Prof. John Scales Avery, Ph.D.,
- 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.
- Member of the TRANSCEND Network.
- Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
- Chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy.
- Received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London.
- The author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century”.
Today, human greed and folly are destroying the global environment. As if this were not enough, there is a great threat to civilization and the biosphere from an all-destroying thermonuclear war. Both of these severe existential threats are due to faults in our inherited emotional nature.
From the standpoint of evolutionary theory, this is a paradox. As a species, we are well on the road to committing collective suicide, driven by the flaws in human nature. But isn’t natural selection supposed to produce traits that lead to survival? Today, our emotions are not leading us towards survival, but instead driving us towards extinction. What is the reason for this paradox?
Some Stories from the Bible
The Old Testament is the common heritage of the three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Some of the stories which it contains can be seen as attempts to explain the paradoxes of human emotional nature: Why are we born with emotions that drive us to commit the seven deadly sins? Why are pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed so much a part of human nature? The story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden attempts to answer this question, as do stories about the role of Satam in the world.
According to the biblical account, Adam and Eve ate apples from the Tree of Knowledge and were therefore expelled from the Garden of Eden. This story can be seen as containing elements of historical truth.
Humans were originally hunter-gatherers. Populations were so sparse that gathering roots, berries and fruits from their environment gave them enough to eat. Occasionally they obtained additional protein from the meat of animals that they were able to kill. Then agriculture was invented. Populations rapidly became so dense that humans were no longer able to live simply by gathering fruit from the Garden of Eden. Expelled from the garden, they were henceforth forced to sweat for their daily bread.
What about “original sin” and the role of the Devil in the world? In the Bible, the Devil, or Satan, appears as a fallen angel who tempts humans to commit sins, i.e to break the rules of their societies. The existence of Satan is the biblical explanation of the presence of evil in the world. An alternative explanation is given by the doctrine of “original sin”, which maintains that humans are born with a sinful nature.
Like the story of the Garden of Eden, these biblical concepts may also cronicle true historical events in human evolution. A sinful human is sometimes described as “behaving like an animal”. In fact. what is regarded a sin in humans can be a necessary survival trait in an animal. It would be ridiculous to say “Thou shalt not steal” to a mouse or “Thou shalt not kill” to a tiger.
Our emotions have an extremely long evolutionary history. Both lust and rage are emotions that we share with many animals. However, with the rapid advance of human cultural evolution, our ancestors began to live together in progressively larger groups, and in these new societies, our inherited emotional nature was often inapproppriate. What once was a survival trait became a sin which needed to be suppressed by morality and law.
Today we live in a world that is entirely different from the one into which our species was born. We face the problems of the 21st century: exploding populations, vanishing resources, and the twin threats of catastrophic climate change and thermonuclear war. We face these severe problems with our poor cave-man’s brain, with an emotional nature that has not changed much since our ancestors lived in small tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa.
The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals
In the long run, because of the terrible weapons that have already 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 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 intenton choosing war, pain and death instead of peace, happiness and life? 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, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”. Because of these pioneering studies, Darwin is considered to be the founder of ethology, the study of inherited behavior patterns.
Behind Darwin’s work in this field is the observation that instinctive behavior patterns are just as reliably inherited as morphological characteristics. Darwin was also impressed by the fact that within a given species, behavior patterns have some degree of uniformity, and the fact that the different species within a family are related by similarities of instinctive behavior, just as they are related by similarities of bodily form. For example, certain elements of cat-like behavior can be found among all members of the cat family; and certain elements of dog-like or wolf-like behavior can be found among all members of the dog family. On the other hand, there are small variations in instinct among the members of a given species. For example, not all domestic dogs behave in the same way.
“Let us look at the familiar case of breeds of dogs”, Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “It cannot be doubted that young pointers will sometimes point and even back other dogs the very first time they are taken out; retrieving is certainly in some degree inherited by retrievers; and a tendency to run round, instead of at, a flock of sheep by shepherd dogs. I cannot see that these actions, performed without experience by the young, and in very nearly the same manner, without the end being known (for the young pointer can no more know that he points to aid his master than the white butterfly knows why she lays her eggs on the leaf of the cabbage) I cannot see that these actions differ essentially from true instincts…”
“How strongly these domestic instincts habits and dispositions are inherited, and how curiously they become mingled, is well shown when different breeds of dogs are crossed. Thus it is known that a cross with a bulldog has affected for many generations the courage and obstinacy of greyhounds; and a cross with a greyhound has given to a whole family of shepherd dogs a tendency to hunt hares.”
Darwin believed that in nature, desirable variations of instinct are propagated by natural selection, just as in the domestication of animals, favourable variations of instinct are selected and propagated by kennelmen and stock breeders. In this way, according to Darwin, complex and highly developed instincts, such as the comb-making instinct of honey-bees, have evolved by natural selection from simpler instincts, such as the instinct by which bumble bees use their old cocoons to hold honey and sometimes add a short wax tube.
