Exploring the humanity of humans
by Dr Robin Coupland
Robin Coupland, ICRC medical advisor
on the effects of weapons and armed violence, reflects on
the contributions the scientific community can make towards
furthering our understanding of the humanity of humans.
No one doubts that better application of international humanitarian
law (IHL) prevents cruelty and indignity in war and promotes
peaceable and constructive co-existence after war. Sitting
behind this is a belief in humanity; the Movement's first
principle implies a kind of collective human morality underlying
the spirit in which certain actions are taken. How would our
dialogue and communications about application of IHL change
if, instead of basing this belief on notions of collective
morality, we brought scientific understanding of humanity
When we use the term "humanity," we use it interchangeably
between two meanings. One refers to all humans collectively;
the other to an attitude, morality or sentiment of good will
towards fellow humans. The distinction between the two humanities
is rarely made and there is an instinctive feeling that the
two are linked.
The collective existence of humans has been studied extensively
by multiple scientific disciplines. Furthermore, science has
done much to bring objective understanding to sentiments such
as anger, love and fear of strangers. And yet, discussion
about the existence or nature of the second humanity - referred
to here as the humanity of humans - has long sat in the domain
of moral philosophy. Could science show that the humanity
of humans is not only something we are born with but also
an essential element of our successful collective existence?
What makes this enquiry difficult is the brutal truth that
humans are also capable of extraordinary acts of inhumanity.
There is a new wind blowing through the scientific
world that might provide an answer.
Our dialogue about and application of IHL or human rights
law in the 21st century could change dramatically if the humanity
of humans, the inhumanity of humans and what leads us to successful
co-existence were explicable in objective and scientific terms.
Upholding these bodies of law would be seen to be not only
a legal requirement nor even a moral responsibility but a
human imperative integral to our existence. We could assert
that certain behaviours are wrong not only from a legal point
of view but wrong because they are carried out by humans.
The great excuse-all of "man's violent nature" -
which, we are told, is uncontrollable - could be refuted.
Our dialogue and communication could stress that a collective
consciousness of the humanity of humans is necessary for continued
existence of humans in a world that is increasingly crowded,
polluted, technological, terrorized, consumptive of resources
and split by a dangerous "have/have not" divide.
And when we call for a humanitarian "space", everyone
would know we are calling for a time and place in which the
humanity of all humans involved, including the weapons bearers,
has top priority and that this means, as a first step, eliminating
acts of inhumanity.
In exploring the humanity of humans, do we look to behavioural
psychology, neurosciences, social sciences, anthropology,
genetics, computing, medicine, economics, political science
or all of these? There is a new wind blowing through the scientific
world that might provide an answer. A fundamental premise
of science is that knowledge gained should, in some way, serve
to advance collective human existence. Disciplines as diverse
as medicine, mathematics, physics, economics, anthropology
and sociology have all contributed in synergistic ways but
this has required translation of the scientists' findings
into public knowledge and the decisions of powerful people.
As science has advanced, with deeper and deeper levels of
enquiry, scientists in the different branches and the branches
of branches have gravitated towards other scientists with
similar interests and developed their own communities along
with their specific coded language. As a result, access to
the knowledge gained has become increasingly difficult. The
new wind blowing has brought recognition that, with increasing
specialization and compartmentalization of science, there
is an increasing need for research that involves multiple
disciplines and interdisciplinary bridges; this comes with
recognition that responsible translation of the outcome of
research into knowledge usable by the public and by policy
makers alike is neither easy nor automatic.
relation to the humanity of humans, the good news is that
scientific research has brought evidence for an objective
and biological basis for it; the bad news is that the scientists
concerned have rarely, if ever, made reference to the implications
of their research for the application and promotion of IHL
or human rights. The two communities, that is, scientists
and "humanitarians", have simply not (yet) articulated
their knowledge. In this domain, there is no single momentous,
scientific discovery to be made the equivalent of finding
the structure of DNA. The evidence of the humanity of humans
is to be found in multiple disciplines. Studies of "primitive
warfare" reveal that cruelty is not the norm, that fatalities
may be few and that the violence is accompanied by much ritual
and, importantly, great restraint. It has been shown that
altruism is a biological phenomenon. Children who are educated
to think about the plight of others who suffer some misfortune
or cruelty are, in later life, less likely to resolve disputes
by resorting to violence. Conversely, studies have shown how
ordinary people can be brought to inflict great pain and suffering
on complete strangers. The emotional distance brought by the
use of weapons that separate their user and victim in time
and space has been explained. In the same vein, there is ample
evidence that "dehumanization" of a potential enemy
is an important element in the committing of war crimes, genocide
or crimes against humanity; some would even say it's a prerequisite.
In brief, the humanity and the inhumanity of humans are largely
explicable in scientific terms and maybe also in terms of
our evolved biology; only few policy-makers in the international
arena or specialists in international law appear to take advantage
The Movement should begin to use this knowledge, because
people with the power to apply or restrain armed violence
all too frequently see international relations and positive
international law as serving, if not personal self-interest,
economic or security leverage. Moral argument, which makes
imperative a consideration of the victims of armed violence,
seems to carry little weight in the international arena; this
could be reinforced if the humanity of humans were cast in
scientific terms. Importantly, it would speak to the true
universality of IHL and human rights law and would maintain
a focus on the object and purpose of these bodies of law.
The evidence of the humanity of humans is to be found
in multiple disciplines.
The increasing interconnectedness of war and conflict with
migration, globalization, overpopulation, poverty, infectious
disease, the environment and even climate change is going
to make it ever-more difficult to know what is and what is
not the business of the Movement. Furthermore, the Movement
cannot afford to believe that useful scientific knowledge
is translated into correct policy in any of these domains.
The pieces do not fall into place; they have to be put into
place. Promoting a consciousness of the humanity of humans
does not necessarily involve undertaking or commissioning
scientific research, but multidisciplinary scientific knowledge
could be harnessed to promote a notion of humanity that is
modern, consistent, objective, comprehensible, shared and
communicable. The Movement must bring the public and policy-makers
alike to recognize the real meaning and importance of the
humanity of humans and not confine it to a principle for action.
Importantly, we must disconnect the implication of moral supremacy
when we use the term "humanity". Is it not the right
time, as a first step, to organize an international conference
on "Science and Humanity" and so put the humanity
of humans on the scientific map? Who other than the Movement
should do it? Who else will do it?
Dr Robin Coupland
Dr Robin Coupland works in the ICRC's legal division. He is
the medical adviser on the effects of weapons and armed violence.
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