How do humans guard themselves against their own kind?

The German original “Wie schützt der Mensch sich vor sich selbst” will be published by Meinhard Miegel.

The question is of actual relevance and it is timeless as well, because it applies to man alone; no other biological species needs to guard itself against its own kind. The survival of species was endangered by predators or by a hostile environment. Man alone among all species has evolved to such an uncanny degree that he now threatens his own survival.

The reason for this extraordinary faculty is not a lack of intelligence – it is by no means stupidity that may lead him to self-destruction -, but quite on the contrary it is due to an excess of intelligence. To produce highly sophisticated bombs or all kinds of biological and bacterial poisons by means of which all terrestrial life could be eradicated, requires a degree of evolutionary ascent that up to now has been achieved by one species alone, namely Homo, who calls himself ‘sapiens’ or wise. This wisdom becomes manifest through his capacity of perfecting the tools with which to control nature in such a way that the possibility of self-destruction does no longer belong to the distant realms of fairy tales and myths, but has turned into a threatening option of future action.

But is man really the only species that understands wisdom in such an oppressive way? Or did other species on other planets long ago embarked on a similar path? Some scientists, including the polyhistor Ian Morris, seem to cherish the idea that the explosion of celestial bodies may not have purely natural causes, but be due to the vicious intelligence of even more highly evolved creatures, who in this way annihilate their own planet and themselves by triggering gigantic nuclear explosions (Morris, 2010, pos. 9520). If this were true all cosmic life would begin with stupid protozoans and end with intelligent multicellular beings, who, after a corresponding upward development, reach some final stage where they destroy themselves in gigantic fireworks.

There would be some logic to such a development, because upward development requires competition, and competition promotes things new leading to a potentially endless ascent. Competition begins with bow and arrow and ends with those bombs that may destroy our planet.

However, I do not want to turn to such speculations

but instead deal with the far more serious question of what man did in his previous history in order to guard himself against his own kind? For at least the last 10,000 years he had no reason to fear any other living creatures or nature, nothing else than he himself being left as greatest challenge to his survival. The extinction of the human species through diseases, earthquakes, floods, meteorites, ice ages or climatic disasters was no longer a serious threat. Lions, wolves, crocodiles and other animals were no danger to him. Not “lupus homini lupus”, but the much more horrible “homo homini lupus” remained as the only real danger; the destruction of one’s own clan, one’s own tribe, one’s own village, one’s own city, or one’s own people by other hostile people constituted at any time a hovering threat.

For those exposed to it, the personal extinction or that of one’s own tribe, village, city or people was no less serious than the extinction of the species in general. We should not forget that the longest period of history – from the first sedentary groups to the conflicting nations of the twentieth century – the ‘others’ were often not even counted among one’s own kind. They were called ‘barbarians’, ‘mute’ (nemetz), ‘nonhumans’, ‘heathens’, etc. In other words, they were regarded as members of an inferior species by those who claimed the rank and dignity of genuine humans solely for their own communities. They did so just like children and, more recently, just like an American president, who loves to denounce as monkeys the members of people he doesn’t appreciate. No wonder that the disappearance of one’s own group, one’s own people, one’s own nation was easily understood as the annihilation of all humanity.

In this sense, doomsday fears were always the lot of men

afraid of being annihilated. The question of who protects people from other people has therefore often found a quite pessimistic answer: nobody can possibly do so.

This admission of defenselessness could, however, prove surprisingly fruitful on a psychological plane. Pessimism was likely to trigger its very opposite. It did so in many of the most impressive speculations about the meaning of human existence, ranging from the Upanishads via the mysticism of Rumi to the early Christianity and up to the calm resignation expressed by Hoimar v. Ditfurth in his well-known book, ‘So let us plant an apple tree. Doomsday is looming behind the door‘.

