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Martin LeFevre: The Genesis of Genocide

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

The Genesis of Genocide

It’s fashionable these days to blur the line between animal and human consciousness. As a Kiwi living in Oregon said in a recent letter with regard to my claim that animals don’t have psychological memory, “there is really no sharp demarcation between animal mind and human mind.”

That’s true, but it also obscures the deeper truth that the human mind is qualitatively different than the mind of any other animal on this planet. It also ignores the fact that the human primate has become a planet killer. It therefore behooves us to find out precisely what the difference between humans and other animals is, in order that we may have a possibility of bringing about some degree of harmony between the human species and the rest of the earth.

On one side are the line-blurrers who say humans are murderous and genocidal because nature made us so. As Howard Bloom says in his book “The Lucifer Principle” (which, as evidenced by a chapter entitled, “Mother Nature, The Bloody Bitch,” manages to be misogynistic, misanthropic, and nature-hating at the same time), “our biological legacy weaves evil into the substrate of even the most ‘unspoiled’ society.”

On the other side, are the line-blurrers who romanticize nature and blame civilization, and especially Western civilization, maintaining that humans are only different and destructive because agriculture and settling in cities made us so. But nature is neither inherently benevolent nor inherently bloodthirsty. The fight for survival is universal and ubiquitous; even so, only ‘higher’ thought makes killing murder.

Anthropomorphizing nature can become hilarious, as when Bloom says “you can see the smiles on lions' faces as they lick their paws and stretch out on the ground side by side, clearly pleased with the comfort of each other's warmth…[but later] these peaceful creatures will tear a gazelle limb from limb.”

Do cruelty, murder, war, and genocide occur in nature? Perhaps. As Jane Goodall says, "When I first started at Gombe Reserve in Tanzania, I thought the chimps were nicer than we are, but now time has revealed that they are not. They can be just as awful." Chimpanzees have the capacity for human-like cruelty, but in them we see the proto-type, not the full-blown pattern of murder, war, and genocide.

Primatologist Roger Fouts says that the chimpanzee is a "highly intelligent, co-operative, and violent primate who nurtures family bonds, adopts orphans, mourns the death of mothers, practices self-medication, struggles for power, and wages war." Wages war?

Violence, conflict, and killing are obviously prevalent in the natural world. The predator-prey relationship appears to be as old as life itself. But war is another matter. Does one colony of ants make war when it fights another colony of ants? No, that is poetic license. War is consciously planned aggression against one’s own kind.

However, the word and concept of war may apply to the chimpanzee to some degree. Goodall once observed a large band of chimps split into two groups after food became scarce. They lived at peace in adjacent territories for some time, but then some of the males from the core group began to make clearly planned forays into the splinter group’s new territory, mercilessly attacking former friends and eventually destroying the new band. Here perhaps we see the genesis of genocide, and the evolutionary beginnings of nationalism and xenophobia.

With the possible exception of our close cousins the chimpanzees, a primate as genetically similar to us as horses are to zebras (so similar in fact that we could give each other blood transfusions), the human mind is qualitatively different than any other animal’s mind in nature. To be sure, nature has produced the aberration that is ‘man,’ which, in breaking the bonds of ecological niche, fits nowhere.

We have inherited our dilemma from the bestial ballet of nature, but only we can resolve it. As we can see with its rudimentary beginnings in chimps, ‘higher thought’ is what makes the human animal so powerful, wedding a cunning, ‘us vs. them’ mind with territorial and aggressive instincts. That is why, without self-knowing and insight, humans are inevitably destructive, and doomed.

Does the same pattern exist wherever prodigious cognitive abilities evolve? That is, does the ability to separate and manipulate carry with it the strong tendency to divide and conquer?

If my ‘theory of human nature’ is correct, then yes. Indeed, I believe that within a few decades, providing we make the transition from Homo sap to true Homo sapiens (wise humans), humankind will discover that the same basic phases apply wherever conscious, symbolic thought has evolved.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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