Can Science End War?

From designing brain implants to urging us all to have more sex, scientists have spent decades searching for a cure for conflict

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Many pessimists, I suspect, adhere to the bad apple theory of warfare. They believe that war keeps breaking out because the worst among us, the bad apples, invariably drag the rest of us down to their level. The Yanomamo take this attitude, according to their chief chronicler, Napoleon Chagnon. "Almost everyone, including the Yanomamo, regards war as repugnant and would prefer that it did not exist," he writes. "Like us, they are more than willing to quit--if the bad guys also quit. If we could all get rid of the bad guys, there wouldn't be any war."According to this view, even if the vast majority of us are decent, empathetic, and inclined toward peace, humanity will always be plagued by warmongers like Genghis Khan, Hitler, and Osama Bin Laden, who have violent ambitions and are charismatic enough to attract followers, who may be bad apples as well. We good guys, goes the thinking, must remain armed to protect ourselves against those bad guys, sometimes with preemptive attacks. By this logic, war and militarism will never end.

But this assertion does not withstand scrutiny. A few individuals do indeed seem to be incorrigibly aggressive, violent, and lacking in empathy for others. Bad apples. Fine. But war itself, rather than an innate lust for violence, turns most people into bad guys. When peace breaks out, bad guys are magically transformed into good guys, as history has demonstrated over and over again. England, France, Spain, Germany, and other European states clashed violently for centuries, but war between these members of the European Union has become unimaginable. My father, who as a young man fought the Japanese, now drives a Japanese car and watches a Japanese television. He and my sister Patty have vacationed in Vietnam, and my daughter Skye has a friend whose parents are Vietnamese-American.

Biological theories of war have inspired a slew of bio-solutions, which aim to repress, vent, or redirect our allegedly innate urge to fight. One of the most radical was proposed in the late 1960s by the Yale neurophysiologist Jose Delgado. Delgado, ironically, was one of the original signers of the Seville Statement, which repudiates biological theories of war. But he suggested that war and other forms of violence could be curbed by implanting radio-controlled electrodes in peoples' brains.

Delgado was the pioneer -- and flamboyant promoter - of this technology. In 1963, he stood in a Spanish bullring as a bull with a radio-equipped array of electrodes implanted in its brain charged toward him. Delgado pushed a button on a radio transmitter, causing the "stimoceiver" to zap a region in the bull's brain supposedly associated with aggression. The bull stopped in its tracks and trotted away. The media marveled at Delgado's transformation of an aggressive beast into a real-life version of Ferdinand the Bull, the gentle hero of the popular children's story.

In other experiments, Delgado manipulated the limbs and emotions of cats, monkeys, chimpanzees, and humans (most of them mental patients) with implanted electrodes. In 1969, he extolled the potential benefits of brain-stimulation technologies, which would help us create "a less cruel, happier, and better man." In the 1970s, brain-implant research got bogged down in technical and ethical issues, but it has recently made a comeback, as scientists have begun exploring the potential of implanted devices for treating epilepsy, depression, paralysis, and other disorders of the nervous system. The Pentagon has become a major funder of research on brain-implant devices, which could in principle boost soldiers' physical and mental powers -- and make them easier for commanders to control. This technology raises an obvious question: Who gets the brain implant, and who gets the remote controller?

In the heyday of eugenics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some scientists and commentators proposed that we reduce our aggression through selective breeding, just as breeders of dogs, cats, cattle, and other domestic animals have done. The Nazis gave eugenics a bad name, but recent research on genes associated with inherited diseases has resuscitated the idea that we can engineer ourselves to be nicer. Another possibility, say some, is pacifying people with drugs called serenics. One possible candidate is the hormone oxytocin, which has been linked to primates' feelings of affection and trust.

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John Horgan is a science journalist and director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology.

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