moral being it seems we have barely evolved. We cannot excuse that we don’t know about the devastation and catastrophic consequences that a war and violence bring about and the tragic consequences it may result to humanity as a whole regardless who is a villain and hero in the picture. It leaves people painfully separated from their loved ones. The deadly experience leaves people traumatised and distressed for life. It left an indelible painful and ingrained memory imprint that will not easily wither away. In fact, it destroys everything. But the primordial instinct deep-seated in us appears so strong that we always justify, legitimise and rationalise our base action as if it were obligated and duty bound to circumscribe to such vile behaviour.

According to an article published in “Scientific American” titled “war is not part of human nature”, as of today the historical origin of war revolves around two polar positions. Anthropologist Keith Otterbein called these two contested positions as hawks and doves. The hawks argue war as an evolved tendency to eliminate any potential rival. And it goes back to our common ancestor with chimpanzees that always made a war.

The hawks’ camps suggested that there is a wealth of cross-cultural archaeological evidence that war has always existed on earth. In short, war is natural outburst of instinctual tendencies to protects one’s tribe, evolving over time into collective tendencies towards xenophobia and ethnocentrism in this day and age. Supporters of this camp include leading scholars like Francis Fukuyama, Bradley Thayer etc.

Another view or the doves camp argue that human are not hardwired to attack groups different from them. It contends that conflict has emerged only in the last few thousand years and changing social conditions prepare the ground and motivation for collective killing. It states that lethal group attacks only emerged as hunter gatherer societies grew in size and sophistication and later with the birth of agriculture.

Brian Ferguson, the author in this article argues that doves have the upper hand when all the evidence is considered and warlike culture generated only over the past 10,000 years resulted from cultural conditions and values that yield powerful meaning of “us” and “them”. Ferguson blames the media for selective use of evidence to popularised the hawks camps which he feels is dangerous. The problem with the hawks argument is that if it is once established that humans have a natural propensity for war, then every country will invest more in strengthening nuclear warheads and stack the ammo. This could lead to unessential prioritizing on military capabilities overs  others  aspects of social life that will have a deadly consequence.  (War is not part of human nature, Brian Ferguson, scientific American,2018)

Having laid down the above opposing stance, I’ll be arguing from hawks’ camp to serve the purpose of this article. Jordan Peterson stated that “if you met someone that was not like you historically, one of you will die”.

The human brain has two primordial system. One includes a brain region called the “amygdala” which is responsible for fear and distrust and “mesolimbic” system, responsible for feeling of pleasure in response to things that make us more likely to survive or trust. Brain imaging show that people make a millisecond judgement without conscious process, signalling in the “amygdala” when people are reluctant to trust or fear others especially regarding ingroup and outgroup preference. For instance, studies show that  there is an implicit unconscious bias when whites perceive black and they see them as  more violent and harmful  even if they don’t portray it outwardly solely because they are black. But the study also suggested that it is malleable by altering the primitive fear  and reward system and should not be stereotyped.

Social scientist Scott Page in his book “Difference” argues that diverse people, though less trusting of one another, are productive when they work together.  Page argues that diversity of perspective produces better innovation and solution than the smartest set of like-minded people. (Why the brain see the world as “Us” versus “Them”, Leslie Henderson, scientific American 2018)

Some primitive traits that were adaptive in prehistoric times no longer serve in the modern world and it can even pose a threat to communal harmony. In prehistoric times loyalty and revenge to protect oneself for survival made sense but in the modern world, having someone force loyalty to one’s own tribe or community may equate to violence and resistance. This can also lead to casteism, communal violence, political conflict etc. And igniting nuclear warheads in retaliation is not a good idea.

Instincts are widely considered ancestral and learned but there is no consensus across the board. A duckling hatched from an egg and swam right away. The babies have a fear for snakes. Infant cry is believed to be a manifestation of instinct. The herd instinct is found in human children and chimpanzees. But if experience is the only source of knowledge, whence all these behaviours come from? (Wikipedia)

Professor Gene Robinson and Andrew Baron in an article published in journal “science” argue that instinct in animals is learned by animal ancestors in their behaviour that are wound in DNA and passed onto offspring in later generation in a way that becomes instinctive behaviour. (Epigenetics and the evolution of instinct, Gene E Robinson and Andrew B Baron, science)

Sometime a person is found typing a keyword or strumming some chords on the guitar without looking at the instrument. It’s instinctive to them. Perhaps the repeated practices had rewired the brain in such a way that it became automatic for them. Hence it is logical to think that all instinct is the result of past experience. There is still a higher plane of thought that we call reason. It exists in the conscious realm whereas instinct as the lowest expression of thought exists in the unconscious. But the sad part is, the expression of thought which we called the  instinct still goes on to override the reasoning faculty of modern humans. If we use our reasoning abilities, it is illogical to deprive others of happiness when I myself desire the same happiness. But the reality is, we see many examples of violence, oppression and deprivation  in the modern world. (Raja yoga, Vivekananda)

