Coronavirus, War, Or…?


Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations; only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.” – Hal Fisher, British Historian

During this period of crisis, we at The Conciliators Guild believe it is worthwhile to look more deeply into our behaviour patterns and encourage learning when significant challenges arise.

Many are wondering whether the global COVID-19 crisis is the harbinger of greater global cooperation or a confirmation of our more ‘selfish selves’: more tribalism, primitive behaviour patterns and, possibly, conflict. For some insights, we take a look back at a book written in the 1960s by Robert Ardrey:

“Birds don’t fly because they have wings; they have wings because they fly.”

This apparently counterintuitive statement cuts to the heart of Ardrey’s book, The Territorial Imperative. Written in the 1960s in an informal and figurative style that we no longer cherish, it is packed with dozens of examples from biology about the importance of territory in evolution, and for human beings.

Humans don’t have minds because they have brains, the author goes on, they have brains because they developed a mind, one that was and is heavily involved in managing territory. Ardrey makes the case that a plot of land, a home, some manner of turf is crucial for animal security and, interestingly, for sheer stimulation. The correct sequence is that we evolved our mind to manage territory, and our large brain followed.

This territory is often composed of an inner zone primarily for security, and an outer ring primarily for stimulation, e.g. for jousting with neighbours. In higher animals and, of course, in human beings, the territory is also crucial for identity, knowing who and what we are, and where we belong.

This ‘holy trinity’ of needs (security, stimulation and identity through territory) informs the whole book. We are hardwired to have these basic innate needs met through territory, and this is equally the case with the other life forms from the planarian worm to the black ringed lemur.

One of the Ardrey’s key contentions is that those who dissociate the animal in us from our behaviour ignore hard truths developed through millions of years of evolution. This tendency to abstract us from our animal roots began in the 19th century as some began to consider us as a blank slate that is only the product of our contexts. This trend picked up speed in the 20th century, and, in some ways, has become an unquestioned dogma in the 21st century, especially among some academics in the humanities and social sciences.

Ardrey believes this is a great danger, and he presents our reality in a raw and simplified fashion through an equation (and this is where light is shed on our current crisis):

Amity = enmity + hazard

As most of us know, our nations (in-groups) are often most cohesive in the face of an enemy (enmity). However, this in-group cohesion also increases with hazard, or, as nature’s wrath increases, which is what is happening today with the coronavirus.

If natural hazard is high, the need for enmity becomes low, and vice versa. Sadly, war is of course a stark expression of enmity, and one of the most well-worn and successful paths to gain stimulation, security and identity through territory, sometimes leading to a happy in-group. However, Ardrey’s equation suggests that, theoretically, with the natural hazard of coronavirus, there is less need for war to create amity.

However, the virus will pass, and we will be left with the equation – and our territorial imperative. It is unlikely that we will have truly tamed this profound evolutionary state of being within us in so short a time, but such crises offer opportunity. We also live with a great irony.

Ardrey gives us a stark warning: If there is no chance to develop enmity with an outgroup (e.g. nuclear war makes fighting too costly), and we manage through science and technology to diminish or avoid natural hazard, then our social amity will approach zero. Ardrey’s equation may be an unusual explanation of the social breakdowns we are seeing throughout the globe today.

We will still need security, stimulation and identity through connection to territory, and there are other ways to have these innate needs met. He cites athleticism and the Olympics as the most obvious. Certainly, the World Cup of football goes a distance to keep identity and stimulation at play. The toys of digital technology, which did not exist in his era, are also having their effect in deflecting our needs into the virtual realm, and away from territory for satisfaction (if it can be called that).

But, are we living a fool’s paradise, deluded by abstractions and wishes, unaware of the monster within, and, ironically, vanishing as humans as our ability to meet our needs devolves into that digital and virtual world?

Ardrey leaves us with an open question as to whether we can evolve beyond our territorial imperative. Politically, one, general, sensible response may be to further protect and value the nation-state as an expression of that territorial imperative in an age of globalization that erodes its power and legitimacy every day. Ironically, despite the economic toll, this is what we are seeing in some of the response to the coronavirus epidemic.

More practically, for diplomacy, it means that the basic needs related to territory need to be addressed first and foremost before more abstract steps towards development of structures or agreements are pursued. This very sequence will provide us the time to develop that ‘new mind’, call it species thinking, that will sufficiently liberate us from the territorial imperative.