Human aggression: An imperative to adapt and evolve

I recently spent most of a Saturday deeply engaged with a group of scholars and activists who were in Boston for a national convention on early childhood education.

Our small gathering is developing a strategy for an ambitious children's education initiative focused on developing a culture of peace and tolerance in Egypt. The day was inspiring. We reviewed various global peace education models and explored what is known of successes and failures.

As we propelled our way toward next steps, it was clear that everyone had done their homework.

Over the noon hour, we moved our meeting to a casual eatery. A flow of life streamed from the conference center and hotel, creating an ever-changing mosaic. The people were of all shapes and sizes, and their clothes couldn't have represented a more diverse décor. The synergy carried us to an immediate action plan, which, I dare say, is unusual for this topic and assortment of folks.

Suddenly, a crescendo of exited chatter, mixed with shouts of encouragement, arose from all around. Eyes darted to the TVs in our midst. A fight had broken out. The Boston Bruins were in the second period of a Saturday afternoon game no more than three miles from our table. I cringed. The juxtaposition uncomfortably ached. Here we were, carefully discussing various ways of promoting peace and non-violence. Role modeling and cultural norms were being examined across the spectrum, from the rooted social habits that impede change, to the influence and opportunities available to create new cultures for sustainable peace.

I suddenly felt that I had stepped off on the wrong planet. Of what good was all this energy? Who are we, human beings? Or is that human beasts?

Eyes were wide, fists clenched, and some in the restaurant even stood. Most everyone was swept into the scene and thrilled by the drama and battle. I was reminded what it is about hockey that slowly twists my innards. No one in the Boston Garden sat. The announcers shouted. On the ice, the two referees held out their arms as if defining the edge of a fighter's ring.

With my ideals sinking I searched for signs, hoping that I was merely witnessing a peculiar and marginal segment of humanity. It dawned on me that this was the norm and that I am the oddity.

Who are we really? The human species has survived an extraordinary set of challenges and over time has risen to perch atop the kingdom that we share with our fellow animals. The rate of rise of our species is at this moment in the steepest trajectory of evolution and change. No 1,000 years of human history has witnessed the growth as seen in the past 100. Extraordinary!

The critical characteristics and abilities that have propelled and assured our path have arisen directly from our intellect. Our victories and advances certainly have not come from our brawn - in fact, if the rule of the land were determined by hand-to-hand combat, there is a long list of creatures that would quickly supplant our place as kings.

This leads me to wonder about the origin and role of violence and aggression in the timeline of humanity. Have aggression and violence been adaptive and thus a critical component to our evolution? What role does violence play in our human existence today? What should its role be in the future?

Examination of early childhood behavior clearly portrays that we are beings whose innate urges and tendencies include biting, kicking and repeating "mine, mine, mine." Every ER in the country doubles as a MASH unit for the local daily battles. Of what evolutionary use is this to the survival of our species?

A brief glance at history, and at our world's current 51 wars, reflects the harsh reality that with the sweep of a political pen or a day of military engagement, a lifetime of peace building and health care work can be lost. And, in fact, our capacity for massive destruction and self-annihilation increases by the day .

I believe that our species' greatest challenge - and thus imperative - is to dramatically alter how we approach and resolve conflict. In this changing world, we must adapt and evolve out of our innate urges of violence or we undoubtedly risk a perilous fate. We humans can no longer survive responding reflexively to our urges to bite, kick, and destroy.

Dr. Tom Burke is the director of the Center for Global Health at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Harvard University faculty in emergency medicine.