Is there a war instinct?
Many evolutionists believe that humans have a drive for waging war. But they are wrong and the idea is dangerous.
There is something peculiarly — even paradoxically — appealing about taking a dim view of human nature, a view that has become unquestioned dogma among many evolutionary biologists. It is a tendency that began some time ago. When the Australian-born anthropologist Raymond Dart discovered the first australopithecine fossil in 1924, he went on to describe these early hominids as:
Confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of the victims and greedily devouring living writhing flesh.
This lurid perspective has deep antecedents, notably in certain branches of Christian doctrine. According to the zealous 16th century French theologian John Calvin:
The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure and infamous. The human heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench.
It’s bad enough for the religious believer to be convinced of humanity’s irrevocable sinfulness, punishable in the afterlife. But I’m even more concerned when those who speak for science and reason promote a theory of human nature that threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, in his influential book African Genesis (1961) the American playwright Robert Ardrey described humans as ‘Cain’s children’:
Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon. It is war and the instinct for territory that has led to the great accomplishments of Western Man. Dreams may have inspired our love of freedom, but only war and weapons have made it ours.
The drumbeat that argues for war as a defining feature of the human condition has, if anything, increased in recent decades, spreading beyond the evolutionary and anthropological worlds. Here is how the English philosopher Simon Critchley began his review of John Gray’s The Silence of Animals (2013) in the Los Angeles Review of Books: ‘Human beings do not just make killer apps. We are killer apes. We are nasty, aggressive, violent, rapacious hominids’.