Feb 22, 2012

Biology of Peace

Chapter in Book on Why Peace, edited by Mark Guttman see http://www.why-peace.com/
[This book is an exploration of aggression, and of the evolutionary (and revolutionary) process to peace. Through the insights of men and women, from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives, Why Peace presents stories of wars, invasions, and political repressions—down to the most basic levels of authoritarianism…]

Biology of Peace by Mazin Qumsiyeh

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh teaches biology and does research at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities in occupied Palestine. He previously served on the faculties of the University of Tennessee, Duke and Yale Universities. He is now president of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between People and serves on the board of Al-Rowwad Children Theater in Aida Refugee Camp. His main interest is media activism and public education. He has published over 200 letters to the editor and 200 op-ed pieces and been interviewed on TV and radio extensively (local, national and international). Mazin has published several books, including Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli/Palestinian Struggle and Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment.

I grew up under Israeli occupation, a brutal military occupation accompanied by “colonization” (land theft). My family suffered, though not as much as other Palestinian families. It is hard to describe how much the occupation invades every aspect of one's life here: from eating and drinking to education and from healthcare to travel, from economy to freedom of religion. The antithesis of all of this repression, violence, occupation, colonization and war is, of course, peace. I was thus captivated by peace as a concept, a dream, a hope. Sometimes I was thinking of peace in terms of a state of external calm and lack of disturbance. In other times, I thought peace was related to freedom from repression. Now, I think of peace as being an inner peace, that only comes from acting on what we believe and freeing our minds of the bondage acquired from external sources.

In the Buddhist traditions, we are asked to seek, to have “joyful participation in the sorrows of this world.” I was reminded of this when I was held on July 27, 2011, along with some Israeli and Palestinian activists, in the Israeli military compound at Atarot. This was after being attacked by Israeli soldiers for participation in a peaceful demonstration in the village of Al-Walaja. This beautiful village in the West Bank is slowly being depopulated of its last remaining citizens. Simple and beautiful slogans is hard to apply here, as a wall will encircle the remaining houses of the village, cutting the inhabitants off from their livelihood and forcing them to leave.

How can we even begin to comprehend the sorrow that has engulfed the land of Canaan in the past few decades? The sorrows of the native inhabitants are so horrendous that it sometimes seems unreal. Of 11 million Palestinians in the world, 7 million are refugees or displaced people. The 5.5 million natives who remain inside the country (many displaced) are restricted now to shrinking concentration areas, amounting to only 8.3 percent of the historic land of Palestine.

According to the latest survey of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, some 26.2 percent of families live in poverty and 14.1 percent live in deep poverty, for a total of 40.3 percent living in poverty or deep poverty in the West Bank and Gaza. The situation in Gaza is worse than in the West Bank with 1.5 million people, most of them refugees squeezed in an arid part of Palestine, besieged, blockaded and denied even basic living necessities. This, the worst post-WWII horror inflicted on a people, indeed portends so much suffering. So how can we have personal peace, let alone joyful participation, when we suffer so much?

On a personal level, I have lost many colleagues and friends. Just in the last year alone, I have lost friends who practiced nonviolence and strove to peace: Juliano Mer Khamis, Vittorio Arrigi, Bassem and his sister Jawaher Abu Rahma. I lost many other friends and relatives to illnesses that seem to be increasing in our population. Cancer and heart disease have claimed the lives of many of those: my two brothers-in-law and four dear friends and fellow activists. All such losses certainly make deep scars that reach to the soul. Even routine difficulties in life stir us and disturb us, leaving us a little further from peace. So how can we aspire to peace while our own souls are still far from peace? I believe our internal turmoil is mainly due to a lack of understanding of human nature and the trajectories of history.

To understand humans and what drives us, we have to understand our biology, especially our early development. I taught developmental biology and researched how things could go wrong in early development. We all start as a zygote, a single cell which is the result of the union of the sperm nucleus with the egg nucleus inside the cytoplasm of the egg. That primal cytoplasm is a soup containing codes for proteins that allow the early embryo to get its initial organizational structure, even before the code in the nucleus of the zygote starts to shape the future of the individual. In a sense then, we all depend far more on “stuff” we get from our mothers than stuff we get from our fathers. In developmental biology we know that axis formation (having three dimensions: anterior-posterior, dorsal-ventral, left and right) comes from the cytoplasm of the egg from our mothers. In essence, without that initial material we get from our mother, we would simply be a round blob.

