Primates of peace

Robert M. Sapolsky has penned just a fabulous essay in this issue of Foreign Affairs. Topic? A natural history of peace. And that means doing a comparative study of primate behavior:

"It used to be thought that humans were the only savagely violent primate. 'We are the only species that kills its own,' one might have heard intoned portentously at the end of nature films several decades ago. That view fell by the wayside in the 1960s as it became clear that some other primates kill their fellows aplenty. Males kill; females kill. Some kill one another's infants with cold-blooded stratagems worthy of Richard III. Some use their toolmaking skills to fashion bigger and better cudgels. Some other primates even engage in what can only be called warfare -- organized, proactive group violence directed at other populations.

As field studies of primates expanded, what became most striking was the variation in social practices across species. Yes, some primate species have lives filled with violence, frequent and varied. But life among others is filled with communitarianism, egalitarianism, and cooperative child rearing."

Sapolsky really digs deep into a bunch of studies about primate behavior, and pulls out a thread of analysis that hits right at the heart of it all: the "plasticity" of the way we live -- that we can go in any direction at all depending on the context. And that means there's nothing inherent or necessary about committing acts of violence.

Sapolsky concludes:

"The first half of the twentieth century was drenched in the blood spilled by German and Japanese aggression, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility. Humans have invented the small nomadic band and the continental megastate, and have demonstrated a flexibility whereby uprooted descendants of the former can function effectively in the latter. We... have come up with societies based on monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry. And we have fashioned some religions in which violent acts are the entrée to paradise and other religions in which the same acts consign one to hell. Is a world of peacefully coexisting human[s]... possible? Anyone who says, 'No, it is beyond our nature,' knows too little about primates, including ourselves."

Read Sapolsky's piece.

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