Possible genocide in Ukraine? Humanity never learns

Reports this week of alleged Russian murder of civilians in Ukraine on a large scale – denied by Russia but essentially confirmed by German intelligence and aerial photography, which showed bodies strewn on the ground – are horrifying on many levels. It has been called genocide by President Zelenskyy: other commentators are more circumspect, but it is an atrocity by any measure. Our thoughts must be with those who have lost loved ones, with the families affected by these terrible events.

In an ideal world, none of this would happen. But it does – relentlessly. Humans, it seems, always need to kill other humans – and, far too often, to wipe out whole groups. Recent examples include the so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia and the Rwanda massacres in which up to 800,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutus in just a few months. Human history is littered with such crimes: mass graves near Schleitz, for example, offer proof that humanity was exterminating itself even in prehistoric times, around 7500 BCE. Chinese history records how the Jie people were exterminated during the Wei-Ji war, around 350 BCE. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, there is evidence of genocide against the Anasazi people of what is now the south-western United States, around 800 BCE. The Mongol Empire was renowned for its ability to put populations to the sword. Moving into more recent times we have the Crusades – indeed, the very word ‘genocide’ was reputedly coined by Raphael Lemkin, last century, to describe the Albigensian Crusade of the early thirteenth century. And there was that ‘Swedish’ army (actually a band of rabid mercenaries) which rampaged through Madgeburg in 1631.

These are just a handful of examples. It is a terrible indictment on human nature that these crimes occur at all. Yet they do. Every time, authorities insist that there must be no more. After the Second World War, extensive work was undertaken in an effort to understand how the Holocaust had happened – revealing that yes, ordinary humans can become monsters, and with dismaying ease. But society was meant to have learned from this awful experience. Humanity is meant to be better than this.

And yet, in Europe alone, there was Bosnia. And now, it seems, fresh horror unfolding in the Ukraine.

Genocide, it seems, is innate to human nature. Why? Humans are really good at identifying other humans as ‘them’. It’s clear at every level of the societies we build. We create divisions between ourselves over sports teams, over ideology, over irrelevant cultural or physical differences. At larger scale we identify ‘our’ nation over ‘theirs’, and so on. Always it is ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Genocide is merely a difference of degree, not kind. That’s what makes it so scary, because it is the ultimate way in which the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mind-set seems to be resolved.

Why does it happen? There is growing evidence that it’s hard-wired. For much of humanity’s existence we’ve lived in hunter-gatherer bands of around 150 individuals – ‘us’. Other bands existed – ‘them’ – and there is evidence that they fought each other. Discoveries such as 27 bodies from a Neolithic battle at Nataruk near Lake Turkana, in Kenya, have been used as proof to show that violence between groups was a normal part of life back then. Some of the bodies were, it seems, bound before being killed. Think about it. Twenty seven dead out of a group of about 150? That’s a substantial percentage. Probably it had an evolutionary survival advantage: the Nataruk battle seems to have been about resources. But either way, it is hard-wired into humans. Actually, it seems to also be true for our cousin species: chimps fight wars with each other – there was one in the 1970s in the Gombe Stream National Park.

None of this offers much hope for avoiding war and associated genocides now or in future: human nature seems to be hard-wired for it, and we keep falling into the trap. And yet, as I see it, there is a grain of hope. We are, theoretically, smart. So – surely – humanity can harness its intelligence to overcome our basic nature and find ways instead of uplifting each other? Surely. Ok, so as a species, we’ve failed at it, every time, of late. But surely there must be a way. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022


5 thoughts on “Possible genocide in Ukraine? Humanity never learns

  1. Yes. Genocide. I don’t know whether the killing of obvious civilians was intended or simply a few monsters lashing out, but it’s starting to feel as if Putin is punishing Ukrainians for not living up to his dreams. Or perhaps because they’ve made him look bad. Either way, he’s not /stopping/ it, and that makes him responsible in every sense of the word.
    As for humans in general? Gawd. I never thought I’d become this cynical. My inner Pollyanna left home a couple of years ago and I don’t think she’ll ever return.

