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Sat. October 19, 2019
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The Elimination of War Debate: Why Talking About Human Nature is Irrelevant
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“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”       

That was John F. Kennedy’s take on the question of the end of war. But what if the only way to put an end to war was in fact to put an end to mankind? This would be how a proponent of the view that war is consubstantial to Human nature would answer to the US President. According to this claim, war would be inherently inseparable from us and trying to eliminate it would therefore be a vain endeavour. This thesis has recurrently been developed by various scholars in International Relations, one of the most recent and influential of which being Professor Christopher Coker[1].

Focusing on that claim, the question addressed in this essay will not be “can we put an end to war?” but rather “is Human nature really a definitive impediment to it?” But as opposed to a classical IR approach, I will treat this question through a multidisciplinary lens.

In terms of definitions, for the purpose of this essay, the concept of “Human nature” will be narrowed down to its biological and psychological elements and equated with them[2]. It will then be approached through works taken from developmental, social, ontogenetic, and evolutionary psychology. Although cultural constructs will not be discussed as such, Human nature will be defined in the traditional conceptual framework of the nature–culture divide and both elements will be put in dialogue with each other. Also, the evolutionary dynamics of both nature and culture will be acknowledged (i.e. natural and social Darwinism will be applied). War will be understood in a broad definition, as a state of “hostile contention by means of armed forces, carried on between nations, states, or rulers, or between parties in the same nation or state” (Oxford English Dictionary).     

First, this essay will try to show that the argument according to which war cannot be eliminated because of human nature rests on the questionable assumption of the primacy of nature over culture. An alternative framework of mutual interactions between psychological foundations and social constructs will be drawn. Second, it will be demonstrated that, even though some of our natural dispositions can lead to war, the causal link is not of a necessary kind. Third, I will provide evidence of the fact that mankind has evolved potentialities for both war and peace and that the “expression” of those foundations is a matter of human cultural constructs, not human nature. Fourth, more tentatively, I will make the hypothesis that evolutionary dynamics will tend to fulfill the peace potentiality. Overall, this essay will argue that Human nature does not prevent the elimination of war.

I. Assessing the claim that Human nature is an ultimate impediment to the elimination of war first requires identifying the underlying premise on which such a claim is built. In 2014 The National Interest titled “What Our Primate Relatives Say About War” answered the question “Why war?” with “Because we are human.” (Johnson and Thayer, 2014). Similarly, in Can war be eliminated (2014) Coker  -although his general thesis is quite different from a mere belief in a war-prone human nature- asserts that “we always return to our evolutionary past” and makes references to our Stone Age brain as an ultimate frame of our possibilities, and posits that “we are what we are and there may be a limits to what we may yet become”. Finally, as already underlined by Marshall in 1916, the argument has been repeatedly made that “having inherited certain instincts which lead to war we cannot look forward to its disappearance”. These points seem to derive from a common founding assumption : that of the primacy of human nature over culture. According to this view, there are things we are inescapably “hard-wired” to be or do, and social constructs are merely subservient to them.

While nature certainly imposes bounds to our cultural constructs, one could argue that viewing the nature/culture divide as merely hierarchical is over-simplistic. First, the ability for culture is arguably part of human nature (as acknowledged by Coker; 2014) and possibly one of its defining features. Second, arguing that “our skulls are still lumbered with Stone Age brains that are maladapted to modern life” and viewing our brain as being performing tasks it was not “designed” to perform (such as philosophy, as argued by  Pinker; 2002) are rather paradoxical points to make. How can our brain be unadapted to a life it designed itself, for itself? If our brain does something then it means that, to some extent, it is able to do it.[3] Third, on a more general level, convincing accounts have argued that the nature-culture relationship is actually a two-way one. Richerson and Boyd’s “dual inheritance theory” (1985) thus proposes a model of co-evolutionary processes between genetic change and cultural mutations which present our activities as “jointly shaped by genes and culture” (2005). Similarly, although controversial, some theorists such as Wilson and Wilson in 2007 (as cited in Haidt and Kesebir, have already hypothesized an impact of culture on the genome. This call for a more complex –or at least less vertical– approach of how nature and )culture shape our human artifacts. A satisfying and solidly empirically rooted framework of analysis can be found in Jonathan Haidt’s works. According to it, human  systems, such as morality, are the result of endogenous intuitions shaped by culture, or, in other words, the outcome of pre-existing inside-the-head-mechanisms (“psychological foundations”) combined with outside-the-head-products (Haidt and Joseph 2004, as cited in Haidt and Kesebir, 2010). Casting doubt on the unwarranted view of the primacy of nature over culture, this essay will opt for this more open model.

