Apr 102011

An amazing, though not surprising, story caught my eye recently in Yes! Magazine on the ever-developing scientific discoveries about our closest primate relatives in the animal kingdom.

For those of us whose religious practices are anchored in relationship with the earth and its many inhabitants, the scientific world has often seemed to lag behind in its recognition of the complexity and subtlety of nonhuman experience as we witness it on a regular basis. Studies revealing the intelligence and sensitivity of dolphins, elephants, corvine birds, honeybees and even trees and other plants, confirm what many of us have long known to be true of the many denizens that share the planet with us.

Yet for all the reluctance and skepticism of modern science, the general knowledge of the nonscientific layperson often lags another decade or two behind that. Such is the case when it comes to our closest animal relatives: primates. Most people are familiar with research from the 1960s and 1970s when scientists first began to document examples of violence and even a kind of proto-”warfare” among chimpanzees and other primate species. Advocates of patriarchy and warfare as inherent aspects of human nature often cite these examples to make their case, stating that efforts towards peaceful and egalitarian societies are bound for failure in the face of our “natural” animal instincts towards violence and domination.

Yet, as biologist Robert M. Sapolsky points out:

…all along there has been another chimp species, one traditionally ignored because of its small numbers; its habitat in remote, impenetrable rain forests; and the fact that its early chroniclers published in Japanese. These skinny little creatures were originally called “pygmy chimps” and were thought of as uninteresting, some sort of regressed subspecies of the real thing. Now known as bonobos, they are recognized as a separate and distinct species that taxonomically and genetically is just as closely related to humans as the standard chimp.

A layperson more up-to-date on their popular science may have also heard of the bonobos, especially their reputation for “free love” sexuality.

Bonobos have sex in every conceivable position and some seemingly inconceivable ones, in pairs and groups, between genders and within genders, to greet each other and to resolve conflicts, to work off steam after a predator scare, to celebrate finding food or to cajole its sharing, or just because.

Within their female-dominated social system, bonobos often engage in sharing food (and sex) along with other well-developed ways of easing social tensions and establishing community bonds. Bonobo males tend to be smaller than their chimp relatives, and far less aggressive. Yet, like the chimpanzees with their aggression, bonobos seem to be “peaceful by nature,” and it’s difficult to say exactly why they are the way they are. While their genetic similarity to human beings certainly puts a damper on arguments drawing too heavily from the example of chimpanzees alone, as Sapolsky says, “the bonobo has little to say to us” as a species with an undeniable history of both war and peace to reconcile.

Perhaps far more fascinating, and far more relevant to conversations about the “naturalness” of peace versus violence in the human animal, is the latest research coming from primatologists on the adaptability and elasticity of primate nature.

This adaptability appears most strikingly among some of the most violent of primates: the savanna baboons of the African grasslands. An expert with thirty years experience researching this species, Sapolsky describes them as aggressive “warriors,” noting the strict hierarchies among males based on violent rivalries to establish dominance, the high rate of aggression directed towards third parties (e.g. subordinate bystanders), and the fact that most males die as the result of violent conflict of one kind or another. Yet even in this species, with violence so apparently innate, surprising adaptability can be found. Sapolsky cites one particular study of a troop of savanna baboons in Kenya (known as the “Forest Troop”) whose dominant, aggressive males were all wiped out by disease in a “selective bottleneck” in the 1980s, resulting in a population of less aggressive and more social than average males and a doubled female-to-male ratio. Sapolsky writes:

The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other—a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.

But the real surprise came almost twenty years later. To this day, this particular troop of baboons retains its less aggressive, more peaceful behavior despite the rarity of such behavior among others of their species. Furthermore, this change in behavior is not due to genetic selection. Male baboons leave the troop of their birth at puberty, ensuring genetic variety; as a result, by the early 1990s all of original high affiliation males of the Forest Troop had died and their male offspring moved on, to be replaced with male baboons from other troops. These new males, rather than causing a resulting increase in aggression among the members of the troop, adapted to the more social, more peaceful culture.

The use of the word “culture” here is no accident, either. As Sapolsky explains:

As defined by both anthropologists and animal behaviorists, “culture” consists of local behavioral variations, occurring for nongenetic and nonecological reasons, that last beyond the time of their originators. Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture.

What implications does this new research have for human beings grappling with questions of nature versus nurture when examining issues of violence, war, peace and justice?

