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Human beings have studied war and violence since the ancient times in vast amounts of gusto in comparison to the study of peace. Indeed, it is not until recently that the ideology of many nations turned from a strategic focus on how to fight with more effectiveness to avoiding war altogether. World Health Organization defines violence as the intentional use of power or force in actual or threatened form on another individual or group of people that contributes in a likelihood of injury, harm, death, deprivation or maldevelopment. Data on world crime trends from the past paint a grim picture of man’s violent nature; for instance, in 2009 the USA reported 1,318,398 crimes of violence and 13,636 homicides. Rape prevalence is at 13% in western nations, 10-25% experience rape in their marriages, while wars in the 20th century have claimed 87,500,000 lives. Studies in the Yanonamo people indicate that 13-15% of men die in wars, while 20-30% dies because of tribal violence. These figures give a deeper story that these wars are not mere chances; there is therefore a need to investigate war and violence in the context of human nature which is its cause, propagator and agent.

This study seeks to find out whether human beings are innately violent or peaceful. Various branches in human studies, such as evolutionary psychology attempts to address old age questions pertaining to human nature; it seek to understand whether human beings are social animals, whether they are inherently good or violent, whether they have a free will, if nature and nurture contribute to human behavior and in what aspects among other confounding questions. Various theories try to explain the human nature in an attempt to explain the motives behind human actions of violence; however, few withstand the issues raised by critics are comprehensive enough. However, in this debate two sides clearly stand out; the human nature theorists who contend that human nature is inherently violent and the cognitive theorists who attribute violence to learning.

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Human Nature Theorists

Steven Pinker and the Blank Slate Theory. Steven Pinker is a human nature proponent whose publication ‘The Blank Slate’ offers a unique combination of scientific insights from biology of evolution, genetics, computer science and neuroscience. He explores the human nature approaches and deconstructs dominant myths that attempt to explain human nature. In his book, Pinker illustrates his approach to human nature as being instinctively violent through discrediting three dominant theories: the blank slate, the noble savage doctrine and the ghost in a machine doctrine.

According to Pinker (2002), the blank slate theory is a dominant mentality that the mind lacks a unique structure and it depends on learning and socialization process through the environment to organize. The proponents believe in the ability to change human traits through appropriate social approach through institutions. This view proposes that it is impossible to discuss human nature separately from the environment; thus, it terms human beings as being born empty and behavior and nature are variables dependent on the environment. He discredits this by arguing that it is the humans who construct the so called environment. Since a clean slate should be devoid of an ability to do, yet human beings act, make sense of the surroundings, interact, acquire language and reason towards predetermined outcomes, they cannot be clean slates. Pinker adds that the above proponents acknowledge that human behavior is indispensably tied to culture, learning and socialization are indispensable, but they must acknowledge as well that the existence of culture depends on an inherent circuitry that acquires and invents culture. This acknowledgement discredits the blank slate argument.

Secondly, Pinker attacks the ‘noble salvage’ doctrine; this doctrine constructs human beings as incapable of violence and bears no impulses of evil tendencies. He refutes this doctrine through reference to hunters and gatherers, whom studies indicate the existence of warfare and violence as universal to human beings. Pinker discredits modern studies that refer to such killings by the early man as ritual; he argues that the few murders stopped the war not as evidence of ritual because those numbers in comparison to population ratios reveal more casualties of war than today (Pinker, 2002).

Thirdly, Pinker deconstructs ‘the ghost in the machine’ doctrine. Thus doctrine views individuals as being inhabitated by an immaterial soul upon which choice and free will pivots; it refuses to reduce human behavior to the brain function.  Regarding the shaky grounding of this doctrine, Pinker states that hunters and gatherers took war seriously and meticulously made weapons of maximum destruction to the best of their mental ingenuity. He adds that in our relatively peaceful society in comparison to the early man, 90% of men ad over 40% of women have held fantasy of killing someone. The ghost in the machine theory loses credibility since neuroscience indicates a relationship between thought patterns and physiological structure. Pinker states that attempts to organize human intelligence as a computational formula through artificial intelligence have been successful. This indicates that human beings do not act in response to an immaterially free choosing brain (Pinker, 2002).

Pinker (2002) argues that indeed human beings are inherently violent since violence is not a random occurrence. He strongly refutes violence as a malfunction or disease but states it as the arrangement of the brain with a mechanical ability to learn. In addition, he refers to medical instances when operations or accidents affect certain parts of the human brain. The results show an increase or inhibition to violence tendencies. This validates his argument that the drive to cause war is in the human mind.

Edward O. Wilson ‘On Human Nature’. Wilson, as a sociobiology theorist borrows from various historical discoveries and theories upon which he anchors his theory. Through his research on various animals and insects with complex social affinity, such as the caste system among the ants, which is biologically provable as being under the control of certain genes and chemicals, Wilson concludes that since biology can provide the genetic explanation behind their behavior, man’s social behavior as well, is as a result of the genetic composition (Wilson, 1978). Essentially, Wilson contends that human behavior is inherently under the guidance of genetic codes. With regard to biological discoveries on genetic make-up and form, Wilson proposes that genes can be viewed in isolation from the organism they inhabit without forfeiting the reality of them as physical entities and part of a living creature. He further links evolution to genes by defining evolution as change of gene frequencies between different generations.

Wilson proceeds to explore the sociobiology basis of his argument amidst various theories which he reconciles to his own such as Darwin’s natural selection and altruisms. Then, he focuses his attention on human behavior namely aggression. He proceeds to state that it is largely innate and natural to man with aspects of neurosis and cultural inducements. His argument thus indicates a balance between induced and innate aggressiveness; this necessitates deciding the extent to which it is adaptive and innate (Wilson, 1978). However, Wilson is clear that overt aggressiveness requires evocation but it is not a usual occurrence. However, his argument that human nature is aggressive innately, thus violent, dominates when he states that aggressiveness is response upon evocation; however, he argues that responses are adaptive through genetic control. Aggressive responses are diverse according to evoking conditions such as prison situations but they fundamentally depend on the innate genetic nature of human beings.

Wilson (1978) proposes redesign of the social security to a level that evokes low aggressiveness through high happiness to individuals. This argument supports other theories such as Malthusian catastrophe theory to which individuals react to avoid extinction. It is notable that throughout his book on the Sociobiology Abridged, William makes reference to insects and animals. He merely reveres their patterns of social behavior as invaluable information from which deductions about human behavior can be made. However, he clearly states, in chapter 27, the extent to which genetics determines human behavior and relates to insects and animals. Regarding war and aggression, he refers to man’s animal and primate ancestry as the major determinant (Wilson, 1980).

In his other book, ‘On Human Nature’, Wilson makes even a stronger case that human behavior is innate and genetic. He dismisses claims of environment and cultural determination of behavior; rather, he states that man is a conventional animal. However, he answers critics that the difference between animals, insects and man’s genetic coding is that man’s coding offers a prescription for the development of particular traits. Animals and insects, on the other hand, have coding that is automatic in some sense. He further states the uniqueness of individual genes to produce behavioral responses that overlap to a level that can befit description of a general human behavior (Wilson, 1978).

In conclusion, William argues that the persistence of certain tendencies and their genetic constancy in man’s primate relatives are the basis of certain human behavioral traits. He also adds that the violent tendency in man is evident in altruism where a man will risk its life to ensure survival of its genes or if assistance will accrue at a later date. The underlying reasons for this behavior are winning wars in the future. He also argues that certain situations evoke aggressive responses, such as shortage, hence leading to violence. But, the violent nature is always in human beings waiting for a trigger. Thus, Wilson concludes that violence is innate in us through aggressiveness and the need to prevail in war or shortage.

Konrad Lorenz’s ‘On aggression’. Just like Edward Wilson, Lorenz believes in the existence of innate aggressiveness in human beings, and thus, the general tendency to be violent. The only difference is that social biologist like Wilson attaches a certain probability to development of aggression dependent on environment; ethnologists like Lorenz state that it will develop regardless of the environment. He makes his argument by pointing out that for decades in the past man was a prey to wild animals but had no defense mechanism beyond submission. However, he adds that man over time has devised weapons of defense, since aggressiveness is necessary for man’s survival, but they outstrip man’s inhibition capacity (Lorenz, 1996).

