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Imagine all the People

By       Message Barry Seidman     Permalink
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"... the life of man (is) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. ... The condition of man ... is a condition of war of everyone against everyone. ... (The) natural proclivity of men (is) to hurt each other." Thomas Hobbes

"Throughout history, warfare ... has been endemic to every form of society, from hunter-gatherer bands to industrial states..." E.O. Wilson

(Quoting John Lennon, 'Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man') - "Incredible as it may seem, many of us used to believe this treacle ... If people are innately saddled with certain sins and flaws, like selfishness, prejudice, sort-sightedness, and self-deception, then political reform would seem to be a waste of time." - Stephen Pinker

And so, as the 21st Century begins very much like the last ended - in a perpetual state of war - the words of Hobbes, Wilson and Pinker seem to ring true indeed. The nature of Homo Sapien Sapiens therefore, idealists like John Lennon and Dennis Kucinich aside, is such that the violence in Dafur, Palestine, Iraq and other forsaken lands does not speak to the failure of peace, but instead represents the inevitability of human violence. And with the general acceptance, if at times believed reluctantly, of all of us regarding this practical truth, the antiwar Left has dwindled in political prowess and ambition, while at the same time Christian, Islamic and secular Dominionists among us hurry along the "end of days." But does all of this really best describe the actual truth of the human condition? Are we trapped, genetically or otherwise, by our circumstances in this downward spiral to oblivion, or have people like Hobbes, Wilson and Pinker gotten humanity wrong?

Humanism means different things to different people. Some focus on metaphysics and note that humanism is free of the dogma and supernaturalism of theism. Others point to methodology, advocating for scientific naturalism and skepticism. And still others emphasize the social justice elements of the humanist tradition. But what if we hold so dearly to one of these ideals that we forfeit the others to the supernaturalists or authoritarians? If we cling to atheism as the bases for our behavior in society, then we may become what I call, "atheist avengers," putting our energies in debunking God while leaving social justice issues behind. If we only focus on science and skepticism we risk the twin evils of elitism and arrogance, finding more strength in attacking religionists or debunking the masses, than in making the world a better place to live. And if we focus only on social justice issues and ignore the problems of supernaturalism and the tool of science, we can find ourselves trapped in the labyrinth of postmodernism and luditism, and wind up building our societies on the fallacy that humans have free will.

So, finding all of these above as necessary parts of any meaningful and culturally relevant definition, it can be argued that humanism is a sociopolitical philosophy, both democratic and non-hierarchal, which is informed by scientific naturalism and promotes individual freedom, economic and social equality, human cooperation and planetary peace. With this definition at our fingertips, we can articulate then what may be considered to be a good working hypothesis, by which all aspects of human society can be understood and addressed.

So what then about human nature, war and peace? As with many such questions concerning the human condition this is a hard one, and not such that it will be answered in full here. Still, it is important for humanists to fortify their arguments on issues of war and peace not only with the armament of the most popular or highly regarded crafters of social scientific opinion, but also with lesser known and equally scientific and thoughtful opinions. After all, humanism is perhaps the only "ism" free of dogma because of the very self-correctiveness of science from which it is partly based, and so we ought to use just such a unique tool to its fullest.

Here is a list of names, some of which you may be familiar with. Niles Eldredge, Stephen J. Gould, D.S. Wilson, Harold Barclay, Judith Hand, and Douglas Fry. All have, in one way or another, argued against the current, neo-Darwinian arguments which seem to dominate the university and the work place in these times, yet they all do so from a scientific, and indeed Darwinian perspective. The work of Eldredge (Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene), Gould (The Mismeasure of Man), and D.S. Wilson (Unto Others: The Evolutionary Biology of Unselfish Behavior) may be somewhat familiar at this point to the reader, so I want to focus here on the work of the latter three.

Douglas Fry is a docent in the Development Psychology Program at Abo Akademi University in Finland and a research scientist in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona. He is the author of The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence (Oxford, 2006). Judith Hand, with a doctorate in biology, is a research associate and lecturer at University of California at Los Angeles, and has written widely on both anthropology and biology. She is the author of Women, Power and the Biology of Peace (Questpath, 2003). Harold Barclay was a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta in Canada until he retired in 1988. He is the author of People without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy (Kahn & Averill, 1990).