These people have given up because for them this world is beyond help. They even loudly exclaim: It’s time, let us accept nightfall – the demise of the physical world. But they do not lament because, immediately afterwards, they proclaim a transcendent existence. “Come, dear Doomsday” – that is how Luther raves about the coming end which to him means salvation. In the history of the Christian Occident, this fluctuating between dire pessimism and a sometimes zealous optimism remains a lively undercurrent up to the present day. More recently, Jehovah’s Witnesses successively announced one Doomsday after the other with barely concealed enthusiasm.

In psycho-philosophical terms some of these religious ideas are impressive, but they prove to be utterly unfruitful in terms of practical action. Obviously, we need not think about concrete measures for our protection and that of our kind, if at the outset we declare all possible measures as utterly meaningless. Let me therefore only deal with such answers that deal with human protection in the Here and Now, answers that have practical consequences and applications.

How do I turn others into friends?

As I said before, the only enemies human beings had always to guard against were other humans, only they could have effectively put an end to their own individual or collective existence. Therefore, man’s earliest thoughts concentrated on how best to defend himself against these others.

Basically there were two quite different paths leading to the same goal. You could try to turn potential enemies into friends so that they would no longer represent any danger. In the ‘Argonauts of the Pacific‘, the great Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski describes a system of reciprocal exchange – called kula – the true intent of which was not economic, but served as a means of making members of different tribes more trustworthy for each other by creating mutual understanding and tolerance. Such methods were used worldwide and are still used today. Such exchange did not have to be limited to inanimate objects. Peace between former enemies was often achieved through intermarriage between erstwhile hostile groups – in the anthropological literature this was described as ‘exchange of women’. Such interaction proved to be by far the most effective way of turning enmity into friendship, for relatives then belonged to one’s own group.

Unlike the lucky Argonauts of the Pacific, primitive Christianity has not developed any similar technique. The Christian demand to offer the right cheek once somebody hits your left, has its origin in hope for a beyond where hatred and all other human feelings lose their meaning. As a means to appease the enemy, this strategy has never been really effective. Those many peoples in the South Seas and on foreign continents subdued by European conquerors since the end of the fifteenth century, often offered both cheeks to the enemy. It did not do them any good, as they were subjected even faster.

In this context, it should be noted that, unfortunately, only few writings devote themselves to the subject of making friends. But an immense literature exists that expounds the many ways of how to annihilate enemies or how to enhance the strength of one’s own community, tribe, or nation so that they may more easily be subdued.

How do I render my own community invincible?

The vast amount of literature on this subject is still in a process of daily expansion, since it covers all areas from the economy and a patriotic world view to the military, including science and technology, which are its important instruments. One should be aware, however, that the protection of one’s own community has always been carried out in two very different ways. It may either focus on inanimate things like the progress of weapons technology, or it may be directed towards the techniques of human leadership.

Only in our time does the progress in the control of inanimate nature and military technology play a paramount role. In the past, technical breakthroughs were rather rare. The so-called ‘primitive societies’ have known little or no technical progress for millennia, and the same holds true, albeit to a lesser degree, even for the advanced classical civilizations.

So as a rule, it was the technique of human leadership, which people tried to evolve as a means of strength. But let us, first, turn to:

Power built on weapons

In our time, we are so used to deriving the strength of a nation from the progress of its economy and weapons technology, that we all too easily overlook the fact that societies rarely owed their strength to a marked superiority of their weaponry. In the frequent cases where they had achieved about the same technical level, the outcome of war was not at all a matter of superior technology, but by the people who use it. Weapons were of crucial importance only when some invention was so groundbreaking that it gave its users an overwhelming advantage. This was undoubtedly the case in Central America, when the Spaniards mowed down first the Aztecs and later the Incas with firearms then totally unknown to the Indians. But even the extraordinary superiority of the new weapons would hardly have sufficed to lead the Spaniards to victory. It was the conquerors’ ready-to-die boldness that made it possible for a handful of desperados to overcome the resistance of two populous nations.

