Is war an inevitable part of human existence? Is violence woven into the strands of our DNA? Or is it possible that human nature is loving, compassionate, and altruistic? Much ink has been spilled on the question, and you can read social science and psychology studies that support the view that civilization is only a thin veneer over a violent natures or that altruism has an evolutionary advantage and is coded into our DNA. Unfortunately, nothing definitive on the question yet, not from the experimental sciences anyway. But I don’t think a definitive answer is all that elusive: If you want to know if humans are violent by nature, look at the face of a child who has been impacted by violence.
I know that mimetic theory (MT), my life’s work, has taken a beating on the subject of human violence. It has been accused of forging an indissoluble link between humanity and violence, though nothing could be further from the truth. Mimetic theory explains how violence became embedded in human culture, indeed how human culture as it is currently constructed relies on a foundation of violence. But MT also clearly illuminates the contingency of our current predicament. In other words, though violence is the beating heart of human culture today, it doesn’t have to be.
The faces of children show us just how foreign to human nature violence actually is. Children shrink from violence. They withdraw inside of themselves, and the face they turn outward to the world is one stripped of their personalities. They lose their affect, are unable to smile or respond to overtures from others. I suppose if you think that joyless, lifeless, blank stares are “normal,” then violence can be thought of as essential to normal human functioning. But if you think that children like this are abnormal — in other words, if you think that violence has prevented them from developing normally — then it’s fair to conclude that violence is anathema to human life and therefore cannot be part of our DNA. Violent behavior must be contingent, just one possibility among others in the vast repertoire of human behaviors. One we can opt for or opt out of as we choose. A choice that a careful study of mimetic theory forces us to face.
In her observational studies of young children, Dr. Maria Montessori concluded that normal childhood development was surprisingly peaceful. What she called “normalized” children – children freed from the oppression of adult ideas of what children should be and do – were calm, capable of intense and prolonged periods of concentration, filled with wonder and joy, and overflowed with creativity. They were not violent, angry, anxious, or mean. On the contrary, Dr. Montessori explained that “We might say that if love appears, we are within the range of the normal, and if it does not, within the range of the abnormal.”
If war is inevitable, as some believe, then human development will forever be abnormal. We will never truly flourish and discover our way into new cultural forms that do not rely on constant infusions of violence to sustain them. We have been too long slogging through what Dr. Montessori called the “adult period” of human evolution, one that is “characterized by constant outbreak of war.” With her revolution in education, she hoped to usher in “the age of the child … the period in which we will begin to build peace.” Mobilizing ourselves to support the normal development of children is what organizing humanity for peace looks like. Social peace and harmony have too long relied on winner takes all wars of domination and defeat. True peace must be grounded in its only true foundation: the natural peace of a normalized humanity.
How will that be accomplished? Dr. Montessori called for a “revolution [in childhood education], one in which everything we know today will be transformed. I think of this as the final revolution,” she explained. “Not a revolution of violence, still less of bloodshed, but one from which violence is wholly excluded – for the little child’s psychic productivity is stricken to death by the barest shadow of violence.” Dr. Montessori insists that a child “stricken to death” by violence is not evidence of the normal human condition. Quite the contrary. As we seek to build a revolution for peace, it’s hopeful to know that we are working for something that is neither utopian, naïve, nor impossible, but just plain normal.
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