However, although it allows to think outside of the hierarchical fallacy, such a model does not imply that natural constraints do not exist, nor does it mean that psychological foundations cannot be strong enough to heavily impact on cultural constructs. Given the complexity underlined here, it simply entails that no pre-given answer should be favoured. The argument that war is inseparable from our nature cannot be nullified by this change of paradigm alone.

II. To determine whether war is unchangeably embedded in our nature (i.e. which of the cultural or natural factor is prevalent), two questions have yet to be addressed. First, is there a necessary link between our allegedly “war-prone” psychological foundations and war itself? In other words, is war the only option that these dispositions point towards or is war merely one of several alternatives? Second, are these foundations in any case sufficient  to lead to war? In other words, are they rendered sufficient by the absence of a balancing tendency towards peace?  Can’t we find an equivalent inclination for peace in human nature?

As for the first question, two major psychological predispositions for war have been identified by the proponents of the discussed thesis: boredom and tribalism. However, none of them can be said to have a necessary link with war.

The argument on boredom goes as follows: peace leads to boredom and boredom leads to war. Both logical links are challengeable. The first part of the argument (peace is boring) relies on a set of observations made in western democratic peaceful societies, where bored citizens turn to various forms individual or collective war-like activities (see Coker, 2014), which justify the conclusion that “peaceful societies are boring” (Ibid.). However, nothing in the argument actually demonstrates that the boring element is actually peace. One could argue, as many have done, that the reason of this boredom has nothing to do with peace but with the type of society people live in. Building upon the Weberian concept of “disenchantment, which describes the character of modernized, bureaucraticsecularized Western society, where scientific understanding is more highly valued than belief (Weber, 1971), authors like Gauchet (The disenchantment of the world, 1997) and Ehrenberg (The Weariness of the Self, 1998) have linked post-religious, post-ideological with the sense of meaningfulness and boredom felt in contemporary western world. Particularly, Ehrenberg evidences a relation between this collective and individual state of mind and the rise of nervous breakdowns. Thus, to show boredom is really about peace and not about societal features, proponents of the theory should demonstrate that every peaceful society suffered from boredom. At first sight though, it does not seem to be the case. Was the Senai tribe in Malaya (mentioned by Coker, 2014) bored? Other examples of peaceful society include the Hadza people of Tanzania (who have have interpersonal conflicts but assuredly don’t make war), the Moriori people of New Zealand (who employed several methods that prevented individual disputes from escalating into group-versus-group killings), the Batek of peninsular Malaysia, who consider overt violence and even aggressive coercion to be utterly unacceptable, (Barash, 2013; Endicott, 2013). All of them seem to be stable, enduring, and to have never been shattered by boredom nor boredom-based transgression and violence.

Therefore, the argument “war will not end because human nature is bored by peace”, is flawed or, at the very least, lacks empirical underpinnings.

The first link of the boredom argument (peace leads to boredom), is hence not of a necessary nature. The second one (boredom leads to war) must still be addressed, since boredom is arguably present in many societies, even if not caused by peace. The counter-argument here is much more obvious, and even acknowledged by the holder of the argument: war, of course, does not necessarily lead to war. Boredom emerges out of a lack of meaning, conflict, struggle or goals, and violence and war are merely possible options to fulfill those needs.[4] They are by no means the only ones.

There is therefore no causation link between the first alleged psychological underpinning to war –boredom- and war itself.

The second one is tribalism (Coker, 2014). Our inherent tendency to be prejudiced towards out-groups and to favourably view our in-group would be one of the most solid determinants of war (Thayer and Johnson, 2013). And one can find indeed many evidence of this tendency in social psychology (Barg, Chen and Burrows, 1996; Allport, 1954 etc.). However, the same literature often underlines the fact that these tendencies are not insurmountable. We are not hard-wired to follow them in any situation and they should not be taken as an ultimate impediment to intergroup peaceful relations. For instance, experiments like the Robber’s Cave ones, (Sherif, 1954)) show can be overcome, especially in contexts where “super-ordinate goals” warrant cooperation.

While certainly being at the roots of conflicts, tribalism and prejudice hence cannot be considered as definitive constraints to the elimination of war.

