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President Obama was Wrong about ‘The First Man’

Early in his Peace Prize speech Barack Obama told the world that “war, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.”

The president was wrong. And his mistake has huge consequences.

Anthropologists conclude that during roughly 90 percent of Homo sapiens’ evolution, for nearly 200,000 years, we lived as hunter gatherers in small bands. There were so few of us that it’s unlikely we would have had reason to fight over food or territory. While there are signs of individual violence, scholars have yet to find evidence of warfare during this period.

Moreover, during this long stretch as hunter gatherers, our social forms were highly egalitarian. Both food sharing and cooperative child rearing were the norm.

U.C. Berkeley Primatologist and anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and others, argue that what most distinguishes our species, relative to other primates, is the extent of our cooperation and empathy.

Yes, of course, we humans, as Obama underscored, can also be unspeakably cruel. But, in large measure we shape ourselves according to ideas we hold. Thus, in repeating the myth that our species began in warfare, Obama reinforces resignation to it. Believing we are brutes because we arose from blood-thirsty origins may well leave many assuming the very goal of peace is naïve. “Oppression will always be with us,” said Obama.

Imagine what his speech could have achieved, and what he as our president could achieve, if building on our real origins.President Obama could have laid out for us the good news in hard facts: We now have perspective on the grand (or not so grand) sweep of human history. We can see that whether our deep, pro-social proclivities are tapped, or instead our capacity for evil is triggered, depends in large measure on the rules and norms we ourselves create.

Certain norms proven to evoke the worst in us are becoming ever clearer, including these three:

  • Extreme inequalities in power—as in 1 percent of American households controlling as much wealth as the bottom 95 percent, or as in dictatorships and absolutist theocracies elsewhere;

  • Actions hidden from scrutiny and sanctions by anonymity and other means—as in an opaque U.S. financial industry selling billions in arcane financial “instruments” many knew to be toxic;

  • Blaming only the evil “other” without acknowledging one’s own capacity for evil—as in this speech, Obama’s declaring that the U.S. “has never fought a war against a democracy” but not acknowledging that we have helped topple democracies (Chile and Guatemala, for example).

President Obama could much more strongly have called us all to identify and uproot these and other conditions shown to bring forth the worst in human beings.

While speaking generally about the contribution of economic security and human rights to peace, he also reinforced belief in our warring nature, which seems beyond our power to change. Imagine if instead President Obama had focused our attention on achieving what is completely under our control—uprooting conditions like the three above—and encouraging us, that in so doing, we are reducing the power of evil in the world.

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