War and Human Nature

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Prior to about 12, years ago, the nomadic forager lifeway was ubiquitous. If the purpose is to gain insights through analogy about the peacefulness or warlikeness of human societies over the course of human evolution, then the most appropriate type of extant society to consider is nomadic forager social organisation. Researchers who have worked with nomadic foragers usually report that warfare is absent or rudimentarily developed in nomadic forager societies. In , there was a data raid on anthropology by a member of the Bellicose School. US economist Samuel Bowles self-selected eight societies to estimate war mortality in the long expanse of human prehistory called the Pleistocene, which extends backward in time until about two million years ago.

We note various features of nomadic forager social organisation that all work against the practice of war at this archaic level of social organisation. Nomadic forager group size tends to be too small to support warfare. Additionally, the actual group membership changes regularly, and given therefore that a person will have relatives and friends spread out across various bands, this discourages war. Furthermore, nomadic forager societies tend not to be segmented into subgroups such as patrilineages that would form natural units for fighting.

Isn’t “War” Human Nature?

Nomadic forager societies are egalitarian and consequently, with a lack of social hierarchy and leadership positions, nobody has the authority to command others to fight a war. Material possessions or caches of food are lacking, so there is nothing to plunder and the nomadic lifestyle makes the capture and containment of individuals against their will for example, slaves or brides impractical and, in fact, extremely rarely reported in reality.

As a side note, one major difficulty with the chimpanzee model is the existence of bonobos, another species of apes just as closely related to humans as are chimpanzees, but who never have been observed to raid neighbouring groups or to kill members of their own species under any circumstances. We decided to take a look nearer to home, at humans that is, and consider what nomadic forager behaviour suggests about war and peace. We therefore investigated all instances of killing for a systematically derived sample of 21 nomadic forager band societies.

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To avoid the potential problem of sampling bias cherry picking , rather than self-selecting the societies, we instead derived the research sample based on ratings of previous researchers. For all the cases of lethal aggression in this sample of societies, over half of the killings were committed by individuals acting alone, rather than by the type of coalitions of males hypothesised under the chimpanzee model.

Furthermore, in almost two-thirds of the cases, the reasons for lethal aggression had nothing to do with attacking members of other groups, but were interfamilial disputes, within-group executions, accidents, and various interpersonal situations as when two men fought over a particular woman. Such killings are not warfare by any stretch of the definition.

Overall, in contradiction to the chimpanzee model, we concluded that, in nomadic forager societies, most cases of lethal aggression fit the definition of homicide; a few other cases could be classified as feud; and only a minority are war. Peaceful societies Another point to make explicit is the cross-cultural variation in aggression apparent even in a sample of 21 societies. At the violent extreme, one society, the Tiwi of Australia, accounted for almost half of the lethal incidences.

At the other extreme, three societies lacked any such incidences.


The other societies had variable amounts of lethal violence. Roughly half of the societies, 10 out of 21, had no cases wherein more-than-one-killer acted to commit a crime together. So even though homicides occur in most of these societies, they take place more regularly in some cultures than in others. The Semang of Malaysia were one of the three societies with no reported killings, and a subgroup of the Semang called the Batek have been extensively studied by the anthropological team of Karin and Kirk Endicott.

The Batek illustrate how it is possible to raise children, generation after generation, to become nonviolent adults. The Batek use blow guns to fire poisoned darts at prey animals. These weapons could also kill human beings.

The Philosophy of War

The Endicotts catch this idea in the title of their very readable book, The Headman was a Woman. Intervening for peace Anthropology provides fascinating insights into the myriad ways that people keep the peace and, in those cases where the peace has been broken, into the paths that people take to reconcile and restore their damaged relationships. Third parties often intervene, sometimes in dramatic ways. In their fields near the Nile, two Nubian brothers argued regularly about how to share the irrigation water.

Anthropologist Robert Fernea relates how one day their uncle overheard the shouting. This was the end of the argument. Robert Carneiro relates another tale of successful third party intervention, this time at the intergroup level, which took place in the s in South America. The Yao people were on friendly terms with the Caribs and Aricoures and feared a bloodbath might take place between them, so they intervened and convinced both groups to cease hostilities. In a dramatic display, the Caribs threw their weapons of war to the ground and ran to embrace the war-party of the Aricoures.

CARTA: Violence in Human Evolution: Resources and War; Culture;Hunter-Gatherers and Human Nature.

The peacemaking Yao then hosted both groups of reconciled enemies in their village for over a week to cement the peace agreement by providing both food and a venue for amicable social interaction. The importance of the third party as peacemaker is reflected once again in an account by E Adamson Hoebel involving the Comanches and Utes of the North American plains.

A Ute woman who some years before had been captured by the Comanches, and had borne a son, was now a member of the group that was engaged in battle with the Utes. The mother feared for the life of her son, one of the Comanche braves.

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  • She mounted a horse and rode between the two groups of combatants, holding up her hand and insisting that they stop fighting. Delivering a speech, the woman explained that she was on both sides of this conflict for she was a Ute and her son was Comanche. She told all present that the fighting should cease, and after some discussion the two sides made peace. In recognition of her brave act of peacemaking, a council of Ute chiefs later presented the woman with a special antelope shinbone insignia affixed to her tipi.