Nor was economic power, which plays such an important role in our time, very much noticed in earlier epochs. Such power simply resulted from the fertility of an area and the number of people by whom it was cultivated. The number of ones own people and the available food reserves gave a rough measure of whether or not it would be possible to defend oneself against an enemy.


Even the classic manuals devoted entirely to military strength and self-protection like, for instance, Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War‘, or, two and a half millennia later, the book ‘On War’ by German Major General Carl von Clausewitz deal with technology rather cursory. They rather focus on how to make a ‘correct use’ of people and how to impart to them the ‘right attitude’.

Such a right attitude was all-important because it made a huge difference whether people agreed to fight for a goal they believed to be of vital importance or whether they failed to feel any loyalty to their country and its institutions. The strength of a community has always been seen in its unity, which more often than not was even expressed in outward uniformity. In the so-called tribal societies (once labeled ‘primitive’), external features such as characteristic tattoos, special forms of clothing and ornaments were quite common. The affiliation of every individual with a specific tribe was thus an obvious fact, visible to friends and enemies alike – and it was supposed to be so. Individuals were marked by external signs as well as by internal values ​​and convictions – this twofold strategy is as old as mankind.

On the one hand, unity in thinking and feeling (and sometimes even in outward markers) corresponded to a deeply felt need of man as a social being: his urge for belonging to some group with which he shared his innermost convictions. This was a basic need that normally finds its most obvious expression in a common language and easily extends to common values ​​and a common worldview. A conspicuous uniformity in human behavior and thinking has always been the first thing noticed by anthropologists when they were confronted with the people of foreign cultures. It gives a visible expression to the elementary need for security in a community of like-minded and like-feeling people.

But such external as well as internal uniformity has still another root: it serves the purpose of domination. The more visibly the individual wears the external and internal marks of his own tribe (or one’s own nation, etc.), the less would he dare to escape from his own community. Only then was he thrown body and soul into the common lot, for his own survival depended on that of the people to which he belonged.

This dependency did not, of course, originate with the nation-states of Europe, which introduced universal compulsory military service and made it the duty for every citizen to die, if necessary, for his nation. The subjection of the individual by society dates back to the earliest beginnings of human history, and in the past it was often far more totalitarian than during modern times. It was no invention of Rome or the Middle Ages to burn, quarter or crucify outsiders abused as heretics, betrayers, etc. Outsiders were a problem for any society because they tended to dissolve unity and thus to weaken it. For unity has always been one of the most effective ways to strengthen and protect one’s own group against others.

The unpredictability of the ‘human factor’

But at all times, outsiders offered a chance for a fresh start too, because unity was never available at the push of a button. Charismatic leaders could not be conjured out of a hat, but they undoubtedly played a special role in history – a fact repeatedly emphasized by Max Weber. No one could summon unity for victory or crime more effectively than people capable of transmitting their own emotions to crowds of other people. Conversely, all emotions could ebb and die out if such conjurors were missing. Then unity was in danger of falling apart and with it a society that readily disintegrates into mere particles competing and conflicting with each other – the ‘Particules Elementaires’ of Michel Houellebecq. Unity was always in danger – that is why societies were so keen on conjuring it, consolidating it in common rituals, uttering it in prayer formulas, proclaiming it in battle-cries.

Man longs to be in harmony with other people, but when he no longer believes to attain such harmony, he may easily turn into a merciless destroyer of the same truths he had up to then zealously cherished. Realms, cultures, nations come into being through unity – and they disintegrate when it erodes and is subject to decay. As a rule, it is of little use that only coercion – one of the two roots of uniformity – persists. As soon as the need for emotional communion is no longer satisfied, a society is eaten away like by some invisible poison. In the United States, this long-admired country, such decay seems to be taking place right now, while authoritarian Russia under Putin is experiencing a kind of renaissance, and China is on the way of confronting the rest of the world with a united will and purpose.

