Is War a Virus or a Gene?

John Horgan, author of the book The End of War argues that warring or violent behavior is not innate to human nature. Horgan shares the belief of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead that war is a cultural innovation. 

John Horgan, author of the book The End of War argues that warring or violent behavior is not innate to human nature. Of the many people that Horgan has questioned, from war journalist Sebastian Junger to the students in his classes, most believe war is a part of human nature. War will always be with us they say. Perhaps that is true, but Horgan believes that war is a problem, just like cancer, that has a solution we haven’t found yet.


What’s the Big idea?

Horgan told Big Think that there is evidence to suggest that war is neither a biological impulse nor an economic imperative. So what are the other factors that can explain the emergence and recurrence of war? Horgan points to the work of anthropologist Margaret Mead. Horgan and Mead share the belief that war is a cultural innovation. Back in the 1930’s Mead suggested that war emerged sometime in human prehistory and began to spread. In an interview with Big Think, Horgan uses a very simple example to illustrate how war is a culturally infectious virus: Imagine your neighbor is a violent psychopath who is out for blood and land. You, on the other hand, are person who wants peace. You would have few options but to embrace the ways of war for defense. So essentially your neighbor has infected you with war. 

What’s the Significance?

Modern society is a very civilized place. Survival violence is not at the front of everyone’s mind in, say, Beijing or Stockholm. Thus it would be reasonable to expect the propagation of the war virus to slow. Horgan argues exactly that point. Take Europe as an example. Today, it is unthinkable for France and Germany to go to war. However, in the first half of the 20th century Germany's expansionist ambitions and France's fear of her deadly neighbor led to two devastating world wars. Though only time will tell, it is possible that through cooperation and diplomacy France and Germany have cured their war virus permanently.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Mark Cheney on Twitter @cheney_mark

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Is this why time speeds up as we age?

We take fewer mental pictures per second.

(MPH Photos/giphy/yShutterstock/Big Think)
Mind & Brain
  • Recent memories run in our brains like sped-up old movies.
  • In childhood, we capture images in our memory much more quickly.
  • The complexities of grownup neural pathways are no match for the direct routes of young brains.
Keep reading Show less

Trauma in childhood leads to empathy in adulthood

It's not just a case of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Mind & Brain

  • A new study suggests children who endure trauma grow up to be adults with more empathy than others.
  • The effect is not universal, however. Only one kind of empathy was greatly effected.
  • The study may lead to further investigations into how people cope with trauma and lead to new ways to help victims bounce back.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.