Peace on the March

What the Cold War and cooperative primates have to tell us about our future


| January 5, 2006


Timothy Noah, writing for Slate, claims 'just about every geopolitical argument put forth since 9/11 has taken as its starting point that the world has become a more violent place.' Indeed, open the newspaper to any page, and you'll be flooded with images of violent conflict. The upsurge in violence, however, is 'utter hooey,' says Noah. Citing The Human Security Report 2005, Noah outlines a massive decrease in violent conflict between 1992 and 2003, including an 80 percent decrease in conflicts with more than 1,000 deaths and a 40 percent decrease in the number of conflicts overall.

Why the decrease, though? Andrew Mack -- director of the University of British Columbia's Human Security Center, the center that produced the report -- offered an explanation in a Washington Post op-ed Noah cites. His answer: 'the end of the Cold War.' The Cold War, Mack claims, occupied the United Nations to the extent that they were unable to deal with violent conflict when it did arise. After the Iron Curtain fell, however, the UN was '[f]reed from the paralyzing stasis of Cold War geopolitics' and able to focus on efforts 'to stop ongoing wars and prevent new ones.'

Another theory that could explain this global decrease in violence comes from a different corner altogether. In an article in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor at Stanford University, reviews decades of research into the social culture of primates. Sapolsky debunks the idea that primates are inherently violent, showing instead that they are more a product of the situation around them. Once-violent monkeys placed in an egalitarian group will modify their behavior, meaning that whatever primates -- and by extension, humans -- have learned can be unlearned. Simply because we have been riddled with violent conflict since earliest history does not mean that it must continue. If primates can form what Sapolsky calls a 'baboon utopia,' what's stopping us from doing the same?

Go there >>The Peace Epidemic

Go there too >> A Natural History of Peace

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