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Martin LeFevre: The Roots of War

Meditations (Spirituality) - From Martin LeFevre in California

The Roots of War

A large band of male chimpanzees gathers in a clearing in a reserve in Uganda. They have a common goal, and groom each other with great intensity, communicating through touch the desire of their group mind. Suddenly, on some inscrutable cue, they silently head off toward the trees to isolate and murder a member of an adjoining troop.

Here we see the beginnings of war, the most highly cooperative human activity, wherein one group commits premeditated murder on the members of another group. The depth of war’s depravity in our evolutionary history does not attest to its immutability however. Insight into its roots within us dissolves its roots within oneself.

Man is nature’s mistake for the human being to correct. But what was (and is) the mistake, and how can we correct it?

Without implying teleology of target, linearity of lineage, or hierarchy of humans, it took billions of years for nature to evolve brains capable of separating and manipulating nature at will.

There is a rough direction in nature with regard to the increasing complexity and sophistication of adaptations, especially with regard to the size and complexity of the brain’s development. From single cells to neurons to notochords to spinal chords to the human brain, neural nets have grown in size and complexity though an essentially random process of selection.

At some point very early on, the predator-prey arrangement in nature emerged. Aggression has certainly been central to the predator’s drive to kill, but the idea that nature is predicated on the bloodthirsty principle of ‘tooth and claw’ is simplistic. Prey animals are in a delicate balance with predator species in the wild; if one or the other population increases beyond a certain point, the larger order in nature intervenes to restore equilibrium.

Seven billion humans have no competitors left except microbes on this planet however. The ‘natural order’ has obviously been overtaken by the emergence of a quantum adaptive leap.

That adaptive leap is the ability to mentally separate and manipulate; to postpone the immediate drives for food and sex and make plans; and to recombine the elements of nature into ever more sophisticated technology. We call the mental foundation on which all these traits rest ‘higher thought.’

Chimps have all the traits of ‘higher thought’ to a rudimentary degree. They can use arbitrary symbols when taught (though they don’t appear to do so in the wild); they cooperate and plan; and they make simple tools. Apparently, they even have a sense of self.

In one very telling experiment, a chimp, a baboon, and a gorilla were each introduced to a mirror. They all studied themselves in the mirror. After they become accustomed to it, the mirror was removed, and a big red dot was painted on their faces. When the mirror was reintroduced, only the chimp touched the dot, thereby demonstrating that chimps have an image of themselves, a memory of ‘me’ that is a simplified version of the complex and emotionally held idea of self that we humans have.

It is this image of self, combined with an ability to plan, and the identification with others of a given group (or troop) that is the underpinning for war. All told, this is why chimpanzees are capable of premeditated murder and organized warfare.

Nature’s ‘mistake’ is therefore this: When the brain reached sufficient complexity to enable separation and manipulation of nature, there was an overwhelming tendency for the creature (‘man’), to put the ability ahead of the actuality. In short, because we can separate, we couldn’t help but see things (and people, including ourselves) as separate.

The childish notion of ‘original sin’ misses the mark by a mile, since nature (and in a sense, God) shares in the mistake. By in engaging in behaviors like murder and war, chimps are inadvertently holding a mirror up to humans, and pointing toward the way out of the original and ongoing ‘sin’ of division.

Life is a whole and unbroken movement. Man, misapplying and overusing the useful trick of separation (which is the cornerstone of ‘higher thought’), is generating unsustainable levels of division and fragmentation, and ripping the earth, and himself, apart.

Passive observation of the movement of thought allows insight into the illusion of separation, and alleviates the deep error of division, which is the root of all evil.

Then one sees that ‘nature’s mistake’ of conferring the Promethean fire of conscious separation on man, has always been the bar that human beings have to clear.


- 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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