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Why War Isn't Inevitable: A Science Writer Studies the Secret to Peaceful Societies

As the drumbeats for war with Iran reach bellicose heights, a new book argues that waging war is not an innate part of our nature.

Photo Credit: AFP/File - Staff Sgt. Antonieta Rico


When President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he expressed a well-worn notion about warfare: "[W]ar is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings." Today, as the drumbeats for war with Iran once again reach bellicose heights, a timely new book argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, waging war is not an innate part of human nature.

In The End of War, veteran science journalist John Horgan applies the scientific method to reach a unique conclusion: biologically speaking, we are just as likely to be peaceful as we are to be violent. So what keeps humans bound by a seemingly never-ending cycle of war?

In a phone interview with AlterNet from his home in New York's Hudson Valley -- situated within earshot of the mortars and howitzers at West Point Military Academy's artillery range -- Horgan dispelled multiple myths about the impetus for war, the combination of which, he believes, sustains the institution of war despite rational thought and an overwhelming human aversion to killing. A longtime Scientific American writer and director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, Horgan also charts a new course for rejecting the old paradigm of war's inevitability and finally releasing mankind from its destructive grip.

Brad Jacobson: Was there an overriding factor that drove you to write this book?

John Horgan: Yeah, it was my discovery that started right after the U.S. invasion of Iraq: the vast majority of people, both American and people around the world, believe that war is a permanent part of the human condition. That we've always fought wars and we always will. I have surveyed thousands of people on this issue now, young and old. I ask people this question: Do you think war will ever end? And usually between 80 and 90 percent of the time people say, "No, war will never end. We're always going to have wars of some kind or other." And when I would ask people why they were so pessimistic, they would give me a range of reasons. Often it would be, "War is part of human nature." "War is in our genes." Or it would be an environmental explanation: war comes from the tendency of humans to overpopulate different regions, leading to a competition for resources.

There have been other surveys of people's attitudes toward war going back to the 1980s. I cited those in my book, too. And those found quite a bit of pessimism, but not nearly as much as I found over the last seven to eight years.

So I wrote the book basically to rebut this extremely pessimistic point of view, which is also held by people at the highest levels of power. I quote Barack Obama right at the beginning of my book. At the fucking Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, he's giving this incredibly pessimistic and wrong view of warfare as dating all the way back to the origin of humanity. And that leads him to say, "Let's face it, we're not going to eradicate war in our lifetimes." Even if you believe that, I think it's awful for our leader, especially someone like Barack Obama, whom I voted for in part because I thought he would not be a hawkish president and get us out of these terrible wars we've been in recently. Even if he is personally pessimistic, I want vision from him, especially when he's accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. How about a vision of a world without war instead of saying this is just the way it is and you have to accept it?

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