Psychology of War: Selfish Genes

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woman holding holographic tree showing genetic history of humans

Read any book about the history of the World and it’s likely that you’ll be left with one overriding impression: that human beings find it impossible to live in peace with one another. With this recent standoff between Russia and Ukraine which has been developing over the last few weeks, it seems a good time to ponder why this seems to be the case.

How Can We Explain Pathological Behavior?

Evolutionary psychologists sometimes suggest that it’s natural for human groups to wage war because we’re made up of selfish genes that demand to be replicated. So it’s natural for us to try to get hold of resources that help us survive, and to fight over them with other groups. Other groups potentially endanger our survival, and so we have to compete and fight with them.

There are also Biological Attempts to Explain War

Men are biologically primed to fight wars because of the large amount of testosterone they contain, since it is widely believed that testosterone is linked to aggression. Violence may also be linked to a low level of serotonin, since there is evidence that when animals are injected with serotonin they become less aggressive.

William James was a psychologist and philosopher who had a major influence on the development of psychology in the United States. Among his many accomplishments, he was the first to teach a psychology course in the U.S. and is often referred to as the father of American psychology.

On an individual level, one of the positive effects of war is that it makes people feel more alive, alert, and awake.

In James’ words, it “redeems life from flat degeneration.” It supplies meaning and purpose, transcending the monotony of everyday life. As James puts it, “Life seems cast upon a higher plane of power.”

Warfare also enables the expression of higher human qualities that often lie dormant in ordinary life, such as discipline, courage, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice.

Moral Exclusion

The issue of empathy is important here too. One of the most dangerous aspects of group identity is what psychologists call moral exclusion. This happens when we withdraw moral and human rights to other groups and deny them respect and justice. Moral standards are only applied to members of our own group. We exclude members of other groups from our moral community, and it becomes all too easy for us to exploit, oppress, and even kill them.

“Peace” in military mouths today is a synonym for
“war expected.”

The Moral Equivalent of War: “The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party. The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered than the glory and shame that come to nations as well as to individuals from the ups and downs of politics and the vicissitudes of trade.

There is something highly paradoxical in the modern man’s relation to war. Ask all our millions, north and south, whether they would vote now (were such a thing possible) to have our war for the Union expunged from history, and the record of a peaceful transition to the present time substituted for that of its marches and battles, and probably hardly a handful of eccentrics would say yes.

Those ancestors, those efforts, those memories and legends, are the most ideal part of what we now own together, a sacred spiritual possession worth more than all the blood poured out. Yet ask those same people whether they would be willing, in cold blood, to start another civil war now to gain another similar possession, and not one man or woman would vote for the proposition.

In modern eyes, precious though wars may be they must not be waged solely for the sake of the ideal harvest. Only when forced upon one, is a war now thought permissible.” ~ William James

William James, a committed pacifist, lived through the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and died during the run-up to World War I.

The problem with this isn’t so much having pride in our identity, but the attitude it engenders towards other groups. Identifying exclusively with a particular group automatically creates a sense of rivalry and enmity with other groups. It creates an “in/out group” mentality, which can easily lead to conflict.

In fact, most conflicts throughout history have been a clash between two or more different identity groups, the Christians and Muslims in the Crusades, the Jews and Arabs, Hindus and Muslims in India, the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Israelis and Palestinians, the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, and so on.

Again, the present conflict in Ukraine is easily interpreted in these terms. The dispute over Crimea lies in the fact that most of the region’s population identify themselves as ethnically Russian, while the ethnic Ukrainians wish to preserve their own independent identity, away from Russian influence.

On a social level, war delivers a sense of unity in the face of a collective threat. It binds people together—not just the army engaged in battle, but the whole community. It brings what James referred to as discipline—a sense of cohesion, with communal goals.

The “war effort” inspires individual citizens, not just soldiers, to behave honorably and unselfishly in service of a greater good.

The Decline of Warfare

The good news is that since the end of the Second World War — as Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature — there has been a steady worldwide decline in the number of deaths due to warfare.

In Europe, countries that had been in an almost constant state of war with one or more of their neighbors for centuries — such as France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, Holland, Poland have experienced an unprecedentedly long period of peace.


The Roots of Behaviour in War

From Gaia to Self Genes

Steve Taylor Ph.D., Out of the Darkness: Psychology Today

The Selfish Gene, Rickard Dawkins

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