But the miracle of developmental biology is that the joining of 23 chromosomes from the sperm with 23 chromosomes from the egg make one nucleus. There are already endless genetic possibilities for those maternal and paternal chromosomes. This is because the process of producing sperm and eggs, called meiosis, not only reduces the chromosomes by half (from 46 to 23), but creates myriad opportunities for having very different sets of genetic variation, through recombination and chromosome segregation. That is why no two sperm and no two eggs are the same. That is why no two siblings are the same (except of course identical twins, which come from the same zygote).

The first cell divides to become 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 cells. That early embryo implants itself on the uterine wall and the interdigitation of embryonic and maternal tissue forms a placenta. This remarkable structure is where nutrients are supplied to the embryo, and oxygen and CO2 are exchanged. Many embryos are lost along the way because they have genetic codes that affect these developmental processes. Some 15-20 percent of recognized pregnancies end-up spontaneously aborted (a natural selection process). Harmful mutations are the price that our species pays for possibilities of useful mutations. Mutations are the natural substances upon which natural selection operates. Useful mutations survive and travel to the next generation. That simple idea (developed and spread by Charles Darwin) revolutionized our understanding of biology and in turn has advanced a wide range of fields, from environmental research to medical studies.

The embryo developing in the uterus is, of course, subject to its environment. Both harmful and beneficial stimuli shape its very existence and future. That is why pregnant mothers are told to stay away from harmful materials (alcohol, tobacco and other drugs) and maintain a good diet. (Many Palestinian mothers delivered babies with blindness in the few years following the Nakba of 1948, because of vitamin E deficiencies in the refugee camps.) Some scientific studies also suggest a child’s brain development may be susceptible to nutritional food and toxin-free air and the absence of other harmful things. There are data that show that even music and the mother’s good mood influences the mental capacity and development of the child she is carrying. Needless to say, women in war zones do not produce the healthiest babies. This is why the impact of a military occupation is not just on the adults and children around but on future generations.

After birth, education from society may create tribalistic racist notions (e.g., Nazi Germany… or Israel today). Challenging these notions of superiority and striving for common good is possible, but it requires shedding some of the educational baggage that nationalistic and militaristic societies use to saturate young minds. At one level, this is more difficult today than in the past: Modern warfare is much bloodier than ancient warfare, but it is conducted from a distance.

Soldiers no longer come home to wash off the blood of their enemies from their clothes and swords. They come home with images of the tools that they have used to destroy enemies from a distance. The faces of their enemies are not familiar to them, only outlines in gun sights or on computer screens. The facial distortions and agonized screams of those killed do not reach the killers. Some of these killers like to pretend they do not imagine these things. They want to cling to the elements of their humanity. They may go back home, and even help an old lady cross the street or pass a candy to a child. But deep in their psyches, these killers know that they have destroyed a human being just like them, with flesh and blood, with feelings, with people who loved him or her.

On the other hand, the development of the internet and of methods of social communication allow a closeness of the human family in new and incredibly positive ways that promote social transformation towards peace and human rights. From the organizing against the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund in Seattle, to Tunisia and Egypt, people are finding their voice. Here in Palestine, we have had a vibrant activist community for decades. Increasingly, Israeli and international activists join hands with native Palestinians in our struggle for peace with justice.

After 20 years of fruitless negotiations between colonizer and colonized, occupier and occupied, even Palestinian elites have come around to see the power of the people. Engaging in international diplomacy while doing popular resistance is seen as critical in increasing the pressure to arrive at a just resolution. If the Israeli government remains intransigent and continues to build colonial settlements on Palestinian lands, the only remaining option will become adopted by more and more people: a push for a single democratic state throughout historic Palestine. That outcome may already have been guaranteed by the relentless expansionist Zionist project. By making a two-state option impossible and forcing us into close contacts, we (Palestinians and Israelis) are developing joint strategies to work for peace, even as walls are erected on our land.

