What is it Good For? – The Roots of War

Anyone who’s spent time among the bickering cliques of a high school (or, for that matter, read William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies“) will be unsurprised by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s assertion that “chronic raiding and feuding characterize life in a state of nature.” Pinker is not alone among prominent minds in declaring war to be rooted deeply in human nature, but a recently released paper in the journal Science suggests that this view may be misguided. According to Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg of Abo Akademi University in Finland, the evidence from the closest parallels to ancient humans, modern hunter-gatherer groups, does not support the hypothesis that war is integral to mankind.

Modern Gudigwa bushmen on the hunt, courtesy of John Gowdy

This is not to say that hunter-gatherer life is inherently peaceful. The researchers found 148 examples of “lethal aggression events” in the 21 groups they studied, as reported in ethnographic studies over the past century. War, however, is something more specific than violence alone; the authors separated the deaths into interpersonal events (what modern society would call homicide or murder) and intergroup events, which better follow an accepted definition of war as “actual, intentional, and widespread armed conflict between political communities.”

Following this division, only a third of deaths could be classified as due to war, and when an outlier group (the Austrialian Tiwi people) was separated from the analysis, only 15 percent of killings involved group on group violence. Of particular interest to today’s struggles over oil or water is the finding that only two of the reported killings involved the contention of resources; most were due to personal concerns like insults or infidelity. In Fry’s words, “When you look at these foraging groups, you see a great deal of cooperation. There are homicides on occasion, but generally people get along very well. Humans have a capacity for warfare — nobody’s denying that. But to make it a central part of human nature is grossly out of contact with the data.”

If war is not encoded in humanity’s genes, then it may be present in its memes. As coined by Richard Dawkins, a meme may be thought of as an idea that follows some of the principles of genetics. Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod explains that “they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.” Certain societies, such as the Eskimos and Lepchas, have no concept of warfare; it might be said that the memes of interpersonal violence have not mutated into those of intergroup conflict among these people. Where war does arise, however, it tends to spread itself quickly, as a group that finds itself under organized attack will be pressured to imitate the meme and organize itself in defense.

Regardless of its origins, war is a fact of modern society. But the knowledge that war is not biologically inherent to humanity gives hope to efforts of peace.


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