October 19, 2018

Scientific approach to the study of peace as a behavior will improve practice of peace

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peter verbeek bodyPeter Verbeek, Ph.D.Peace is not a passive state but an active behavioral process that can and must be studied in science like any other behavior. That is the central theme of “Peace Ethology: Behavioral Processes and Systems of Peace,” a book co-edited by Peter Verbeek, Ph.D., associate professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Anthropology, and recently published by WILEY Blackwell.

Inspired by a workshop titled “Obstacles and Catalysts of Peaceful Behavior” held in March 2013 at the Lorentz Center of Leiden University in the Netherlands, the book is a collection of 23 scholarly essays written by experts in various scientific fields worldwide. The essays focus on peace ethology, the systematic scientific approach to the study of peace using the methods of ethology, which is the biology of behavior.

The weeklong workshop, which was organized by Verbeek and Douglas Fry, Ph.D., professor and chair of the UAB Department of Anthropology, brought together 53 scientists from three continents and disciplines such as anthropology, political science, psychology and more. The participants delved exclusively into the concept of peaceful behavior and came away amazed at the amount of work on peaceful behavior being done by independent researchers across a vast array of disciplines worldwide.

The book, co-edited by Benjamin Peters, Ph.D., at the University of Michigan, is part of a continuing effort to improve collaboration between those researchers in the rapidly growing field.

“For too long in behavioral science, the focus has been to find out why we are aggressive,” Verbeek said. “Why do we fight? Why do we commit atrocities? These questions are important, but they have monopolized behavioral science to the detriment of trying to understand why we are also peaceful. I believe it is an inescapable fact that, as a species, we are as predisposed to peace as we are to aggression.”

On first reflection, it may be difficult for some to grasp the idea of peace as a behavior; but peace ethology holds it should be no different than grasping the converse concept of aggression as a behavior. Understanding what he calls “positive peace” and “negative peace” may help, Verbeek said.

“We look at this book as a demonstration of how peace ethology can bring people together from different disciplines to continue working toward the building of a true behavioral science of peace.”

“When people think about peace, they often think about it as a state that is achieved when there is no more war or violence; but it is much more than that,” Verbeek said. “If you go ask your friends or someone on the street ‘what is peace to you?’ and they say it is a state of nothingness or something like that, we call that negative peace. In reality, people are actively working on peace every day in their homes, their communities and on national levels. That active process we call positive peace.”

Verbeek likens it to many instances in nature where animals depend on or actually cooperate with each other to assure their mutual survival.

“The general view people often have of nature is an endless fight for the survival of the fittest, but the fittest often means those who collaborate best,” Verbeek said. “Those collaborations show that there is aggression in nature, but there are also peaceful behaviors. It is the same with human nature.”

Psychology Today recently published a review of Verbeek and Peters’ work in which the reviewer called it a “forward looking and immensely rich volume.” Verbeek is particularly pleased with this high praise, in great part for the effect he believes it will have in continuing to bolster the efforts of peace ethologists worldwide.

“We look at this book as a demonstration of how peace ethology can bring people together from different disciplines to continue working toward the building of a true behavioral science of peace,” Verbeek said. “It is important that our work becomes more widely known so that people can see the active process side of peace, and comments like these are very helpful in that regard.”

Verbeek, director of the Master’s Program in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, is also particularly pleased by more tangible efforts to put peace ethology into practice. One such effort is currently being undertaken by an alumna of the program who is working through Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office to share her peace ethology ideas through a variety of community outreach programs.

“She is very much inspired by peace ethology and the idea of studying peaceful behavior, and she is practicing it,” Verbeek said. “It is a small but potent example of the optimism I have that this will help us be more peaceful in general.”

Asked whether he believes that society, which currently seems to experience more and more unrest almost daily, will truly be more peaceful in the future, Verbeek is cautiously optimistic.

“I think when we understand our peaceful side more,” Verbeek said, “that will help us improve in the practice of peace as well.”