Gorillas fighting

Why are humans so kind, yet so cruel?

Brian Ferguson,  director of the peace and conflict studies graduate program, shares insight on human violence with the Christian Science Monitor. 

Out of all the days humans have spent fighting wars, Dec. 24, 1914, stands out as particularly subversive. At scattered points along the Western Front in Belgium and France, fighting paused, and German and British forces soldiers began singing Christmas carols.

The origins of war and its relationship to questions of human nature is an old debate that goes back to the Enlightenment

Then, in defiance of the well-heeled generals at the rear, the mostly working-class combatants on both sides laid down their rifles and tentatively emerged from their trenches. Tales of soccer matches are probably exaggerated, but the soldiers did exchange cigarettes and other trinkets and posed for photos together.

The so-called Christmas Truce is notable for juxtaposing our species’ extremes of kindness and aggression, and it illustrates an age-old question about human nature. How can the same species that will readily snap photos and trade gifts with their supposed enemies also readily slaughter each other by the millions?

“The origins of war and its relationship to questions of human nature is an old debate that goes back to the Enlightenment,” says Brian Ferguson, the director of the peace and conflict studies graduate program at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.

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“The question that I’ve been interested in is whether war has always been practiced by humans – even before we were fully human – as an expression of some sort of innate predisposition or drive, or has war developed later?” says Ferguson. “Did war have beginnings that reflect the changing nature of society?”