In the introduction to The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin says “I thought it very important to ascertain whether the same expressions and gestures prevail, as has often been asserted without much evidence, with all the races of mankind, especially with those who have associated but little with Europeans. Whenever the same movements of the features or body express the same emotions in several distinct races of man, we may infer with much probability, that such expressions are true ones, – that is, are innate or instinctive.”
To gather evidence on this point, Darwin sent a printed questionnaire on the expression of human emotions and sent it to missionaries and colonial administrators in many parts of the world. Darwin received 36 replies to his questionnaire, many coming from people who were in contact with extremely distinct and isolated groups of humans.
The results convinced him that our emotions and the means by which they are expressed are to a very large extent innate, rather than culturally determined, since the answers to his questionnaire were so uniform and so independent of both culture and race. In preparation for his book, he also closely observed the emotions and their expression in very young babies and children, hoping to see inherited characteristics in subjects too young to have been greatly influenced by culture.
Darwin’s observations convinced him that in humans, just as in other mammals, the emotions and their expression are to a very large extent inherited universal characteristics of the species.
The study of inherited behavior patterns in animals (and humans) was continued in the 20th century by such researchers as Karl von Frisch (1886-1982), Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988), and Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), three scientists who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1973.
Karl von Frisch, the first of the three ethologists, is famous for his studies of the waggle-dance of honeybees. Bees guide each other to sources of food by a genetically programmed signalling method, the famous waggle dance, deciphered in 1945 by von Frisch.
Among the achievements for which Tinbergen is famous are his classic studies of instinct in herring gulls. He noticed that the newly-hatched chick of a herring gull pecks at the beak of its parent, and this signal causes the parent gull to regurgitate food into the gaping beak of the chick.
Tinbergen wondered what signal causes the chick to initiate this response by pecking at the beak of the parent gull. Therefore he constructed a series of models of the parent in which certain features of the adult gull were realistically represented while other features were crudely represented or left out entirely. He found by trial and error that the essential signal to which the chick responds is the red spot on the tip of its parent’s beak. Models which lacked the red spot produced almost no response from the young chick, although in other respects they were realistic models; and the red spot on an otherwise crude model would make the chick peck with great regularity.
In other experiments, Tinbergen explored the response of newly-hatched chicks of the common domestic hen to models representing a hawk. Since the chicks were able to recognize a hawk immediately after hatching, he knew that the response must be genetically programmed. Just as he had done in his experiments with herring gulls, Tinbergen experimented with various models, trying to determine the crucial characteristic that was recognized by the chicks, causing them to run for cover. He discovered that a crude model in the shape of the letter T invariably caused the response if pulled across the sky with the wings first and tail last. (Pulled backwards, the T shape caused no response.)
In the case of a newly-hatched herring gull chick pecking at the red spoon the beak of its parent, the program in the chick’s brain must be entirely genetically determined, without any environmental component at all. Learning cannot play a part in this behavioral pattern, since the pattern is present in the young chick from the very moment when it breaks out of the egg. On the other hand (Tinbergen pointed out) many behavioral patterns in animals and in man have both an hereditary component and an environmental component. Learning is often very important, but learning seems to be built ona foundation of genetic predisposition.
To illustrate this point, Tinbergen called attention to the case of sheepdogs, whose remote ancestors were wolves. These dogs, Tinbergen wrote, can easily be trained to drive a flock of sheep towards the shepherd. However, it is difficult to train them to drive the sheep away from their master. Tinbergen explained this by saying that the sheep-dogs regard the shepherd as their “pack leader”; and since driving the prey towards the pack leader is part of the hunting instinct of wolves, it is easy to teach the dogs this maneuver.
Driving the prey away from the pack leader would not make sense for wolves hunting in a pack; it is not part of the instinctive makeup ofwolves, nor is it a natural pattern of behavior for their remote descendants, the sheep-dogs.
As a further example of the fact that learning is usually built on a foundation of genetic predisposition, Tinbergen mentions the ease with which human babies learn languages. The language learned is determined by the baby’s environment; but the astonishing ease with which a human baby learns to speak and understand implies a large degree of genetic predisposition.
The third of the 1973 prizewinners, Konrad Lorenz, is more 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, Lorenz 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 pair bonding rituals 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 behavioural tendency a “communal defense response”. He points out that the “holy shiver”, the tingling of the spine that humans experience when performing an 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.
Konrad Lorenz and his followers have been criticized for introducing a cathartic model of instincts. According to Lorenz, if an instinct is not used, a pressure for its use builds up over a period of time. In the case of human aggression, according to Lorenz, the nervous energy has to be dissipated in some way, either harmlessly through some substitute for aggression, or else through actual fighting. Thus, for example, Lorenz believed that violent team sports help to reduce the actual level of violence in a society.