In the remote past, human lived by hunting and gathering, and the instinct that impel  nomads or tribes  to fight against  others was  perhaps the same as that of modern humans instinct for conflict/war.   The difference is that one fights in a modern suit and sophisticated cutting-edge   weapons, while the others barely wear a clothes and fights. As Thomas Hobbes pointed out that man essentially emerged from the state of nature characterised by law of jungle. They form a state to attain order, peace and security thus creating a sovereign for this purpose.  And defying the authority of sovereign would mean reversion to the original state of nature where the stronger will be free to oppress the weaker.  Hobbes’ famous quotes, existence in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. A situation of “war of every man against every man”. It seems that the same primordial dynamics of war and competition for survival are still deeply inherent in human but in attitudinize modern demeanour. If this is not the case why are nations busy in showcasing military might and occasionally testing nuclear warhead to prove their prowess? This hidden base-driven and then rationalisation of residual instinct is embodied in the Pareto idea of action.

Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto pointed out that most human actions are guided by non-logical actions. Pareto terms the instinctual and sentimental tendencies which guide human action as “residue”. Whereas “derivation” is the rationalisation of the “instinctual tendencies” or residue that we are generally accustomed to justify our action.  This fact is exemplified frequently when a “powerful force” in the pursuit of their narrow ambition intimidates the “weak” to gain something out of it. And they often come up with rationalisations of their actions with mindless justification.

Sometimes we find dogs to be mean. When we feed our dogs, sometimes they fight with each other to have food and not let others eat it. They also have human like tendencies to anger, sexual appetite and even jealousy. Some research reveals that dogs show signs of jealousy whenever the owner shows affection towards rival dogs. Animals are born with this tendency and die with the same tendencies. (Dogs experience jealousy, Charles Q choi, scientific American, 2014)

Likewise, humans are born with the same tendency as animals and die with the same tendencies. Humans and animals appear to be more or less the same in terms of experiencing sensual appetite and mental affliction caused by aggression. Bonobos, female dolphins, Japanese’s macaques, short -nosed fruit bats and other primates for instance are found to engage in sensual behaviour.

In the lives of the sages, insofar as we were taught to listen, they were born with this tendency, but this tendency is left to the world and not carried with them when they die. In other words, they conquer their senses and direct their mind at will. Perhaps this is the biggest difference between humans and animals. The former has the potential to purge his/her heart of evil, while the latter must die with his base qualities. This fact is exemplified in the life of Gautama Siddhartha becoming Buddha and Vardhaman becoming Mahavira. In the entire history of animals we have never encountered such an animal that has given up their animal instincts and taken control of their senses. But we found that the sages are reportedly took control of his or her senses and escaped the slavery of senses.

To get rid of these base tendencies, to die like a withered mature tree, without leaving any roots of evil to grow again, I believe is the ultimate goal and purpose of life. Otherwise, we are just a tad away from animals.

Prince Siddhartha was shattered by the gaze of a dead man. But now we see that every time a person dies in a locality we need to arrange booze and wine for the funeral congregation so that the deceased can be well looked after until it burns into ashes and completes the ritual. Or otherwise no one will stay long.

Prince Siddhartha gave up his kingdom not for himself, but to find a way that could lead humankind out of suffering. But modern people are willing to pick up a knife and stab people for a small piece of land. Economics have a fundamental idea that human desires are unlimited but resources are scarce. In the pursuit of desire, we wonder all our lives but desire never grows old but we grow old in the process. We can’t stop our bodies from getting older. It is bound by the laws of nature.  We have to leave our own bodies, unfortunately our bodies are not our own. A life devoid of moral philosophy seems like a brute wandering the face of the earth. As Dostoevsky once said “if god (or say, some higher values) does not exist, then everything is permitted”

If we have an ingrained archetype called the Jungian self, embedded in the unconscious, veil through subsequent archetypes, then I believe conflicts contradict true human nature. But practically on a mundane level, it is hard to ignore that human beings are largely conditioned by unconscious instinct having a potential to subsume the ego’s personality. Thus, it can give rise to another evil avatar which is indeed dangerous. For instance, some ideologies upheld by Indian political parties are indeed perilous. It embeds hatred and resentment in their doctrine. Perhaps Hitler saw Jews everywhere even in his sleep and this intense hatred ultimately subsumed his “ego” personality and the consequences we all know. Political dogma with unchanging ideas is indeed dangerous as it will continue its nefarious bid until the agenda is complete. Recent V-Dem institute report on democracy 2022, informed the erosion of democracies and thriving dictatorship globally and said that the democratic advance made in last 30 years post the end of cold war is eradicated signalling the throwback to history as a reminder of an era when cult personalities were celebrated.

In conclusion, I will end this article with an allegory. Once there was an angel, tired of living alone. So he played a game for himself. In the game, he pretends to be a monster. The angel is so deeply integrated into the character that he forgets his true nature is angels and ends up living as a monster. Finally, he continues to search outside the world for the angel he will never find because he is looking for himself. Now he has to decide whether to live like a monster or to realise his potential to be an angel by deliberately facing the shadows.


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