‘War Is Human Nature!’ and Other Unfounded Claims to Justify the Status-quo – Part I.

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If you’re a leftist there’s a chance, approaching but not exceeding 100%, that you’ve heard the phrase ‘Humans are naturally violent’, or ‘Humans are naturally greedy’ bellow thoughtlessly from the mouths of liberals, and especially free-marketeers, to justify some static, reductionist view of ‘human nature’ that, luckily for them, seems to preempt the need for activity- for why would one invest social and political energy or organization into curing economic and social problems if they are the result of a convenient ‘human nature’?

These ideas spew from an extensive knowledge-industry—and it is an industry—known as evolutionary psychology. In this realm of the certitude of human nature, the high priests Steven Pinker, Sam Harris and Jared Diamond popularize and package the reductionist human-being, portraying him as hardly better than his Cro-Magnon ancestor and still carrying the inbred psychological and genetic baggage of violence, greed and bigotry which can scarcely be overcome, and in fact pervades modern society. ‘So it was, so it shall always be’ exclaim the passive apologists for modern war, for how could one hope to end conflict if the atomic bomb had its genesis in the sharpened stick?

In this short article, let us take this first claim that humans are naturally war-like, that is that humans will inevitably gang up in groups and impose their will on other groups for whatever reason, from resources to male libido. A recent study published in Science controverts this idea that humans have always been prone to group conflict. The study, authored by anthropologists Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg of Abo Akademi University in Finland, and entitled “Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War”[1], profiled 21 “mobile forager bands”, also known as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and tracked instances of two or more individuals prosecuting deadly violence on two or more other individuals, excluding one-on-one disputes etc. which proponents of the violent-human-nature argument often count as “warfare” ignoring the collective nature of warfare itself.

The results of the study were rather surprising. Having profiled only hunter-gatherers, and not horticulturalists or pastoralists, who themselves constitute a completely different societal arrangement and will therefore have cultural concepts alien to mobile foragers (i.e. private property, strong chieftains and priests etc.), a strikingly low amount of inter-group conflict was observed. The study records 148 “lethal aggression events”, this includes all killings whether by murder of one clan-member by another, war-dead or execution or revenge killing prescribed by the custom of one group on one of its members. Of the 21 mobile forager societies, 3 had no recorded deadly violence at all, 10 had no killings carried out by more than one perpetrator (personal disputes), whereas only 6 societies recorded any killing of two or more individuals by two or more other individuals (war). Astonishingly one society, the Tiwi, was responsible for about 90 percent of these group-killings.

If humans are hard-wired for violence and domination, why don’t all mobile foragers resemble the Tiwi? It might be claimed that abundance may be to blame for the pacification of these groups, as only 2 percent of 148 lethal encounters were attributed to resources or territory. But all hunter-gatherers live at the edge of starvation, so why so little resource-based violence if humans are intrinsically cruel to groups to which they do not belong? These primitive mobile foragers represent a perfect model of human society pre-agricultural revolution, so it is safe to say that the statement by Steven Pinker that “chronic raiding and feuding characterize life in a state of nature”, and by Jared Diamond that tribal societies live in “a constant state of war” can be thoroughly discarded.

But what if these societies were not such a good indicator of pre-agricultural societies? Surely these “modern” mobile foragers are not indicative of societies 13,000 years past, no matter how similar their economic arrangement! That would, perhaps, be a credible argument were the archaeological evidence in support of a vision of humanity in a “constant state of war”. Anthropologists Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscitelli of Chicago’s Field Museum have recently published the findings of their exhaustive review of 2,900 sets of human remains from more than 400 sites which predate 11,000 BCE[2] They record only 28 sets of remains consistent with murder or mass killing (i.e. stone tips and evidence of cutting on skulls and femurs), 24 of which (or 86%) come from just one mass grave in the Sahaba region of Sudan which is not more than 13,000 years old.

“Declaring that warfare is rampant amongst almost all hunters and gatherers (as well as those cunning and aggressive chimpanzees) fit well with a common public perception of the deep historical and biological roots of warfare,” Haas and Piscitelli write. “The presumed universality of warfare in human history and ancestry may be satisfying to popular sentiment; however, such universality lacks empirical support.”

And if still more empirical evidence were called for, Rutgers anthropologist Brian Ferguson, a leading researcher on the origins of warfare, shows in a 2003 article in Natural History[3] that “the global archaeological record contradicts the idea that war was always a feature of human existence; instead, the record shows that warfare is largely a development of the last 10,000 years.”

Ferguson’s recent work, a review of archaeological sites in Europe and the middle-east[4], has found that Neolithic settlements across Europe existed for 500-1,000 years after their original foundation without leaving any signs of warfare, but once stone tools began to be replaced with metal around 5,500 years ago, war-like societies soon dotted Europe. Most surprisingly, the Levant, which includes some of the world’s most turbulent countries today, such as Palestine, Syria and Israel, lived extremely peacefully from the emergence of agriculture about 11,000 years ago until the area gravitated into the sphere of the burgeoning Egyptian civilization 5,500 years ago, at which point war becomes common. Anatolia had a military society much earlier, about 8,000 years ago. Although some civilizations, such as Anatolia or Egypt, developed military aggression relatively earlier, notice none of these societies or their warfare broke out until quite some time after the agricultural revolution, so it must be admitted that conditions brought about by the agricultural revolution itself (land-ownership, animal ownership, sometimes human-ownership, and definite lines of male inheritance) must have either caused primitive war, or exaggerated what vanishingly little trace of war existed prior to 13,000 years ago.

We have demonstrated the claims that humans are naturally war-mongering to be completely baseless. Nothing in early human history that is yet measurable suggests otherwise. Besides these facts, any assertion that warfare could impact human evolution, i.e. that aggressive warfare-societies would gain evolutionary advantages from their behavior etc., as Pinker suggests, is rendered ridiculous by the sheer novelty of human warfare when compared to evolutionarily relevant time-spans.

Joshua Alexander

[1] Fry, D. P., & Soderberg, P. (2013, July 19). Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War. Science, pp. 270-273 .
[2] Piscitelli, M., & Haas, J. (2013). Prehistory of War: Misled by Ethnography. In D. P. Fry, War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 168-191). New York: Oxford University Press.
[3] Ferguson, B. (2003). Birth of War. Natural History, 28-37.
[4] Ferguson, B. (2013). Prehistory of War and Peace in Europe and the Near East. In D. P. Fry, War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 191-241). New York: Oxford University Press.

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