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An End to War Vs. the Animal Instinct to Survive

Posted: 06/15/10 12:51 PM ET

James Carroll asked in an opinion column in the Boston Globe back in January if the human race can outgrow war. Accepting his Nobel Peace prize, Martin Luther King said we could, that we should, and that in the face of weapons of mass destruction, we must; "If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war." But King's word "survive" captures the main reason why his honorable plea for peace is naïve, and why the answer to Carroll's plea for reason is "No, we can't."

Large scale violence happens for the same reason that most violence does. When we are threatened, we often protect ourselves with physical force. And it's not something we even think about. It's instinctive. Whether threatened as individuals on the playground and the streets, or as tribes across larger territories, turning the other cheek is not how we are wired to react to threats. Deep in our neural architecture and chemistry, probably in our very genes, we have a powerful set of instinctive subconscious systems that help us detect and respond to danger, whether it's a direct physical threat, a threat to our resources, or even a challenge to our basic ideas about social structure. These precognitive systems have evolved to help us survive. They fire up before thinking and reason even have a chance to contribute to our response to risk. And as the threat continues, between cognition and instinctive emotion, the edge definitely goes to the latter.

In nearly every animal known, including the human animal, the first hint of danger triggers the Fight or Flight or Freeze response. (More commonly known as the Fight or Flight response, animals that perceive a threat also instinctively freeze, so I've taken the liberty of renaming the phenomenon.) Before thinking even has a chance to get going, we respond to danger by instantly rearranging our bodily systems and metabolism to either fight, flee, or freeze.

One of the things those initial changes do is magnify the power of instinct over reason as our response to the risk continues. We not only use instincts first and thinking second, but in an ongoing risk response, we use emotions and instinct more than reason. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who helped pioneer the research that identified the amygdala as the part of the brain where fear begins, says of the neural systems that control our response to risk, "While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than the connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems." (p. 19, the Emotional Brain, http://tiny.cc/DeqLG)

Ending war would require that reason conquer these self-protective instincts. That's not entirely out of the question. We do have the capacity for thinking our way to a non-violent response to threat. And our powerful thinking cortex may yet evolve to become the more dominant contributor to our risk response system, developing smarter and more effective ways to respond to risk than our older hard-wired instincts which, so far, have worked pretty well. But for the foreseeable human future, when it comes to the perception of and response to danger, thinking comes second and instinct comes first. Even King seemed to acknowledge this in his speech when he said "...we have ancient habits to deal with..."

Two other Nobel Peace Prize winners offered their answer to Carroll. President Barack Obama said "To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason." Obama talked about a "just war." Which the Prince of non-violence himself, Mahatma Ghandi, also invoked when he said "Fighting a violent war is better than accepting injustice. So, really there is no contradiction in fighting a just war, and believing in non-violence."

The problem is, what is just to the U.S. feels like injustice, and threat, to radical Islamists. What was just to France and Britain after the carnage of World War One didn't feel like justice to Germans struggling to survive, so we had World War II. Nationalist tensions in the Balkans, conflict over power among tribes in Kenya, or over whose religion will "win" throughout history. .. the evidence of how we instinctively fight when we are threatened makes for a long tragic list that will surely grow. Until the time comes when we aren't threatened by competition over resources, or when the ideas of the 'other' tribe are ascendant -- and who can foresee that day -- despite the attractive rational appeal of peace, our more dominant animal survival instincts insure that violence will continue.

 
 
 

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