In brief, Fry's work has involved studying the still existing hunter-gatherer societies of which he has noted no less than 80, all of which exhibit very low levels of aggression and no warfare. Fry (and Hand) point to the prejudices of western researchers and scientists by noting not only that they have insisted that humans and chimps, rather than humans and bonobos, share more in common, but also by omitting certain things from their research - such as studying human males regarding violence almost exclusively - when trying to ascertain human behavior among our own species.

Hand points to several reasons bonobos are more like humans. One is that female bonobos can restrict male aggression because bonobos eat foods that allow them to travel in larger groups than chimps, giving females a better chance to form alliances and partnerships. Other biological reasons include the bonobo and human traits of hidden ovulation, engagement in frontal sexual intercourse, and continuous female receptivity, none of which are shared with chimps.

Fry also addresses the Margaret Mead "controversy" explaining that those who critiqued her alleged writings of peaceful Samoans, did a hatched job on a mere strawman. Two critics, Demonic Males author's Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson - whom themselves borrowed heavily from Derek Freeman's devastating critique of Mead's work in 1983 - ignored the bulk of the data which would contrast their attempt to make peaceful societies disappear. This included ignoring the work of anthropologists and sociologists Bonta, Montagu, Howell, Willis, Sponsel and Gregor. In their chapter, "Paradise Imagined," Wrangham and Peterson argued that Mead saw Samoans as unagressive, but that she was absolutely wrong. However, Fry's rereading of Mead's book in question, "Coming of Age in Samoa," found no statements about the Samoans being peaceful or unagressive, but he found instead that Mead acknowledged that they made war in the past, but not 'nowadays.' Freeman, Wrangham and Peterson left out the 'nowadays' and argued that Mead said the Samoans were always peaceful. This allowed readers to ignore the fact that Mead never said what was claimed she did, and that the Samoans had somehow found a way to indeed live peacefully in the long run.

Here are the key elements of Fry and Hand's work.
Nomadic hunter-gatherer societies are not 'primitive' in that they successfully meet the needs of their individuals. This fact does not support the "noble savage" stereotype Pinker blames liberals for holding because not only are these people not "savages" (a purely Eurocentric bias) but because they are not somehow nobler than other people, if indeed more peaceful.

Aggression, Fry and Hand admit, is a part of human nature ... perhaps even genetically or neurologically so ... but how aggression is played out is based more on culture than on "nature." Nomadic hunter-gatherers (in the past or today), are egalitarian societies which are not completely absent of all aggression or limited violence, but its members do not engage in wide scale or extreme violence, or in warfare. Instead, they have many methods of conflict management and reconciliation techniques which keep aggression/violence to a minimal. Therefore, what should be noted is that there are more examples in human nature of peace and cooperation in the bulk of human history (99% of which humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers), than of violence and war.

Other "primitive" societies which are often pointed out as violent or warlike - certain native American or African tribes - may range from static hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, but are not included in the over 80 nomadic societies Fry has researched.

Females in societies (past and present), which share partnership roles with males, tend to leave such societies more balanced in terms of aggression. Females, while willing to defend their family or society with equal aggression as males, do not begin conflicts. They are not the aggressors. Hand believes that the natural, aggressive male bonding technique when unchecked - particularly among young males - is what leads to greater violence. Hand argues therefore for true "political" equality of males and females in society as that seems to keep humans naturally cooperative and egalitarian. The females are often the ones who keep the young males in check.

Hand also discusses the ancient Keftian society, one that was not nomadic and indeed more hierarchal than such, and points out that the balance between men and women kept their culture peaceful... until a neighboring male-lead, highly hierarchal society made war on them.

Hand argues that there are six necessary conditions toward a cooperative and peaceful society. They include the need for protection from aggressors, resources that enable self-sufficiency, a legitimate central authority, an ethos of non-violence, a strong female influence, and a watch on population density so that it doesn't exceed resource availability.

In the end Fry and Hand agree, as do many others, that human nature is not as Hobbes, E.O. Wilson, Pinker and others would argue. A world view built on such a definition that Fry and Hand suggest would be vital to our planetary culture. For instance, political philosophers explain that by large, neo-liberals, capitalists and Right-Libertarians all seem to hold to the Hobbesian definition of human nature... selfish, violent, uber-competitive, lazy and greedy. This notion is false.

In contrast, Socialists and Social-Democrats seem to hold to the Marxist idea that humans are infinitely malleable and good, but this notion clearly does not work either. Nature does play a role in human behavior after all. Pinker is correct in the idea that we do not come into the world as 'blank slates.' Also, the words 'good' and 'bad' are too vague and superficial to do us any real service.

Anarchists, Left-Libertarians and other progressives who argue for things like inclusive democracy, tend to understand that humans are neither inherently good or bad, that we are a combination of nature and nurture, and that under certain conditions, certain human traits (or adaptations) will emerge penultimate.

It can be argued then, after reading Fry and Hand, that there is something different in nomadic hunter-gatherers than in chiefdoms or states which lead us toward ever-increasing violence and warfare. Harold Barclay, an anthropologist with anarchist leanings, has a different take on some of the same issues Fry and Hand discuss. While having had similar experiences which led him to construct similar conclusions about aggression and violence among nomadic hunter-gatherers as well as the differences between human males and females, Barclay takes the step Fry and Hand seem reluctant to. Though Fry and Hand both seem to be saying in their work that when human hierarchies and centralized authorities arise, the greater the chance, and resources, for large scale violence and war becomes... neither challenge hierarchies or the way chiefdoms and states garner power for the elite few. Fry seems to think that hierarchy is not the problem so much as is the lack of will of many governments to live peacefully among others, and apply conflict management techniques. After all, Fry argues for Norway as an example of a modern state-society which has found ways to keep the peace, mainly by "deciding" not to try to rule the world.

Hand also argues that hierarchies are natural, and that centralized authority is a good thing... if only women would have more equal power in politics, economics and the like. Both support a world government.

While Fry and Hand offer sound liberal ideas of the good society, they do seem to miss a major point. Barclay argues that it's no accident that centralized authority, whether we're talking about chiefdoms, states (including representative democracies), or a world government, creates the problems in humanity which lead to violence and war. To this, he would add capitalism as well. Hierarchies, Barclay says, are indeed natural in human nature, but when hierarchies become more about domination and submission rather than about a division of labor and responsibility, we begin to have a problem.

Fry and Hand argue that aggression need not lead to wide scale violence or warfare; likewise, Barclay argues that natural human hierarchies need not lead to domination, which leads to violence and warfare on the personal and state level. Indeed it may be the advent of dominance-based hierarchies of chiefdoms or states, both being rather recent developments in human history, which puts humans into circumstances unnatural, or at least unhealthy for them, therefore creating stress and tension on many levels.

As for a solution, while Barclay would not prefer to return the entire species to nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles, even if that were possible, he would argue that adopting anarchist principles, or at least a more genuine practice of democratic principles, would certainly help us out of the mess we now find ourselves in. Along this line, one project which stands out is Takis Fotopoulos' Inclusive Democracy project which combines various Leftist ideologies along with a naturalistic viewpoint toward implementing a true, inclusive democracy which would replace statist and/or libertarian capitalist societies, statist socialist societies, social democracies, and hierarchal representative democracies.

So, at last, humanism. It seems to me that the principles of humanism, from scientific naturalism to the want for social justice, can be found in a clear, objective manor via biology, anthropology and a proper understanding of human nature as it is played out in the bulk of human history. Fry, Hand and Barclay, more than Hobbes, E.O. Wilson or Pinker, seem to move in such a direction. This then speaks more to where we can go in this new millennium as we begin to actually examine our species' real behaviors, without western bias based on supernatural myth or Hobbesian cynicism.

'Imagine there's no countries ... imagine all the people living life in peace...

We humanists here in America, like all western thinkers, have come to our philosophy by having the world of ideas first filtered through the particulars of our culture... Perhaps to the point that even scientists have at times become colored by what they already believe to be true about reality. But the self correctiveness of science is such that we can step out of the culture box, if just long enough to put our favorite theories to the test. When we do so, we may just find that the principles of humanism we all carry with us as part of who we are, can indeed be legitimized by an objective application of science, minus the political biases of our time. If we humanists find that we can not do at least that, then the only thing that separates us from the unwarranted presumptions of supernaturalism is our atheism.
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Barry F. Seidman worked as a humanist/freethought community leader and events coordinator for the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry from 2000-2006. Barry has a BA in Video and Film Production from Rutgers University, and a (more...)

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