Star Trek's Utopia: Yes We Can!

Tricorders and transporters are cool, but the most radicalinvention on "Star Trek" may have been its vision of a peacefulhumanity.

Sure, humans are always getting into fights on the show'soriginal and spin-off series, but generally with other, less"enlightened" alien species. Earth in the "Star Trek"universe is an egalitarian, utopian planet that has long ago shrugged off the habit of war.

People in Star Trek's vision of the 23rd century use their timeand talents to explore the universe, create art and probe the mysteries ofscience.

Sounds nice, huh?

While some have dismissed this aspect of the show as its mostfanciful element, psychologists and political scientists say it might not be sounrealistic.

"I do think humans might someday reach more peacefulcoexistence if we don't destroy the planet first, though I doubt it will beutopia," said Dennis Fox, emeritus professor of legal studies andpsychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "If utopia doescome, it won't be because human nature changes, or because somegovernmental authority or alien race forces it upon us, but because we manageto create new social structures more conducive to satisfying human needs andvalues."

Is violence human nature?

Human nature is compatible with a peaceful existence, Fox andother psychologists say.

An international group of 20 scientists convened in Seville,Spain, in 1986 by the Spanish National Commission for UNESCO came to the sameconclusion.

"Just as 'wars begin in the minds of men,' peace also beginsin our minds. The same species who invented war is capable of inventingpeace," the group wrote in its Seville Statement on Violence.

Not everyone agrees, though. Some scientists say aggression is afundamental human trait built into us by thousands of years of evolution.

A 2008 study published in the journal Psychopharmacologyfound that when mice display aggression, their brains are rewarded with dopamine, apleasure-inducing neurotransmitter. The findings are thought to extend tohumans.

"We learned from these experiments that an individual willintentionally seek out an aggressive encounter solely because they experience arewarding sensation from it," said study leader Craig Kennedy, professor ofpediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Maybe both peace and violence are part of human nature, some say.

"Humans are wired with great potentials for altruism, caringand compassion but also for destructive competition and for killing," saidMarc Pilisuk, a psychologist at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center inSan Francisco.

What's our problem?

Besides human nature, the main hurdle to peace is bad government,some scientists say.

"A better world, if it comes into being, depends not so muchon technological fixes as on breaking down centers of power so that we can allplay a significant role in deciding matters that affect our daily lives,"Fox told

Pilisuk agrees.

"If there is a common enemy around which humanity can unite,it is the institutions that protect privilege for an elite network withextraordinary power and minimal accountability," Pilisuk wrote in ane-mail. "At present, hopes for peace look most promising in thedecentralized myriad of creative local actions of people wanting leaders torespond to their true needs."

Taking this idea a step further, Richard Koenigsberg, a formerprofessor of psychology at Queens College in New York City, argues that it'snot governments, but the idea of countries at all that creates war.

"Warfare is linked to the human attachment to 'nations.' Aslong as people believe that countries are the most significant thing in theworld and that 'nations have the right to kill,' then warfare willpersist," he said.

Perhaps if humans come to see ourselves as residents of a singleplanet, rather than citizens of individual nations with specific interests, warwill be unnecessary.

"War is not part of human nature," Koenigsberg "It is intimately linked to our psychic attachment tocountries."

Already peace on Earth?

Hope for a nonviolent society might not have to wait until the23rd century. Peace on Earth already exists in some places.

"Although our own society has a good deal of violence, thereare societies which are pretty nonviolent ? no wars and very few murders andrapes ? and they are not fighting aliens," said psychologist Joseph deRivera, director of the Peace Studies Program at Clark University in Massachusetts.

The Web site lists current and pastnonviolent societies. Examples include the Batek people of Malaysia, theHimalayan Buddhist Ladakhi people, The Mbuti rainforest-dwellers of CentralAfrica, and even the American Amish.

These communities have found ways to resolve conflicts withoutwar, so maybe the rest of us can, too.

"I'm hopeful for two reasons," de Rivera said."1.) Most people don't like to be dominated by the powerful. 2.) Althoughwe don't have aliens to fight against we do have nasty viruses and globalwarming that we have to unify to deal with."

There's nothing like a really big problem to bring peopletogether.

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Clara Moskowitz
Assistant Managing Editor

Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.