04/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Evolution Of Peace

I recently returned from Clark University in Worchester, Mass where my daughter is considering attending college. They have a concentration in the undergraduate program in 'Peace Studies', one of a handful of programs growing in universities and colleges around the country. How interesting to eventually 'major' or 'minor' in Peace as the concentration grows over time! The field includes studies of non-violent resistance, mediation techniques, and conflict resolution strategies. It made me think of Peace in general and why it is so hard to achieve.

We hear so much about the evolution of competition, our 'selfish' genes, the biological drive to compete over resources, natural selection's survival of the fittest. But biologists have long struggled to understand the mechanisms of cooperation, altruism, love, and actions of sharing, giving to another at the expense of the self. This sort of altruistic behavior is attributed to genetic relatedness, such as kin selection, to survival of genes taking precedence over the organism itself.

The evolution of peaceful behavior and the use of non-violent resistance as a mechanism of achieving peace, seems to go against our biology as humans. Gandhi described the three responses to evil as submission, violent resistance, and non-violent resistance. The latter requires submission of the individual toward the goal and often self-sacrifice as a means to the end. This apparent 'self-sacrifice' goes against the biological wiring of evolution toward self-preservation. However, with meta-biological experiences, such as self-transcendence, the arbitrary nature of the 'self' as separate from 'others' is brought into awareness. And in these experiences, the dependent nature of humans to one another and the planet are brought into consciousness.

Actions stemming from self-transcendent understanding are bound to be ones of non-violence because hurting another human being is like hurting oneself. From this awareness of our dependent nature, compassion arises and compassionate decision-making is a guiding principal of peace. With self-transcendent experiences guiding human behavior, non-violent resistance will likely replace violent resistance as a solution to evil.

When we think of non-violent resistance -- as a means of solving the world's problems today -- most of us are leery at best that such a technique could work in world of terrorists, armies, and nuclear power. Yet, Mahatma Gandhi used that method to counter the British army at its peak, Dr. Martin Luther King used that technique to counter America's military in a racially divided country, and Nelson Mandela used that technique to overcome apartheid in South Africa. The self-sacrifice of individual lives in these efforts played an important part in their success.

The goal of peace is achievable when we recognize our individual capacity to act in peaceful ways on a daily basis (countering evil in our day to day lives) and hold it above all else as an evolutionary 'purpose' of human existence. As we shape our evolutionary future, we must choose the direction we wish to travel and the outcome we wish to shape. An increase in self-transcendent experience is a means for elevating the knowledge necessary for a peaceful world. Such experiences translate to individual choices to live life in a peaceful way and slowly build toward non-violent resistance as the only acceptable form of countering evil on a larger social scale.