The Science of the Christmas Truce

Trench warfare in WWI

Ninety-six years ago on Christmas eve, amidst the trench-fighting carnage and machine-gun slaughter so bitterly remembered as the War to End All Wars, German, Scottish and French troops in Flanders briefly laid down their arms in a spontaneous truce and celebrated in fellowship. The amazing story of the Christmas truce offers a glimmer of hope that, if only under the right circumstances, we can cease our hostilities and recognize our shared humanity with those under other flags.

I had forgotten all about the Christmas truce until reminded of it by a recent episode of the consistently wonderful WNYC Radiolab program. Here’s the blurb for “The Good Show” from December 14:

In this episode, a question that haunted Charles Darwin: if natural selection boils down to survival of the fittest, how do you explain why one creature might stick its neck out for another?

The standard view of evolution is that living things are shaped by cold-hearted competition. And there is no doubt that today’s plants and animals carry the genetic legacy of ancestors who fought fiercely to survive and reproduce. But in this hour, we wonder whether there might also be a logic behind sharing, niceness, kindness … or even, self-sacrifice. Is altruism an aberration, or just an elaborate guise for sneaky self-interest? Do we really live in a selfish, dog-eat-dog world? Or has evolution carved out a hidden code that rewards genuine cooperation?

The program entertainingly reviews some of the evidence and theories concerning the evolution of altruism, game theory and the deep roots of our moral tendencies. And at about 54:30 into the show, it turns to a moving retelling of the Christmas truce story: how it arose incrementally from small acts of self-interest and mutual consideration, and how it was eventually destroyed by the inevitable pressures of the military that wanted these men to kill without conscience. Listen to the whole show on streaming audio for the full context of that great segment (or subscribe to the podcast, why don’t you?).

If you would like to read more about the Christmas truce in particular and the scientific structures on which the angels of our better natures stand, then turn to Patrick F. Clarkin’s glorious post on “Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914.” He offers a terrific overview of some of the findings on empathy, trust, and the strategies that encourage live-and-let-live attitudes. This is science for the season.

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2 Responses to The Science of the Christmas Truce

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  2. Pingback: 2011 Review « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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