Lorenz insists that man is not becoming less violent any soon, if anything, man will be more predisposed to violent acts; he terms militant enthusiasm and communal aggression as aspects placing man on the trajectory of more violence.  He adds that the invention of weapons coupled with militant enthusiasm gives a particular society an intense feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.  The communal aggression and single mindedness raises human’s ability to defend themselves as this is accepted socially but it also raises the ability of inflicting harm upon others through violence (Lorenz, 1996). He illustrates that an animal or a male human being fighting over a female or territory does not do it to kill; this is because when the weaker acknowledges defeat, the stronger backs off. However, modern weapons inflict violence and damage without giving the opportunity to acknowledge the defeat.

Lorenz conducted numerous studies on birds and animal behavior before deducing their behavior to explain human nature and violence.  His examination of herring gulls and other birds within territories indicates their aggressiveness in defense of their territory.  The birds’ defense of territory arose in fixed patterns of action resulting from sign stimuli. As an ethnologist, he noted that aggression is not a build-up of internal forces; rather, it is an instinct to protect territories elicited from specific biological signs. This instinct is automatic and difficult to place inhibitions on. Lorenz’s studies on sticklebacks, for instance, indicate aggression elicited by fins and scales.  He divides aggression into defensive aggression and conspecific aggression. He thus defines aggression as a fighting instinct inherent in either man or beast necessary for ensuring the survival of individual or species, which it / he directs towards members of the same species (Lorenz, 1996).

Lorenz proposed the theory of instincts and formed deductions from his careful studies on fish and bird species to explain man’s behavior. He contends in his book ‘On Aggression’ that just like other animals, the constitutions of human beings is such that they produce physiological energies, which seek an outlet in some aggressive behavior unique to a species. All ethnologists support Lorenz argument that innate genetic coding, hormonal and neural processes explain an aggressive disposition. They also agree that all aggressive behavior is for the basic purpose of regulating interaction between members of a species for both man and other creatures. However, other ethnologists differ regarding the existence of aggressive energies and limit their concurrence to the existence of genetic codes alone (Montagu, 1968).

Thus, Lorenz holds the humanistic perspective that human beings are violent in nature. His reflection on human behavior proposes a biological nature in humans that causes violence. He argues that this innate nature acts upon being triggered by perceptions of rivalry or threat.  He contends that despite culture playing a huge role in human behavior, genes and biological stimuli ultimately determine aggressiveness and comparison of animals to man is appropriate. He insists that throughout evolution human ancestors bequeath forthcoming generation species-specific instincts necessary for survival and evolutionary adaptation. In addition, he refutes proponents of cognition by stating that aggression and violence is not a reaction to external stimuli; it is an internal excitement that seeks expression and releases regardless of adequacy or inadequacy of external stimuli (Lorenz, 1996). In conclusion, Lorenz terms human aggression as beneficial in pursuance of a superior social structure. It ensures modification of genes towards strength, balanced distribution of creatures and species preservation.

Ghiglieri’s The Dark Side of Man. In his book uncovering the underlying reasons for rape, homicides, terrorism and war, Ghiglieri clearly narrates an account of their pathologically potent violence. In the book, each chapter covers a specific violent tendency which he describes in details and later elaborates as the proof innate violence propensity in the human male. He strongly asserts that murder is in a human’s genetic coding as in any other ape relatives. He refers to apes that exist in instinctive social rules of violence, xenophobia and sexism. The mountain gorillas, on the other hand, are born as natural killers; he adds that the gorillas and apes indicate a system where might is right and combat superiority is the only guarantee to reproductive success (Ghiglieri, 1999).

According to him, the behavioral motivators of apes and gorillas are no different from those of man; he quotes the high number of males in politics in comparison to females as proof of innate male drives in humans. To Ghiglieri, male is just male and examples of psychopaths such as Idi Amin, Osama Bin Laden among others, point to the warlike nature of the male. He is emphatic that murder and violence is psychologically encoded in males. Aggression is written in humans as a DNA programme since war erupts wherever men are put together (Ghiglieri, 1999). He, thus, proposes that the only defense to war is a society’s assertion of readiness to protect itself against any attack. He therefore prescribes the defense as the only immunity to violence.