The fundamental novelty of our present situation

Is there anything to be learned from the fact that even in the remotest past, the ‘human factor’ played a crucial role in protecting man from his own kind? I’m afraid the answer has to be in the negative, as we find ourselves in a situation that never existed before. Humanity has entered a new era of history without any precedent in former times.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, any human community had to protect itself from others – the enemy being in most cases represented by the people beyond the border. This dichotomy does no longer apply to our present situation. Russia is in no need to protect itself from America, America from China or vice versa. The three great powers are so well protected by their respective nuclear arsenals that every attacker automatically kills himself as soon as he presses the atomic button. If A presses the button, B does so immediately afterwards – and probably the smaller powers C, D and E will follow suit. The planet turns into a nuclear fireball, which, shortly thereafter, will be ravaged by devastating glacial storms.

The danger facing the great powers A, B and C is therefore no longer found outside of themselves, but originates within them – only delayed by the difference of minutes. It is no longer the others who kill us, we kill ourselves by a reflexive reaction believed to be inescapable – that is the fundamentally new thing about our present situation.

And this strangely new situation cannot be defused by a further advance of weapons technology – after all, we need not wipe ourselves out more than once. Nor will greater national unity be of any help. Even this oldest and most effective means of self-protection loses its meaning in the 21st century. Against the threat of nuclear annihilation even the greatest internal cohesion turns out to be utterly useless.

A situation that never happened before

The new age needs new answers – radically new answers, it seems to me. We have to learn that we are sitting on a powder keg whose explosion would transform the globe into an uninhabitable desert for human beings (including the more highly developed animals), and it would do so for millions of years. No previous time could have found a recipe against this danger, because no previous time has known it. But since the second half of the 20th century many people have had their own thoughts about how to deal with the threat of collective annihilation.

The most popular attitude is to belittle the danger or even to declare it non-existent. Since each side, so most people argue, will be fully aware of the fact that by pressing the apocalyptic button it necessarily triggers its own annihilation, we may be sure that no side dares to take such a step. Some people even conclude that humankind lives safer today than at any time before. As apocalyptic war brings with it collective destruction, this can only mean that an apocalyptic war will simply no longer happen.

I consider this hope unfounded, indeed dangerous

We may probably assume that only madmen will press the button in full awareness of the consequences (but are madmen really so rare in history?). But our belief in the reason of man does not protect us from evil coincidence. As a matter of fact, mere chance always plays an independent role alongside the reason of politicians at the head of states. In postwar history, on three occasions at least, the nuclear Armageddon was almost triggered – namely by such evil coincidence. Experts like to call it a miracle that until now the apocalypse did not happen.

Evil chance shows a more threatening grimace with each passing day, as the attack and defense systems become ever more complex and attack and defense missiles ever faster. The time lapse between an assumed first strike and the decision for a counterattack is well on the way of being reduced to a minimum because of technical ‘progress’. It will soon be brought down to a minute. Within such a short time it must be decided whether or not to unleash the inferno.

The time of decision thus fatally reduced, it seems realistic to assume that in the near future it will and, indeed, must be delegated to computers, which already nowadays coordinate large parts of military activities on land, water and in the air. In other words, machines will decide on the survival of mankind. This is the horrible perspective faced by humanity at the beginning of the 21st century. And matters have become even more serious by the much acclaimed transition form a bipolar to a multipolar world order. Since the nineties of the last century, we are not under the sway of merely two great nuclear powers but three already, and in the near future there may even be many. Evil coincidence as an independent manipulator of human destiny has become a most formidable player – in addition to madmen and sheer human sloppiness.

The UN as supposed savior

There have been many suggestions in recent decades about how to face the new situation. If they come from civil society, almost all of them tend to give greater power to the United Nations. In fact, there would be no reason to brood any further about the end of humanity if it were possible to transfer the control of nuclear weapons from the hands of nation-states into those of the world community. Humanity as a whole has certainly no interest in blowing itself into pieces. One can not well imagine that the Security Council or the General Assembly would embark on such a decision.

