Is Barack Obama an evolutionary psychologist?
Since I criticized President Obama’s speech last year in Cairo (and even “rewrote” it) and later pointed out the names and deeds of those who did not get the Nobel Peace Prize because he did, I think it’s only fair that I resume this blog after a long hiatus by writing about his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in December.
I have to say that it stunned me. Although he had to address the controversy over his prize and nod toward those who had been passed over, he was exceptionally gracious and eloquent in doing this:
“Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize – Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela – my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women . . . to be far more deserving of this honor than I.”
He also acknowledged that as the Commander in Chief of the world’s most powerful armed forces he was conducting two protracted wars even as he was being deemed the year’s most effective peacemaker. But that too wasn’t what surprised me. It was that he used his Nobel Peace Prize platform to articulate a brief for war, and that in doing so he appealed to arguments those of us in behavioral biology have made for many years:
“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease – the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.”
He went on to try to define a “just war” and to insist, quite rightly, that it is possible to conduct a war according to ethical rules, although, “For most of history, . . . just war was rarely observed.” It was surely not accidental that he began by saying that war “appeared with the first man,” since the nature of war rests with and arises mainly from men: “Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.”
But where he sounded most Darwinian was in talking about the future: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”
His is an optimistic nature, but he clearly felt compelled to make a dark prediction. And in contrast to his speech last year in Cairo, in Oslo he fully acknowledged the inescapable constraints of his position:
“[A]s a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation . . . I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
No Darwinian philosopher could have said this better. And no conservative Republican could have been more persuasive in defense of his country’s role: “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”
He went on even more clearly, “war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings.” And he quoted a predecessor, John F. Kennedy, who urged a “’focus on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.’”
Mr. Obama devoted the rest of his speech to ways to promote that evolution, and in doing so invoked another human trait, “the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion . . . that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible . . . But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected.”
And, nearing the end, he quoted the man who did the most to make his presidency possible, Martin Luther King, Jr.: “’I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.’”
All three leaders—Kennedy, King, and now Obama—accepted the hard fact that our hope for a human future different from the past must begin with human nature as it is. The future cannot change that nature, it can only shape evolving institutions of democracy, diplomacy, and law that use what we know about our nature to render its consequences less ominous and tragic.