Sunday, January 17, 2016

Biology and Genocide Prevention. From Wiesel to Burundi.

“People wanted to understand…what had paved the way for Auschwitz. Explanations alternated with theories involving everything from politics to mass psychosis; none proved adequate…Twenty-five years later, after the reckoning, one feels discouragement and shame. The balance sheet is disheartening...Nothing has been learned; Auschwitz has not even served as a warning. For more detailed information, consult your daily newspaper” (Wiesel, pp 6-9).

When I read the above commentary by Elie Wiesel in December of 2015, Burundi had recently devolved into a crisis of ethnic conflict and genocide. Clearly we have not learned as much as we need to, in order to avert such atrocities. Much of our inability to change our approach to these situations results from continuing to believe outdated ideas about human nature. Ideas that existed in 1965 when Elie Wiesel first wrote those, disconsolate words.

In the early 1960s, our approach to human nature was psychological. Behaviorism was the dominant school of thought. The world was understood as alterable through education, cooperation, rational policy and positive reinforcement. Since then, our scientific community has come to respect the force of our own biology. A biology that has permitted us to survive and proliferate by selfishly using, consuming or murdering anything that was not us. We evolved, over millions of years, from a mindless organism with a mouth, to a creature with a complex brain. We used that brain in service to our goal of reproduction: creating tools; creating beliefs and ideologies that explained and supported what we were doing. To those of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose cultures most successfully dominated Western politics and world empires during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, God placed us on this earth and gave us dominion. Nature was to be tamed. Inferior peoples were to be conquered so that we might either eliminate the inferior culture or, if we were feeling benevolent, permit those inferiors to live under our authority and benefit from our superior ways.

But Wiesel was a memoir writer and a philosopher, not a biologist. He did not see that we are two prehensile toes away from being that baboon-like ancestor who climbed down from the trees, evolved to stand and began to use its hands to fight for its life. Though our biology is not all that we are, in the context of genocide it is the best explanation I have found for our behavior. Our failure to come to terms with our animal nature, a discomfort we have felt since Darwin took us out of Eden and placed us on a continuum of mammals, has permitted genocide to occur many times before and since the Holocaust. We keep thinking that we can civilize ourselves beyond a biological impulse that existed far before civilization. When we learn of an attempt to eradicate a people, our response is to educate and communicate sensitive plans for rehabilitation. But it happens again because the one thing we don’t do is face what we are. If we could add knowledge about our biological nature to our understanding of ourselves, we would have one more piece of information with which to work.

Perhaps then the world would be willing to take measures to tame our inner animal. Endless dialogue with murderers, or carrot-and-stick diplomacy, might take a second place to immediate protective action. Perhaps the UN would authorize the creation of a rapid response force that could go anywhere in the world it was necessary to defend a threatened people.

We are both our intellectual and our biological natures. Education has worked wonders in Germany concerning the Holocaust and cultural sensitivity, but this is after the fact of genocide. Asking the Khmer Rouge of the 1970s to hold hands around a campfire with urban Cambodians for a sing-along would not have worked. What did work was the violent intervention of the Vietnamese Army. Education can come afterward.

A UN force dedicated to such a tactic in Burundi could have halted their genocidal course. But can we overcome our own selfish genes enough to agree on this approach? A majority of world nations would have to agree to spend a great deal of time, resources and money on such a project. Additionally, this project would endanger the lives of individuals (soldiers) within one’s own primate troop to save the lives of those in another. The question is: Are we up to such a challenge?


Wiesel, Elie. One Generation After. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.