Harry Patch, War, and Human Nature

I caught part of "Any Answers" today (2009-08-08) on Radio 4. They were discussing Harry Patch’s misgivings about war – something which had presumably been discussed in the antecedent edition of "Any Questions" which I did not hear.

The first caller opined that the propensity to engage in war was a fundamental part of human nature and that the hope for a future without war was futile. Other callers took the view that human nature was not like this at all.

I think the first caller, rather than the others, was actually correct (at least partially) in his analysis of human nature; but I think his conclusion was false. I think he was making an mistake analogous to one of the mistakes people make when discussing Richard Dawkin’s "selfish gene".

The warlike disposition of groups of hunter-gathers (ancient and modern) is discussed by (inter alia) Stephen Pinker in his excellent book The Blank Slate. I do not agree with everything Pinker says in this book and I think that he somewhat overstates his case when it comes to his forthright rejection of the notion of the notion of the "noble savage". Nevertheless, I think that Pinker is probably right in concluding that humans almost certainly do have an innate disposition to declare "We are tribe X; tribe Y are over there and they are not tribe X; let’s go and kick the shit out of them all".

Variations on this theme have played out throughout human history and we see examples of this disposition even in modern times: in Rwanda; in the behaviour of the (Gentile) German population during Kristallnacht; in Northern Ireland; in the behaviour of football hooligans; and in many other situations.

The good news is that humans are also capable of deciding that, actually, the members of tribe Y are members of “our” tribe after all; and the communication age has made this easier then ever. Of course we still have vile organizations like the BNP, but most British people today cry as many tears over the TV picture of a dying child, with a different skin colour, on the other side of the world as they do over the TV picture of a dying child, with the same skin colour, in the next county.

It is these considerations (and others) that make the segregation of school children along religious lines so utterly pernicious.

Anyway, back to Harry Patch. Does our innate warlike nature (assuming this is our nature) make war inevitable? Let’s take a recent example: the Iraq War. Did the Brits all work themselves up into frenzy and decide: "Let’s go off and kill the Iraqis, they’re not a bit like us."? Urm, "No!". That’s not how it happened. Tony Blair decided to go to war. Okay, he had the support of the Cabinet, but (so far as one could tell) not one single Cabinet member really thought it was a good idea. Tony Blair then got the support of Parliament but, again, one had the impression that most MPs were thinking about their careers rather than baying for Iraqi blood.

Did Tony then lead his tribe into battle with the other tribe? No; he stayed safely at home and made vacuous speeches on TV.

Did the troops behave like a bunch of hunter gatherers intent on murder and mayhem in the enemy "tribe’s" camp? Well actually, in one or two cases, they may have done. But these really were isolated incidents. By and large, they went off to war because they had been ordered to do so and were not driven by a sense of hatred towards the Iraqi people or by a sense that the Iraqis were "other" and therefore worthless.

We could say the same (concerning the gap between the decision makers and the people going off to do the actually fighting) about almost any large scale modern conflict.

In other words, while it may well be true that humans organized in small groups of hunter gatherers - which have little contact with other groups – are genetically predisposed (because of the way we evolved) to violence in certain circumstances; the notion that the genesis of modern wars is somehow an expression of that propensity is highly questionable.

It is rather like the wrong-headed argument that because genes are (metaphorically) selfish and because human behaviour is (to a large extent) determined by our genetic make-up, humans must be innately selfish.

There are lots of reasons why "selfish" genes lead to altruistic behaviour in humans and there are many reasons why an innate propensity for violence toward "the other" in individual humans does not lead inevitably towards war between nation states.

Perhaps Harry Patch’s vision of a future without war will one day be realized.

Let us hope so.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated, but you can leave them without registering.