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Azar GatWar in Human Civilization

Oxford University Press, 2006

by marshall poe on July 15, 2010

Azar Gat

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Historians don’t generally like the idea of “human nature.” We tend to believe that people are intrinsically malleable, that they have no innate “drives,” “instincts,” or “motivations.” The reason we hew to the “blank slate” notion perhaps has to do with the fact—and it is a fact—that we see remarkable diversity in the historical record. The past, we say, is a foreign country; they do things differently there. But there are also political reasons to hold to the idea that we have no essence, that everything is “socially constructed.” Where, for example, would modern liberalism be without this concept? If our natures are fixed in some way, then what should we do to improve our lot?

Given the strength and utility of the “blank slate” doctrine, anyone hoping to question it successfully must possess considerable political savvy and, more importantly, an overwhelming mass of evidence. When the first modern challenge was issued—by the Sociobiologists of the 1970s—they had the latter (I would say), but not the former. Happily, their successors—principally the practitioners of “evolutionary psychology”—have both (again, in my opinion). Azar Gat is a good example. In his pathbreaking War in Human Civilization (Oxford UP, 2006), he explains in politically palatable and empirically convincing terms just why, evolutionarily speaking, our evolved natures guided the way we have fought over the past 200,000 years. He rejects the notion that we have anything like a “violence instinct.” Rather, we have a kind of “violence tool,” given to us by natural selection. In certain circumstances, we are psychologically inclined to use it; in others, not. In this way we are no different than many of our fellow species, the primates in particular. Of course, unlike them, our use of collective violence has an (extra-genetic) history. Azar does a masterful job of describing and explaining how, even while our nature has remained the same, the way we fight has changed. And here the news is good: believe it or not, we—humanity as a whole—have been becoming more peaceful over the past 10,000 years, and radically more peaceful (at least in the developed world) over the past 200 years. Azar can explain this too, and does in the interview.

I cannot emphasis enough how important this book is, both as a model of what I would call “scientifically-informed” history and a sort of guide to those of us who, despite having abandoned the “blank slate,” believe that we have the capacity to create a better world.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Justin July 15, 2010 at 2:46 pm

This book sounds very interesting- thank you for recommending it. Having just finished David Livingstone Smith’s “The Most Dangerous Animal”, which I too would highly recommend if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading it, I think I may pick this book up. I find this evolutionary approach to understanding human, and animal for that matter, behaviour very refreshing and insightful. As you mentioned above, our political and moral views tend to restrict our vision of human nature, compelling us to reject the very notion of it and to espouse tinstead he “blank slate” philosophy or some other derivitive of it . If you haven’t read Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate: The modern denial of Human Nature”, I suggest that you pick a copy of it up as well as it is an excellent book- witty yet erudite.

Julia August 10, 2010 at 7:03 am

Great discussion! It is so exciting to me to see the growing intersection of the social sciences and biological sciences, history, psychology, neurology, philosophy, economics, etc. Just one thought in response to Marshall’s point (and agreed with by Dr. Gat) about the solution to warfare being globalization. I would not argue against globalization. I think it’s pretty inevitable. But I think all that happens in that process is that status becomes the marker of winning rather than visible violence. In globalization what we end up with is masses of disempowered people who do the ‘dirty work’ of maintaining the standard of living of those of higher status. Whether ‘illegal immigrants’ in the US or slum dwellers in India or Africa. I do not have any alternative ‘solution’ as I am not sure there is such a thing, at least not in the context of overall human perspective. Some would say the solution is the extinction of humans and reversion of the Earth back to less organized creatures. At least the violence and damage done on that scale might be less horrific. I don’t mean to be a pessimist, just separating the history from the speculation. Thanks again for the excellent show! Julia in Baltimore

Ada Turkel September 13, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Alfred North Whitehead~ Ideas wont keep something must be done about them. [Reply]

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