Finally, as a possible third natural foundation of war, a supposed innate tendency towards violence and aggressiveness has sometimes been put forward. As recognized by some non-endists, empirical findings on our aversion to killing have nullified this thesis (Cushmann, Gray, Gaffey, Mendes, 2012).

On the whole, the link between the psychological foundations of war and war is not of a necessary kind.

IIINevertheless, these foundations, while not always mechanically causing war, may still be sufficient to secure the overall triumph of war over peace. This would still justify the claim that our nature is war-oriented and make its disappearance as unlikely as if the natural constraint was really definitive. However, such an argument would stand if the tendency to make war was exclusive. In other terms, the claim that mankind is inescapably wired for war would only be true in the absence of an equivalent tendency towards peace.

But it seems that, whatever their origins and the underlying dynamics behind their development, our species have ended up with psychological potentialities for both...  And that it is now up to culture (defined as the realm of the “man-made”) to determine which one will be exploited.

First, those who argue in favor of the “exclusive tendency” thesis often root their claim in their assessment of the very tendency that shaped human nature: evolution. If human nature is war-prone it is because the intrinsic dynamic of evolution could not but lead to it. However, evolution is not an objective tool to use. The outcome of its application –i.e., an evolutionary story – to any subject always depends on a choice of premises regarding the environmental factors to be taken into consideration. Thus, holders of the discussed thesis tend to be one-eyed, looking only at half of the possible evolutionary stories. Hence, one could argue, as political scientists and international relations scholars Thayer and Johnson did (2013), that we evolved to make war, like chimpanzees. It was, in their own words, “Nature’s solution to compete successfully for resources”. Many have held this view. But the exact opposite story could be told, and, in fact, has been told, by several authors like anthropologist Douglas Fry (2013). Building upon accounts from ethology, game theory, evolutionary theory and cost/benefit analyses of fitness, and he argues, based on the findings made in archaeology, nomadic forager studies and primatology according to which war is not ancient, that restraint “triumphed as an overall biological principle”. He also concludess that war is a capacity, not an evolved adaptation.

In the absence of definitive proof for either of them, both stories (“mankind has evolved for war” and “mankind has evolved for peace”) seem to be equally valid in view of the basic evolutionary principles. As psychologist Barash sums it up: “while it is plausible that Homo sapiens owed much of its rapid brain evolution to natural selection’s favoring individuals that were smart enough to defeat their human rivals in violent competition, it is also plausible that we became highly intelligent because selection favored those of our ancestors who were especially adroit at communicating and cooperating” (2013).

The evolutionary level (i.e. the origins one) is therefore not the right level for this essay analysis. What matters instead is what our species have ended up with, in terms of psychological foundations.

As for those underpinning war, they’ve already been identified above.

As for those leading to peace-seeking, numerous works have shown that humans are an inherently –biologically– cooperative and altruistic species. For instance, on the basis of ontogenetic experiments with toddlers, Tomasello and Vaish (2013) showed the existence of an early “second-personal morality”, evidencing very clear signs of altruism.Indeed, toddlers spontaneously help, even when costly for them, and do so in a disinterested way. The authors call toddler’s helpfulness “intrinsic”. They also exhibit a certain sense of equality in the way they share resources. It is, according to the author, these psychological traits that allow cooperation, which our species is extremely big on. In developmental psychology, empirical research conducted by Turiel and his colleagues (Nucci and Turiel, 1978) as well as other cross-cultural studies showed that children in every culture view “deeming hitting an innocent child” as an issue.

Eventually, whatever is the evolutionary process that engendered it, human beings have developed psychological predispositions for war on the one hand (rooted in tribalism, boredom etc.) and peace on the other hand (eased by altruism, cooperation-seeking instinct, avoidance of killing etc.)[5]. Hence, tendencies to make war are not exclusive therefore not “sufficient”. Both are predispositions only; both influence us but none of them can be said to constrain humans’ behavior.

The question of the disappearance of war becomes therefore a matter of cultural “expression” of those potentialities. Using an epigenetic metaphor can be useful here. The same way genes can be expressed or not depending on the natural environment, psychological foundations can be expressed or not due to cultural products. The elimination of war has hence to do with civilisational constructs, or, to put it in our conceptual framework’s terminology “outside-the-head-products”.

IV. My general point being made, I will try to go a bit further and get much more tentative. I will make the hypothesis that, if we take a strict social evolutionary framework, the potentiality which is going to be “expressed” in the future is the peace one.

