Lives In The Peace Movement


I would like to announce the publication of a book describing the lives of some of the people who have contributed importantly to the peace movement. The book can be freely downloaded from the following link:

I hope that the lives of these women and men can inspire us as we work together to abolish the institution of war.  Today, war has been made prohibitively dangerous by the destructiveness of modern weapons, and the abolition of war is an essential condition for the survival of human civilization.  But we can hope for a better future. It is not an impossible goal to think of enlarging the already-large groups of the modern world to include all of humanity. On our small but beautiful earth, made small by technology, made beautiful by nature, there is room for one group only: the all-inclusive family of humankind.

Human emotions: an evolutionary paradox?

Today, human greed and folly are destroying the global environment. As if this were not enough, there is a great threat to human civilization and the biosphere from an all-destroying thermonuclear war. Both of these severe existential threats are due to faults in our inherited emotional nature.

From the standpoint of evolutionary theory, this is a paradox. As a species, we are well on the way to committing collective suicide, driven by the flaws in human nature. But isn’t natural selection supposed to produce traits that lead to survical? Today, our emotions are not leading us towards survival, but instead driving us towards extinction. What is the reason for this paradox?

Can biological science throw any light on the problem of why our supposedly rational species seems intent on choosing war, pain and death instead of peace, happiness and life? To answer this question, we need to turn to the science of ethology – the study of inherited emotional tendencies and behaviour patterns in animals and humans.


In “The Origin of Species”,  Charles Darwin devoted a chapter to the evolution of instincts, and he later published a separate book on “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”. Because of these pioneering studies, Darwin is considered to be the founder of ethology.

The study of inherited behaviour patterns in animals (and humans) was continued in the 20th century by such researchers as Karl von Frisch (1886-1982), Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988), and Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), three scientists who shared a Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1973.

The third of the 1973 prizewinners, Konrad Lorenz, is controversial, but at the same time very interesting in the context of studies of  the causes of war and discussions of how war may be avoided. As a young boy, he was very fond of animals, and his tolerant parents allowed him to build up a large menagerie in their house in Altenberg,  Austria. Even as a child, he became an expert on waterfowl behavior, and he discovered the phenomenon of imprinting. He was given a one day old duckling, and found, to his intense joy, that it transferred its following response to his person. As Lorenz discovered, young waterfowl have a short period immediately after being hatched, when they identify as their “mother” whomever they see first. In later life, Lorenz continued his studies of imprinting, and there exists a touching photograph of him, with his white beard, standing waist deep in a pond, surrounded by an adoring group of goslings who believe him to be their mother. Lorenz also studied bonding behaviour in  waterfowl.

On Aggression

It is, however, for his controversial book “On Aggression” that Konrad Lorenz is best known. In this book, Lorenz makes a distinction between intergroup aggression and intragroup aggression. Among animals, he points out, rank-determining fights are seldom fatal. Thus, for example, the fights that determine leadership within a wolf pack end when the loser makes a gesture of submission. By contrast, fights between groups of animals are often fights to the death, examples being wars between ant colonies, or of bees against intruders, or the defense of a rat pack against strange rats.

Many animals, humans included, seem willing to kill or be killed in defense of the communities to which they belong. Lorenz calls this behavioural tendency a “communal defense response”. He points out that the “holy shiver” – the tingling of the spine that humans experience when performing a heroic act in defense of their communities – is related to the prehuman reflex for raising the hair on the back of an animal as it confronts an enemy – a reflex that makes the animal seem larger than it really is.

In his book “On Aggression”, Konrad Lorenz gives the following description of the emotions of a hero preparing to risk his life for the sake of the group:

“In reality, militant enthusiasm is a specialized form of communal aggression, clearly distinct from and yet functionally related to the more primitive forms of individual aggression. Every man of normally strong emotions knows, from his own experience, the subjective phenomena that go hand in hand with the response of militant enthusiasm. A shiver runs down the back and, as more exact observation shows, along the outside of both arms. One soars elated, above all the ties of everyday life, one is ready to abandon all for the call of what, in the moment of this specific emotion, seems to be a sacred duty. All obstacles in its path become unimportant; the instinctive inhibitions against hurting or killing one’s fellows lose,  unfortunately, much of their power. Rational considerations, criticisms, and all reasonable arguments against the behavior dictated by militant enthusiasm are silenced by an amazing reversal of all values, making them appear not only untenable, but base and dishonourable.

“Men may enjoy the feeling of absolute righteousness even while they commit atrocities. Conceptual thought and moral responsibility are at their lowest ebb. As the Ukrainian proverb says: `When the banner is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet’.”

Lorenz goes on to say, “An impartial visitor from another planet, looking at man as he is today – in his hand the atom bomb, the product of his intelligence – in his heart the aggression drive, inherited from his anthropoid ancestors, which the same intelligence cannot control – such

a visitor would not give mankind much chance of survival.”