What is remarkable is that humans of different backgrounds are coming to regard peace as personal, and to regard politicians as “behind the times.” All humans have behaviors that trace back to our ancestral primates. From sex to feeding to self-protection to ambition to control of space, we as a species are driven by these deep-rooted innate behaviors. To what extent we can control our behavior in a positive fashion determines our humanity. Governments endeavor to maintain the status quo of control over individuals and the manipulation of conflicts for their benefits. Yet, the achievements by individuals working together towards freedom, peace, and self-government are a testimony to the power that resides in us.

We learned from the civil rights movement in the US, from ending apartheid in South Africa, from the freedoms achieved in Eastern Europe, and from the Arab Spring. I believe the main reason this world functions (and the main reason we remain optimistic) is that good people are everywhere, endeavoring toward inner peace and extending it by deeds to achieve peace in our societies. This happens despite the push-back from governments who are happy with the status quo. Without this “people power,” we would have endless wars and endless repression and injustice. With it and with human cultural evolution speeding up, we indeed look forward to a day when no human life is lost in useless wars and conflicts, and all individuals are free from state aggression. It is up to us to work to accelerate the trend in history.


  1. I have two comments, neither inspired by reading this today but both bearing on the notion of peace.
    That is to say, I thought of these things a few days ago and now seem to have been presented with a forum to present them.
    Briefly, one is that social homogenization allows law to be more benign. Having economic, biological, and legal training, my specialization has been in human systems. So it seems reasonable to regard one function of legal systems as handling cultural disparities. E.g, if a defendant does not speak the language of the court, the defendant is at a disadvantage. So if everybody ends up speaking the same language, that sort of injustice ends. Such homogenization seems to be the actual content of what we call globalization. How about this: globalization=cell-phone. I was talking to some Somalis in Maine here a few weeks ago and they said that they are able to acquaint their friends and families back in Somalia with the latest indications from "the west", so that, for example, the current Ethiopian/Kenyan/UN offensive in Somalia may not be as disastrous for Somalia as it seems: "the west" in general seems to be withdrawing from its quest for world conquest so perhaps the word for Somalia is, "be patient, they will soon go."
    The second point is more biological, but goes to the heart of the struggle. "God" is a major player in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Traditional theology uses spirituality to define God and human openness to the divine. A spirit exists everywhere at once eternally. Such a concept offends the modern mind. Take the core psychological concept from Thomas Aquinas, that knowledge occurs in the imagination (the bearer of sensory images, data derived from the senses) when the definition of the thing sensed comes down from the intellect, as it were, so the sensed thing is known as a member of such-and-such a category: such-and-such a common noun. So if, rather than a spirit directing this process of intellection, being the knower which knows itself in the thing known ("there is no knowledge without the sensory image [phantasm]"), perhaps knowledge is the result of a brain at equilibrium, at rest. Prejudice, then, would be the result when a brain is not at equilibrium. Instead of a competent grasp of sensory data, the uneasy brain produces a projection of fear, greed, and other Buddhist no-no's. Perhaps such a view entirely dispenses with the idea of immaterial human components. So it would be as if John Lennon were saying from the holy laboratory, "Imagine there's no heaven...no hell below...imagine all the people living for today." The question lingers here, what is the role of personal freedom? The "I" is still required in this theory to designate the presence of the equilibrium or of the uneasiness (dis-ease) of denial. Is that "I" more than a tag or label, but a driver of brain function? Well, it might be that another part of the brain registers the anxiety with which the knowledge-or-denial is produced in the imagination, and is drawn to reduce this anxiety. Could there be a brain imperative to peace (like "the still small voice" of Christian literature)? If there is a reliable link between strength and gentleness, then human adaptive superiority would be strictly defined as the ability to "hang loose" in a crisis so as to allow anxiety to abate and knowledge to emerge. Is freedom a good habit, the result of prior practice?
    Perhaps if Israel-Palestine engaged in a sprawling conversation about the soul, all the anxiety would go out of the equation. Ask the next IDF interrogator you meet: do humans have souls, are thesey immortal and immaterial, and how do you know?

  2. Now my reply. Whatever the system, no matter how simple ("watch the red light and do not try to think until it goes off"), it takes an outside agent to monitor it.
    My argument is at http://www.americamagazine.org/content/culture.cfm?cultureid=256&comments=1#readcomments