Human Nature and War


For centuries, war and violence have been used by human beings for a number of reasons. For the ancient generations, war and violence were used for the purpose of defending people’s territories and other interests, to seize natural resources, and for reproduction. In the modern societies, war and violence serve nations in protecting their territorial integrity, protesting poor leadership/injustices, and for issues of the national security. There is a general consensus when it comes to the purpose of war and violence in the society, but when it comes to explaining the source of war and violence in humans, human nature theorists and cognitive theorists diverge greatly. For human nature theorists, war and violence are natural human instincts, and the state provides avenues through which these impulses can be channeled. On the other hand, cognitive theorists believe that war and violence are the learned human behaviors, which can be potentially unlearned and relearned according to different circumstances. This essay explores the arguments presented by the two groups of theorists, and in the following discussions, it will become clear that cognitive theorists provide a more compelling explanation for war and violence in humans.  

Human Nature and War

War and other acts of violence are used by human beings for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, human beings use war and violence to defend themselves and their interests from external attacks. Secondly, war and violence has been used for centuries to seize material wealth and natural resources in different communities. Thirdly, studies indicate that certain groups of people have long used war and violence to impose their beliefs and values on other groups. Fourthly, war and violence can be used by citizens of a given state to protest against poor leadership and other forms of injustices. Lastly, people can use war and violence as a way of finding relief from boredom and disrupting the existing peace (Wilson, 1978).

Despite that the reasons behind human involvement in war and violence are well known, international relations theorists are divided when it comes to arguing for violence and war in human beings. One group of theorists who are better referred to as human nature theorists argue that violence and war are innate characteristics of humans, which occur in the form of violent impulses. These violent impulses can be channeled through the state, which in this case constitutes a group of people drawn from a specific geographic location or those sharing similar beliefs. On the other hand, a group of cognitive theorists argue that war and violence are the learned human behaviors, but they are not instinctual in nature. Moreover, cognitive theorists believe that violent behaviors in human beings can be unlearned or relearned at times. This essay examines the explanations provided by the two groups of theorists with the aim of showing that cognitive theorists provide a more compelling argument for violence and war in human beings.

The Human Nature Theory

As noted earlier, the human nature theory holds that war and violence are the innate human behaviors, which can be channeled through the state or other modern institutions. Most human nature theorists have provided a variety of compelling reasons in favor of their case. Accordingly, Pinker (2007) argues that there has been a decline in violence over the centuries due to changes in people’s willingness to act on their violent impulses. In fact, Pinker notes that over 80 percent of people in modern societies fantasize about killing the people they hate. Furthermore, people in modern societies enjoy viewing violence through Shakespearean dramas, video games, violent movies, and other forms of sports entertainment. These acts according to Pinker (2007) serve to show that human beings are violent by nature. However, due to the existence of more stable and centralized states, which promote peace among the people besides exerting control over resources, the avenues through which people could channel their violent impulses have been narrowed. Moreover, through civilization, which is marked by high levels of self-control, sensitivity for other people’s feelings, and long-term planning, people have come to embrace peace. Additionally, in many civilized states, violence and war have been averted by imposing penalties on different violent acts and removing the incentives for aggression among the people. But, in the failed states and collapsed empires, violence is a reality because there are no systems in place to avert the tragedies of violence (Pinker, 2007).

