Thursday, August 26, 2010

Being our natural selves

A dear friend told me recently, "We are naturally good. We worship together to remind ourselves of that."

We are indeed naturally good. And we are naturally indolent and greedy. Mostly, as humans, we exercise choice.

"He was forced to do that." "She had no choice." "All options were foreclosed."

While it is vital to acknowledge that many choices are very hard, they are still choices. Picking up a gun in the name of a religion or a country is a choice. It was even a choice when there was conscription. Sometimes getting in touch with our natural selves and dealing with the opposing internal tendencies reveals our real range of what is natural.

Violence is natural; nonviolence is natural. Regarding another human as the enemy is natural; regarding everyone as an ally or potential ally is part of our natural repertoire too.

Sigmund Freud felt war was natural; so did Albert Einstein and Konrad Lorenz. But Margaret Mead pointed out that, while war is natural, it is also invented and is a choice. Her 1940 essay on that, "Warfare is only an invention--not a biological necessity," was published in the academic journal Asia, and carved out the idea that rejected the deterministic or Marxist notions that we are so brutal we must go to war, or that war will be necessary until we change the structure of society to eliminate class. Instead, she looked at the record from an anthropological stance, a sort of forensic conflict approach that examined the literature on various extant groups of humans who practiced conflict in ways that were simply unique to their culture, each one revealing a new facet of human potential. She wrote about the Lepcha, Eskimos and others who simply have no word or concept for war. Some of the cultures without war are quite stratified, some settle individual conflict with violence, and the permutations are remarkable.

Mead's thoughts on this led to more thinking in her field and in others--she was a public intellectual, after all, and leapt disciplinary lines with impunity--and more creative and scientific evidence accrued. Eventually, scientists met at a conference in Seville, Spain, and drafted the Seville Statement, which simply says that we are hard-wired for choice, not pre-determined outcomes, in group-to-group conflict. Douglas Fry and others have written extensively on this since.

We can change our choices. We can move away from war. It is not pre-ordained that we do these godawful things to each other. We can do much better. It would be only natural.


Fry, D. P. (2006). The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Mead, Margaret, "Warfare is only an invention--not a biological necessity," in Barash, D. P. (Ed.) (2010). Approaches to peace: A reader in Peace Studies (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.


Andy said...

Of course you are right about violence and war being choices. People often express resignation that war is inevitable because it is part of "human nature." Others use the "human nature" excuse to jubilantly promote and engage in war. The obvious correlates to war are murder and rape. Almost everybody wants to prevent those activities, yet they are just as much "human nature" as war. I try to communicate to people that if we choose to reject murder and rape, we can also choose to reject war. I also argue that the term "human nature" has no meaning and is at best useless and at worst is counter-productive. Choice, like you point out, is behind everything we do.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Great points, Andy. And the justifications ascribed to those who kill and rape are no more or less human nature than are the actual behaviors. So, for tragic instance, you have the new phenomenon of the widely rationalized 'corrective rape' of lesbians in South Africa, which is on a par with the notion that collateral damage to children is acceptable when someone decides a war is 'just.'