Saturday, November 30, 2013

Is War Inevitable?

The question of whether or not war among humans is unescapable is a troubling one for it goes to the core of who we are as a supposedly logical and rational species. Some argue that conflict is inherent in our makeup with deep biological roots that cannot be overcome. However, others believe that no creature with any level of rationality is destined to yield to their supposed aggressive nature. So who is right and what elements contribute to such a reality?

The idea that humans have a predisposition towards violence, either intraspecies or interspecies, has been debated for decades. Both sides attempt to utilize the behaviors of other primates as empirical support for their positions, but different primate species demonstrate different levels of innate violence even within the same genus as rhesus macaques are very violent, but stump tail macaques are generally non-violent. Overall studying primate behavior does suggest that environment shapes behavior almost exclusively versus genetics for even when rhesus macaques are transplanted into a stump tail troop the rhesus change and adapt reducing their violent behavior.1,2

Based on this information there appears to be two driving keys to conflict: survival and expression of dominence. Interestingly enough both of these keys involve the acquisition of resources. Initially one could state that all violence and aggression boils down to resource collection. Looking at all of the conflict over history rarely, if ever, can one characterize a conflict where resources were not the driving force initating that conflict regardless of whether the war was on of conquest or independence. Resource motivation for wars of conquest are self-explanatory where motivations in wars of independence are to “unshackle” resource access controlled by the ruling parties so one can control his or her future.

If an individual has enough resources to survive the need for violence is reduced because the weighted necessity of those resources is reduced. For example what is the probability of acceptance if someone with 10,000 dollars in the bank is offered 10 dollars to do 100 pushups verses someone who has 100 dollars in the bank? Although the cost benefit ratio of the deal for both individuals is generally the same, the overall weight is different for the 10 dollars is more valuable to the second individual than the first; therefore the second individual is more likely to accept the arrangement.

The same can be said for displays of aggression and conflict engagement. When an individual or group has a lot of resources the costs of war seem greater than when that entity has few resources even if the costs are the same. This psychology is especially true when resources are scarce to the point where survival is at stake because the aggressor rationalizes three options: 1) a low quality life leading to a hastened death due to lack of resources; 2) a quicker death due to the conflict; 3) a longer live due to new resources acquired through victory; in all negative scenarios death is the worst outcome, but conflict does create a pathway to more resources and continued survival where the status quo does not.

This cost element can also be regarded as only a secondary element to initiating a war. While war is costly, especially in the most extreme fashion (the loss of life) and most cost benefit analysis reject war, most individuals do not first consider a cost-benefit analysis, but instead question whether or not they the war will be successful. What is the point of conducting a war, no matter what the benefits, if one cannot win? A low probability of victory is what stops a vast majority of individuals/groups from engaging in conflict; however, it is also what allows inequality and injustice to persist as well.

Clearly resource allocation and shortage heavily influence aggressive tendencies in creatures, even those of higher intelligence, because if one has an abundance of resources then violent action is unbenefical because the gains are mitigated, one can solve problems with the abundance of available resources. While this reasoning is logical it still begs the question of why do different groups initiate aggressive actions against other parties even when they have enough resources to survive? Even though resources play the major role in aggressive and violent behavior there are clearly other factors that initiate violence. What are these additional elements?

The secondary elements that catalyze aggressive behavior appear to be pride/ego and freedom. Even if a creature has adequate resources to survive, if they lack the freedom to use those resources or acquire more resources they may resort to aggression to change this situation. One could acknowledge that such action is also influenced by a lack of resources, but not isolated to that situation. Pride/ego induces aggression in one of two ways: 1) when one feels wronged on some level by another, which then deamnds some level of consequence against the offending party; 2) when one wants to prove that he/she is better than other individuals;