Another human nature theorist has examined aggression from a socio-biological perspective. Accordingly, Wilson (1978) notes that human beings are innately aggressive considering that warfare has been in existence since the early hunter-gatherer societies to the modern, more civilized and industrial states. Here, Wilson indicates that innateness refers to the likelihood that the aggressiveness trait/behavior will develop in the specified environments, but not in all environments. This implies that the aggressive behavior is hereditary in human beings. In fact, Wilson (1978) notes that the most peaceful societies today were the most aggressive years ago, and there is a great probability that they can turn violent in the future. However, it is important to note that despite the innateness of the aggressive trait in humans; almost all societies have developed systems that sanction the commission of violent acts including rape, murder, war, and extortion. Through these sanctions, states have been capable of averting inevitable forms of conflicts within and outside their respective territories. However, it is equally important to indicate that human aggression differs greatly from aggression in other mammals. In human beings, aggressive impulses appear and disappear with respect to different circumstances. Moreover, Wilson (1978) indicates that human aggression involves ill-defined responses connected to separate controls in the brain. Generally, human beings will respond aggressively with the aim of defending themselves, conquering and protecting territories, asserting dominance over others, and for defensive counterattacks. Furthermore, these categories of aggressive behaviors can be added, modified, or removed at any time during the human lifespan.

Along the same perspective, Stoessinger (2005) notes that aggression is an inherent part of human nature as opposed to war, which is a habit that can be learned and unlearned according to particular circumstances. Here, it is important to note that human beings have overcome some habits such as incest, cannibalism, and slavery, which were once considered as human nature. However, Stoessinger (2005) is quick to add that some human habits can only be abandoned after a catastrophe strikes. Most importantly, Stoessinger examines the causes of war in the twenty first century and notes that national leaders’ personalities play a central role in precipitating wars in the contemporary societies. Here, the world leaders tend to misperceive the character, intentions, and capabilities of their adversaries. Therefore, leaders will approach war with a lot of optimism, which turns into a powerful emotional impetus that causes war between nations. Moreover, the distorted perceptions about the adversary’s character tend to precipitate conflicts among national leaders, which then escalate into full scale wars between nations. On the other hand, when leaders misperceive the intentions of their adversaries, there is a high probability that war will break out. As a result, the national leaders’ self-delusions can precipitate wars considering that they bear great responsibility in mobilizing support for issues of national interest. This implies that an individual’s innate aggressive behavior and fear can be turned into a full scale war and violence by making other people believe in them (Stoessinger, 2005).

On the other hand, Lorenz (1963) has examined the importance of aggression in intra-specific preservation. Here, aggression forms an integral part of the life-preserving instincts, which allow different species to fight each other for survival, territorial preservation, and protection of the young. Specifically, aggression is an innate behavior shown by members of a particular species when they are under threat, and it is central to species preservation. However, the significant changes to environmental conditions brought about by mankind threaten the life-preserving role of aggression. Here, it is important to note that the end results of man’s intelligence such as the development of the atomic bomb coupled with the innate aggressive behavior cannot predict a long life for mankind. As a result, aggression has been reduced to a pathological product of man’s disorganized cultural and social life. Furthermore, Lorenz (1963) notes that aggression is a spontaneous and hence, dangerous instinct because it does not involve reactions to particular external factors. Thus, aggression in the contemporary societies is facilitated by lack of the social contact and it occurs spontaneously.

In examining the dark side of mankind with the aim of tracing the roots of male violence, Ghiglieri (2000) found out that men and women are different because they are genetically programmed to learn different gender roles that will benefit them. Here, men participate in highly competitive roles such as hunting, fighting, and politics with the aim of controlling resources, which are central to attracting and supporting their female counterparts. As a result, Ghiglieri (2000) notes that men tend to perform these roles violently, especially by killing, robbing, and waging war against their competitors. Therefore, women and men are naturally designed to be different in sex and gender besides being instinctively designed to take up gender roles that are culturally appropriate for purposes of reproductive competition with members of the same sex. Accordingly, violence in men will emerge as a competitive reproductive strategy aimed at giving them a competitive advantage over other people of the same sex. This implies that male violence is an innate human behavior that is shaped by nature, sex, nurture, and gender. Specifically, aggression in men is programmed by the human genes and hence it is common to find out that weapon making is dominated by males in different societies. However, through socialization, men are thought when and how to use their weapons among other forms of violence (Ghiglieri, 2000).

