Diverse populations lived in peace for most of history

On the first day of the Asian Humanism Conference, NUS historian of science Dr John van Wyhe delivered the keynote address on the conference theme: Unity in Diversity. He argued that dramatic events such as wars often overshadow long periods of time where diverse populations lived peacefully together. Tolerating differences and living in peace was in fact the norm, and part of human nature. Here’s a summary of his speech:


Dr John started his speech by stating that there was no diversity when humans emerged in Africa about 100,000 years ago. Everyone was basically the same. Most spoke only one language. Because everyone was so similar, there were no problems in unity. However, that really did not last very long.

Over the next tens of thousands of years, humans migrated out of Africa and eventually covered almost the entire globe. Spatially separated from one another over such a great amount of time, human cultures evolved into thousands of different languages, cultures, religions and beliefs. By the time of the Ancient Egyptians, there was a wall painting representing people from different races that worked for a long time:


One might get the impression that over the course of human history, there is already had a story of conflict between diverse people, said Dr John, adding that in one sense, that is absolutely true. We cannot deny often there is conflict and often, people who are diverse don’t like each other, disrespect each other, or want to conquer each other, he said.

However, Dr John argued that dramatic events, such as wars, obliterate the reality of mundane normal life which went for the majority of time. Throughout most of human history, people just went on with their lives and lived normally. Farmers lived peacefully with their neighbours and with people who were different from themselves.

“Whereas, what we tend to remember are things like the conflict. They are so much more dramatic, get so much more attention and so forth. So the big picture is unfamiliar to most people,” said Dr John. “It’s not wars and conflict that have characterised the majority of human history. There has been other kind of interactions.”

‘Dramatic’ events in evolution


Dr John then went to talk about English naturalist Charles Darwin, and his ideas about competition and struggle in nature. As with wars and normal times in history, some of the more dramatic things tend to overshadow causing other parts of the story be overlooked and ignored here. For example, Darwin said that nature is about struggle and conflict. However, Darwin had also said that nature brings about compassion, sympathy and altruism.

Dr John pointed to studies, such as those by Dutch primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal, which showed that the world was far from a “dog-eat-dog” one. De Waal had studied primates, particularly Bonobos and Chimpanzees. Dr John recommended Dr De Waal’s latest book: The Age of Empathy, which tackled the stereotypical view of the species as cruel, selfish and out to get each other.


“In the animal kingdom, and particularly in the higher primates, our closest relatives, things like empathy for others, simply compassion, cooperation are natural, are their natural instincts. They are not things that are unique to humans. They are things that first emerge with humans, and therefore could not be possibly be attributed to human beliefs system such as religions,” said Dr John.

Dr de Waal discovered many amazing examples of bonobos and chimpanzees behaving in ways that he would find quite touching. For example, they also feel alarmed when they see another about to be hurt. They would in some cases prefer to share rather than to just take everything for themselves when given the opportunity in experiments.

“So this means that the message from evolutionary psychology is not as bleak as some people might think and as the media perhaps usually portray it as,” said Dr John.


Dr John then talked about American linguist Steven Pinker. In his recent book The Better Angels Of Our Nature, Dr Pinker has argued that war has been steadily decreasing over the course of human history, although this is a controversial thesis because he is dealing with recorded history, and not all of human history which is at least of course a hundred thousand years. Nevertheless, Dr John said Dr Pinker does make a compelling case for the great reduction in wars – and not just wars but also acts of inhumanity, brutality, torture and vicious punishment for crimes and so forth.

Peace and conflict in Singapore


Dr John then discussed about Singapore. While some versions of Singapore’s history paint a very nice picture of a peaceful, harmonious and united society, looking back at the island over the last 200 years instead ot the last 50, we will see a very diverse population.

“Different races, different religions living side by side for two hundred years and almost always – 99.99 percent of the time – in total peace and harmony, unity. No riots and such deaths and so forth. Those things are very very rare anomalies,” said Dr John.

The greatest riots that ever happened to Singapore was the Great Riots of 1854, he pointed out. During the riot, Hokkien and Teochew communities fought each other for 10 days, leading to death of approximately 500 people and the destruction of some 300 homes.

“That’s the first war in Singapore – nobody remembers it… I find a bit hard to imagine how – I don’t think there is going to be any more riots between the Hokkiens and the Teochews,” he said. “Nevertheless there was once. As interesting as those episodes are, you must always stand back and see where they fit in the big picture. They are just occasional events.”

Again, it has been the case that people just got on with their lives peacefully despite the fact that their neighbours were different, said Dr John. “Diversity is nothing new… It has been around for a long time. The world has always been full of different groups of people. And they almost always get along peacefully. That’s in our nature too,” he said.

We would like to thank Chris Low and Joel Lim for helping to transcribe Dr John’s speech, which facilitated the writing of this summary.