Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Instinctive play?

War and violence in general is bad because it is destructive and hurtful. Most of us have an awareness of that fact either intellectually, experientially or at some level of our consciousness. Yet it is too easy to justify violence as a means for controlling personal, political and social conflicts because if nothing else we can claim we are the victims of violence and that we have a right to defend ourselves. The attacking party can always claim that they were forced to use violence pre-emptively to deter an anticipated threat.

You don’t have to be a pacifist to think that war and violence is a poor strategy for resolving conflicts. Economists and sociologists will be the first to point out that it is always costly and inefficient and rarely effective. If it was really an effective and economical strategy for resolving conflicts, most businessmen and lawyers will go into trade and contract negotiations armed with assault rifles and grenades - and I am being serious, because some underworld business negotiations are in fact done that way as it is a cost effective and efficient mode of conflict resolution in that environment!

So why do we instinctively justify the use of violence as a conflict resolution strategy in certain scenarios when it can be – and it has been - proven mathematically and experimentally that in the ‘non-zero-sum game’ of war, all parties loose more than they gain. It is an established fact that non-violent ways of resolving conflicts are at least less costly and often rewarding in almost every conflict scenario – especially when the less tangible but critically important human factors are also considered.

Yet we not only instinctively turn to violence, but honour those who perpetrate and face violence on our behalf and with our sanction. So why do nations train and maintain professional armies even at peacetime? Why do men and women voluntarily enlist as soldiers? Why do we venerate and honour those who kill (and die) on the battlefield even as we condemn murderers in civil society? If everyone could understand the fact that violence was a poor method of conflict resolution, we would find no rational reason to attack, to go to war or even consider it and we will realise that these are but irrational needs and traits of the human instinct.

The problem may lie in our biological or cultural memory.

Evolutionary game theory has been used to explain many seemingly incongruous phenomena in nature. One such phenomenon is known as biological altruism. This is a situation where an organism appears to act in a way that benefits other organisms and is detrimental to itself. This is distinct from traditional notions of altruism because such actions are not conscious, but appear to be evolutionary adaptations to increase overall fitness. Examples can be found in species ranging from vampire bats that regurgitate blood they have obtained from a night’s hunting and give it to group members who have failed to feed, to worker bees that care for the queen bee for their entire lives and never mate, to Vervet monkeys that warn group members of a predator’s approach, even when it endangers that individual’s chance of survival.

All of these actions increase the overall fitness of a group, but occur at a cost to the individual. Perhaps we too as a species have ingrained in us a 'memory' of a pre-historic moment in time at which our very existence depended on individuals who sacrificed their own lives under violent circumstances, for the survival of others.

Perhaps it is because of that memory which ensured the survival of the entire species and even thus determined that everyone who survived had the same ‘brave gene’ in them, that a parent will almost always do whatever they can to ensure the survival of their offspring even at the cost of their own lives. Violence becomes a more bearable – if not natural – response, when the glory of bravery and self sacrifice are ingrained into our core being – perhaps casting the instinct of self preservation down to a lower level as cowardice.

Perhaps it is embedded and perpetuated in biological memory – in our genes – but human cultures have also retained and venerated this self sacrificial instinct to honour those who bare arms - to perpetrate and face violence on behalf of others. This veneration has even spilled into the realm of the spiritual especially as evident in the Christian belief that even God sacrificed himself under violent circumstances for the salvation of mankind.

Therein lies the paradox – that even though science, economics and mathematics may have proven the futility of war with calculable and verifiable results, we will continue to be inclined to romanticise violence; as long as and as surely as our genes and many millennia of cultural evolution have programmed us to do.