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The Missourian

Research Shows That War Isn't Caused by Instinct

Bill Wickersham

When writing or speaking on issues of war and peace, it is not unusual for pundits and others to make the case that war is due primarily to a human instinct that causes nation-states to engage in large scale warfare. Underlying that idea is the notion that human beings have pugnacious inner drives that require an outlet for aggressive behavior if they are to achieve their full potential in a highly competitive world in which people have to dominate others to guarantee their own survival. This theory is often linked to the psychologically and physiologically induced fight-flight reaction process, which provides the necessary adrenaline rush when we are aggressively confronted or personally attacked and enables us to stand and fight or, alternatively, to quickly flee the scene. Conventional wisdom often cites this reaction as the underlying cause for the violent, deadly, large group activity called war.

In 1986, an international team of biologists, psychologists, ethologists, geneticists and others adopted a statement that rejected biology as the primary cause of war. The "Seville Statement on Violence" has been endorsed by innumerable scientific and scholarly organizations around the world. The following are excerpts from its text: "It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors. ... The fact that warfare has changed so radically over time indicates that it is a product of culture. Its biological connection is primarily through language, which makes possible the coordination of groups, the transmission of technology, and the use of tools. Related Articles

"War is biologically possible, but it is not inevitable, as evidenced by its variation in occurrence and nature over time and space ... It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by 'instinct' or any single motivation. ... Modern war involves institutional use of personal characteristics such as obedience, suggestibility and idealism; social skills such as language; and rational considerations such as cost-calculation, planning and information processing. The technology of modern war has exaggerated traits associated with violence both in training of combatants and in the preparation of support for war in the general population. As a result of the exaggeration, such traits are often mistaken to be the cause of war rather than the consequences of the process." To retrieve the entire document go to: or search "Seville Statement on Violence."

If war is not the direct result of instinct, what is it? According to the late anthropologist Margaret Mead, war is a human invention, and the abolition of large scale international violence requires a replacement invention. For the development of that new invention to be undertaken, people and their leaders must be helped to fully understand the nature and characteristics of the old invention. Only then can a new one be created. Scholars have assumed or determined numerous factors that contribute to the onset and prosecution of war. Some of those factors include: the economic benefits of war profiteering; worst-case philosophy war planning which assumes "there will always be wars and rumors of wars;" evil leaders who seek imperial conquests of other nations; mass frustration of basic human needs of large populations, some of whose members engage in systematic terrorism; strife between and within various religious communities; and several other variables. Given the variety and complexity of these factors, it would seem virtually impossible to ever achieve true peace under the rule of law with justice. Clearly such conditions will not be realized in my lifetime or that of the baby boomers. However, we can sow at least one seed of peace for our children and grandchildren.

One of the world's finest peace theorists, the late Dr. Randall Caroline Forsberg, believed that "a single 'modest' change could serve as an initial step toward the abolition of war and, ultimately, the permanent abolition of war." That single modest change would be the development of a commitment in the great majority of the world's public "to the democratic value that violence is never morally or politically acceptable except when used in defense against violence by others who have not accepted this principle, and who have in fact initiated acts of violence." Based on this underpinning premise, she and other colleagues have developed a creative step-by-step systematic plan for world disarmament education known as Global Action to Prevent War. For details of the program go to Space will not permit a full explanation of how this plan relates to some of the aforementioned theoretical causes of war. However there is no question in my mind that it provides a sound basis for the initiation of the war replacement invention of which Margaret Mead spoke.

Bill Wickersham of Columbia is an adjunct professor of Peace Studies at MU, a member of Veterans for Peace and a member of the U.S. Steering Committee of Global Action to Prevent War.

© 2007 The Missourian

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