The suggestion therefore seems obvious, but it has a major disadvantage: there is not the slightest hope that it will ever be realized. The UN has invariably be kept on a short leash by the superpowers – and not the other way round. It is the great nation-states that support the United Nations with good words and money as long as the latter remain at their service, but they immediately withdraw their support even reviling them with impunity when they feel that the United Nations turn a deaf ear to their interests. Anyone hoping for the United Nations to build something like a world government above and beyond the nation-states must be blamed for having his heads in the clouds.

World government

Half a century ago, three great men – Bertrand Russell, Arnold Toynbee and Albert Einstein – were thinking about a solution to the problem, and all three came to the same conclusion. Only a world government could banish the danger of self-extinction, because the old fatal antagonism of competing governments would give way to domestic policy and a police that would provide for internal peace. Of course, nuclear weapons could not be disinvented – inventions never can – but there is simply no further motivation for using them. No police needs weapons of mass destruction in order to safeguard internal order.

After Einstein had made this suggestion, he was accused of talking about things he did not understand. In his answer, Einstein made clear what humanity would expect if it would not accept this solution. He said literally: “If the idea of ​​world government is not realistic, then there is only one realistic view of our future: wholesale destruction of man by man.”

As noted by historian Ian Morris, whom I mentioned above, this vision too suffers from a serious drawback. Up to the present day, no major power has ever reached its dominant position without war. Thus, the assumption seems to be futile that any one of the great superpowers, the US, Russia or China, could gain supremacy over their equally ambitious opponents without a major war – that is without that final nuclear destruction which a world-government was meant to avoid in the first place.

The rogues ally themselves

The US has coined the term ‘rogue state’ and quite liberally apply it to all countries arousing their displeasure in one way or other. The category does not necessarily include the enemies of democracy, such as dictatorships or other states defying the law, because the White House does not feel any explicit reluctance to cooperate closely with villains, as long as they are ‘its’ villains – the approved ones so to speak. The category of genuine rogue states only embraces those countries that are opposed to the economic or political goals of the United States.

But which countries are really in danger of acting as rogues? In answering this question, we should remember the famous statement of Lord Acton that power corrupts and absolute power inevitably corrupts absolutely. Superstates come closest to absolute power, so they are constantly in danger of internal corruption, which then determines their external actions as well. The leading world powers do not always behave tyrannically, but they are constantly temp­ted to do just that (especially towards smaller ones).

This, however, is not just a danger – paradoxically, it may prove to be an opportunity as well. In fact, we can be fairly sure that superpowers have at least the same strong will to survive as every single human being. The most powerful states, ie those who, according to Lord Acton’s theory, are potentially the greatest villains, are nevertheless keen on survival, so they could band together if they recognize that such collusion may be the only remaining chance. As long as they remain fierce opponents, the question of supremacy can only be decided by a final war leading to extinction, but when banding together they could achieve what the honest but powerless UN will never bring about, namely world government.

To a certain extent, the mutual coordination between the superpowers already exists as of today, although it is usually carried out in secret behind the scenes. All parties are aware that the alternative to such a procedure would be a war between them which they must by all means avoid.

I admit that I fail to see any other possible solution to the most pressing problem of our time. In a book from 2015 (as yet unpublished), I described in more detail the causes and consequences of what I believe is the inevitable evolution towards a world government. For my part I find it as unpalatable as the collusion of mafia bosses, who combine to build up a more encompassing mafia organization, but for lack of other viable alternatives, it seems to be the only way out of mankind’s greatest impasse.

As for our own continent, Europe, it no longer ranges among superpowers – it does not even want to be a great military power -, but it could see its mission in forming a bridge between Russia and the United States. That would be a great task for the purpose of détente and peace – it could even be the most important task for survival.