Isn’t It About Time We Stopped Acting Like Fruit Flies

Abstracted from “A Scientists View of Almost Everything” by Mark M Green

When the Scots revolted against the feudal demands of Edward I and mustered an army around the turn of the fourteenth century it lead to a massive English response causing the Scots to lose their richest and most populous city, Berwick. According to “A History of Britain” by Simon Schama, Edward decided to use the people of Berwick to send a message to the Scots to desist from such revolutionary folly in the future. “Over three days an immense massacre – at least eleven thousand souls, including countless women and children – took place.” 

The Byzantines and Bulgarians had been at war for decades in a period around three hundred years before the English-Scottish encounter at Berwick when the Byzantine emperor Basil decisively defeated the Bulgarians in 1014. Basil decided that he needed to teach the Bulgarians not to meddle with him again. He took the nearly fifteen thousand prisoners from the battle, divided them into groups of one hundred and blinded ninety nine men in each group, leaving one man in each group with one eye so that he could lead the others home thereby becoming famously known as Basil the Bulgar-Slayer.

It’s not fun to become aware of the ugly side of humanity as these two among the multitude of examples demonstrate, but we can hope that such things took place long ago and now we are an increasingly more civilized people less capable of such atrocities. Aren’t we?

Let’s jump ahead about a half a millennium to the First World War where about twenty million lives were lost, about half of these non-combatants, which makes an important contrast to the Second World War, only twenty five years later, a war that ground up life in excess of seventy million human beings by most counts with nearly twice as many noncombatants killed as combatants. As in all wars, many of these noncombatants in WW II died as collateral damage, an “unintended” consequence of battle. But many also died with a view to weakening the enemy’s resolve, as Edward I calculated back in the fourteenth century. Many died simply because they were hated, which may have figured in Edward’s actions and certainly was demonstrated in the Nazi actions against the Jewish people.

But maybe we can hope that we all learned a lesson from WW II. “Never again,” can be heard. Really? Consider Korea from 1950 to 1953 where the best estimates are in the range of one million dead on all sides of the conflict. Vietnam came to its end about forty five years ago, where a very roughly estimated one million combatants died with about four times that many civilians losing their lives and that doesn’t count the killing fields of Cambodia from 1975-1979 under Pol Pot, which arose out of the conflict in Vietnam and where between one and a half to three million people out of a population of seven million are estimated to have been killed. And then in 1994 eight hundred thousand Rwandans were said to have been killed in the space of 100 days in genocide of one tribal group against another.

Welcome to the present day, and we have Iraq and Afghanistan, and more, with huge numbers of people dying today with non-combatants increasingly taking the toll – higher and higher ratios of those without weapons dying compared to those with weapons – dying to “teach” those with weapons to lay them down, an age old tactic all sides use. What military target was there to eliminate, for example, in Nagasaki and Hiroshima?

Why do we kill? Where does our cruelty, our aggression, come from? All of us have seen a snarling threatening animal but it may be difficult to accept that the murderous tendencies of our own species arise from the same biological source. But scientific research on fruit flies point in precisely that direction, toward a genetic source of aggression. 

Males fight for dominance when presented with limited resources under the headings, food, females and space, while females continuously bicker without a winner. A male fly that loses a fight is unlikely to win another and especially so against the same competitor – a loser’s mentality. A fight between two unevenly matched male flies will be resolved by threats, such as raising their wings while evenly matched flies will go to the mat using every move available to win the fight. Sound familiar. Well, it might be considering that scientists suspect that the genetic basis they are finding for the fly’s pugnacious behavior is behind the aggressive behavior of that snarling threatening dog and other vertebrates such as us. If you want to take a closer look and maybe catch some fisticuffs you’d better get your magnifying glass out the next time you have some rotten fruit. 

Fruit flies range to about 2.5 mm but they really pack a punch. All well and good for fruit flies but isn’t it about time all of us stopped acting like them.

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