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Is human aggression irredeemable?


Scilla Elworthy, TFF Associate*

May 29, 2008

If a visitor from space were to read history books of human behaviour, they would certainly conclude that the answer is yes.  This is because history has largely been written as if it were the history of man, tending to move from battle to battle, because that’s what interested the authors.

If, however, our visitors were to read the acclaimed Quaker sociologist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Elise Boulding, they would gain an entirely different picture.  In The Underside of History Boulding tells the other half of the story, as she traces the evolution of woman’s role from the Paleolithic to modern times. She demonstrates how very recent it is that women have begun to move from the ‘inner’ or domestic world to the ‘outer’ or political world. She considers that empowering women - to dismantle their history of being devalued and to reconstruct true equality between the sexes - will lay the foundation for peace.
If we look at the way that warfare is changing today, she seems to be right.

The 1990s witnessed a striking change in the resolution of conflict: for the first time more wars ended by negotiated settlement (42) than by military victory (23). This started a trend that accelerated in the new millennium. Between 2000 and 2005, 17 conflicts ended in negotiated settlements; just four ended in military victory.1)

Other recent research 2) compared the outcomes of 285 non-violent and violent campaigns to resist dictatorship in the 20th century and found that “major non-violent campaigns have achieved success 55% of the time, compared to 28.4% for violent resistance campaigns.”  The mounting power of civilian-based action over the past 70 years, much of it powered by women, is an impressive phenomenon:

It goes without saying that not all non-violent struggles are successful, and certainly not immediately: you will of course be thinking of the Burmese monks last autumn. Non-violence needs time, patience and extraordinary courage.

Where conflict is concerned, I believe we are in the midst of a global social revolution that is being described in academic journals but has not yet been picked up by the popular media. The Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia issued a report in 2005 that I found astounding, even though I have been working in this field for years. 

Since the end of the Cold War in 1992, the number of major wars and genocides in the world has decreased 80%, the number of smaller, internal wars has dropped by 40% and 100 wars have quietly ended. The Centre concluded that the world is becoming averse to war.  They credit the United Nations, International Law and the increasing influence of civil society, particularly women.

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The reason civil society is becoming increasingly involved may be because the nature of warfare in itself is changing: a century ago 80% of those killed in war were combatants, 20% were civilians. Today that ratio has reversed. As more civilians are killed in war, more civilians become involved in efforts to build peace. This is the foundation of the work of Peace Direct, which funds, promotes and learns from peace-builders in conflict areas.
To return to the ‘innate aggression’ theory of human behaviour: what it (and the media) ignores are the million daily acts of compassion and loving kindness between human beings – from parents to children, from young to older people, from neighbours and from strangers. These pass unrecorded. Perhaps the reason they pass unrecorded is that kindness in our society is somehow less sexy than aggression.
If we are to survive, it’s time for us to move beyond this unconsciousness. Elise Boulding envisions a “global civic culture” made up not of nation states but a global community of human beings. To create peace, Boulding believes that we must all become teachers and develop new learning communities. Everyone, old and young, will teach. Age groups will teach each other from their respective generations. Then history will be different, and our visitor from space will get a very different impression.


Scilla Elworthy is Chair of Peace Direct. To learn more about how to be a Champion of local peace-builders, see 


1) Human Security Brief 2006, Human Security Center, University of British Colombia, with the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, Uppsala University.

2) "Why Civil Resistance Works: the strategic logic of non-violent political conflict” by Dr Maria Stephan and Dr Erica Chenoweth (Belfer Centre, Harvard University).



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