Saturday, January 14, 2012

John Horgan on erasing war from the human condition


John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey. He contributes regularly to Scientific American and other publications in the field, and has written several books about science, society and religion. In his new book,“The End of War” ‏(McSweeney’s; 222 pages, $24‏), he applies the scientific approach to a topic that has occupied him personally since childhood: Why do people fight wars?
Horgan, 58, examines all the standard theories offered over the years to explain why people go to war: a biological tendency to organized fighting among males, if not humans in general, or even primates; competition for scarce resources; the influence of religion or of dominating political figures; the thrill of killing.
In each case, he offers exceptions to the rule so as to prove that it is not written in the stars. For example, in countering studies of chimps and orangutans that practice group violence against members of their own species, he presents cases of bands from the same species that live a peaceful, even altruistic existence. He also interviews the contemporary anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who has called members of the Yanomamo tribe he studied, in the Amazon region, “innately violent” and practitioners of “chronic warfare,” but who nonetheless told Horgan he thought that under different conditions, the Yanomamo could just as easily be a pacific society.
Horgan’s book intersects thematically with some other new books, one by Steven Pinker, another by Joshua Goldstein, that offer empirical evidence that proportionately fewer people are dying in armed conflict than in earlier centuries. Horgan feels his book is unique in that he sticks his neck out and calls on his fellow citizens to work to make war a thing of the past. John Horgan spoke with Haaretz from his home in Philipstown, New York.


What in the world made you write this book?
I think it’s fair to say I’ve been obsessed with war since I was a kid. I was born in 1953. I was eligible for the draft when I was in high school, when the Vietnam war was still raging. So I was thinking about the justice or injustice of that war and the insanity of the cold war, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. War seems not just immoral to me, but also really stupid, and absurd. And I never really lost that feeling. So, when I became a science journalist, I wrote about the nuclear arms race, and biological and chemical weapons, and about electronic intelligence. I also got into the anthropology of war, studies of the Yanomamo and other tribal peoples, and attempts to study the causes of war.
But I only started thinking about writing this book recently, when I realized that the vast majority of people think that war is a permanent part of the human condition...