Studies by Goodall (1979) indicate that chimpanzees among the Gombe community showed a coalitional violence resembling human behavior. The chimpanzees were in two communities - Kasakela and Kahama; the majority chimpanzees of the Kasakela systematically attacked the males of Kahama and killed seven of them in a premeditated fashion. Despite his convincing argument, Ghiglieri faces criticism regarding apparent inconsistencies of his theory to others.  The aspect of a male killer is refuted on the bases of human-ape family correlation. Studies on the bonobos species show no tendencies of killing, forced sex or battery. Darwinian literature on evolution discredits such deductions under careful considerations of the ‘homo lineage’ evolutionary changes.

Cognitive Theorists

Dave Grossman. He is a former Lt. Colonel and a psychologist at Killology Research Group who specializes in the study of why people kill. He is a key proponent of the theory that human beings are not innately violent and have an in-built inhibition to killing a fellow individual of the same kind. Grossman supports his argument by stating that given this aversion to violence, individuals require learning to kill (Grossman and Christensen, 2008). He expresses his thoughts that violence is learnt and acquired through behaviors of our parents, movies on violence or images displaying aggression. He argues that the modern child is growing up in vast exposure to violence; they interpret this as pleasurable and desirable, hence losing their innate aversion ability. Consequently, Grossman proposes that a remedy lies in letting the children as well as the parents understand that violence in media or real-life is neither a game nor fun.

Grossman uses his vast experience of over 20 years as a soldier and a psychologist; he draws conclusions from his personal experience at a job that involves killing and defending. He insists that human beings are good at killing, however, this is not natural but it is taught. He draws likeness by stating that just like armed training teaches soldiers to kill, the society is teaching our children the same unawares. He refers to the Jonesboro killing incidence in which four youths and a teacher lost their lives in a shooting incidence. To him, this is a typical case of the media and parents conditioning young people to violence (Grossman and Christensen, 2008).

Grossman analyzes history of various wars and indicates the existence of posturing, loud noises and trials. At war, fleeing and submission were prevalent, he adds that killing only occur when one side ran off and the other followed in pursuit. The killings also indicate that the stabbing was from the back, additionally, studies by Brig. General George Marshall of the US Army show that during World War II only 15 to 20% soldiers could fire at an enemy soldier. Many soldiers are indeed willing and ready to sacrifice for their nation and people, but they are not ready to kill. However, subsequent military training since the occurrence of this level has raised shooting at an enemy to 55% in the Korean War, then to 90% in Vietnam (United States and Marshall, 1943).

Additionally, Grossman explains that for a soldier to kill, he / she is trained to kill from the first day in a military camp. He recounts that a new recruit is verbally and physically abused so as to lose the moral norms and the violence inhibitors. As a result of desensitization and brutalization, as a normal routine, coupled with endless hours of physical exercise, nakedness and shouting, individuality is lost and soldiers embrace violence, death and destruction as a survival necessity (Grossman and Christensen, 2008). From this, Grossman actually proves that human violence and brutality are taught, not innate. Brutality, violence, war tendencies and aggressiveness are learnt through training.

In the same manner, the society through violent parenthood and exposure to violent media content desensitizes children as early as when they are 18 months old. Grossman argues that at this age children can discern the happenings on television. Later at 6-7 years, the brain understands the source of information; the danger of desensitization and violence results from their inability to distinguish fantasy and reality (Grossman and Lev, 2003). He emphasizes that when children watch murders, brutalization, and rape or stabbing, they start to bring that to an actual occurrence. Thus, horror movies which children are exposed to countless times, equal to letting your child butcher a friend; this is because children relate to media content and modify behavior.

