Lyse Doucet, the Canadian journalist and BBC’s Chief International Correspondent, recently described war as “the most inhuman act.” Listening in my living room, my reaction was visceral: “You’re Wrong.” War is one of the most human of behaviors. I can’t think of a single day in my life when there wasn’t war going on somewhere. It’s part of who we are as a species. And the problem with calling it “inhuman” is that we give ourselves the right to distance ourselves from the negative aspects of who we are.
I have noticed this phenomenon in other arenas of our “lesser” selves. When the “Me, Too” movement was at the top of the news, I thought about how our species is wired for reproduction, as are all species, and how that’s all nature cares about. I recall a documentary where a female frog was sitting in a pond and all the male frogs were circled around the edge. Some “trigger” caused one of them to leap and the rest leapt, too. I had sympathy for the female frog. Among humans who supposedly have the ability to self-control and the brains to think, we could possibly choose a different path — to reproduce only when two people agree — but I’m not sure there isn’t an underlying drive through genetics or hormones or some element we do not fully understand to reproduce whether both parties agree or not.
Until we face up to ourselves and admit that there are fundamental human characteristics and/or behaviors that we don’t like and try to understand where those traits come from, I see no prospect of ending wars, rape, pillage, greed, or any other behavior I don’t like. History suggests that we haven’t managed to cope with these aspects of ourselves so far and we are apparently doomed to repeat these behaviors in the foreseeable future.
Francis Collins, the physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes, his leadership of the International Human Genome Project, and his directorship of the NIH, was interviewed about being head of the NIH through three presidencies. He spoke of the twenty years of research that enabled the rapid development of the COVID vaccine, but when asked if there was anything he’d do differently, he said he’d put more research into human behavior.
My hope is that some day, there will be enough of us willing to face up to and admit that the behaviors we don’t like in ourselves are all too human. Then, perhaps, we’ll devote time to figuring out our fundamentals and be able, finally, to make some changes, not just engage in surface efforts to curtail behaviors through crime and punishment long after we’ve behaved badly.