An approach often taken by the non-endists who acknowledge our cooperative nature (Thayer and Johnson, 2013) is the following: since evolution is about making groups superior to each others, cooperation is selectively directed towards in-group members, the better to avoid exploitation by rival groups and organize for war. According to this view, natural selection favored individuals who cooperated to avoid being killed. Now that we have evolved (socially or naturally) to be able to cooperate in the in-group, just group confrontation will continue as always. This thesis is contradicted by the element raised above (i.e., the Robber’s cave experiments, which shows that scarcity of resources  can be an incentive for intergroup cooperation;  the fact that cooperation is now biologically embedded and therefore would work regardless of the group) but even if was true, one can make the argument that it will not remain the case. The reasoning behind this goes as follows. Evolution (natural or social) is about survival and optimal adaptation to environment constraints. Arguably, the very survival of the species is now threatened by a new environmental situation (environment being here broadly defined, not only in terms of natural environment and including man-created threats). According to various accounts ranging from NASA studies (see Guardian, 2014) to astrophysicist Stephen Hawking’s predictions (see BBC News, 2016), humanity has attained a stage where its actions can precipitate its own death, through nuclear war, global warming, and genetically-engineered viruses. The common element to all of these threats seems to be that, in order to be avoided, they imply the cooperation of all mankind, and that confrontation and division may result in the pure and simple extinction of our species (Fry, 2013). The evolutionary alternative is framed in these terms: either we cooperate, either the species becomes extinct. In Coker’s terminology, this may constitute war’s “evolutionary dead end” (2014). What evolution thus appears to “want” is intergroup cooperation, that is: fulfilling our potentiality for peace. But of course, human beings, “gifted” with culture, can actively and consciously resist evolutionary dynamics.

This essay has addressed the question whether human nature was a definitive obstacle to the elimination of war. Allowed by an open framework that refused any pre-conception about nature-culture relation, the main outcome of this investigation is that the answer to this question is no. If war continues, our nature will not be responsible for it. We will be, as cultural subjects. As Coker puts it, “the problem in the end is free will itself”.

We have evolved predisposition for both war and peace, and, even if the intrinsic dynamic of our nature may now “push us to put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind”, we are yet perfectly free to ignore Mother’s Nature advice.

“There is a story, believed to be of Cherokee origin, in which a girl is troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fight viciously. Seeking an explanation, she goes to her grandfather, highly regarded for his wisdom, who explains that there are two forces within each of us, struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other, war. At this, the girl is even more distressed, and asks her grandfather who wins. His answer: The one you feed.”[6]

Nathanaël Chouraqui is currently enrolled in an MSc. in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and I am simultaneously pursuing an LLB at the Sorbonne Law School. He holds a B.A. in Government obtained at Sciences Po, Aix and is Head of the Research Team of the LSE Near Eastern Studies Society (LSE NESS) and President and co-founder of the European Forum of Middle Eastern Studies Society (EFMESS). Mr. Chouraqui previously worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France. 



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[1] It is a running thread of his work, but most of his arguments are synthesized in Can war be eliminated? (2014).

[2] This essay is written under the assumption that the question of Human nature can be approached through social and natural sciences, which is a challengeable point to make. The author is aware that many have argued that doing so amount to scientism and that these questions should remain in the scope of the “traditional sources of wisdom” (Gray, 2012).

[3] What is true though is that our cognition works through a dual process (Chaiken & Trope, 1999). In forming impressions and making decisions, people may use the System 1 (implicit, non-conscious, fast and not effortful, heuristic-based) probably close to the notion of “Stone Age brain” mentioned here, while the System 2 is more effortful and used for explicit, conscious, “rational” and controlled procedures (such as philosophy). System 2 may not be the system we use most of the time but we are still able to use it (and possibly to use it to build institutions and technology to help us doing it constantly without effort).

[4]Interestingly, this can be related relates to the evolutionary perspective sometimes adopted by the “non-endists”. They argue that war will never end before “it exhausts its evolutionary possibilities” (Coker, 2014), which seem to imply that war will end when we will no longer need it. As far as boredom is concerned, we clearly don’t need war to fight it.  It is simply an option, which is up to us to suppress.

[5] One could add Livingstone’s conclusions in The Most Dangerous Animal: “human mind has a dual nature: on the one hand, we are ferocious, dangerous animals who regularly commit terrible atrocities against our own kind, on the other, we have a deep aversion to killing, a horror of taking human life.” (2007)

[6] Barash, 2013

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