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The same argument provided by human nature theorists is held by evolutionary psychologists who argue that the human brain comprises domain-specific mechanisms including the evolved psychological mechanisms, which are responsible for registering specific inputs, processing them, and generating specific responses. Some of the most basic psychological mechanisms that have evolved over the years are those related to recurrent problems in the society such as finding food and shelter, searching for mates, avoiding predators, and protecting the offspring. In some instances, evolved psychological mechanisms may cause maladaptive behaviors in the modern societies, particularly when novel impulses are sent to the brain. For instance, human beings will experience fear in the presence of stimuli, which have long been considered threats throughout the human evolutionary history even though they are no longer potent threats in the modern society. In the same way, human beings in the contemporary societies will respond with violence when they encounter novel environmental inputs that were long considered threats throughout the human evolutionary history (Liddle, Shackelford, & Weekes-Shackelford, 2012). Thus, genes play a major role in initiating a variety of behaviors in the contemporary societies, but their interactions with the external environment should not be overlooked.

The Cognitive Theory

As indicated earlier, the cognitive theory holds that human violence is a learned behavior, but not an instinct, and hence, it can be unlearned or relearned according to particular circumstances. According to Fry (2007), it is wrong to assume that violence and war are inevitable human behaviors and that human societies anywhere in the world will wage war spontaneously. By examining the human potential to make peace, Fry indicates that the twenty first century provides human beings with enough challenges and opportunities to seek peace and justice even though the ways of doing so vary greatly. In some cases, people will seek justice through violence, but most people do not use violence. In fact, Fry (2007) notes that the most violent acts are associated with people defending their basic rights or those opposed to extreme injustices. Otherwise, a variety of anthropological and historical studies have shown that humans have the ability to replace violence with other means of seeking justice, which involve non-violent actions. Here, anthropologists indicate that violence and war can be unlearned in the presence of more effective, non-violent means of seeking justice, providing security, and defending rights.

Another cognitive theorist has examined the issue of the increased militarism in America in relation to war and violence. According to Fahey, the American society has seen an increase in the influence of the military in almost all spheres of life including economic, political, social, and spiritual. The increased support for peacetime military establishment not only drains resources meant for social programs, but it also increases the likelihood of the world wars and violence in the society (Defense Monitor Staff, 1992). In fact, the movie, “Soldiers of Conscience” has shown that war and violence are the learned human behaviors, and not instincts. The movie profiles the experience of eight U.S. soldiers who are wrestling with the idea of having killed another human being. This film explores human nature and war, and it confirms the results of a previous study from World War II, which found out that more than 75 percent of combat soldiers may not kill another human being, despite there is an opportunity to do so. This indicates that human beings maintain restraint when it comes to taking another person’s life (National PBS Broadcast, 2008).

Yet, in a study examining the relationship between personality, combat exposure, and wartime atrocities in the Vietnam War, Holowka et al. (2012) found out that combat exposure is strongly related to participation in wartime atrocities by military personnel. Furthermore, the study findings demonstrated that combat exposure could be mediating the relationship between trait neuroticism and commission of wartime atrocities. Therefore, the researchers concluded that combat exposure and personality are important risk factors in the commission of wartime atrocities by military personnel. Generally, the foregoing case studies indicate that human beings despite possessing the ability to remain peaceful can turn violent when circumstances call for such a response. Along the same perspective, Floyd (2010) notes that war is an unnatural human act with deleterious effects that spun generations and in most cases, the effects of war may not be remedied by victory. Nonetheless, human beings will always praise militarism and dishonor peaceful ways when faced with acts of extreme violence, and hence, military power is a central attribute of the contemporary society. As a result, war is celebrated and appreciated in the society because the aggressors will always indicate that their cause is just while demonizing their perceived or suspected enemies. This implies that the majority are led to believe that it is only through war that they can overcome their economic, social, and sometimes, spiritual problems. Overall, war becomes a learned behavior in the society (Floyd, 2010).

