EDITORIAL, 17 Sep 2018

#552 | John Scales Avery - TRANSCEND Media Service

Can we abolish war?

In the long run, because of the terrible weapons that already have been produced through the misuse of science, and because of the even more terrible weapons that are likely to be invented in the future, the only way in which we can ensure the survival of human civilization is to abolish the institution of war.

But is this possible? Or are the emotions that make war possible so much a part of human nature that we cannot stop humans from fighting any more than we can stop cats and dogs from fighting? Can biological science throw any light on the problem of why our supposedly rational species seems intent on choosing war, pain and death instead of peace, happiness and life? Do tribal emotions make us easy victims for the neofascist politicians who serve the military-industrial complex? To answer this question, we need to turn to the science of ethology – the study of inherited emotional tendencies and behavior patterns in animals and humans.


In “The Origin of Species”, Charles Darwin devoted a chapter to the evolution of instincts, and he later published a separate book on “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”. Because of these pioneering studies, Darwin is considered to be the founder of ethology.

In recent years, Darwin’s work on inherited behavioral patterns has been continued by scientists such as Nikolas Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch, and Konrad Lorenz, three ethologists who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The third of the 1973 prizewinners, Konrad Lorenz, is controversial, but at the same time very interesting in the context of studies of the causes of war and discussions of how war may be avoided.

As a young boy, he was very fond of animals, and his tolerant parents allowed him to build up a large menagerie in their house in Altenberg, Austria. Even as a child, he became an expert on waterfowl behavior, and he discovered the phenomenon of imprinting. He was given a one day old duckling, and found, to his intense joy, that it transferred its following response to his person. As Lorenz discovered, young waterfowl have a short period immediately after being hatched, when they identify as their “mother” whomever they see first.

In later life, Lorenz continued his studies of imprinting, and there exists a touching photograph of him, with his white beard, standing waist-deep in a pond, surrounded by an adoring group of goslings who believe him to be their mother. Lorenz also studied bonding behavior in waterfowl.

It is, however, for his controversial book “On Aggression” that Konrad Lorenz is best known. In this book, Lorenz makes a distinction between intergroup aggression and intragroup aggression. Among animals, he points out, rank-determining fights are seldom fatal. Thus, for example, the fights that determine leadership within a wolf pack end when the loser makes a gesture of submission. By contrast, fights between groups of animals are often fights to the death, examples being wars between ant colonies, or of bees against intruders, or the defense of a rat pack against strange rats.

Many animals, humans included, seem willing to kill or be killed in defense of the communities to which they belong. Lorenz calls this behavioral tendency a “militant enthusiasm”. He points out that the “holy shiver” – the tingling of the spine that humans experience when performing a heroic act in defense of their communities – is related to the prehuman reflex for raising the hair on the back of an animal as it confronts an enemy – a reflex that makes the animal seem larger than it really is.

Lorenz gives the following description of the emotions of a hero preparing to risk his life for the sake of the group:

“In reality, militant enthusiasm is a specialized form of communal aggression, clearly distinct from and yet functionally related to the more primitive forms of individual aggression. Every man of normally strong emotions knows, from his own experience, the subjective phenomena that go hand in hand with the response of militant enthusiasm. A shiver runs down the back and, as more exact observation shows, along the outside of both arms. One soars elated, above all the ties of everyday life, one is ready to abandon all for the call of what, in the moment of this specific emotion, seems to be a sacred duty. All obstacles in its path become unimportant; the instinctive inhibitions against hurting or killing one’s fellows lose, unfortunately, much of their power. Rational considerations, criticisms, and all reasonable arguments against the behavior dictated by militant enthusiasm are silenced by an amazing reversal of all values, making them appear not only untenable, but base and dishonorable.

“Men may enjoy the feeling of absolute righteousness even while they commit atrocities. Conceptual thought and moral responsibility are at their lowest ebb. As the Ukrainian proverb says: ‘When the banner is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet’.

“The subjective experiences just described are correlated with the following objectively demonstrable phenomena. The tone of the striated musculature is raised, the carriage is stiffened, the arms are raised from the sides and slightly rotated inward, so that the elbows point outward. The head is proudly raised, the chin stuck out, and the facial muscles mime the `hero face’ familiar from the films. On the back and along the outer surface of the arms, the hair stands on end. This is the objectively observed aspect of the shiver!

