Are we natural-born warmongers?

Loren RossonIn the last post we saw that human beings are a species of natural born liars. Are we also homicidal warmongers?

Not exactly, says David Livingstone Smith. The director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies suggests that we are neither natural born killers nor peace-lovers, but simultaneously both, and these opposing inclinations war within us to produce distressing results.

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“The Most Dangerous Animal” by David Livingstone Smith is available from the library in hardcover.

You could describe his book The Most Dangerous Animal as an account of war from a neurobiological, psychological, and evolutionary perspective, and it’s a rather disturbing one.

Homicidal fantasies
On the one hand, Smith points out that we have strong homicidal impulses. Studies show that 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women admit to daydreaming about killing people they dislike. Film and literature testify to our collective homicidal fantasies where violence is pervasive, in even the best classics like The Iliad and the Bible.

At the same time, less than .005 percent of American people who daydream about murder go on to commit it. (Even in a place like Jamaica, which has the highest murder rate in the world, less than .06 percent of people are killers.)

So despite our homicidal impulses, we also have a strong aversion to killing, and it’s not just fear of criminal punishment. If it were, then soldiers would become instant homicidal maniacs when thrown into war. But that doesn’t happen: soldiers are routinely traumatized and guilt-ridden from taking lives. They vomit from stress, they have tremors and convulsions, and they are often emotionally scarred.

Smith says this is because we have evolved into conceptual beings, and we know that underneath our racial and cultural differences we’re all biologically the same. Our homicidal “chimpanzee” urges are opposed by an equally profound aversion to killing members of our own species.

But once soldiers cope with that initial aversion, many find that they love and thrive on killing. Why?

Dehumanizing the enemy
Smith suggests that one of the most effective ways we overcome our initial aversion to killing is by relying on self-deception: by dehumanizing and demonizing our enemies. Thinking of them as a virus or subhuman animals enables us to take their lives as casually as we would swat insects and to unleash our natural aggressions with a clean conscience.

In this sense, dehumanizing the enemy becomes more than just political rhetoric. It’s the way we subconsciously tell ourselves that genocide is okay, and indeed something that can be enjoyed.

Winston Churchill said he loved war: “I know it’s smashing and shattering lives of thousands every moment, and yet I enjoy every second of it.” Many soldiers grow to like killing so much that they feel intoxicated by the sight of bloodshed and sound of hideous screaming.

I consider myself a strong pacifist, but what would happen if I were thrown into the nightmare of prolonged combat? How much would it take to unleash my killer instincts? Would sadistic aggressions flood to the surface and make a mockery of my pacifist values? How would that affect me long-term?

Smith allows us some cautious optimism, concluding that while it’s futile to try to stop us from enjoying war, perhaps we can at least learn to hate it more than we enjoy it. Coming to terms with our self-deception, and becoming intolerant of the way we dehumanize our enemies, would at least be a promising step in this direction.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

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