Further exploring the human psychological aspect to conflict when resources are not the sole driving force, ego is an interesting element to conflict because it is not insinctive instead it is brought on by cultural or soceital triggers. For example everyone at some level wants to be respected, but not everyone feels the need to consider him/herself better than someone else. The expansion of ego drives the desire to compare each other in effort to judge self-worth, which then drives conflict. The acquisition of resources, chiefly money, is the principle measuring factor used by humans when distinguishing superiority between individuals. Remove this relative judgment standard in favor of a self-absolute standard and it stands to reason that conflict would decrease. Instead of judging each other on a comparison basis, one would only judge the possessed number of resources against a self-imposed standard ignoring all others. The need to be regarded as better than another human drives people, even when equal, to seek more and war/conflict is one way to acquire that more. In one respect the problem is not that aggression or violence is in human nature, but instead it is in our complexity, consciousness and society.

There in lies the chief problem when attempting to eliminate conflict among humans; resource allocation is a fixable problem, but is made much more complicated because of this personal ego attribute. For example most societies use capitalism as their economic system, a system the demands competition and unequality between the members of that society due to the necessity to assign winners and losers in such a system. Therefore, in this system even if resources are abundant enough that everyone could receive what is necessary to survive individuals could be (and are frequently) outcompeted for those resources by those who already have significant resources. This enhanced competition factor is largely the reason why more inequality exists in the first place.

Not surprisingly capitalism has a notorious feedback system where those who have resources increase their probaibility of getting more resources while those who don’t have resources decrease their probability of getting resources in the future. Sadly while some continue to believe that capitalism is principly a meriticracy such a characterization can no longer be accurately applied in modern society, for numerous examples exist where smart and determined individuals fail to acquire suitable resources because those who already have resources force the use of special connections and secret handshakes to enhance resource acquisition probabilities. Unfortunately as long as capitalism retains its competitive characteristic and individuals are free to compete for all resources despite their personal resource standing (i.e. no resource acquisition ceiling) there is little reason to suspect a lasting and significant reduction in conflict within a capitalistic system.

While human psychology provides a significant barrier to reducing conflict it can also provide hope through the same mechanisms. Interestingly studies find that people in general are more cooperative than economic rationality within a capitalistic system would predict3-6 creating meaningful questions within the study of reciprocity. One theory to explain this gap is that individuals utilize altruism as a signal to indicate their quality.7 Such a signal is meaningful because the demonstration of the altruistic action has cost to the actor and this cost is viewed as creating a sense of sincerity in the actor. This altruistic action is thought to bridge the gap between strangers who cannot rely on friendships to explain a lack of point-for-point reciprocity.

One can also use the application of altruism to shift the relative nature of superiority that capitalism promotes. Instead of individuals using their acquired wealth and resources as a signal for superiority they could use their ability to give to others as that signal. Such a mindset has been the general hope of some, but clearly has not come to pass possibly because it has only been passively applied by society rather than actively. Unfortunately while the complete elimination of relative self-worth would be ideal it appears that the transference of how realitve self-worth is evaluated is the best one can expect.

Some may argue that threats of war between major powers has declined demonstrating that aggression is not purely biological. The problem is that these declines can be attributed not to a change in biology or even one in societal behavior instead a change in weaponary. It is the advancement of weaponry used to wage war and a conscious understanding that one must use these weapons to win, but their use reduces the resource gains from war due to excessive levels of collaterial damage. Interestingly enough these new weapons make it less likely for a major power to conduct war, but more likely for a single individual or small group to conduct war. Thus the advancement of weaponry may actually shift the nature of large-scale aggression and conflict. If this shift actually occurs it will displace the long standing belief that when the benefits of war outweigh the costs, war occurs, versus when the costs of war outweigh the benefits war will not occur. With pride continuing to be a catalyst the cost of war become almost microscopic and if we turn that corner as a species, aggression, conflict and war become inevitable.

