If the overarching concepts of good and evil were to be stripped away from examples of unimaginable acts of violence of the recent past such as the use of commercial airliners filled with passengers as incendiary devices to destroy the World Trade Center in New York, or the attempt by the leaders of Fascist Germany to exterminate an entire race of human beings, or the use of the atomic bomb – essentially the most awesome and powerful weapon ever devised by human beings – on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the underlying reality would remain the same. In all these examples, large numbers of human being lost their lives under horrific and violent circumstances.
The haunting question is what characteristics of the human brain drive such events. In my thinking, it would be efficacious to examine the behavior of a much simpler organism. The social insect represents a highly successful biological machine, beautiful in its exquisite simplicity. For the purpose of discussion, we will focus on the leaf cutter ant – a species prevalent in the tropics. In relation to the survival of the species, the life and death of the individual leaf cutter ant is of no significance. Each ant is designed to fulfill a particular and essential function. The continued life of the colony is paramount to any other consideration; all behavior is directed towards this goal. In addition, the members of colony fit into distinct groups with particular and precise roles. These roles are exquisitely and genetically programmed and every member does not deviate from its function. This societal architecture precludes violence within the colony. Conflict arises only when the colony must defend itself from attack originating from outside the colony. This particular design is so efficient and successful that the species will endure well into the future as long as planetary conditions are capable of supporting life.
Over the hundreds of millions of years that spanned evolutionary time, the complexity of life increased exponentially, and eventually led to the appearance of Homo sapiens. From the enhanced interconnections of hundreds of billions of neurons within the human brain, sprang self consciousness, and existence suddenly took on meaning beyond considerations of the survival of the species. Within the human brain, the idea of person arose and humans acquired the quality of self awareness. Consciousness brought with it the reality of choice; as individuals we became capable of making choices between alternative paths of behavior. In essence, we suddenly had the capacity for self-direction. We became responsible for our own actions – an aspect of being that was entirely new for life on the planet.
Armed with this new capability, humans inevitably found themselves competing with one another for sustenance. Whether or not the propensity for violence became hard-wired within the human brain as a consequence of the environment of early humans is, of course, a matter of conjecture. In a relatively brief interval of cosmic time – some six million years since our ancestors branched off from the line that yielded the chimpanzee – humans fashioned societies, established diverse cultures, erected cities, contrived advanced technologies and killed each other at an alarming rate.
Collectively, we have assumed the staggering responsibility for the stewardship of the planet. There is sufficient reason to doubt whether humans are competent enough to function effectively at this level. Yet, the choices we can make are clear as well as their respective outcomes. There is reason for hope and equal justification for despair. Nonetheless, the future is ours to shape as our actions dictate.