“Anybody who has ever seen the corresponding behavior of the male chimpanzee defending his band or family with self-sacrificing courage will doubt the purely spiritual character of human enthusiasm. The chimp, too, sticks out his chin, stiffens his body, and raises his elbows; his hair stands on end, producing a terrifying magnification of his body contours as seen from the front. The inward rotation of the arms obviously has the purpose of turning the longest-haired side outward to enhance the effect. The whole combination of body attitude and hair-raising constitutes a bluff. This is also seen when a cat humps its back, and is calculated to make the animal appear bigger and more dangerous than it really is. Our shiver, which in German poetry is called a `heiliger Schauer’, a `holy’ shiver, turns out to be the vestige of a prehuman vegetative response for making a fur bristle which we no longer have. To the humble seeker for biological truth, there cannot be the slightest doubt that human militant enthusiasm evolved out of a communal defense response of our prehuman ancestor.”

Lorenz goes on to say,

“An impartial visitor from another planet, looking at man as he is today – in his hand the atom bomb, the product of his intelligence – in his heart the aggression drive, inherited from his anthropoid ancestors, which the same intelligence cannot control ¨C such a visitor would not give mankind much chance of survival.”

The urge to self-destruction

In an essay entitled “The Urge to Self-Destruction”, Arthur Koestler wrote:

“Even a cursory glance at history should convince one that individual crimes, committed for selfish motives, play a quite insignificant role in the human tragedy compared with the numbers massacred in unselfish love of one’s tribe, nation, dynasty, church or ideology… Wars are not fought for personal gain, but out of loyalty and devotion to king, country or cause…

“We have seen on the screen the radiant love of the Führer on the faces of the Hitler Youth… They are transfixed with love, like monks in ecstasy on religious paintings. The sound of the nation’s anthem, the sight of its proud flag, makes you feel part of a wonderfully loving community. The fanatic is prepared to lay down his life for the object of his worship, as the lover is prepared to die for his idol. He is, alas, also prepared to kill anybody who represents a supposed threat to the idol.”

The emotion described here by Koestler is the same as the communal defense mechanism (“militant enthusiasm”) described in biological terms by Lorenz.

Population genetics

If we examine altruism and aggression in humans, we notice that members of our species exhibit great altruism towards their own children. Kindness towards close relatives is also characteristic of human behavior, and the closer the biological relationship is between two humans, the greater is the altruism they tend to show towards each other. This profile of altruism is easy to explain on the basis of Darwinian natural selection since two closely related individuals share many genes and, if they cooperate, the genes will be more effectively propagated.

To explain from an evolutionary point of view the communal defense mechanism discussed by Lorenz – the willingness of humans to kill and be killed in defense of their communities – we have only to imagine that our ancestors lived in small tribes, and that marriage was likely to take place within a tribe rather than across tribal boundaries. Under these circumstances, each tribe would tend to consist of genetically similar individuals. The tribe itself, rather than the individual, would be the unit on which the evolutionary forces of natural selection would act.

The idea of group selection in evolution was proposed in the 1930’s by J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fisher, and more recently it has been discussed by W.D. Hamilton and E.O. Wilson. According to the group selection model, a tribe whose members showed altruism towards each other would be more likely to survive than a tribe whose members cooperated less effectively. Since several tribes might be in competition for the same territory, intertribal aggression might, under many circumstances, increase the chances for survival of one’s own tribe.

Thus, on the basis of the group selection model, one would expect humans to be kind and cooperative towards members of their own group, but at the same time to sometimes exhibit terrible aggression towards members of other groups, especially in conflicts over territory. One would also expect intergroup conflicts to be most severe in cases where the boundaries between groups are sharpest – where marriage is forbidden across the boundaries.

Nationalism is a dangerous anachronism

In thinking of violence and war, we must be extremely careful not to confuse the behavioral patterns that lead to wife-beating or barroom brawls with those that lead to episodes like the trench warfare of the First World War, or to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first type of aggression is similar to the rank-determining fights of animals, while the second is more akin to the team-spirit exhibited by a football side.

Heroic behavior in defense of one’s community has been praised throughout the ages, but the tendency to such behavior has now become a threat to the survival of civilization, since tribalism makes war possible, and war with thermonuclear weapons threatens civilization with catastrophe.

Generations of schoolboys have learned the Latin motto: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – it is both sweet and noble to die for one’s country. Even in today’s world, death in battle in defense of country and religion is still praised by nationalists. However, because of the development of weapons of mass destruction, both nationalism and narrow patriotism have become dangerous anachronisms.

Hope or the future

Although humans originally lived in small, genetically homogeneous tribes, the social and political groups of the modern world are much larger, and are often multiracial and multiethnic.

