A Hopeful Side to Human Nature

Soon after December’s Newton, CT, school massacre, Prof. Marc Bekoff wrote an article for Psychology Today which argued that human violence is almost unique within the animal kingdom. Bekoff recommended that we “rewild our hearts.” Jane Goodall, who has observed chimpanzee behavior for decades, co-authored a reply in today’s Wall Street Journal which comes to a very different, but very hopeful conclusion.

Goodall et al note that, while chimpanzee homicides are rare – roughly one every seven years in a typical colony – that homicide rate “would be intolerable in human society.” Even with horrors like the Newton massacre, the American homicide rate is more than fifty times lower than Goodall has observed in chimps. She and her coauthors conclude:

What makes humans special is not our occasional propensity to kill strangers when we think we can do so safely. Our unique capacity is our skill at engineering peace. … Instead of constructing a feel-good fantasy about the innate goodness of most people and all animals, we should strive to better understand ourselves, the good parts along with the bad.

Humanity’s unique ability to engineer peace may seem at odds with the headlines and newscasts we see every day, but two books published late in 2011 provide a valuable, different perspective. Prof. Joshua Goldstein’s Winning the War on War and Prof. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature each cite statistics compiled by the highly respected Peace Research Institute Oslo to argue that, contrary to sensational media coverage, war may be going out of style. As noted by Goldstein in a related article in Foreign Policy:

… the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.

Goldstein’s and Pinker’s arguments fit with a realization that I had roughly 30 years ago, soon after I started working to defuse the nuclear threat: We’ve become too civilized to win wars, but not civilized enough to avoid them – and that’s a recipe for disaster. Unlike in World War II, when enemy civilian deaths at Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were applauded, today’s soldiers are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they wait too long to fire on a suspected enemy, they increase their risk of being killed. But if they fire too quickly and kill an innocent person, they risk being court martialed. Both for our own survival, and to truly “support our troops,” we need to stop getting into needless wars.

In spite of my earlier realization, until I read Goldstein’s and Pinker’s books, I still tended to view our task as trying to reverse humanity’s march to extinction. Now, I see us as accelerating an already existing process. To borrow from Goldstein’s and Pinker’s titles, the better angels of our nature are winning the war on war, but nuclear extinction is also in that race. Because most people discount the nuclear threat, that runner is dimly lit and hard to see. By shining a spotlight on it and by highlighting that small conventional conflicts are the most likely paths to a nuclear crisis, we are trying to give a shot of adrenalin to the better angels of our nature, so they have a better chance of winning the war on war before an accident, miscalculation, or just plain, bad luck allows the nuclear threat to win.

Goodall et al’s observation that “Our unique capacity is our skill at engineering peace,” is an important reminder of the hope that Goldstein and Pinker so eloquently portray.

Martin Hellman

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About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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