As a proponent of the cognitive theory, Grossman uses information from an unexpected quarter; dominant theory assumes that in a shoot or be shot combat situation, a soldier will prefer to kill first. But, Grossman denounces this and his studies proof the strength of human’s in-built aversion to kill. Grossman argues that despite this inability to kill naturally or with ease, soldiers require post war rituals; this aims at making the soldier accept what they did at the battle field, especially killing. It is therefore apparent that soldiers are tormented and disturbed by killing. Had killing been natural, then there would be no such feelings or need for counseling. Soldiers are conditioned on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which results in them not wanting to engage in violent acts again. But, Grossman notes that the society is conditioning people in a military nature without necessary safeguards (Grossman and Lev, 2003). This, he notes, is likely to result in an increase in violence. We thus conclude from Grossman, that man needs to be taught to kill and even when he does, he requires sought of purification against blood guilt despite the training. This indicates that he is therefore not an innate killer but one who posses strong aversion to war and violence.

Stoessinger on ‘Why Nations go to War’. Shaped by his background and experience on the war, he is a proponent that the majority of wars are avoidable. He brings in the aspects of individual’s role and leadership roles in war preparations and outcomes. In his book, he states that man is not innately violent; rather, war is like a foreign disease.  He argues that aggression may be innate to man, but people learn and acquire war tendencies (Stoessinger, 2005). Thus, human beings can unlearn this acquisition to fight and emerge as a peaceful society. He refers to cultural practices of cannibalism and incest, which are currently taboo in almost all nations; these practices seemed ineradicable. However, he states that people’s nature makes them unable to unlearn the war behavior unless struck by a catastrophe. He emphasizes that people learn violence through analysis of major wars. According to him, almost all nations that started wars in the 20th century lost, indicating that nature or ideology does not matter. He adds that personalities, perceptions and misperceptions shape human beings` thought about wars, intended outcomes and justifications. Thus, people have the mental ability to abandon war for other nonviolent solutions (Stoessinger, 2005).

Joseph Fahey. Fahey is a peace specialist and a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, New York. His studies and review of peace as the flip side of war and violence considers individuals as religious beings who are peace-loving. He also argues that war or peace is not an issue limited to an individual but also the state through its structures. He reviews the history of various traditional societies; in his deductions he realizes that even traditionally people did not expect the government/state to crusade for peace, however, they were not willing to shed blood themselves. For instance, he quotes the Romans as willing to pay taxes or offer their prayers when the emperor and the army went to war, but they would rather not be in the battle field. He, thus, sees human nature as one governed by some rules such as love, to which individuals take as absolute; with this command they would not wish to cause anyone harm.

Fahey argues that in history periods of peace have outstripped periods of war. He actually states that war is a recent phenomenon which evolved with the advent of agriculture and land possession. He states that human beings are not innately violent and that human’s ability to form cooperation within societies accounts for periods of peace. He states that there are numerous ways to sustain peace, but the major one is where the peace makers outnumber war advocates (Fahey, 2005). He does not denounce the existence of individuals who propose war, but he views the general human race as peaceful and peace-seeking. Studies by Talbot (1914) conclude that despite this, the wars exist because aspects of culture, history, sex among others, shape our conscience on war and mostly we let others do our thinking for us. Therefore, he concludes that we are not innately violent, but peace must be sought, taught, modeled into state systems and sustained with efforts and cooperation.

Douglas Fry on ‘The Human Potential for Peace’. This author marshals a compelling argument that human beings are not innately violent but rather that war is a cultural influence impacting on various human adaptations. He introduces the aspect of a vicious circle by stating that the view of human beings as war like and blood thirsty propagates war and violence, but if we replace that view with a peacemaking one, then man is the ultimate peacemaking primate. He proves that throughout evolution, peace has been the norm and war the exemption among animals and humans as well. He compares aggression avoidance and physical aggression and argues that the pressure does not favor killing, rather contests emerge (Fry, 2007). Thus, the vast numbers of non-violent and peaceful societies and cultures indicate man’s not war-like nature.

Like Fahey, Fry observes that military set ups, weapons of destruction are a recent occurrence in human pre-history. The ancient hunters and gatherers had a routine lifestyle resulting into minimal conflict or need for war. This evidence indicates that cultures are not universally violent and that by the natural history of peace, human nature displays latency of a peaceful existence. He states that a man’s society is a non-killing society and western bias propagates the idea of innate violence through fantasy models (Fry, 2007). Additionally, he terms certain isolated events such as homicides and murder as different from war. He concludes that psycho-biologically, man has a potential for both peace and war, but the benefits of war are below its costs. Non-violent conflict resolution through cooperative governance is the alternative in restraining and reducing aggression. Thus, while Fry does not deny the existence of aggression potential in man, genetically or otherwise, it is a culture that determines its expression. What should form the basis of defining human nature is, therefore, the existence of peace and cooperation in many societies and man’s ability to have kept the peace over history. He, therefore, proposes a planetary culture modeled on peace.

