Nothing Natural about War

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William Halpern asserts that 'human nature' needs 'to be considered alongside the purely political and economic issues 'to get closer to the truth about the nature of war' (Letters, March SR).

Like other arguments from human nature, this presupposes that some trait, say the ability to learn a human language, or violence, is genetically hardwired into the human organism--that it is part of what it means to be human to manifest the trait. This is a very strong claim. A single counterexample--a society whose institutions do not express or promote greed or violence--means that we have to scrap or modify the assumption and reconstruct any arguments that rest on it. 'The exception proves (ie tests) the rule.'

Human societies that do not express or promote greed or violence are widely documented. I can attest first hand to one from my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. The 'bold claim' that warlikeness is not inherent in human beings is borne out.

Similarly, human history is replete with examples ofeultures that have come into contact without conflict. Each and every individual example is decisive counterevidence to the claim that the 'dashing ofcultures' is inevitable. That 'clashes' and 'conflicts' occur under a range of 'global economic circumstances' does not constitute evidence that they occur 'irrespective of conditions'. Different situations can give rise to similar responses.

Attributing conflict to a 'dash of civilisations' leaves us at a loss to explain wars waged within the same culture and why clashing cultures are ever at peace. lf we seek to 'get closer to the truth about the nature of war', we really need to mason more carefully, with due respect for empirical evidence.

More importantly, if we aim to end the scourge of war, we need to understand whose interests it serves. It certainly does not serve the interests of most of those human beings who do the actual lighting, or in areas of conflict, or whose taxes pay the bills at the expense official services, or those caught up in a frenzy of xenophobic hysteria. The shameless surge in share markets around the world since the US started raining bombs onto Iraq shows who benefits from war.

Harry Feldman
Canberra, Australia