We should expect more wars say BBC lectures

Face of war: A US marine suffering shell shock in Vietnam, by photojournalist Don McCullin.

Is war part of human nature? That is the key debate in the 2018 Reith Lectures which began yesterday. Delivered by historian Margaret MacMillan, the talks offer scant hope for world peace.

“We find it disturbing. We sometimes find it appealing… we are, I think, a society fascinated by war.”

It was by acknowledging the conflicted place war holds in the human psyche that historian Margaret MacMillan opened this year’s Reith Lectures.

“We find in war qualities which we don’t always find in civilian life,” she explains. “We find people prepared to sacrifice themselves, prepared to die for ideals or prepared to die for others.”

But what do these observations mean? And what do they reveal about ourselves?

“One starting point to try and understand war is to ask if it’s part of being human.”

This question has been debated for centuries: French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that humans are inherently peaceful, while English philosopher Thomas Hobbes claimed we are naturally “brutish” and violent.

“As far as the evidence goes, it seems to be closer to Hobbes,” MacMillan says: “even in hunter gatherer societies people were still killing each other.”

And ever since those primitive times — through to the development of complex societies — war has been a constant feature of human civilisation.

But, as MacMillan insists, as well as the carnage it causes, war can also help societies develop: “Paradoxically, the very organisation that made it possible for societies to fight wars and to defend themselves against attack also brought benefits.”

Eighteenth-century rivalries fuelled investment in science and technology; the First World War galvanised calls for women’s suffrage; and the Second World War helped smash centuries-old class barriers.

Nevertheless, the cost of modern warfare became too much for society to bear: “What we saw in the 20th century was a development of war on a massive scale. We have, of course, reacted to that: we’ve tried to build international institutions, we’ve tried to find ways of avoiding war.”

In spite of this, conflicts still rage around the globe. The world is “more precarious than it has been for some time,” MacMillan states: “I think there’s rather a lot to be pessimistic about.”

Is war part of human nature?

In our blood

We are hardwired for war, some say. The violence we see in the animal kingdom is deep within in our biology too. What’s more, conflict is an irrevocable part of our culture. From endless fights over borders, to nationalist and ethnic conflicts — war is an inevitable part of human existence.

Not necessarily, others respond. Enlightenment ideals of tolerance and non-violence will lead us to peace. As scholars like Steven Pinker have shown, modernity has already banished much of the savageries of humanity’s blood-spattered past. War is not inevitable — in fact, it will soon be obsolete.

You Decide

  1. Are humans naturally violent?
  2. Will there ever be world peace?


  1. What do we mean by the word “conflict”? Write down as many ways as you can think of in which it can occur. Do you think that all of these types of conflict will one day come to an end?
  2. Using the links under Become An Expert, either listen to Margaret MacMillan’s lecture or read the transcript. Take notes on what lines seem particularly interesting or shocking to you. Does she make any points you disagree with? Can war really be said to bring “unintended benefits”? Is she right to be pessimistic about the future?

Some People Say...

“The condition of man... is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

Thomas Hobbes

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In the past year, there have been 40 separate conflicts worldwide that have each caused at least 100 violent deaths. The most violent of these is the Syrian civil war. It claimed 39,000 lives in 2017, and almost 500,000 since it began in 2011. British troops are currently involved in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What do we not know?
Whether Britain will expand its armed forces. Currently there is a battle ongoing in Whitehall in which Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is demanding £20 billion in extra funding. This comes after reports alleged that Prime Minister Theresa May questioned Britain’s future as a “tier one” military power.

Word Watch

Margaret MacMillan
A Canadian historian at the University of Oxford.
Reith Lectures
Since 1948 the annual radio lectures have been given by leading figures of the day. This year’s series is called “The Mark of Cain”, and it features five talks on the topic of war. Other notables to give the lectures include Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russell and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(1712-78) An enlightenment philosopher. He is known for his theories on the natural state of man and the social contract.
Thomas Hobbes
(1588-1679) A philosopher. Leviathan is his most famous work.
Class barriers
On this point, MacMillan cites Walter Scheidel and Thomas Piketty’s concept of the The Great Compression — a period in the 1940s and 60s when societies become more equal.
International institutions
For example, the United Nations was established in 1945 to promote international co-operation.
Still rage
See The Day’s briefing from February: “The forgotten wars”.
This is opposed to thinkers like Stephen Pinker, who insist that the world is becoming a more peaceful place. See Become An Expert for more.

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