In the June 2012 issue of Discover, E. O. Wilson authored a piece with the provocative title, “Is War Inevitable?” Derived from his recent book The Social Conquest of Earth, the narrative has a rather simple answer to the question implied in the title: war is inevitable, because it is part of human nature, and, perhaps more provocatively, it shaped human nature. John Horgan, who recently penned The End of War, rebuts Wilson’s argument in a point-by-point fashion in a companion article, “No, War Is Not Inevitable.” I find myself in a curious position: I agree with John Horgan in terms of the conclusion—that war is not inevitable—but not for the same reasons. While Horgan is right that Wilson relies on a particular, controversial group of ethologists to make the assertion that chimps have frequent inter-group conflicts and humans have always had wars, so Horgan leans upon his own preferred group of scholars to make the opposite points. But both of them, I think, miss the crucial part of the answer: the tricky interplay between nature and nurture.
With a strong background in ecology, Wilson assumes a Malthusian paradigm when it comes to human numbers and human resources. In other words, we are subject to a carrying capacity. When there is a surplus of resources population size increase, and “catches up” to the resource base. After a time an equilibrium develops between population and resources. How? The reality is that for solid evolutionary reasons, individuals do not reduce their own reproductive output altruistically. Rather, the population “self-regulates.” In the jargon there is “intra-species competition,” as individuals and groups scramble for finite resources. (There are also, of course, inter-species factors, like predator, prey, and parasites.) The losers die, while the winners reproduce. Each generation is witness to conflicts which check the population and maintain the equilibrium.
Charles Figley was a US Marine who signed up for service in the Vietnam War to “accelerate my progression toward being considered a man.” But after his tour of duty he ended up as veteran protesting against the war, stunned by the psychological impact on himself and his fellow soldiers.
He began to investigate the symptoms of his fellow veterans and, along with other anti-war psychologists and psychiatrists, proposed a disorder called “post-Vietnam syndrome” where veterans carried emotions of the war with them despite being safely back on US soil. In fact, various forms of combat stress had been recorded during previous wars, from “disordered action of the heart” diagnosed in the Boer Wars to the dramatic symptoms of shell shock and war neurosis from the First World War.
The concept caught on and appeared, in a demilitarised form, as “post-traumatic stress disorder,” a mental illness where an earlier trauma causes the person to have a sense of current threat characterised by flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, avoidance of reminders, and anxiety.
And here lies the paradox. Researchers have noted that “PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder. Within cognitive models, anxiety is a result of appraisals relating to impending threat. However, PTSD is a disorder in which the problem is a memory for an event that has already happened.” After all, if you feel threatened with good reason, almost by definition, this isn’t a mental illness.
So if someone remains in danger after a life-threatening incident, does the concept of “post-traumatic stress disorder” even make sense?