Overall ending general conflict among humans will be incredibly difficult because of the competitive nature of capitalism and how that nature is applied with human psychology and social relationships as well as war having become a formal part of human culture. While the frequency and ferocity of war conducted by human ancestors can be debated, it cannot be debated that in recent history war has been conducted constantly on both large and small scales. This empirical application of the process of war makes it more difficult to end war because individuals do see winners and losers not just losers from the conflict. It would be easier to argue against the benefits of war if humans had never engaged in it in the first place. However, despite the realities of ego, experience and survival it is possible for humans to throw off the “yolk” of conflict, but it will demand a perspective change and an active effort of utilitarian sacrifice.


1. Kummer, Hans. In quest of the sacred baboon: A scientist's journey. Princeton. University Press. 1997.

2. Chaffin, C, Friedlen, K, and De Waal, F. “Dominance style of Japanese macaques compared with rhesus and stumptail macaques.” American Journal of Primatology. 1995. 35(2):103-116.

3. Colman, A. M. “Cooperation, psychological game theory, and limitations of rationality in social interaction.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2003. 26:139–198.

4. Fehr, E, and Fischbacher, U. “The nature of human altruism.” Nature. 2003. 425:785–791.

5. Ostrom, E. A. “Behavioral approach to the rational choice theory of collective action.” American Political Science Review. 1998. 92:1–22.

6. Palameta, B, and Brown, W. “Human cooperation is more than by-product mutualism.” Animal Behaviour. 1999. 57:F1–F3.

7. Roberts, G. “Cooperation through interdependence.” Anim. Behav. 2005. 70:901–908.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Advancement of Information and Quality Ideas in Society

Although it is the primary responsibility of those that seek information to properly acquire and utilize it by filtering out bias and misinformation, initial information providers can make these tasks easier and increase the efficiency of information collection by presenting information in a straightforward and organized manner. In general there are three categories of information presentation based on the intent and motivation of the provider: review, problem solving or debate. Each presentation method has its own strengths and weaknesses that need to be explored.

Information in a review form is the simplest means of transmission because there is no motivator the information is simply presented without opinion. In this style the goal of the presenter is to ensure as much accurate information about the given topic is made available to whoever wishes to acquire it. There are no judgments made about the information presented, outside of its factual accuracy, and no significant attempt to apply the information for any type of solution. There are three key points to maximizing the importance of distributing this type of information. First, define the exact context of the subject matter for presentation. Second, create a hierarchy outline of what information would be required to or aid in understanding the presented information and what information could be better understood after understanding the presented information. Third, the easiest step to say and most difficult to do, present all of the relevant and accurate information on the defined subject.

Currently the online dictionary Wikipedia does an excellent job at covering step one and a good portion of step three largely because of the efforts of the entire global community who continue to add information and continually check the accuracy of that information. Wikipedia has an advantage in raw information availability over print material, which should be taken advantage of when supplying information without application. This advantage allows Wikipedia users to continue to add information without having to subtract information that may not be as important, but still relevant.

Thus the information library regarding the particular subject matter is continually increased increasing the probability that individuals who seek out this information will find a lack of gaps in the overall amount of information pertinent to the overall subject. Two elements that Wikipedia could incorporate to improve its already significantly useful information distribution system would be to integrate step two indicating what specific knowledge would enhance the ability for a user to understand the current topic. Also the addition of a more specific categorization regarding what information is essential to understanding the basics of the topic at hand and what information is supplemental and what exactly does it teach.

Problem solving is a motivation that strives to solve a problem and presents all of the necessary information and methodology to solve that problem. The goal of problem solving is to first find at least one significant and workable solution and then to identify the optimal solution among all solutions, if multiple ones are found. When presenting information with this motivation the first and third step utilized in the review motivation is presented to act as a base for understanding the solutions presented later. Next the provider presents a number of different solutions to the problem highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. Unlike debate none of these solutions are presented with bias or any level of emotional favoritism, but instead just “cold hard” facts. Defining strengths and weaknesses for certain solutions can be difficult because responses to certain problems may rely on anticipating how outside parties will react which, despite what a number of individuals want to believe, are frequently unknown. In such cases it is best to simply present what would be the best course of action for the particular party based on how the presenter interprets the behavior of that particular party. Due to the lack of bias it is important for the presenter to clearly define the boundary conditions that will be applied to the presented solutions.

