Will there always be wars?

September 29, 2011

Warfare isn't part of an unchanging human nature, but a product of human society.

IS WAR something that has always been with us, or does it have a point of origin in human history, prior to which war did not exist?

There are many authors who attempt to put a scientific spin on what is seen as obvious. Look around, they tell us: Human beings have been murdering and pillaging on a mass scale for generation upon generation. What other explanation is there but that it is in our nature to war upon each other?

The case is strengthened, in many of these accounts, by drawing on examples of violent behavior among non-human species.

In The Dark Side of Man, Michael Ghiglieri, a protégé of chimp observer Jane Goodall, argues that humans are biologically programmed to commit rape, murder, war and genocide, and that this tendency derives from our closest primate, the chimpanzee.

"Chimpanzee-like violence," write primatologists Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham in another book called Demonic Males, "preceded and paved the way for human war, making modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million-year habit of lethal aggression."

The argument that we can understand human behavior with the behavior of non-human species doesn't hold water. Human beings possess certain key physical traits (upright gait, large brains, dexterous hands, language, etc.) that allow them to adapt the environment in which they live to their needs, whereas other species are adapted to fit a particular ecological niche.

This ability to adapt culturally--mediated through the use of cooperation and tools, and the ability to accumulate and share knowledge--is what makes human beings historically so adaptable to different environments. Human beings don't just take what they find--they manipulate nature to meet their own needs.

Moreover, the reference to primate behavior to explain why human behavior is highly selective. Instead of choosing violence-prone, hierarchically organized chimps (and some experts argue that the chimp example itself exaggerates the level of violence among them), why not use equally genetically close to human primates--the Bonobos, who by all accounts are peaceful, cooperative and non-hierarchical?

ONE OF the most popular anthropology books, still used in many introductory classes, is the 1968 Yanomamö: The Fierce People by Napoleon A. Chagnon. The book examined a group of Amazonian hunters who were gripped in constant warfare. Chagnon claimed that the violent lives of the Yanomami represented "a truly primitive cultural adaptation...before it was altered by or destroyed by our culture."

Chagnon's account has been used repeatedly to bolster the idea that warring was the normal state of tribal people's before contact with Europeans. But Chagnon was wrong--not about the violence he observed, but about the Yanomami being an "unacculturated" tribe.

First of all, the Yanomami were a horticultural and hunting people, not a nomadic foraging people such as existed for most of the human species' time on earth.

Secondly, the Yanomami had contact with Europeans beginning in the mid-1700s, when slave-catchers invaded their territory. Anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson argues convincingly that there was a big spike in warfare among the Yanomami beginning in the 1950s as "a result of antagonistic interests regarding access to or control over trade in Western manufactured goods." Hardly an example of a people untouched by capitalism.

For the majority of our time on the planet, humans have lived in nomadic or semi-nomadic foraging bands. These bands had no formal hierarchy, no standing armies, no class divisions and no state structures. In many, marriage was a bond that could be dissolved easily by the woman, whose status as chief gatherer was highly respected. Food and other resources were shared.

Yet these cooperative societies also gave a great deal of scope to the individual. Writes anthropologist Douglas P. Fry, "In egalitarian band societies, each person exercises a high degree of personal autonomy. In nomadic band society, authority is minimal and leadership is weak. Whereas no one has the authority to adjudicate disputes or and down enforceable judgments, neither does anyone have the authority to order others into military action."

In these societies, warfare was far less frequent, and its character far less severe, than today's warfare. "Under conditions where portable wealth does not exist; where food is too perishable and too clumsy to be accumulated and transported; where slavery is of no value because every individual consumes exactly as much as he produces--force is a useless implement for the transfer of wealth," wrote anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.

Modern-day and recently existing hunter-gatherer societies cannot be said to be living or to have lived in a state unaffected by the impact of global capitalism over the past couple of centuries.

Nevertheless, systematic studies reveal that many of these societies (minus the equestrian nomads, like the Comanche and the Sioux, who were very warlike), either have no war at all or are considered "unwarlike." An extensive 1940s study of existing anthropological data, The Study of War, found that among 590 different societies reviewed, 64 percent were either found to have no war or to be unwarlike--and half of those relatively peaceful societies were nomadic foraging societies.

These were not entirely nonviolent societies--but feuds and the occasional revenge killings can hardly be compared to the massive slaughterhouse that is modern-day warfare.

The anthropological record, according to Ferguson, reveals that systematic warfare--for territory, resources, and slaves--developed more recently among sedentary hunter-gatherers (like the Indians of the Northwest coast of the United States), and more importantly, among societies that developed agriculture around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. In short, war is a fairly recent acquisition in the long view of human history (if we include non-written history).

If war is a product of human culture and history, rather than something we are inclined toward by some immutable nature, then like other products of human history, it can be changed or done away with.

Chattel slavery was once seen as natural and immutable. Long tracts were written to prove it. Today, we can see that the arguments made for slavery being natural and immutable were merely ideological justifications for an institution made, and discarded, by human beings in the course of their history.

It will be a tremendous achievement for humanity to likewise do away with war.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives