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Photo: Jayel Aheram

Social justice activist and historian Howard Zinn left us with some questions about human nature.

Last week, one of the greats passed on.

No, I’m not referring to J.D. Salinger, although he was also one. I’m talking about Howard Zinn – historian, writer, and social justice activist. He is the author of the quintessential book that changed my life, the People’s History of the United States. If you haven’t read it, whether you are American or not, it will without a doubt re-frame everything you thought you knew about world history since the Declaration of Independence.

In a 2004 interview passed along from BNT writer Daniel Harbecke, Zinn discusses his beliefs around whether or not the desire to kill is a part of human nature:

Essentially, from his own experience in the Air Force to the vast research on history and anthropology that he focused much of his work on, Zinn could not accept the idea that young men, in particular, have a “desire or thrill” to go to war. Instead of humans possessing a “killing instinct”, he believes that leaders use complex tactics to get a population behind war.

Zinn questions, why would we need a draft if we have the spontaneous urge to kill? Propaganda through media outlets, whether that means the intricate placement and timing of code alerts and Bin Laden references, or men being sent by horse to towns throughout the land to espouse the government’s message, goes far to shift the perspective of a group of people (read: instills fear).

For those who don’t jump on that bandwagon, there is coercion punishable by jail time, otherwise known as the draft.

The environment in which one finds him or herself has a lot to do with an urge towards aggression or murder, just as much as it has to do with the urge to be peaceful and loving.

It seems to me we often like to blame atrocities on human nature. But as Zinn notes, the environment in which one finds him or herself has a lot to do with an urge towards aggression or murder, just as much as it has to do with the urge to be peaceful and loving. For example, Native-American and African tribes are often thought of as extremely aggressive OR peaceful, while in truth, their outward expression has had much to do with whether or not another “tribe” ruled over them – in other words, their environment.

While we can’t always choose our environment (perhaps this is part of what pulls us to travel), we do have a choice in how we act and react to our circumstances. Hopefully, our continued evolution allows us to better understand this fact. So instead of blaming “human nature” for war and killing – therefore blaming the people of a land – we can see more clearly the agenda of our leaders.

Rest in peace, Howard. We will miss you.

Do you think the urge to kill is inherent in humans? Share your thoughts below.

Activism + Politics


About The Author

Christine Garvin

Christine Garvin is a certified Nutrition Educator and holds a MA in Holistic Health Education. She is the founder/editor of Living Holistically...with a sense of humor and co-founder of Confronting Love. When she is not out traveling the world, she is busy writing, doing yoga, and performing hip-hop and bhangra. She also likes to pretend living in her hippie town of Fairfax, CA is like being on vacation.

  • Brian

    Howard had it right during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. He had it right during the 70s and the Reagan and Clinton eras. He had it right, right up until his death.

    We will always need people like Howard Zinn, to give us an innocuous shock treatment of truth. Like you, Christine, Zinn’s book profoundly reshaped my view of America, historically and otherwise.

    Thanks for the meaningful post and video to commemorate this amazing man. I recently saw him being interviewed by Bill Moyers about his recent History Channel production, “The People Speak.” In which famous actors and actresses recite the words of historical figures. Zinn broke into tears in the middle of the interview. The man was authentic, not separate from anyone, like the fundamental problem he saw in the way we teach history to our children.

    R.I.P. Howard Zinn, you made your mark.

  • Hal Amen

    People’s History should be required reading. Though I guess it wouldn’t be in our government’s interest to fund that.

  • Somchai

    I can’t speak to Mr. Zinn’s experiences in the air force, but from being an observer of human nature for many years I have to say that most humans cary the capacity within themselves to be brutal murderers.

    Doesn’t equate with a desire to go to war, just saying we aren’t so peacefull as we seem.

    Never read any of his histories, but I guess I’ll have to now.

  • Turner

    As you said, it’s a product of circumstance. As much of any of us might like to believe we could never bring ourselves to kill in even the most desperate of situations, that’s simply not the case. Ask yourself when you’ve felt the angriest you have ever been in your life – could you have killed someone, fueled by your rage?

    A UT professor, David Buss, wrote a great book on the subject: The Murderer Next Door.

  • joshua johnson

    I think the urge to kill is inherent to humans. We have it, it is useful in protecting tribes from attackers and securing food…all omnivores have it. It is our opposite polarity that makes us Humane humans, the desire to see justice or to sacrifice oneself…this is also characteristically human.
    This conflict defines us.

  • Davis Powell

    I think it is a natural instinct.

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