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Evolved for War

David Livingstone Smith, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England, argues that combat has instinctual roots.

You suggest in your new book, The Most Dangerous Animal, that war is a practically unavoidable feature of human life. Why?
The short answer is: Like everything else we persist in, it offers benefits, and it certainly offered big benefits to our ancestors. Those benefits are acquiring resources. Stealing, really.

Do you believe that the war in Iraq is a war over resources?
I'm sure it is. I don't know, but that's the assumption I make of any war. Obviously this is an oil-rich region, and oil makes the world go 'round.

You write that we can learn a lot about our wars by observing our nearest relative, the chimpanzee.
The chimpanzee is the only other species, apart from some ants, that wages war against their own kind. That's really suggestive that war is deeply rooted in our own biological soil.

What traits enable humans to kill other people in warfare?
It's hard to look into someone's eyes and blow their heads off. War requires us to dehumanize. We do that two ways: by fighting from a distance, with long-range warfare, or in close combat by making our enemies less than human. We refer to them as game animals that we hunt or as predatory animals that are evil or as sources of disease or contagion. We neutralize our horror, but we don't know we're doing it.

You say that engaging in warfare is both horrible and pleasurable to humans. How is that so?
We are appalled by killing, yet something inclines us to kill. What nature inclines us to provides pleasure, even if it's not good for us. War provides direct and vicarious pleasure. Vicarious pleasure is cheap; the folks safely behind the lines, who get worked up by words like "victory," don't have to pay the price of psychological damage and guilt. But even those engaged in combat, if they can neutralize the horror enough, often feel pleasure. It's a very touchy subject, but you find accounts of it in memoirs and letters. That's also why we like shoot-'em-up movies. It's part of our nature. We shouldn't pretend that it isn't.

Do you think the human species can fight this tendency or evolve out of it?
We like to think of ourselves as above nature. But if we want to understand ourselves, we need to understand ourselves as animals. We're not going to do anything about any significant social problem unless we do so on the basis of such an understanding.
– Nancy Heiser