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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