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Ok, this question is about both science and philosophy, but my focus is on the latter. Let’s assume that science and technology gave humanity the ability to „re-engineer“ itself on the genetic level. This would allow behavioural patterns, which may seem natural or even unavoidable to us now, to be changed. I don’t know if technology is there yet, but let’s just assume.

With that in mind, let’s also assume that we could create „new humans“, whose behaviour hasn’t been shaped by natural selection tens of thousands of years ago. Instead, these „new humans“ could be more adapted for the world of the 21st century. One of the major changed could be that humanity would be less war-like and more willing to find peaceful solutions to conflicts, both on the interpersonal and international scale.

Obviously, peaceful behaviour would not have been naturally selected for in the past, but it is my humble opinion that in today’s world, it’s the other way around: because of humanity’s war-like tendencies, we will probably eradicate ourselves eventually, either through the flashes of a few thousand nuclear bombs, or some genetically engineered supervirus, or some other apocalyptic event which we can’t even foresee now. In other words, humanity, as it is now, may have lost it’s ability to survive in the context of the modern world. Not because of natural predators, but because of the risk of self-annihilation.

Please excuse the long preamble, but I felt I should provide some context for my question. So here’s it is: if we had the ability to remove any war-like traits in humanity, should we? Would such an endeavour have any chance of succeeding? And if it did, what could be potential, unintended consequences?

I realise this is a radical idea, but I think the stakes are high. Thanks for any thoughts on this.

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    Read Larry Niven's story, "The Warriors". It has a good answer to this question.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 12:16
  • @ScottRowe: Try LeGuin's "Left Hand of Darkness" or Huxley's "Brave New World". I like Niven, but please... Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 16:06
  • Even as a thought experiment, this is too over-simplified to address properly. I mean, I could argue that the capacity for conscious thought and language is a 'war-like' trait. For instance, Hitler's main talent — perhaps his only one — was oratory. The question needs some focus, limits, and boundaries, otherwise it's vacuous. We could end war by re-engineering men to be (literal) sheep, sure, but I don't think that's what you mean. Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 16:15
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    We have domestic dogs that don't bite us, and which will protect our children as their own. How did that happen?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 17:22
  • Hypothetical. Two adjoining countries, A and B. Knowing that B isn't warlike since nobody is, A decides to invade B and take all their territory and resources. What stops them? If there's a reduced probability that B will fight back, isn't A's invasion perfectly rational?
    – user4894
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 3:41

1 Answer 1

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I was listening to a talk by Jaye McLaughlin talking about research on aggression, unfortunately it's not posted online yet, but here is the summary:

Many studies have shown that where there is more economic inequality, there is often more violent crime. Some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that violence may be a functional response for males in inequitable environments, due to increased status competition. Whilst the association between inequality and violence has been replicated many times, the underlying mechanisms for the association have not previously been investigated.

You can find extensive data to support the link in the work of economists Wilson & Pickett, in their books The Spirit Level & The Inner Level. It's not quite as simple as local inequality alone drives violence, but it's close.

So, engineering humans to not be violent, would involve increasing the willingness to tolerate inequality. But highly unequal societies are less functional, many talented people can't get educated or other opportunities, and there are costs and stresses for the wealthy as seen say in South Africa - the world's most unequal major country as judged by Gini coefficient. It has been argued Rome didn't have the capacity for an industrial revolution because of slavery, the extreme in inequality (Britain never had slavery in the British Isles, because of habeus corpus).

Another angle to look at is The Needham Question: why given that gunpowder, magnetic compasses and canal locks, & paper were found earliest in China, did the Modern Age not begin there? The strongest answer is, geography. China's large rivers formed the precursor kingdoms, and China was unified exactly as and when they were joined by canals. The Treasure Ships fleet in the 1400s which might have represented the first colonial power, were able to be finished by political decree, because of that unity.

Whereas in Europe, the Romans even at the height of their power couldn't hold all the forests of Germania, where the Goths emerged to sack Rome from. Far fewer large river deltas, many impenetrable hinterlands. During the era of colonialism, the Pope's fiat to give half the New World to Portugal half to Spain, was challenged by the protestant countries the Spanish Armada & many wars couldn't vanquish. The many small competitor countries, forced changes like legalising usury, banned in the Bible, because access to finance was too critical to winning wars. Many times bigger militaries lost to new tactics & technologies.

We now live in an era of nuclear weapon proliferation. There can be no doubt we need to curb all-out wars, they are an existential threat. Elections are a way to manage the tensions that inevitably arise within countries, that otherwise lead to civil wars. Sanctions are an increasingly powerful tool in an our interconnected world. And Nato is a back-stop, for mutually-assured-destruction, & threat against any nuclear first strike.

I would say then, if you keep a lid on inequality like the Romans did, you make a pressure-cooker that can explode unpredictably, in the face of challenges. The functional aspect of violent behaviour, is challenging that inequality. And the success of groups that innovate in conflicts, has driven a huge amount of human progress. This I think makes the case that we need to manage rather than eliminate conflict and violence, or societies risk becoming unstable in the face of change and challenges.

Game theory, social contracts & the free-rider problem here: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

The collapse of complex civilisations discussed here: How and who rebuilds the state after a revolution?

Uploading minds could end some drivers of violence for the digital minds, discussed here: Can minds be uploaded in computers?

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  • Maybe we could increase the desire to promote equality?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 15:53
  • @ScottRowe: Unfortunately that is much easier said than done. Punctuations in equilibrium have been the major drivers of increasing equality, the Black Death (end of feudalism), the World Wars (female sufferage, universal healthcare). Facing existential threats, together. The Anthropocene extinction event could fulfil this, but at substantial risk & hazard. Nordic countries seem to have 'baked in' unusually high equality, maybe there are clues there. The rise & fall of the Cossacks is an interesting case. Graeber's picture of dynamic indigenous equality is good: youtu.be/_0oOod0nu3I
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 16:11
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    Thanks for this answer. That's certainly given me a lot to absorb and a lot to think about, so I'll try to get back to that ;-)
    – BenTol
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 12:31

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