Although the cathartic model of aggression is now widely believed to be incorrect, it seems probable that the communal defense response discussed by Lorenz will prove to be a correct and useful concept. The communal defense mechanism can be thought of as the aspect of human emotions which makes it natural for soldiers to kill or be killed in defense of their countries. In the era before nuclear weapons made war prohibitively dangerous, such behavior was considered to be the greatest of virtues.
Generations of schoolboys have learned the Latin motto: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – it is both sweet and proper 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.
In thinking of violence and war, we must be extremely careful not to confuse the behavioral patterns that lead to wife-beating or bar-room 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.
In an essay entitled The Urge to Self-Destruction, Arthur Koestler says: “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 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. In On Aggression, Konrad 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, such a visitor would not give mankind much chance of survival.”
There are some semantic difficulties connected with discussions of the parts of human nature that make war possible. In one of the passages quoted above, Konrad Lorenz speaks of “militant enthusiasm”, which he says is both a form of communal aggression and also a communal defense response. In their inspiring recent book War No More, Professor Robert Hinde and Sir Joseph Rotblat use the word “duty” in discussing the same human emotional tendencies. I will instead use the word “tribalism”.
I prefer the word “tribalism” because from an evolutionary point of view the human emotions involved in war grew out of the territorial competition between small tribes during the formative period when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers on the grasslands of Africa. Members of tribe-like groups are bound together by strong bonds of altruism and loyalty. Echoes of these bonds can be seen in present-day family groups, in team sports, in the fellowship of religious congregations, and in the bonds that link soldiers to their army comrades and to their nation.
Warfare involves not only a high degree of aggression, but also an extremely high degree of altruism. Soldiers kill, but they also sacrifice their own lives. Thus patriotism and duty are as essential to war as the willingness to kill. As Arthur Koestler points out, “Wars are not fought for personal gain, but out of loyalty and devotion to king, country or cause…”
Tribalism involves passionate attachment to one’s own group, self-sacrifice for the sake of the group, willingness both to die and to kill if necessary to defend the group from its enemies, and belief that in case of a conflict, one’s own group is always in the right.
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 behaviour, 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, E.O. Wilson and R. Dawkins. 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 some 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 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.
Tribal Markings, Ethnicity and Pseudospeciation
In biology, a species is defined to be a group of mutually fertile organisms.Thus all humans form a single species, since mixed marriages between all known races will produce children, and subsequent generations in mixed marriages are also fertile. However, although there is never a biological barrier to marriages across ethnic and racial boundaries, there are often very severe cultural barriers.
Irenäus Eibl-Ebesfeldt, a student of Konrad Lorenz, introduced the word “pseudospeciatyion” to denote cases in which cultural barriers between two groups of humans are so strongly marked tha marriages across the boundaries are difficult and infrequent.
In his book The Biology of War and Peace, Eibl-Eibesfeldt discusses the “tribal markings” used by groups of humans to underline their own identity and to clearly mark the boundary between themselves and other groups. One of the illustrations shows the marks left by ritual scarification on the faces of the members of certain African tribes. These scars would be hard to counterfeit, and they help to establish and strengthen tribal identity.
Seeing a photograph of the marks left by ritual scarification on the faces of African tribesmen, it is impossible not to be reminded of the dueling scars that Prussian army officers once used to distinguish their caste from outsiders.
Surveying the human scene, one can find endless examples of signs that mark the bearer as a member of a particular group, signs that can be thought of as “tribal markings”: tattoos; piercing; bones through the nose or ears; elongated necks or ears; filed teeth; Chinese binding of feet; circumcision, both male and female; unique hair styles; decorations of the tongue, nose, or naval; peculiarities of dress, kilts, tartans, school ties, veils, chadors, and headdresses; caste markings in India; use or nonuse of perfumes; codes of honour and value systems; traditions of hospitality and manners; peculiarities of diet (certain foods forbidden, others preferred); giving traditional names to children; knowledge of dances and songs; knowledge of recipes; knowledge of common stories, literature, myths, poetry or common history; festivals, ceremonies, and rituals; burial customs, treatment of the dead and ancestor worship; methods of building and decorating homes; games and sports peculiar to a culture; relationship to animals, knowledge of horses and ability to ride; nonrational systems of belief. Even a baseball hat worn backwards or the professed ability to enjoy atonal music can mark a person as a member of a special “tribe”. Undoubtedly there many people in New York who would never think of marrying someone who could not appreciate the paintings of Jasper Johns, and many in London who would consider anyone had not read all the books of Virginia Wolfe to be entirely outside the bounds of civilization.