There are a number of large countries that are remarkable for their diversity; for example,

Brazil, Russia, Argentina and the United States. Nevertheless it has been possible to establish social cohesion and group identity within each of these enormous nations. India and China too, are mosaics of diverse peoples, but nevertheless, they function as coherent societies. Thus we see that group identity is a social construction, in which artificial “tribal markings” (for example, games like baseball or cricket, or common culture) define the boundaries of the group.

One gains hope for the future by observing how it has been possible to produce both internal peace and social cohesion over very large areas of the globe – areas that contain extremely diverse populations. The difference between making large, ethnically diverse countries function as coherent sociopolitical units and making the entire world function as a unit is not very great.

It is not an impossible goal to think of enlarging the already-large groups of the modern world to include all of humanity. It is the duty of our religious leaders to soften the boundaries between ethnic groups, so that marriage across religious and racial boundaries will become more easy and frequent.

It is the duty of our political leaders to move away from nationalism and militarism. If they fail to do so, they will have failed humanity in a time of extreme crisis and danger. On our small but beautiful earth, made small by technology, made beautiful by nature, there is room or one group only-  the all-inclusive family of humanity.


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Sep 2018.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Tribalism, is included. Thank you.

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2 Responses to “Tribalism”

  1. Alberto Portugheis says:

    Can we abolish war? John Scales Avery asks. OF COURSE WE CAN !!!!!!!! but…….we have to do one thing first, far more important: ABOLISH MILITARISM. Without Militarism, all acts of violence will be a crime, punishable by Law. ALL human beings who harm another human being will be arrested, judged in Courts and sent to prison.

    Whilst we have Armed Forces, men killing men, women and children they don’t know and have nothing against, but killing them nonetheless because these are orders they must obey, nothing will change.

    No human being is born with a desire to kill, let alone kill people in foreign countries they’ve never visited, in countries they never heard of, in countries they cannot even find on a map. No child is born patriotic. Patriots and legal murderers (the military) are victims of brainwashing.

    Whilst societies are SO PASSIVE and allow politicians to allot far more funds to military research than to all other branches of knowledge, NOTHING WILL EVER CHANGE.

    We cannot waste any more time. We have to all together say ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!’ we have to explain to children WHY Governments want them to learn their National Anthem. We have to reverse the teaching of History, explaining to children the heroes they read about were all mercenary men who made a living by killing people, who used their success at killing as a springboard to a successful business of political career.

    How can we have Peace if we allow our politicians to use our money to but WARships and air-FIGHTERS?
    PEACE IS POSSIBLE, but we must rid the world of MILITARISM.

    A few weapons for the Police and for certain sports are acceptable, but we must transform ALL FACTORIES manufacturing DEATH (machine-guns, grenades, bombs, rockets, torpedoes, torture instruments, tanks, mortars, Apache helicopters, warships and submarines, air-fighters, laser beam drones, soldier uniforms, etc)
    TRANSFORMED FOREVER and machinery adapted for the manufacturing of LIFE-saving technology.

    A lot of work but I’m convinced it can be done.

    President HUFUD
    Humanity United for Universal Demilitarisation

  2. Sadly no. For that to happen, the whole world must think the same way and believe the same things. There are a lot of components when talking about peace and how to achieve it, from personal behavior to major trends and social events.

    People disagree all the time, and that is not bad. It is only logical that we all think differently and not share every single aspect of our life, as it would be insane to do so. Then again, information, education, intelligence and health are also very important factors in society, factors that are also not treated the same way around the world.

    For example, in my homeland, there are extremely technological advanced schools and systems of education, but are rather expensive, and some of the barely functioning government-managed schools are still teaching based on religion and label sex-ed or scientific theories or facts as “demonic” or a ways to serve “the devil”. This makes people believe even more in senseless religions and systems that were created literally thousands of years ago. Trying to get rid of that is very difficult and even though some people have tried in throughout history, none of them achieved it in a peaceful and humane way.

    This is pretty simple actually. Imagine a president/king/dictator in control of a government and a big country. This president will try to change some aspects of the population and maybe, he will succeed, but there is no sure way to know if its successor will continue with that legacy or if he/she would support a different ideology, making some people happy, and some people angry. This could eventually escalate into a civil war.

    Now think about all the different ideologies, religions, systems and beliefs. It makes it nearly impossible to accept each other when our histories go thousands of years back and are not exactly friendly to one another.

    Maybe in hundreds of years (literally) the world will realize that if we all have a collective way of thinking and look for the common good, we could decrease the number and gravity of conflicts.

    This is a very simple and quick explanation, for there are an awful lot more factors such as political, economic, natural and physical, but to really cover every single one of them I would probably have to write a book.