Zinn Howard ‘Passionate Declarations: Essays on War and Justice’. He focuses on the history of the United States and the countless wars it has waged. His argument is not embedded on the human nature per se but on war and the people who sanction it. He recounts the numerous wars that the United States waged against minorities such as Indians and Filipinos that is not taught in history (Zinn, 2003). He states that these wars were justified as the quest for expansion of the American soil and in the national interest. His view of war is thus not at an individual level but national. His argument tends to state that human beings are not violent or war-like, but their leaders mislead them, and they cause wars for selfish gains and deny them the opportunity to examine how devastating wars are.

Zinn concludes that war is not beneficial to man and logically man is not war seeking. He quotes American presidents who justified wars upon invoking national security on national interests. He states such ambiguity and freedom to a few as the cause of war. He recalls that all the innocent people who died in war as America expelled them will haunt it (Zinn, 2003). But people are not resistant about war because few decide about it and few get the real facts. War is not innately in man according to him, because in actual sense when people fight others, they fight themselves and their children. If people hear stories of war from the victims, children and enemies, not generals and presidents, they certainly oppose it. Thus, history should be taught differently with respect to the fact that it is the heroes who pay for it and write it; there is, therefore, another valid version of what we know.

Kahan on Nonviolence. He is a proponent of man who is not innately violent but able to defend himself against aggression without a necessity of war. He is a huge contributor to the concept of ‘nonviolent resistance among other scholars, such as Holmes (1990). According to the theory, man is not physical or biological alone, he is a power. Human beings have a universal capacity of unity, which is willing, understanding, feeling and apprehension of spiritual guidance. Instances in history, such as Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom strategy, espouse the power of non-violent resistance. He notes that war is a result of partial truths on man’s ability for unity in military teaching (Kahan, 1979). Thus, Kahan views man as a being with a nature capable of forming morally and intellectually respectable decisions about conflict or defense. His contribution is that human beings are capable of adopting nonviolence. This is what guides individuals / nations in resolution and peace. Although, this approach is rather unpopular since it depends on certain values and understanding of life that an individual has.


Human beings are not violent in nature as cognitive theorists argue; however, both sides of theories form a compelling argument. It is indeed true and logical to blame men for wars, but there is no evidence to state that men love war. The human nature theorist truly points to biological, sociological and neurological dispositions in man on violence. But, they leave out aspects of man’s intellectual ability to act or fail to act upon them. The turn to history and culture is shaky, since culture is not universal and history is different from facts, actually, history cannot proof behavior. This study concludes that the various theories on both sides are evidence of man’s ability to embrace either peace or violence. He is not a slave of his biological make up and neither is he held captive by history or culture, but the cognitive theorist put a better argument (Malik, 2002).

In arriving at the conclusion that man is not innately violent, this study acknowledges that aspect of human nature is not a static aspect but complex in the simplest terms. Human nature theories are wealthy and offer thoughts that culture, history, faith, genes or ancestry contribute towards war. Notwithstanding these arguments, it is the cognitive theorists who capture the mental aspect of man; this is what drives man’s action. The argument inherent in them is that war is about thinking and how we think, about information that man has on war, about alternatives, background of the conflict, and ultimately, choice amidst the numerous variables. Additionally, they incorporate man’s ability to recognize a need or a deficiency; man’s capacity to become better and the superiority of thought in situations. The theorist also compare benefits and costs of war versus peace, and taking man as a rational being proves his pursuance of peace (Francis, 2004). The theorist also offers options to war in case of attach such as the nonviolent resistance. The majority offers tenable solutions to previous wars as opposed to their counterparts who concentrate more on abstractness. Therefore, the cognitive theorists are convinced that men are not innately violent, but peaceful.

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