Culture and Violence

by Jackie Kahn

The production of technology is both inherently and exclusively a characteristic of human cultures. While other animals have been cited as using tools ˜ the type of bird that sharpen sticks to extract bugs from holes - no other animal seeks out technological advancements at the rate of humans. In fact, we are the only animals that culturally evolve, technologically speaking, at a faster rate than our genetic adaptation. Interestingly, we are also the only group of animals to reproduce at such an exponential rate. This reproduction, both made possible and facilitated by our technological growth very quickly produced serious ramifications, causing environmental stress, resource depletion, and ultimately inter- and intra- group hostility. It is this hostility, so frequently manifested through warfare that is of interest. Is violence a necessary reaction towards our population explosion? Is it technology that makes this violence such a prominent reality in our western culture? Or are we, as humans, innately violent with technology and scarcity of resources providing an easy outlet for this genetically coded anger?

Since the Agricultural Revolution ˜ the first widespread technological boom ˜ communities have become increasingly sedentary. Beginning with the settlement of hunter-gather groups and eventually giving way to the creation of city-states, the Agricultural Revolution was effective in the restructuring of the development of human cultures. This restructuring came about through an increased security. This security in both the unquestionable availability of food and a permanent domicile has allowed for a stratification of societies, a delegation of community responsibilities that eventually led to contemporary employment opportunities. This stratification, with only a few men needed to till the soil and still provide enough food for the entire community, created an excess of leisure time, a leisure time that, as some of my classmates have suggested, led to a sexual freedom, resulting in increased population growth.

While the correlation between leisure time and sexual freedom may not be quite that direct, the technological advancements that allowed for increased crop production on smaller tracts of land did procure a population growth. People were able to work less and spend more time in the development of what is commonly referred to as culture. Peoples began to explore religion, the arts, and other forms of personal expression. As Ehrlich states, "human self-consciousness has led people to feel a need to place themselves, as aware individuals, in time and space and to reflect on their position (2000, pp. 213)." Intellectual capabilities began to gain importance. People were no longer forced to focus their efforts on survival and consequently began to contemplate their position in the world, and more importantly, how to better it.

However, later on in his work, Ehrlich points out the more controlling aspects of religion and popular culture in general. He notes the sacralization of certain conduct in religion and hints at its subduing capabilities. He says, "it [religion] helped to sacralize ˜ connect to the supernatural ˜ codes of conduct that apparently made societies function more effectively, and it legitimated differences between classes of people (2000, pp. 256)." Ehrlich, in this dual analysis of the true nature of religion, is providing a glimpse at the many caveats that any aspect of culture can offer to a society. While providing people with a deeper understanding of their position on the planet, religion at the same time can enable the ruling classes with a supernatural, omniscient presence to keep the masses in check. It is almost as if Ehrlich is making the point that the implementation of organized religion is a technology in and of itself. Regardless, the ultimate point is that with agriculture providing plentiful food and more leisure time, religion calling for procreation, and trade and commerce procuring a new found capital, societies were beginning to expand at alarming rates, and leading to inevitable group conflict.

As Ehrlich notes, most inter community violence is centered around territory and resource issues, both directly related to overpopulation and thus technology that initially allowed this growth (2000, 258). In an attempt to create the most beneficial situation for any particular culture ˜ be it current or centuries old ˜ warfare becomes an easily justifiable and highly effective means of providing for a plethora of citizens.

Ehrlich argues that warfare does provide humans with a solution to the ever increasing environmental and resource problem (what better way to get more oil than to enter Iraq and steal it?) but he noted that this warfare is not necessarily an intrinsic characteristic of human nature. Rather, he is suggesting that it is precisely the problems caused by our revolutionizing technologies that allow for increased carrying capacity and in turn, demand more resources through warfare. Violence may or may not be something that is innately human; it is highly debated and strongly unresolved. As shown with certain types of chimps, many different forms of animals are provoked to battle when threatened (Ehrlich, 204-210). But it is precisely this threatening that is inducing the violence, not an inherent hormonal trigger. For chimps, it may be a challenge for territory or a female conquest. For humans, it could be depleted farmland or water resources. In either case, it is an outside threat on the future progeny that is drawing the animal to arms.

In short, technology, namely that of the Agricultural Revolution, has made it possible for humans to expand the Earth‚s carrying capacity and procreate at a rate far exceeding that of other animals. This procreation has allowed us to take over land from other animals and now, in an increased shortage, we look to take it over from each other. The technology that at first made it possible for us to multiply has no made it possible for us to wage war. And this technology does not just come in the form of tools and machinery. It can take on the shape of religious and state influence. But it must be noted that it is this technology and our human nature to reproduce to ensure our progeny‚s existence that has resulted in warfare, not simply a human predisposition towards violence. As long as we continue to increase in size and demand more space and resources, warfare will be an ever-present force in our culture.