That time never came, one day you’ll see, where we could all be friends. Perhaps it’s a good thing Freddy Mercury ain’t around no more to witness that. And not quite have we given peace a chance, so it’s probably for the best John Lennon ain't with us anymore either. Genocide in Myanmar, concentration camps in China, terrorism in Syria, and bombings in Ukraine – it’s all happening today. It almost feels as if War is an inescapable part of human civilisation, like a dark passenger. Some even go as far as saying that War has been a driving force behind human evolution, referred to as the Killer Ape theory. This theory proclaims that our tendency towards violence and thirst for blood are fundamental parts of human psychology. Easiest would be to just come into terms with ourselves.

But even though this theory may seem plausible when looking at what’s happening in Ukraine, the truth is a little bit more nuanced than that. First of all, humans remain to be pretty peaceful in comparison to other species. In fact, we're practically domesticated apes, after thousands of years of favouring the smartest and friendliest people during baby-making. Based on fossil evidence, it also appears that War is a relatively new phenomenon. Although personal feuds and a bit of retaliatory killing have always occurred, humans naturally have a strong aversion against violence. Simple proof of that would be our response to seeing blood or lifeless bodies, and the severe trauma that veterans are left with. Yet, after the Ice Age something strange happened, when human evolution suddenly turned from a ‘snuggle for survival’ to a ‘struggle for survival’.

It started when we exchanged our existence as nomadic hunter-gatherers for a life in sedentary settlements. Suddenly, we had something called property, which was worth defending and fighting for. And as humans slowly established self-sufficiency, by cultivating crops and domesticating animals, we depended less on outside communities. Our focus became to keep intruders out, instead letting strangers in, which was easier done with large numbers of people. But as tribes grew into empires, we were no longer able to recognize all faces in our community, due which we became increasingly suspicious of people who looked and behaved different to us. This evolved into something we now call group affiliation, and later on patriotism. Xenophobia is basically the flipside of that same coin.

To manage large groups of people who don’t even know each other, the need suddenly grew to have someone in charge to overlook the whole bunch. A leader, if you will. Captains and lieutenant colonels were put in place, who were particularly good at handing out orders and weaponry. They played into soldier’s moral compass, their longing for group affiliation, and devotion to comradeship. Because even though the War in Ukraine makes us doubt whether there is any decency left in this vile world, people are inherently good. We have a build-in sense of empathy, aversion to inequality, and desire to do the right thing. A good captain lieutenant knows how to use these traits to his advantage, by applying just the right amount of mind control.

When people gain power, it does something strange to their personality. Throughout history, there has been a clear trend in which people with certain societal privileges start exploiting or oppressing others, to reinforce these privileges. Although leaders are originally chosen for their great social skills, such as empathy, collaboration, generosity and interest in others, those very same skills seem to vanish once they are put into power. There is actually a name for it, called acquired sociopathy. Suddenly, the once charismatic leader starts to show some serious authority issues and empathy deficits, leaving his followers vulnerable to impulsive and self-serving acts. Like Lord Acton said: power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Once sociopaths have reached the top, it ain’t easy to shake them off. They will start applying five basic steps to dictatorship, in order to stay in control. Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Fidel Castro: they all swore by them. First, censorship is used to regulate the information people have access to. If they accidently read uncensored articles anyway, you can simply write it off as ‘fake news’. Second, indoctrination convinces the common people of your ideology. For example, training camps can be helpful to reinforce your beliefs without anyone daring to question it. Third, propaganda assists in further spreading your message. You could, for instance, consider taking ownership of all media outlets. Fourth, scapegoating may be necessary to justify your bad deeds towards the outside world. Easiest would be to create a common enemy, such as Jews, Nazis, fascists, or communists. Finally, creating a terror state. You have to make sure that when people dare to protest, they will simply disappear.

In a stable society where people are well-off, dictators normally don’t stand a chance. They’re only allowed a stage when people face soaring poverty, corruption and inequality, which is why mini Putins have popped up in Turkey, Iran, Brazil and the Philippines. In such places, discontent voters are easier to fall for smooth talkers who promise them a world of change. Even civil unrest can be pretty efficient in drastically changing the tables around. Although War clearly doesn’t favour the majority of people, it does benefit certain individuals. Because it’s impossible to reach full equality in a society, there will always be people at the bottom of the social ladder, with meaningless jobs and zero social status. When civil unrest breaks out, these former ‘nobodies’ will step out of the shadow and take the lead. With a gun in their hand, it’s gonna be very hard for people to reject them any longer, or deny them of the wealth they feel entitled to.

Luckily, economic wealth is rising globally, with an evident decrease in deadly combat as a result. And to avoid history from repeating itself, we have invented UN security councils, Geneva conventions, NATO agreements, nuclear deals, and Declarations of Human rights. But whatever international peace treaties we come up with, they mean substantially little when another dictator loses his marbles. To a Russian dictator, moral rules are only for the obedience of Western fools. And that Ukraine, once part of the great Soviet Union, wanted to sign an association treaty with the EU was simply too much for Putin to bare. He accused NATO of threatening Russian’s future, or history as a nation, and got so worked up about it that he send-off fully-geared murdering troops. That the Soviet Union is long gone, and Ukraine’s people democratically voted in favour of joining the NATO don’t matter. He won’t have it.

Whatever triggers a War, on average 487.550 people die for its cause, based on the number of casualties per armed conflict that broke out since the Second World War. That has been sixty-five armed conflicts, which lasted on average 20 years. Just before the War in Ukraine broke out, there were already 24 active conflicts spread across the globe. My goodness, will we ever learn? Unless we go back to our hunter-gatherer days, we probably won’t. But at least, when it comes to dictators, we don’t put up with them forever. Whatever their desperate attempts to protect their wealth and influence, we shall not be fooled indefinitely. Most dictators do fall, one hard way or another. Mussolini was shot, Hitler shot himself, Saddam Hussein was hanged, and Gaddafi got tortured to death. Let’s hope for Ukrainians as well as Russians that Putin awaits a similar faith soon.

 

 

1. Yuval Noah Harari, 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random house 

2. Rutger Bregman, 2020. Humankind: A hopeful history. Bloomsbury Publishing

3. Dacher Keltner, 2016. The power paradox: How we gain and lose influence. Penguin