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  2. Open societies where truth is valued is a key. Closed societies dominated by cliques create the conditions for genocide. This is why populist trends across the world are so disturbing, as they create the conditions for closed societies and ‘us vs them’ mentalities. See how intellectuals in closed societies value the open societies they see around them. Yet the price of resisting mafias such as Putin’s is can be severe, but it is necessary.

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  3. The complexity of any answer (not that there is one) makes me wonder if I have any idea what I’m talking about, but I’ll throw some thoughts out. I’ll also oversimplify or I’d be writing a book I’m not qualified to write.

    Maybe the question that needs to be asked isn’t why it happens, but why it doesn’t happen? Why haven’t we fallen into a new version of the Dark Ages that would be every fanatical leader’s dream? Not, of course, that such an eventuality isn’t a possibility. I also agree that, to varying degrees, that it’s hardwired, and that people are easily manipulated with the “us versus them” argument. Good gosh, this country (US) is rife with that mentality right now. Right now? What am I saying? We’ve often been rife with it since our inception and have a Civil War to prove it, along with other atrocities in our past.

    The truth is, we can’t design the perfect system to stamp out the possibility of such events. They’re too complex. The variables include culture, economy, history, the leaders in power, and so on. Hitler isn’t Putin. German history in 1933 isn’t Russian history in 2022. The same people in this country who penned, “We the People,” allowed slavery to continue. For all the division here, though, we were most united in times of greatest crisis (Great Depression, WWII) when common reason reigned, though not universally. The brute suppression necessary to stamp out the possibility of ever having genocide or war again would be the inspiration for the next war.

    Yet, for all that, we have to try and prevent this from ever happening again, not because we’ll be successful, but because we can’t afford to not try. I walk or bike every day possible, I take time for yoga every day, sometimes adding meditation, and I watch my diet. Why? So I won’t die? That’d be absurd. No, I do it for quality of life while I’m living. I also do it because I’m approaching my later years with an educated, reasoned viewpoint. I’m trying to be the leader this body needs. Are we going to all suddenly be that on the world stage, or even the national stage? Of course not, but we can help that along with more education and reason. In this country, that’d be schools that again taught those ideals instead of turning out graduates who better know a hundred ways to fulfill their greed and selfishness.

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  4. The dark side of human nature is easy to see and very difficult to contain – even in oneself. Think of the anger boiling up when we or someone we are are deeply committed to have been personally wronged. The first instinct is to lash out to seriously harm the offending person or party. But there is a brighter side to – the ability to control the base urges, so bring them under control – either from within or from without via the sanction and intervention of someone or some group. Churchill’s famous dictums about democracy and freedom come to mind: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time….” and the only way to maintain a free society is through “eternal vigilance”. Genocide is a mass psychosis. To build the collective psyche to perpetrate this most monstrous of crimes takes a long time of constructing and inculcating a distorted worldview based on an “us vs. them” way of seeking the target population as less than fully human, “subhuman”, a blight on true humanity. It also takes a religious zealotry to convince ordinary people to participate – a sense of carrying out “the collective mission” – the way of truly belonging. To combat this takes a radical worldview shift – which also means an alternative for of equally strong worldview and commitment to it – but not one that will just reverse the roles of perpetrators and victims, as virtually all revolutionary movements in recorded history have done. Once upon a time, As politically incorrect and unpopular as it is to say this in the 21st Century, Christianity was originally supposed to provide the alternative worldview and spiritual commitment, with Christ as the “Prince of peace” and Great Reconciler. Christians being sinners like everyone else meant that they too often have fallen into the same traps of reducing opposition to inferior and preferably removable obstacles. Thus we get the Crusades and other terrible persecutions. But when its best elements and truly peacemaking reconcilers have come to the fore, it has also produced wonderful things which have incredibly enhanced many societies in the last two thousand years ant at times even halted and prevented some of the horrors.


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