The mystery of self-sacrifice in war

In an essay entitld “The Urge to Self-Destruction”, Arthur Koestler wrote: “Even a cursory glance at history should convince one that individual crimes, committed for selfish motives, play a quite insignificant role in the human tragedy compared with the numbers massacred in unselfish love of one’s tribe, nation, dynasty, church or ideology…Wars are not fought for personal gain, but out of loyalty and devotion to king, country or cause…

“We have seen on the screen the radiant love of the Führer on the faces of the Hitler Youth… They are transfixed with love, like monks in ecstasy on religious paintings. The sound of the nation’s anthem, the sight of its proud flag, makes you feel part of a wonderfully  loving community. The fanatic is prepared to lay down his life for the object of his worship, as the lover is prepared to die for his idol. He is, alas, also prepared to kill anybody who represents a supposed threat to the idol.” The emotion described here by Koestler is the same as the communal defense mechanism (“militant enthusiasm”) described in biological terms by Lorenz.

Generations of schoolboys have learned the Latin motto: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – it is both sweet and noble to die for one’s country. Even in today’s world, death in battle in defense of country and religion is still praised by nationalists. However, because of the development of weapons of mass destruction, both nationalism and narrow patriotism have become dangerous anachronisms.

In thinking of violence and war, we must be extremely careful not to confuse the behavioral patterns that lead to wife-beating or bar-room brawls with those that  lead to episodes like the trench warfare of the First World War, or to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first type of aggression is similar to the rank-determining fights of animals, while the second is more akin to the team-spirit exhibited by a football side. Heroic behaviour in defense of one’s community has been praised  throughout the ages, but the tendency to such behaviour has now become a threat to the survival of civilization, since tribalism makes war possible, and war with thermonuclear weapons threatens civilization with catastrophe.

Warfare involves not only a high degree of aggression, but also an extremely high degree of altruism. Soldiers kill, but they also sacrifice their own lives. Thus patriotism and duty are as essential to war as the willingness to kill. As Arthur Koestler points out, “Wars are not fought for personal gain, but out of loyalty and devotion to king, country or cause…”

Tribalism involves passionate attachment to one’s own group, self-sacrifice for the sake of the group, willingness both to die and to kill if necessary to defend the group from its enemies, and belief that in case of a conflict, one’s own group is always in the right.

Population genetics

If we examine altruism and aggression in humans, we notice that members of our species exhibit great altruism towards their own children. Kindness towards close relatives is also characteristic of human behavior, and the closer the biological relationship is between two humans, the greater is the altruism they tend to show towards each other. This profile of altruism is easy to explain on the basis of Darwinian natural selection since two closely related individuals share many genes and, if they cooperate, the genes will be more effectively propagated.

To explain from an evolutionary point of view the communal defense mechanism discussed by Lorenz – the willingness of humans to kill and be killed in defense of their communities – we have only to imagine that our ancestors lived in small tribes and that marriage was likely to take place within a tribe rather than across tribal boundaries. Under these  circumstances, each tribe would tend to consist of genetically similar individuals. The tribe itself, rather than the individual, would be the unit on which the evolutionary forces of natural selection would act. The idea of group selection in evolution was proposed in the 1930’s by J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fisher, and more recently it has been discussed by W.D. Hamilton and E.O. Wilson.

According to the group selection model, a tribe whose members showed altruism towards each other would be more likely to survive than a tribe whose members cooperated less effectively. Since several tribes might be in competition for the same territory, intertribal aggression might, under some circumstances, increase the chances for survival of one’s own tribe. Thus, on the basis of the group selection model, one would expect humans to be kind and cooperative towards members of their own group, but at the same time to sometimes exhibit aggression towards members of other groups, especially in conflicts over territory. One would also expect  intergroup conflicts to be most severe in cases where the boundaries between groups are sharpest – where marriage is forbidden across the boundaries.

Military-industrial complexes

Today the world spends more than 1.8 trillion US dollars per year on armaments. This enormous river of money, almost too large to be imagined, drives and perpetuates the institution of war. Money from immensely rich corporate oligarchs buys the votes of politicians and the propaganda of the mainstream media. Numbed by the propaganda, citizens allow the politicians to vote for obscenely bloated military budgets, which further enrich the corporate oligarchs, and the circular flow continues. The fact that inherited human nature contains an element of tribalism makes it easy

for the propaganda of the powerholders to label other nations or ethnic groups as “enemies”. Without enemies, industrial-military complexes would wither.

Hope for the future

Luckily, tribalism can be overwritten by ethics. Indeed, ethical education became a part of human cultural evolution in order to overwrite tribalism, when the agricultural revolution changed humans from tribal hunter-gatherers to farmers living in larger and more heterogeneous settled communities.

The social and political groups of the modern world are larger still, and are often multiracial and multiethnic. There are a number of large countries that are remarkable for their diversity, for example India, China, Brazil, and the United States. Nevertheless it has been possible to establish social cohesion and group identity within each of these enormous nations.

It is not an impossible goal to think of enlarging the already-large groups of the modern world to include all of humanity. Doing so is the great task that history has given to our generation.

Other books and articles about  global problems

Some of my other books and articles can be found on the following link:

I hope that you will circulate this link (as well as the link at the start of this article) to friends who might be interested.

John Scales Avery is a theoretical chemist at the University of Copenhagen. He is noted for his books and research publications in quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, evolution, and history of science. His 2003 book Information Theory and Evolution set forth the view that the phenomenon of life, including its origin, evolution, as well as human cultural evolution, has its background situated in the fields of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory. Since 1990 he has been the Chairman of the Danish National Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Between 2004 and 2015 he also served as Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy. He founded the Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes, and was for many years its Managing Editor. He also served as Technical Advisor to the World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (19881997). He can be reached at [email protected]. To know more about his works visit this link.


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