By far the most important mark of ethnic identity is language, and within a particular language, dialect and accent. If the only purpose of language were communication, it would be logical for the people of a small country like Denmark to stop speaking Danish and go over to a more universally-understood international language such as English. However, language has another function in addition to communication: It is also a mark of identity. It establishes the boundary of the group.
Within a particular language, dialects and accents mark the boundaries of subgroups. For example, in England, great social significance is attached to accents and diction, a tendency that George Bernard Shaw satirized in his play, Pygmalion, which later gained greater fame as the musical comedy, My Fair Lady. This being the case, we can ask why all citizens of England do not follow the example of Eliza Dolittle in Shaw’s play, and improve their social positions by acquiring Oxford accents. However, to do so would be to run the risk of being laughed at by one’s peers and regarded as a traitor to one’s own local community and friends. School children everywhere can be very cruel to any child who does not fit into the local pattern. At Eton, an Oxford accent is compulsory; but in a Yorkshire school, a child with an Oxford accent would suffer for it.
Next after language, the most important “tribal marking” is religion. As mentioned above, it seems probable that in the early history of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, religion evolved as a mechanism for perpetuating tribal traditions and culture. Like language, and like the innate facial expressions studied by Darwin, religion is a universal characteristic of all human societies. All known races and cultures practice some sort of religion. Thus a tendency to be religious seems to be built into human nature. Otherwise, religion would not be as universal as it is.
Religion is often strongly associated with ethnicity and nationalism, that is to say, it is associated with the demarcation of a particular group of people by its culture or race. For example, the Jewish religion is associated with Zionism and with Jewish nationalism. Similarly Islam is strongly associated with Arab nationalism. Christianity too has played an important role in many aggressive wars, for example the Crusades, the European conquest of the New World, European colonial conquests in Africa and Asia, and the wars between Catholics and Protestants within Europe (notably the Thirty Years War).
Many of the atrocities with which the history of humankind is stained were committed in conflicts involving groups between which sharply marked have involved what Iren us Eibl-Eibesfeldt called “pseudospeciation”, that cultural barriers have made intermarriage difficult and infrequent. Examples include the present conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; “racial cleansing” in Kosovo; the devastating wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe; the Lebanese civil war; genocide committed against Jews and Gypsies during World War II; recent genocide in Rwanda; intertribal massacres in the Ituri Provence of Congo; use of poison gas against Kurdish civilians by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq; the massacre of Armenians by Turks; massacres of Hindus by Muslims and of Muslims by Hindus in post-independence India; massacres of Native Americans by white conquerors and settlers in all parts of the New World; and massacres committed during the Crusades. The list seems endless.
Religion often contributes to conflicts by sharpening the boundaries between ethnic groups and by making marriage across those boundaries difficult and infrequent. However, this negative role is balanced by a positive one, whenever religion is the source of ethical principles, especially the principle of universal human brotherhood.
Many of the great ethical teachers of history lived at a time when cultural evolution was changing humans from hunter-gatherers and pastoral peoples to farmers and city dwellers. To live and cooperate in larger groups, humans needed to overwrite their instinctive behavior patterns with culturally determined behavior involving a wider range of cooperation than previously.
This period of change is marked by the lives and ideas of a number of greatethical teachers – Moses, Buddha, Lao Tse, Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, Jesus, and Saint Paul. Mohammed lived at a slightly later period, but it was still a period of transition for the Arab peoples, a period during which their range cooperation needed to be enlarged.
Most of the widely practiced religions of today contain the principle of universal human brotherhood. This is contained, for example, in Christianity, in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Sermon on the Mount tells us that we must love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.
When asked “But who is my neighbor?”, Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which says that our neighbor may belong to a different ethnic group than ourselves, or may be separated from us by geographical distance. Nevertheless, he is still our neighbor and he still deserves our love and assistance. To this, Christianity adds that we must love and forgive our enemy, and do good to those who persecute us, a principle that would make war impossible if it were only followed. Not only in Christianity, but also in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, the principles of compassion and universal human brotherhood hold a high place.
The religious leaders of today’s world have the opportunity to contribute importantly to the solution of the problem of war. They have the opportunity to powerfully support the concept of universal human brotherhood, to build bridges between religious groups, to make intermarriage across ethnic boundaries easier, and to soften the distinctions between communities. If they fail to do this, they will have failed humankind at a time of crisis.
Human nature undoubtedly contains emotions of tribalism, which nationalist and facist leaders find it very easy to exploit. But education, ethics and law can overwrite primative and anachronistic emotional tendencies. Our astonishing scientific and cultural advances have been achieved through the cooperative efforts of all of humanity. In addition to the darker traits in human nature, our species also has a genius for cooperation; and it is this genius for cooperation that is the key to a happy future.
Some Suggestions for Further Reading: