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Is War Our Biological Destiny?

In these days of hidebound militarism and round-robin carnage, when even that beloved ambassador of peace, the Dalai Lama, says it may be necessary to counter terrorism with violence, it's fair to ask: Is humanity doomed? Are we born for the battlefield congenitally, hormonally incapable of putting war behind us? Is there no alternative to the bullet-riddled trapdoor, short of mass sedation or a Marshall Plan for our DNA?
Was Plato right that "Only the dead have seen the end of war"?

In the heartening if admittedly provisional opinion of a number of researchers who study warfare, aggression, and the evolutionary roots of conflict, the great philosopher was, for once, whistling in a cave. As they see it, blood lust and the desire to wage war are by no means innate. To the contrary, recent studies in the field of game theory show just how readily human beings establish cooperative networks with one another, and how quickly a cooperative strategy reaches a point of so-called fixation. Researchers argue that one need not be a Pollyanna, or even an aging hippie, to imagine a human future in which war is rare and universally condemned.

They point out that slavery was long an accepted fact of life; if your side lost the battle, tough break, the wife and kids were shipped off as slaves to the victors. Now, when cases of slavery arise in the news, they are considered perverse and unseemly.

The incentive to make war similarly anachronistic is enormous, say the researchers, though they worry that it may take the dropping of another nuclear bomb in the middle of a battlefield before everybody gets the message. "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought," Albert Einstein said, "but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Admittedly, war making will be a hard habit to shake. "There have been very few times in the history of civilization when there hasn't been a war going on somewhere," said Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and classicist at California State University in Fresno. He cites a brief period between A.D. 100 and A.D. 200 as perhaps the only time of world peace, the result of the Roman Empire's having everyone, fleetingly, in its thrall.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have found evidence of militarism in perhaps 95 percent of the cultures they have examined or unearthed. Time and again groups initially lauded as gentle and peace-loving the Mayas, the !Kung of the Kalahari, Margaret Mead's Samoans, eventually were outed as being no less bestial than the rest of us. A few isolated cultures have managed to avoid war for long stretches. The ancient Minoans, for example, who populated Crete and the surrounding Aegean Islands, went 1,500 years battle-free; it didn't hurt that they had a strong navy to deter would-be conquerors.

Warriors have often been the most esteemed of their group, the most coveted mates. And if they weren't loved for themselves, their spears were good courtship accessories. This year, geneticists found evidence that Genghis Khan, the 13th century Mongol emperor, fathered so many offspring as he slashed through Asia that 16 million men, or half a percent of the world's male population, could be his descendants.

Wars are romanticized, subjects of an endless, cross-temporal, transcultural spool of poems, songs, plays, paintings, novels, films. The battlefield is mythologized as the furnace in which character and nobility are forged; and, oh, what a thrill it can be. "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction," writes Chris Hedges, a reporter for The New York Times who has covered wars, in "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." Even with its destruction and carnage, he adds, war "can give us what we long for in life."

"It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living," he continues.

Nor are humans the only great apes to indulge in the elixir. Common chimpanzees, which share about 98 percent of their genes with humans, also wage war: gangs of neighboring males meet at the borderline of their territories with the express purpose of exterminating their opponents. So many males are lost to battle that the sex ratio among adult chimpanzees is two females for every male.

And yet there are other drugs on the market, other behaviors to sate the savage beast. Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist and professor of psychology at Emory University, points out that a different species of chimpanzee, the bonobo, chooses love over war, using a tantric array of sexual acts to resolve any social problems that arise. Serious bonobo combat is rare, and the male-to-female ratio is, accordingly, 1:1. Bonobos are as closely related to humans as are common chimpanzees, so take your pick of which might offer deeper insight into the primal "roots" of human behavior.

Or how about hamadryas baboons? They're surly, but not silly. If you throw a peanut in front of a male, Dr. de Waal said, it will pick it up happily and eat it. Throw the same peanut in front of two male baboons, and they'll ignore it. "They'll act as if it doesn't exist," he said. "It's not worth a fight between two fully grown males."

Even the ubiquitousness of warfare in human history doesn't impress researchers. "When you consider it was only about 13,000 years ago that we discovered agriculture, and that most of what we're calling human history occurred since then," said Dr. David Sloan Wilson, a biology and anthropology professor at Binghamton University in New York, "you see what a short amount of time we've had to work toward global peace."

In that brief time span, the size of cooperative groups has grown steadily, and by many measures more pacific. Maybe 100 million people died in the world wars of the 20th century. Yet Dr. Lawrence H. Keeley, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has estimated that if the proportion of casualties in the modern era were to equal that seen in many conflicts among preindustrial groups, then perhaps two billion people would have died.

Indeed, national temperaments seem capable of rapid, radical change. The Vikings slaughtered and plundered; their descendants in Sweden haven't fought a war in nearly 200 years, while the Danes reserve their fighting spirit for negotiating better vacation packages. The tribes of highland New Guinea were famous for small-scale warfare, said Dr. Peter J. Richerson, an expert in cultural evolution at the University of California at Davis. "But when, after World War II, the Australian police patrols went around and told people they couldn't fight anymore, the New Guineans thought that was wonderful," Dr. Richerson said. "They were glad to have an excuse."

Dr. Wilson cites the results of game theory experiments: participants can adopt a cheating strategy to try to earn more for themselves, but at the risk of everybody's losing, or a cooperative strategy with all earning a smaller but more reliable reward. In laboratories around the world, researchers have found that participants implement the mutually beneficial strategy, in which cooperators are rewarded and noncooperators are punished. "It shows in a very simple and powerful way that it's easy to get cooperation to evolve to fixation, for it to be the successful strategy," he said. There is no such quantifiable evidence or theoretical underpinning in favor of Man the Warrior, he added.

As Dr. de Waal and many others see it, the way to foment peace is to encourage interdependency among nations, as in the European Union. "Imagine if France were to invade Germany now," he said. "That would upset every aspect of their economic world," not the least one being France's reliance on the influx of German tourists. "It's not as if Europeans all love each other," Dr. de Waal said. "But you're not promoting love, you're promoting economic calculations."

It's not just the money. Who can put a price tag on the pleasures to be had from that wholesome, venerable sport making fun of the tourists?

Simple Solution 12.Nov.2003 10:54

Georgie get your Gun

Give all world leaders guns and have them fight their own battles. The Dalai Lama thinks violence will help combat terrorism? Get your gun your Holiness. W might feel like pulling out of Iraq if he was actually there with his combat boots overflowing with his own piss, "Rummy and Dick are dead, fuck, I'm gettin' outa here!"

Our Leader 12.Nov.2003 10:58

The Flicker

The Senate sure picked a winner.
"Got some coke crust up m' nose"

I beg your pardon. 12.Nov.2003 11:26

Karl Rove

The Supreme Court chose our sexy leader, not the Senate.

Thanks for posting this 12.Nov.2003 11:34

anne frank

Whether or not humans have the ability to resist their perhaps hard-wired tendencies to war against one another is a perplexing issue , isn't it? It's increasingly clear that humans are absolutely no different than other animals, so it's heartening to read more examples of other animals working out conflicts nonviolently. Maybe our inclination to follow the rulers and kill so they can accumulate more money is manipulated by the state, and we are enculturated to believe that warring is the nature of humans, through the schools, through the media, through the corporate consumer system. Perhaps it is possible to resist the promotion of violence, to connect with the humanity in those who are identified by the corporate elite as our "enemies", to recognize who profits from war and who pays, and to help each other to peacefully resolve differences. The alternative appears to be to destroy ourselves and this beautiful planet by doing the bidding of cynical princes.

i'm sorry, sources please 12.Nov.2003 12:54


"Archaeologists and anthropologists have found evidence of militarism in perhaps 95 percent of the cultures they have examined or unearthed. Time and again groups initially lauded as gentle and peace-loving the Mayas, the !Kung of the Kalahari, Margaret Mead's Samoans, eventually were outed as being no less bestial than the rest of us."

Most societies that have been examined did have "battles" but they did not practice warfare the way we define it. You only have to look a short way back to the Native Americans. Many had conflicts, battles, which many anthropologists and sociologists would characterize as being about as dangerous as a game of football or rugby. They did not "wage war" which is one of the reasons the Native Americans were so easily wiped out by the Europeans. Not a single tribe could fathom the concept of genocide, that is, purposefully and consciously wiping out another culture entirely. Warfare, genocide, poverty, crime, corruption as institutions are a product of civilization. Civilization being the term for a particular way of life that originated in the middle east about 10,000 years ago and due to rapid population growth fueled by a system of totalitarian agriculture eventually grew to include 99.999% of humans living on this planet. Daniel Quinn has the best system for determining whether a culture is "one of us": simply ask if their food is under lock and key. If there food is under lock and key and people have to "work" to get it they are a part of or a descendant of our culture. If not, they are a tribal culture, probably fighting for their survival but not through the use of war. Show me a culture that shares their food and I'll show you a culture without institutions of war, crime, genocide, poverty, or corruption. If anyone has source material that suggest otherwise I would be interested in examining it.

Don't buy this lie. Learn about the other human cultures that have lived on this planet and don't fall victim to biological reductionism. It may well be that our culture cannot escape war but it is because of who we are as a society, not because of some evil gene that we can't control.

Also, don't overlook this statement, "When you consider it was only about 13,000 years ago that we discovered agriculture, and that most of what we're calling human history occurred since then you see what a short amount of time we've had to work toward global peace." Human history is hundreds of thousands of years old. "Pre-history" is history too no matter how much our civilization would like to dismiss it. But what is most telling about this statement is that it states that "we've only had 13,000 years to work toward global peace" which should be an indicator that this person is aware that as far as anyone can tell we did have peace prior to this time. The "agricultural revolution" which was, of course, the birth of our culture (what we call civilization, and the beginning of "what most call human history") and was one culture out of thousands, one way of living out of innumerable ways of living, was the beginning of having to "work toward global peace." War as we know it, began with us, and will end with us, with the end of our culture. Either we will kill ourselves off, or we can choose the much simpler path of simply living a different way. The choice is ours.

Researcher is right 12.Nov.2003 16:15


The biological reductionism card is played anytime one wants to excuse/justify/rationalize ANY kind of sketchy behaviour, but the facts are not so simple. Before agriculture, militarism was almost nonexistant because there was no surplus of foods. There were ancient matriarchal societies all across the north of africa that show no signs of ever having waged war. The alcoholic patriarchies of the cradle of civilization slaughtered every last one of these societies approximately 10,000 years ago.

When minds and societies change, so do habits and social mores.

Uh 12.Nov.2003 17:05


"as far as anyone can tell we did have peace prior to this time."

I guess that's sort of true, but remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This might depend on how we define terms like "war" and "peace", but the major effect of the agricultural revolution--again, as far as anyone can tell--was essentially to make activities that humans were already engaged in more organized and regulated, allowing tasks to be performed more efficiently and a greater number opf persons to both contribute to and benefit from these activities; by planting crops and domesticating animals, the first agricultural societies reduced the amount of effort necessary to produce a given quantity of food as compared with societies which were engaged only in hunting and foraging, which are simply less efficient means of securing the same resources. Given that warfare in agricultural and industrial societies performs a primarily economic function, (again, the securing of resources for one's own group as oppsed to others) it seems unlikely that it is a cultural peculiarity of these types of societies; rather, given adequate information, it is more likely that we would be able to discover some analog form of at least semi-organized, economically motivated violence in pre-agricultural societies and also in the non-agricultural societies that they eclipsed.
Even if we assume that completely pacific societies did exist at some point, anyone who puts any stock at all in the theory of natural selection would still have to concede that organized violence, like organized food production, has afforded those groups which developed this behavior a notable advantage in proliferating their offspring.

Recall that many societies which have been subjugated by European imperialism, and particularly those which are more familiar to us by virtue of their greater relative success in resisting this subjugation, (the Aztecs or the Lakota, for example) had also achieved dominance over other societies in their respective regions by virtue of their greater ability to employ organized violence against these societies. It seems fairly evident to me that warfare, rather than arising spontaneously with the emergence of agriculture, is instead the contemporary and 'historical' manifestation of a social function whose necessity appears only to have been called into question by persons within societies that have begun to develop ideas about society of a post-scarcity orientation, an orientation that appears peculiar to societies that have developed relatively advanced forms of organized resource utilization.

This is not to say that humans are necessarily or unalterably 'hardwired' for organized violence, but pacifist ideas are unlikely to have much traction in societies that have not somehow eliminated the scarcity of resources that makes the violent seizure of others' resources and/or the defense of one's own group's against others necessary to the society's self-perpetuation. This is presumably the reason that, in modern Western societies, pacifism is more common among those who subscribe to socialistic ideologies (the dominant form of postscarcity alues), while militarism is more common among conservatives who, even if they espouse theoretically pacific religious beliefs such as Christianity, nonetheless insist upon the importance of preserving social values which derive from socioeconomic conditions characterized by scarcity of essential resources.

so, heimdallr 12.Nov.2003 17:32

anne frank

Do you think that overpopulation dooms humans to endless warring? Does the perception of resource scarcity have the same behavioral effect as actual scarcity? Are the elite promoting perpetual war because they are afraid that resources are finite and they must consume the rest of them immediately, or is short-term profit the motivation? Is this behavior taught and encouraged or is it "hard-wired", or both?

the words of mother culture 12.Nov.2003 17:59


heimdallr, you are falling for many of the great misconceptions of our society like:

scarcity, there is not enough so we must compete to survive
survival of the fittest, only the meanest, cruelest, and strongest pass on their genes
the agricultural revolution was a blessing that afforded us more leisure time
there have never been humans besides us, who thought and lived differently from us
the agricultural revolution was the beginning or emergence of agriculture

Please take some time to review these assumptions and see if you can't find plenty of scientific evidence that contradicts them. It has been well established by anthropologists that the agricultural revolution produced *more* work than hunter/gatherer societies. In fact, it created the concept of work. Before there was just gathering food which would take a couple hours a day (perhaps) and it was replaced by toiling in the fields from sunup to sundown to produce food for other people. In other words, the agricultural revolution did not make the task of gathering food more efficient. It made the task more laborious in order to produce a surplus of food which fueled rapid population growth.

There is also plenty of evidence that peaceful societies did exist. Check out "The Chalice and the Blade" by Rianne Eisler for archeological and anthropological accounts of societies that did not have warfare cultures (no art glorifying war and combat for example). Do not confuse this with non-violent cultures. Again, Daniel Quinn is a good introduction to these issues and he said something to the effect that humans lived as peacefully as a shark or wolf. There was violence, there were those that hurt one another, there were people behaving badly, even breaking laws. But there were none of these things as institutions of the culture itself.

Also, remember that the agricultural revolution was not the "emergence of agriculture." Humans have been practicing agriculture in various forms for thousands of years before the "agricultural revolution." The agricultural revolution was simply a new way of agriculture, what Quinn refers to accurately as "totalitarian agriculture." It has been quite a successful experiment in terms of fueling population growth, but a miserable failure in creating a sustainable environment. Many things had to come together for it to work, including the radical beliefs that some people should be subjugated for the benefit of others and the even more radical notion not held by any other culture on the planet that anyone is aware of that "we have the one right way to live, pre-ordained by God or by Science."

"remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"

I do; and I also remember quite clearly how Rumsfeld used the same line to try and pretend that the very real evidence of absence (in his case of WMD, and in yours of peaceful tribal societies dating back hundreds of thousands of years) was in fact an absence of evidence. Just because one is unaware or unwilling to acknowledge the evidence does not mean it is absent. There are a lot of great books out there on these subjects and if humans are to survive and create a sustainable future they must relearn their history to understand how they lived sustainable in the past.

anne, I'd like to take some time to respond to your comments but I must be off for now.

mother culture 14.Nov.2003 18:11


And I would suggest that you are "falling for" the tendency, common in societies influenced by Judeo-Christian mythology, to presume that problems within a current social order must be innovations against some previsouly obtaining order viewed as simpler and less corrupted by the destructive effects of human industry and scientific inquiry, like humanity's happy existence in Edenic innocence before acquiring knowledge of good and evil.

What I suggest to you is that we should avoid jumping to the conclusion that human societies prior to the agricultural revolution were more 'peaceful' than our own simply because they did incorporate warfare into their symbolic representations of cultural norms in the same way as does ours. That these societies did not attach the same siginificance to 'art glorifying combat' could as easily tell us about their different attitudes toward art as about their different attitudes toward violence.

>scarcity, there is not enough so we must compete to survive"

Well, our survival certainly depends on our access to the necessary7 resources and our ability to convert those into a useful form. I would rephrase this as "in any ecological/economic system, there is enough for a certain number of people to survive." Given that populations of humans, like other animals, tend to grow, at some point the number of humans living in a system will be greater than that system can provide for, in which case, yes, "we" must compete to ensure our own survival.

>"survival of the fittest, only the meanest, cruelest, and strongest pass on their genes"

I have yet to encounter any convincing refutation of Darwin's basic theory that the physical and behavioral traits found in an organism are those which in its ancestors were conducive to self-replication. If we notice a preponderance of 'mean,' cruel', and 'strong' individuals within a population of a given species, it stands to reason that possessing these traits has, at least in past generations, facilitated the reproduction of those individuals who possessed them.

>"the agricultural revolution was a blessing that afforded us more leisure time "

No, it afforded "us" the ability to protect more of "our" children from starvation, an endemic problem in many hunter-gatherer societies (read Andrew Isenberg's work on North American bison hunters, for example). Agriculturalists opted for less leisure time in exchange for a higher probability of their own and their offspring's survival, and this is presumably the reason that there are more humans on the planet who survive on the products of agriculture than survive on hunting and gathering. If your survival depends on finding enough plants and animals in the unaltered environment ot sustain yourself, it will be a lot more precarious than that of someone who achieves a measure of control over that environment and the supply of these resources within it.

>"o not confuse this with non-violent cultures."

Well, this is kind of what I was getting at. We can play definitional games as to what constitutes "war" or " peace", but what do we really learn from doing this? If a culture is only considered 'peaceful' because it does not glorify combat, but its members are still subject to the actual effects of violence, then what makes this society's structures and lifeways preferable to our own? When boiled down to a basic definition, warfare is simply the violence that occurs when individuals congregate into groups with a perceived commonality of interest and determine that violence against other groups is necessary to the achievement of those interests. If there was interpersonal violence before the agricultural revolution, why would there not have been intergroup violence?

Anne, I believe, has hit upon the crux of the matter. In highly advanced agricultural/industrial societies such as the United States, the internal system of resource utilization is quite capable of providing the essentials of survival to every individual who is born into that system. Thus, the continual development of strategies that convert human labor into the assurance of access to the necessities of survival has produced societies where organized violence against other societies, at least of an aggressive nature, is unnecessary to the survival of its members. Hence, many people who live in these societies have determined that the social and cultural institutions which facilitate such violence are also unnecessary and do more harm than good. THe flip side of this post-scarcity coin, however, is that there are also persons in these societies who value the internal social functions of these institutions and that the psychological perception of scarcity, independent of actual conditions, exercises a powerful influence on many people's behavior. Thus, these persons will be very resistant to the suggestions of pacifists that military institutions are obsolete and should be dismantled, and will even cultivate hostilities with other societies to maintain these institutions--no Americans would starve without Iraqi oil, but it assists the elites who control the government in maintaining their advantageous social position to promote the idea that American society should organize itself around the destruction of an external threat. The proliferation of this idea is, in turn, assisted by the invocation of cultural symbols from a previously obtaining social order that present opposition to militarism as decadent, implying that it is better to look back upon an idealized image of the past for inspiration to presetn conduct rather than to a comprehensive analysis of present realities.
A more extreme example of this tendency would be European fascist movements, which have tended to organize themselves around the defense of a traditional social order against perceived disintegration by looking back to older social orders which were presumed to be uncorrupted by the disruptive effects of modern industrialization and to have been models of social, economic, and ecological harmony, often in the form of attempts to revive pre-Christian traditions of nature worship, though combined with Edenic imagery of uncorrupted innocence destroyed by the pursuit of knowledge and the development of rational thought. What is important to note here is that these appeals were based more on the projection of modern aspirations into the past in the search for ideal-types to imitate in the service of present goals than on actual knowledge of what these past societies were really like, and the filtering of information about these societies through this idealizing lens. Recently, a similar tendency has arisen on the "Left" in industrial societies that proposes imitation of pre-industrial (or present non-industrial) societies as a means of redressing problems associated with complex social organizations against which these 'simpler' societies are presumed to be immune. We should be careful to avoid, however, the same kind of projection that characterizes conservative or reactionary efforts of a similar orientation.