For generations, human beings viewed themselves as unique or special among the creatures of the earth, able to rise above their degraded, violent, “fallen” animal natures and choose instead lives of peace, morality, justice and kindness. Today, both earth-centered, embodied Pagan traditions and modern research in biology and neuroscience challenge the false dichotomy that would separate human beings from the other animals of the world. While some might see this as reason to embrace the “inherent violent tendencies” of human nature and revel in the destructive and aggressive behaviors that result, growing evidence in many fields of study suggest that “nature” is far from the cruel, brutish, “red in tooth and claw” realm of fear and struggle that we have long assumed it to be. In fact, the natural world is full of examples of affection, compassion, sympathy, friendship, altruism and, yes, peaceful community living — even among our close relatives.

But more importantly, studies by contemporary primatologists continue to uncover examples of how our closest animal relatives are not just capable of peace, but of astounding adaptation, flexibility and elasticity in their behavior. Evidence for the existence of culture among nonhuman primates, in which behaviors of sociability and cooperation can be learned and passed down for generations, suggests not only that humans are far from unique in this respect, but that our striving towards justice, fairness and peace — our longing for “thinking to replace killing” — may itself actually be an expression of our primate natures.

The philosophy of pacifism has been built on this very notion. The word itself — from the Latin roots pax and facere, meaning “to make peace” — invokes the idea of creating peace even in the midst of violence. Pacifism does not deny that violence is an aspect both of human nature and of our shared history of warfare and conflict. Rather, it celebrates the creativity and adaptability of the human animal, and our capacity to respond to conflict and destruction with kindness, patience, compassion and altruism. Pacifism looks to human culture as that reserve of wisdom and tradition that we inherit from our ancestors, who have seen the violence and war of history firsthand, and that we will pass on to our descendants in our turn, and it asks us the simple question: what kind of culture are we willing to create?

The natural world is no longer the world of unbending, immutable physical laws scientists once believed it to be, even by their own admission. More and more, we see the evidence in nature — both in nonhuman animals and in ourselves — that there is room for chance, there is space for choice, and there is, always, the possibility of change.

Now would be a good time to mention the newest PNC blog, No Unsacred Place, which launched last week and has already featured several excellent pieces by writers such as Ruby Sara, Cat Chapin-Bishop, Meical abAwen and more! There is a great variety of both talent and expertise among the writers of this project, who’ll be covering everything from animal rights to nature-based liturgy to green living. The blog administrator, I will also be participating as a writer, focusing especially on topics of deep ecology, environmental ethics and issues of “ecojustice.” So if you’re interested in more articles exploring “the relationships between religion and science, nature and civilization from a diversity of modern Pagan perspectives,” definitely head on over and check it out!

* My friend and coworker, Arthur, can be blamed for the title of this post. Enjoy the literal video version.

  15 Responses to “Making Peace Out of Nothing At All”

  1. [...] my latest article for Pagan+Politics, I explore the recent and fascinating scientific discoveries about the role that culture plays in [...]

  2. Reading this article, I find it very interesting. Science indeed has proven that it knows less than it pretends. I also thank you the author for not jumping upon many of the things that other people would have to prove why this peace happened among the primates.

    Still, I can’t help but wonder why our society is so insistent on Peace. This is not to say I think Peace is bad, but I do think leaning so lopsidedly towards Peace is. Intellectually I know why people want peace. People don’t like Change, and nothing brings Change like Violence and War. People don’t like losing their property or the people the care about, and Violence and War bring both those things. I also know that after the nature of WWI and WWII and the destructive horror that happened, Those of Western Culture turned away from War and viewed it with horror, having decided that there was no glory and honor in war, because they had forgotten such things. I know that the Abrahamic God’s preachings of peace through his Christ son has made people, including those who say they are against everything he stands for, believe that Peace is the desirable thing in life.

    Still, perhaps it is because I follow an older way, I cannot but help thing that War is also desirable. I know that not everyone thinks that Peace is the best option. China, Russia, and much of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America are not places that have issues with seeking peace over violence. I’m sure there are many people in those places that would desire peace, but just as many understand the value of war. Especially those in the Middle East, who seek Peace by wiping out all who are different.

    In the end, I think there is a quote from an old movie: Laurence of Arabia.

    “Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men – courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men – mistrust and caution. It must be so.”

    I can’t help but wonder when we became a civilization of old men, and lost the values of courage and hope, giving it up for the vices of mistrust and caution, for that is all that will follow in an age of peace.

    • NA, I understand what you’re saying. But it seems to me that the time of honorable war is past, and isn’t coming back. In the old days, war had rules, war was ritual; it was a test of strength and character, and in its best form, had some of the qualities of the vision quest and initiatory rite. Today, wars are fought with machines, chemicals, and radiation; they are not fought with rules; and they are motivated only by naked national and corporate self-interest. Most of the people who die are not combatants, but civilians and children who want no part of it. Wars today are little more than dishonorable slaughters.