Solving problems can also be difficult because if one wants to create elaborate and specific solutions significant details will have to be provided. For smaller problems that only affect a single individual or a very small community these solutions can be crafted by a single person; however, when addressing large societal problems it is very difficult to expect a single person to devise a detailed solution methodology that will be successful both because of factors that may evade said person due to a lack of experience and knowledge or just the pure labor intensity of documenting the steps themselves.

Therefore, to solve the large much more meaningful problems successfully numerous parties need to study the issue and contribute solution pieces which can then be incorporated into a grand solution. Unfortunately this mindset for creating effective solutions has been abandoned in most sectors, especially the political sector, in recent years in favor of entire solutions being created by individuals who derive their experiences from only a small collection of knowledge and life events. Not surprisingly solutions born from these individuals are ineffective and a waste of time and resources, yet because they speak to a specific group of individuals egotism allows them to gain undeserved traction.

Currently there is no Wikipedia-like database that focuses on solving problems using the aforementioned methodology, but such a database could be and should be created. Overall the creation of such a database would be an extremely useful tool when making decisions and drawing conclusions on complicated matters such as foreign or domestic policy, economics and technology. With access to such a database of potential solutions for various concerns and problems it would allow the citizenry of a given country more control to pressure their government if they believe the government is not attempting to solve a given problem with the best solution. Knowledge is indeed power and it is time that people give themselves the means to acquire and wield that power in a more effective manner.

Debate is obviously driven by intent to convince others that the viewpoint of the presenter regarding information or a solution is correct. This method can be a useful motivation because those that utilize it are typically very passionate about the particular subject at hand and can potentially be receptive to new information about the subject. However, it can also be dangerous and counter-productive for the probability that the presented information contains unnecessary bias is much higher than review or problem solving motivation. Also the presenter may be invested in his/her particular viewpoint to an extent where it will not listen to any opposing evidence and/or even be willing to carry out an inferior solution just to get his/her way even if it creates negative consequences for others. Unfortunately these negatives have come to cast a large pall over the positives in modern times for debate information motivations.

Since the goal of debate is to convince listening parties that a particular viewpoint is the correct one, the presenter should focus heavily on highlighting key issues that demonstrate the strength of that position relative to the applied realistic boundary conditions. Significant weaknesses should also be identified and their flaws mitigated through the use of facts and logic regarding the existing boundary conditions that will be present when the solution is applied and during the source of its application. One of the worst things for an individual can do when questioned about a weakness in an argument is to utilize cognitive dissidence or something similar to avoid acknowledging it because it is impossible to improve an idea if one ignores its legitimate problems. The point in a debate is not to “win” the discussion, but to produce the best idea that matches an individual’s core beliefs; being stubborn and clinging to a clearly flawed idea disrupts the very point of a debate in the first place and cheapens the beliefs of those who retain these flawed ideas.

Overall more details can certainly be provided in the discussion of these different motivations behind information distribution, but the purpose of this post was simply to introduce the concept and argue for a more public venue of organization for the problem solving perspective. Current organization largely involves various scattered message boards or blogs (like this one) that offer little efficiency for those new to the topic at hand and can become environments of groupthink or needless conflict. Society is facing bigger problems as it continues to grow both from itself, wealth inequality and food distribution inefficiencies to name a few, and from the environment, human-induced global warming. These problems demand a concerted effort to develop effective solutions that cannot be solely assigned to academia. Therefore, it is important for the public to actively involve themselves in the development of these solutions and one of the most important steps is creating a public arena that is able to sort through the bias of arguments and apply the contents to reviews and problem solving.