Edwin Starr asked the right question in 1969, when he rocked us with his lyrics:
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Say it again y’all
War, huh, good God
What is it good for
Listen to me
War, it’s got one friend
That’s the undertaker
War can’t give life
It can only take it away
E.O. Wilson, the indefatigable defender of biological determinism, in the June edition of DISCOVER magazine, takes on a different question from Starr’s. His article is entitled,”Is War Inevitable?”, and unlike Starr Wilson thinks war has served such a powerful purpose for humanity in evolution that now war is in our genes. The article is an excerpt from his new book, THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH. His bottom line is depressingly enough: “We simply took what was given us and continued to multiply and consume in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained paleolithic ancestors.” It reminds me of the much discredited 1968 book The Population Bomb in which the Ehrlich’s predicted massive famine and starvation in the 1970’s and 1980’s because the earth could not support the growing human population. The world has added 3.3 billion people since 1970 and their predictions like many religious end time prophecies failed. Turning lemons into lemonade, they claim that due to their book the world took the growing population problem seriously and changed its ways enough to stave off starvation.
EO Wilson who has championed biological determinism also once predicted that eventually they would find a gene that would determine everything about being human, including a gene that would differentiate believers from non-believers. Even that idea has fallen from popular view among many geneticists who recognize the truth about genes determining behaviors is far more complex than originally imagined.
I give DISCOVER magazine credit for following the Wilson article promoting biological determinism in regards to war, there was a rebuttal by John Hogan author of THE END OF WAR. Hogan totally acknowledges the brilliance of Wilson in biological studies, but thumps Wilson for perpetuating “the erroneous- and pernicious- idea that war is ‘humanity’s hereditary curse.'” Wilson in a new book claims, according to Hogan, “that science can help us achieve self-understanding and even, perhaps salvation.” Maybe science is religion after all. Hogan writes: “Wilson actually spells out his faith that we can overcome our self-destructive behavior and create a ‘permanent paradise,’ rejecting the fatalistic acceptance of war as inevitable.” But Hogan believes Wilson’s deterministic bent is wrong and ending military conflicts is far more possible than Wilson thinks.
I am reminded of the arguments of Raymond Tallis in APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY that evolutionary biologists ought to take evolution seriously and recognize that in fact the human species has evolved to the point of consciousness which means humans now can guide their own continued evolution and are no longer determined completely by genetics. As Tallis wrote humans now lead their lives rather than simply live them. Biological determinism is a philosophical presupposition not a scientific fact. War is not biologically inevitable. Humans are capable of making conscious decisions that are not determined by genetics.
I wrote extensivley about Tallis in my blog series which began with THE BRAINLESS BIBLE AND THE MINDLESS ILLUSION OF SELF.
While science has certainly brought about many technological inventions that have improved life on earth, faith that science can “save” the earth and accomplish something religion did not or cannot do, always seems to fail to take into account that humans will be humans. Scientific humans will make as many errors in moral judgement as religious humans, and perhaps even more since they will rely on humans to decide all ultimate values. Human hubris has proven itself enough times in history to make us realize it is a fact of life with which we must contend whether we look to science or religion for dealing with human failings.
I hope this summer to read Wilson’s new book as I try to read at least one book from current scientific writings each year.