      • The Geneva convention is the Rules of War, Jeff, and our current wars have rituals as well, it’s just that not everyone plays by them. Our enemies certainly do not, and I think that might be why some do not like these wars we are in, and haven’t since Vietnam, where we fought a war without limits or honor, because that was the only way to fight an enemy that had none either. At least in Iraq and Afghanistan our soldiers try to be honorable, even if their enemy is not, and it has lead to many deaths.

        • The most dangerous people in the world are those with nothing left to lose.

          Asymmetric warfare is the only kind that makes sense from a tactical view. As Patton once said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.”

      • War has always been a bloody, brutal affair. Pretensions of honor, ritual, and character are nothing more than post-facto whitewashing of the genuine horror involved. As horrible as modern warfare is ancient and medieval warfare weren’t much better. In the ancient world if you were in the defeated army the victor had the right to butcher everyone on the spot or sell them into slavery. During medieval sieges of a castle if the defenders refused to surrender then the attacker had the right not to mention was expected to butcher everyone inside the walls down to the youngest child. You would only be taken prisoner if you were valuable enough to be ransomed off to your family, otherwise you quickly became a corpse.

        The big difference between now and then is the greater availability of good nutrition and medical attention. War was preferable to daily life because of how easy it was to die of starvation or an infected wound. At least death on the battlefield would be quick and clean as opposed to slowly wasting away from a disease where the best tool you had to fight it was prayer.

        • Ryan, are they “Whitewashing” the horror, or are they providing a value to the horror?

          Soldiers that go to war believing they are doing the honorable thing have fewer problems when they return home. You see this in service people from wars like WW2, who saw great horror, but returned happy because they had won glory and honor for a noble cause.

          Take those that returned from Vietnam, however, and you see the results of a war believed to be without honor and glory. Shattered men left to rot on the streets, screamed at for being baby killers when they were nothing more than young men who had no choice but to fight, and were given no glory or respect for it.

          Honor, glory, ritual, and character are not the White Washing of the nature of war, they are the Rewards of enduring that hell and coming back. Of testing man against man, will against will, and luck against luck.

    • I think it’s instructive to compare the portrayals of war in the sagas and legends to the actual experience of war as experienced by those who wage it. I recommend Wilfred owen’s poem “Dolce et decorum est” as an example of the latter. And it is also said that the old men go out and make the wars that the young men die in. I think I will trust the report of one who actually served in a war over the remark of a dramatization of one.

      • There is a tiny flaw in your argument. The legends and sagas were written by people who did fight in wars and battles. Back then, there was no line between scribe and warrior, skald and viking. Warrior poets they were, and they spoke of what they knew. When they spoke of the Glories of war, it was because they lived it.

        It is true that in the last few generations, there has been some dissonance, but there wasn’t any in the olden days, when war meant something and was as glorious as was spoken.

        • You absolutely sure that war was any more glorious back then? how would you actually know? Do you ever wonder if most of the poor sods doing the dying thought the warrior poets got it right?

          I’ll agree that there was more of a societal value to the concepts of military courage and honor than there is today, but I’m having a hard time believing that war was any more honorable when we were sticking each other with spears and dying of infected wounds that we could heal today. Ask the historical victims of Viking raids how honorable they felt to defend their homes and as often as not die in the effort.

          But there is a larger argument. There are many values that once were held in high repute that today make little sense. Slavery springs to mind for example.
          But I am getting dangerously close to calling your faith into question, and that is not my intention. If I have strayed there, please accept my apology. I have strong views on war, having family members who have died in them.

        • They also wrote about cunning men and women who gained what they needed without fighting showing no less praise for a nimble mind than a strong sword-arm. Many of the Gods Themselves gained some of their greatest treasures in the sagas not through might but by words, cunning, or sworn oaths.

    • An end to war doesn’t mean an end to struggle. There are many ways to fight for a belief or idea many of which involve means other than naked force. One can say that a tense strike, a march on Washington hundreds of thousands strong, or legislative showdowns are battles in wars of ideas fought with word, commitment, and elections.

    • Are we really leaning toward peace in a lopsided way? I’m not sure if our attitude toward the desirability of war and peace is all that different these days. In fact, I think we might a lot more welcoming to the idea of war as a positive thing than we were a century ago.
      Maybe we just turned away from wars with people our own size and ability so it didn’t feel like we were fighting a war as much as it did when we were fighting our peers, but even that is a tradition that goes way back.

      I believe it is seeing their own reflection, not worshiping a Prince of Peace, that makes people crave peace.

  3. I had heard of bonobos, but the Forest Troop is news to me. Thank you.

  4. [...] because it’s just in our nature to be so, but for me that isn’t a satisfying answer (and there is recent evidence against it). Even if it’s true, it doesn’t explain why it’s in our nature; and it offers no [...]