Friday, May 12, 2006

A Natural History of Peace

The title above comes from the title of an article in the April 2006 issue of Harper's magazine. The article is written by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology at Stanford University, and I read it shortly after the time when I was writing below about critical mass. It gave me great hope because it seemed to confirm that concept but comes at it from a different angle: primatology.

The article summarizes recent thinking in the study of primates (i.e. monkeys, i.e. our closest animal relatives). Sapolsky first writes about how in the 60s the violence of primates became known. They, like humans, kill each other, use violence strategically, use toolmaking skills to make better weapons, and even engage in what can only be termed warfare. Sapolsky says this gave rise to a prevailing theory of humans as killer apes; that violence is part of being human.

But newer evidence has emerged that offers hope for people like me who believe that humans (and other primates) do not intrinsically need or wish to be brutal. I believe that given the opportunity to survive peacefully, people will choose that route. It seems like monkeys go the same way. I'll simplify Sapolsky's evidence: several experiments have indicated that moving highly agressive monkeys (in particular, young males) into a different more peace-loving, "affiliative" cultural group caused the violent, young alpha-monkeys to change their behaviour within hours and to retain their less agressive behaviours. These changes continued into their descendants.

In one study where a group of agressive monkeys had died because they had all foraged at the same infested dump, the baboon troop was left with less agressive males. Agression died down significantly in the whole troop. Males even groomed each other on occasion, an almost unprecedented behaviour in baboons. Sapolsky says this is not only because of the female-male ratio but because of the types of males that were left. What is really interesting, though, about this particular study stems from the fact that baboon males will leave their birth troop to mate. Twenty years later none of the troop's males were born or grew up there--they grew up in more agressive cultures--yet the peaceful culture of that troop prevailed.

Sapolsky also mentions studies that have shown that humans are hard-wired to distrust those who are unlike their "tribe"--seeing foreigners sets off the amygdala, the so-called reptile brain, setting off, in turn, fear. This has given rise to pessimism about the innateness of xenophobia. But newer evidence suggests that when testing subjects who have experience of people of different races or by subtly biasing subjects ahead of time by asking them to think of people as individuals, the amygdala remains undisturbed. Humans, it turns out, are flexible.

Writes Sapolsky: "We have fashioned religions in which violent acts are the entree to paradise and religions in which the same acts consign one to hell. Is a world of peacefully coexisting... possible? To say it is beyond our nature is to know too little about primates, including ourselves."

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