Like it or not we are all related to one another. As homo sapiens, sharing a home we call Earth, it is not surprising that we should exhibit similar desires, and voice almost identical needs. The patterns of our collective experience are remarkably similar. Those factors that separate us are not so numerous, nor as implanted, as the elements that unite and define us.
We are remarkably adaptive and resilient. Inventive too. Indeed, our resourcefulness seems to know no bounds. The inspirational art and music we craft, the extravagant structures we engineer, the fictions we conjure up, the science and philosophies that engross us, and the intricate systems we design, mark us out as an exceptional, if not unique, life form.
So why do we find it so hard to get along? Why is it so difficult to reconcile our differences, particularly when these are often so trivial in retrospect? Why are we fearful of each other when diversity is primarily responsible for generating the insights and breakthroughs we use to develop how we think and what we do? Why is it that we devote so much energy battling and defending ourselves from each other? What are we frightened of?
Is it really the embodiment of an advanced civilisation that we resort to slaughtering each other at the slightest provocation – particularly when we have access to such a wide variety of modes of expression, including sophisticated tools for visualisation and analysis, that can be applied to resolve almost any dispute? In theory it should be easy. So why do we find it so impossibly challenging?
Whenever I have posed this, or comparable questions, in the past I have invariably received bewildered looks. It is as though the question itself is either invalid, or that the answer is so obvious that I must be demented for asking it in the first place. From the responses I usually get I might conclude that aggression is an innate human quality – the impulsive exercise of unconcealed rage on a power spectrum ranging from deference to defiance. In other words, it is just human nature – like breathing or sleeping, it is hard-wired into our very being and consequently true, about every human, every time.
If that really is the case, we can forget about becoming less violent. It is commonly accepted that human nature is inherently fixed and almost impossible to change. This bundle of ways of knowing, feeling, relating and acting is the core of who we are as human beings. It follows that if a proposition runs counter to human nature it is bound to fail.
But I wonder if that is always true. Are we attributing more to human nature than is actually deserved? If so, could we be using it as an excuse, in order that pursuits best suited to some sections of society can prevail unchallenged?
We know that societies develop and change. Indeed, this is why torture and execution as a public spectacle is no longer acceptable. A growing aversion to brutality, too, means we have less tolerance for conflict today than we did a century ago. Increasingly war is regarded as immoral and barbaric. But is that type of societal impulse accurately reflected in personal preferences? We are told that individual temperament changes only slightly over an entire lifetime – unless we actually want it to, and do something to cause such a shift.
On the other hand, basic traits, a synthesis of our genetic heritage and the environment in which we grew up, are merely the starting points for our evolving identity. The impact from continually changing external conditions can alter any epigenetic predispositions we have at birth. Moreover, the brain’s plasticity allows for its reconfiguration – both functionally and structurally. Taken together, this means that while social norms and institutions invariably influence and condition individuals, each one of us can help shape the society of which we are a part. It turns out that human nature is not static, but a dynamic condition that adapts and morphs over time. So why would we not deliberately set about changing our relations with each other in order to be less aggressive and more compassionate?
Perhaps we do have an innate antipathy to some things. We are constantly told that certain emotions – like greed, envy and selfishness – are hard-wired. But is that really the case? Take selfishness for example. If it is in our nature to be selfish, how can we account for the many volunteers, carers, and rescue workers that give their time, and occasionally even their lives, helping others in distress? Given that these are unexceptional individuals, not some super-human of the kind to be found in Marvel comics, we must conclude they are either atypical of the majority in some other way or, far more likely, that selfishness is actually not intrinsic to human nature.
A far more observable trait is that the things we learn to think, believe, say and do together often display innate group characteristics. Thus, it is a more acceptable notion that cultural norms, rather than human nature per se, once formed, are innate. Members of a music club differ from a rowing fraternity, for example. One university college will diverge from others on the same campus. The energy in a government agency is dissimilar to that in a high-tech startup. Their cultures are different – and noticeably so.
Sometimes these differences are subtle. At other times stark. But they invariably have two qualities in common. They are all shaped by particular sets of beliefs; and they all cultivate distinct impulses and behaviours – usually fitting the expectations and needs of members.
Now let us return to the question I posed at the beginning of this essay. Is human aggression and the impulse to fight wars an intrinsic part of being human? Or is it more likely to be the shared cultural characteristic of a particular group?
At the risk of offending half the population I am opting for the latter. The class I am pointing to comprises roughly 49 per cent of humanity. It is the male genus. There will always be a few individual exceptions. But, by and large, wars are conceived, overseen and fought by men aroused by other men. This is not simply a statistical fact. Pluck and bravery remain an early part of male conditioning – aggression imbuing the adult male psyche as toughness and fraternal courage.
Before my male readers become apoplectic and leap to collective outrage, let me set this proposition in a more granular context. That of design. It matters little what aspect of public and private life we choose to examine. Research overwhelmingly shows that we live in a world designed by men for men. In that world merit is a myth and the default design bias is male.
From orchestral auditions and job promotion to urban transportation, algorithms, medicinal doses, medical diagnoses, fashion, disaster management, government policy, public toilets – even the language we use on a daily basis – the majority of objects, places, spaces, strategies and processes we use have been designed by men and are biased towards men, with scant regard paid to the needs of the female gender. The lives and experiences of men have been taken to represent humanity as a whole. They are the default.
As Simone de Beauvoir said: Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.
How does all of this relate to the issue of aggression, and the urgent need to attenuate our primitive fascination with war? Is bellicosity, and the urge to manufacture more destructive weaponry, primarily a cultural impulse to be found (not exclusively, but predominantly) in the male population? If so how should we begin to design for a world in which aggression becomes less valued than empathy, for example?
Over the centuries war has gradually lost all purpose. Today it makes absolutely no sense – even when all else has failed. War provides no benefits to society – it does not guarantee freedom, prosperity, or even future peace. On the contrary its legacy is social dislocation, the loss of innocent life, environmental destruction, and moral bankruptcy.
Most modern military leaders, with few exceptions, acknowledge there are no longer any clear advantages to be gained from aggression of this kind – not from regime change, and certainly not from invading and occupying new lands. Rape and pillage are crimes against humanity while the costs of war – including dispossession, humiliation, and trauma, simply generate resentment and further provocation.
Besides, the amount we spend on preparing for wars, fighting them, and dealing with the devastation caused by war, could mitigate climate change, eliminate poverty, and provide free education and healthcare for every person on the planet many times over.
So how should we go about designing a world in which war is largely eliminated? If it is not in our nature to go to war, but only a default cultural mechanism within one sector of the society, then surely the way is clear for a leap of consciousness in how we evolve without resorting to aggressive behaviour. The first step might be to elect many more women into positions of power.
In that respect it will be instructive to keep a close eye on pioneers like Jacinda Adern in New Zealand, Sanna Marin in Finland, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex in the US. Will their presence lead to more gender-neutral public policies? And, if so, will they counteract the inherent bias for aggression and war-mongering, which warriors past and present insist is simply human nature? Or will they, too, submit to conventional wisdom – that aggression and war is an innate part of what it means to be human?