    Good news A cross-cultural perspective shows that humans in fact deal with nearly all their conflicts without using any physical aggression, both between individuals and between groups. Obviously human beings have the potential to make war and to act with violence towards others, but humans also have a strong potential for getting along and solving disputes without violence.

    But it's hard to know how much of our storytelling demonstrates a fundamental violent streak, and how much is a reflection of our fear and desire to record it. Even if our own accounts are biased, surely the archaeological record itself isn't … right? A species that evolved to violently drive out competing populations should leave behind some solid evidence of its aggression stretching back beyond antiquity. Advocates of the hawk model of innate human aggression point out the high percentage of deaths due to warfare throughout history.

    If more than a quarter of all humans died as a direct result of some kind of group violence, it would be reasonable to expect to have some sort of influence on how we've evolved. But Ferguson disputes such figures, accusing their authors of cherry picking, pointing out that signs of a violent end aren't necessarily a signature of battle. When and where it began is very different in different places around the world, but there are stretches of even thousands of years when there are no clear signs of war.

    This ambiguity on how to interpret primary evidence — from signs of skeletal damage to alleged weapons to the role of buildings as defensive structures — means evidence in favour of the hawk argument is too weak to be conclusive. Our selfish genes can generate a wide array of nasty, destructive and unpleasant actions; and yet, these same selfish genes can incline us toward altruistic acts of extraordinary selflessness. It is at least possible that our remarkably rapid brain evolution has been driven by the pay-off derived by successful warlike competition with other primitive human and humanoid groups.

    Indeed, it is easy to develop models whereby animals and people who are adroit at these tasks — along with genes that predispose in such directions — will be favoured by natural selection over alternative individuals and alleles that are comparatively more bellicose. Moreover, even as warfare is new to the human experience and therefore liable to be culturally induced rather than biologically based, behavioural systems of restraint are old, shared by numerous animal species, and therefore likely to be deep-seated in our nature.

    No scientific proof that war is ingrained in human nature, according to study

    After all, even in a war-ridden world, actual wars are much rarer than are examples of non-violent conflict resolution; the latter happens every day, among nations no less than between individuals. We could never be as altruistic as worker honeybees, or as solitary as deep-sea angler fish. There are no human societies in which all members are expected to have sex a dozen times each day, or not at all.

    But there is a limit to our genetically influenced proclivities — and this, please note, is written by an evolutionary biologist who has been accused of hypothesising genes for just about everything. A useful distinction in this regard is between evolved adaptations and capacities. Language is almost certainly an adaptation , something that all normal human beings can do, although the details vary with circumstance.

    By contrast, reading and writing are capacities , derivative traits that are unlikely to have been directly selected for, but have developed through cultural processes. Similarly, walking and probably running are adaptations; doing cartwheels or handstands are capacities. In my view, interpersonal violence is a human adaptation, not unlike sexual activity, parental care, communication and so forth. It is something we see in every human society. Meanwhile, war — being historically recent, as well as erratic in worldwide distribution and variation in detail — is almost certainly a capacity.

    And capacities are neither universal nor mandatory. Both a devil and an angel perch on our shoulders, gesturing toward evolutionary predilections in both directions. Let me be clear. Violence is widespread and, sadly, deeply human, just as the adaptation for violence under certain circumstances is similarly ingrained in many other species. But war is something else. It is a capacity, and involves group-oriented lethal violence. To engage an absurdly positive simile: violence is like marriage, in the sense that some sort of process whereby adults solemnise their relationship appears to be a cross-cultural universal, and is a likely candidate for being an adaptive part of human nature.

    By the same token, plain, old interpersonal violence is a real, albeit regrettable, part of human nature. True enough for most phenomena: the solar system is as it was when Ptolemaic thinking held sway; nor did this change after Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo came up with a more accurate descriptive theory. And gravity was gravity before and after Newton. But theories of human nature are rather different. When I write or lecture about the social behaviour and reproductive strategies of different marmot species, no sociopolitical implications are involved.

    Rather, our expectations and thus our behaviour changes, and with very serious consequences. If we are convinced, for example, that Thomas Hobbes was correct and people are naturally inclined to be nasty and brutish, this has implications for our politics, including our sense of national budgetary priorities — how much to invest in, say, education and health care versus the police and the military — which in turn is liable to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    How many arms races and cycles of international distrust have been fed by a pre-existing view that the other side is aggressive, potentially violent and irremediably warlike, which in turn leads to policies and actions that further confirm such assumptions? Especially when they speak to matters of war and peace, theories about the fundamental nature of human beings are more insidious and influential than other evolutionary research, such as whether modern humans carry Neanderthal genes, or the potency of gene versus individual versus group selection, and so forth.

    Rather, I recognise that these particular ideas have real effects on crucial topics such as national levels of defence spending and whether or not to go to war. I am not arguing that scientific perspectives should be evaluated by their ideological, political, and social implications.

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