On the other hand, Grossman (2009) notes that death and killing have been vital, essential, and common occurrences in human history. Moreover, death and killing were central to daily human existence despite being messy and boring to participate in or even to watch. However, in the last few generations, death and killing for daily human existence has become a thing of the past. In fact, death and killing are serious offenses in the contemporary society, and they can attract unbearable punishments including verbal and physical attacks. Yet, people in the modern society embrace violent and brutal deaths and killings through movies and sports entertainment (Grossman, 2009). This can only serve to indicate that war and violence are the learned human behaviors, which can be potentially unlearned and relearned with respect to different circumstances. From another perspective, Hermann (2005) indicates that global leaders influence the lives of their followers in such a way that their preferences, beliefs, and decisions will always resonate with those of the entire public. By profiling national leaders such as Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair, and Bill Clinton, Hermann (2005) manages to demonstrate the influence of leaders and their leadership styles on the entire populations. Here, it is important to note that national leaders are involved in decision- and policy-making for domestic and international purposes. Moreover, these leaders are involved in the implementation of the decisions either directly or by delegating duties to their junior staff. Consequently, if these national leaders believe in war as the only way toward restoring peace and tranquility within their borders, then it follows that their junior staff and the entire nation will rally behind them. Hence, by exerting control and influence on their followers, national leaders take a pro-active role in ensuring that the public appreciates the importance of war for different purposes. As a result, war becomes a learned behavior among the people who are otherwise peaceful under normal circumstances.

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For Zinn (1990), war and violence can never be natural human instincts. Accordingly, Zinn notes that people have been made to believe that human beings are naturally violent and bad through a variety of self-fulfilling prophecies. Therefore, when one is persuaded that it is human nature to be violent and bad, it does not take much for this individual to think and act that way while blaming it all on human nature. Furthermore, Zinn (1990) indicates that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that war and violence are human instincts. In other words, humans are not innately aggressive considering that most forms of human violence and aggression do not arise from the inborn drives. As a result, since neither biology nor psychology can provide evidence in favor of the innateness of war and violence, Zinn (1990) concludes that these human behaviors are learned, but not inborn. Here, it is imperative to note that modern culture provides a variety of opportunities for people to learn about war and violence. In so doing, these people come to appreciate war and violence as the possible ways of solving certain problems. On the other hand, Kahan (2010) indicates that given scientific evidence regarding risky social issues such as war and violence, people will always side with the position that strengthens their connection with a large group of people, preferably their kin or countrymen. In fact, empirical evidence has shown that the same groups will agree or disagree on cultural issues as a block. This group of influence can be seen as a great opportunity for people to appreciate and embrace war and violence if only their position will serve to reinforce the relationship with other people, particularly with those with whom they share important commitments. Furthermore, in democratic societies, leaders exploit group influence in getting people to accept their decisions through imperfect ways of distributing information (Kahan, 2010). Overall, it is safe to conclude that war and violence are the learned human behaviors from this perspective.


From the foregoing discussions, it is evident that the cognitive theory provides a more compelling explanation for war and violence in human beings. In fact, it is true that war and violence can never be natural human instincts, but the learned human behaviors, which have been handed down from generation to generation with a variety of improvements along the way. For the ancient generations, it is true that war and violence developed as a result of the need to defend territories, seize natural resources, reproduce, and protect their children. However, in modern societies, war and violence are behaviors learned from the popular media and other global leaders, whose influence on their followers means a lot. Therefore, when people are made to believe that war and violence are possible ways in addressing their economic, social, and spiritual issues, then it does not take much for these people to embrace and participate in war and violence. Moreover, if a national leader believes that there are enough reasons for his country to go to war with another country, it does not cost a penny in getting the general public to rally behind his decision. Furthermore, people tend to take sides with the most popular decisions so long as their position serves to reinforce their connection to other people with whom they share important commitments. Thus far, it is safe to conclude that war and violence are the learned human behaviors, and not instincts as proposed by the human nature theory.

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