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Buddhism & Biology: Are Humans Genetically Destined For War?

There is no single, simple Buddhist “take” on human nature. Of course, people are seen as susceptible to dukkah (“suffering,” or — better — “disappointment”) as well as vulnerable to an array of misperceptions. And a strict interpretation of karma can be seen as denying free will if we are forced to experience and act out the consequences of our presumed “prior lives.” But this is a blinkered perspective, and certainly not one necessitated by or even necessarily consistent with Buddhist thought.

Thus, the second two of the Four Noble Truths are fundamentally based on the assumption that people have substantial free will. The Third Noble Truth — the truth of the cessation of dukkha — is that dukkha can be overcome, or at least minimized, while the Fourth Noble Truth sets out a behavioral roadmap — the Noble Eightfold Way — of doing so. Why should anyone, Buddha or otherwise, seek to convey teachings, generate suttas, give dharma talks or reach out in any way to one’s fellow human beings if the recipients are ostensibly unable to act mindfully upon such teachings?

These considerations are especially relevant to “Getting Real About Nonviolence,” since many people have become hopelessly convinced that human beings are incapable of nonviolence. We Homo sapiens as a species, the thinking goes, are inherently predisposed to violence. Moreover, war (as contrasted with individual violence) is “in our genes.” Worse yet, this perspective has been encouraged by many evolutionary biologists, who have, I fear, expanded a limited range of research findings into inaccurate generalizations about all human beings. Please note that I write this as an evolutionary biologist myself, and someone who has been accused in the past of hypothesizing genes for all sorts of behavior. To some extent, I plead guilty, although I would like to think that my writing has always made clear that all “phenotypes” – that is, all observable aspects of all living things, including their behavior – arises via the interaction of both nature (genotype) and nurture (experience). As ever, rigid dichotomies don’t work.

Hoping to clarify whether human beings are “hard-wired for war,” I wrote a brief op-ed, which appeared on September 29 in The New York Times, as well as a somewhat longer piece — involving different examples and complementary details — in the on-line magazine, aeon. I am happy to share these links with readers of Turning Wheel Media, and hope that the ideas contained therein will provide a degree of optimism about the human future that is not only much needed in these dark days, but — better yet — is fully supported by the best insights of both the natural and the social sciences.

David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, is the author of the forthcoming book “Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science.”

Comments (5)

  • Marnie Froberg

    There is an interesting piece in AdBusters that also compliments what has been said here and in your longer pieces from the perspective of cultural psychology. Universal Human Nature? The author there writes:

    And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies. Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined.

    Am glad this discussion is going on. Thanks.

  • Jeff

    In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I propose a controlled trial to test Prof. Barash’s hypothesis that humans are not innately warlike. The study will randomize several thousand age-matched young people into an experimental group, who would receive unrestricted opportunities for education and decent jobs in the civilian sector, and a control group, in which opportunities remain what they are now, and then measure rates of enlistment in the Armed Forces. I suspect there would be a statistically significant difference.

    To avoid sampling error associated with human testing limited to a Western population, future research on an international scale might randomly assign regions of the world to obtain interest-free loans from the IMF and World Bank that can be used in any way recipient countries see fit. The control regions will continue to receive funds tied to compulsory austerity measures, removal of internal social controls on global corporations, and ongoing military aid and intervention. Data will be collected using standard measures of armed conflict intensity.

    I have not heard back from the Grant Application Office of the Department of Defense about my proposal, but maybe that’s just because of the government shutdown.

  • bezi

    hah! Matter of fact, while we’re at it, might as well padlock the doors on the Capitol building Allentown foundry-style, since they’re soooo into their shutdown. Why not keep it REALLY real? National politics may improve considerably. In the meantime, as an addition to the above experiment, we could replace the control group with newly unemployed legislators, rehired as baristas in various cafes around the beltway. We’ve been asking since Vietnam how American wars would be conducted if the children of elites had to fight. Well… this would be stepping up to a new level of da’ game – let’s see if the legislators THEMSELVES could resist enlisting for armed service…

    on the real tho’, the idea of “hard-wiring” in the brain, for war or anything at all, seems to me fundamentally incompatible with neuroplasticity. Come to think of it – I’m not 100% on this but I even think that hard-wired cognition was always more theoretical than evidence-based, whereas neuroplasticity has been observed and verified with scientific instruments over and over again. I don’t have the time or inclination at the moment to be all up in the scientific journals like that (and I’ve had my stretches) but I would imagine there’d HAVE to be a hearty academic debate between the hard-wirers and the neuroplasticists. Truthfully I’m surprised the term hard-wired continues to have any cache at all…

    well not actually. In the end it may well come to pass that the one and ONLY hard-wired act of cognition is: I’m right (and amazing) / you’re wrong (and full of it)

    Max Planck said something to the effect of – a new scientific paradigm doesn’t get confirmed because the opponents get convinced, but because those custodians of the old guard eventually die off ~

  • Jeff

    Oh, there’s a debate alright. The controversies around the concept of “hard-wired” or genetically determined human traits are many, but none so great as when unethical behavior (war, exploitation, rape) or unjust social conditions (poverty, racism, patriarchy) are explained as part of “human nature,” immutably fixed by natural selection. Two hundred years ago it would have been God’s Will.

    You’re also correct that hypotheses about a hereditary personality template are at best speculative, based on cross-cultural similarities in standardized testing, anthropological observations, and presumed conditions in ancestral environments, all of which can be heavily influenced by ideological presuppositions. Although honest scientists are careful to limit their conclusions to those directly supported by evidence, media pundits will often exaggerate the most tenuous and narrow findings as “proof” that people are and always will be avaricious or violent or domineering or whatever other egregious attribute needs to be justified to keep us from questioning social policy or working cooperatively for change.

    How useful this field of investigation can eventually become is an open question.

  • bezi

    no… yeah, I know who some of the most hardliner hard wirers are. On the scientist end, Richard Dawkins immediately leaps to mind. On the more talking head end of things, the late Christopher Hitchens. Both atheists interestingly, who have seemed to be most adamantly hard-wired while dissing religion (and most prickly)

    what I was getting at is that I’d love to see a hard-wirer and a neuroplasticist go toe to toe, or maybe prefrontal cortex to prefrontal cortex, and watch the cognitive sparks fly…

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