War and Human Nature
From what I’ve seen, it’s become something of a canard to say that war is intrinsic to human nature. Large scale violence is not only uniquely human, but inseparably so, such that it’s hard to imagine human existence without it.
But a recent study is casting doubt on this widely-accepted and seemingly verified “Deep Roots Theory” of human violence. Scientific American reports on the research published today in Science, ”Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War.
Of the 21 societies examined by Fry and Soderberg, three had no observed killings of any kind, and 10 had no killings carried out by more than one perpetrator. In only six societies did ethnographers record killings that involved two or more perpetrators and two or more victims. However, a single society, the Tiwi of Australia, accounted for almost all of these group killings.
Some other points of interest: 96 percent of the killers were male. No surprise there. But some readers may be surprised that only two out of 148 killings stemmed from a fight over “resources,” such as a hunting ground, water hole or fruit tree. Nine episodes of lethal aggression involved husbands killing wives; three involved “execution” of an individual in a group by other members of the group; seven involved execution of “outsiders,” such as colonizers or missionaries.
Most of the killings stemmed from what Fry and Soderberg categorize as “miscellaneous personal disputes,” involving jealousy, theft, insults and so on. The most common specific cause of deadly violence—involving either single or multiple perpetrators–was revenge for a previous attack.
These data corroborate a theory of warfare advanced by Margaret Mead in 1940. Noting that some simple foraging societies, such as Australian aborigines, can be warlike, Mead rejected the idea that war was a consequence of civilization. But she also dismissed the notion that war is innate–a “biological necessity,” as she put it – simply by pointing out (as Fry and Soderberg do) that some societies do not engage in intergroup violence.
Mead (again like Fry and Soderberg) found no evidence for what could be called the Malthusian theory of war, which holds that war is the inevitable consequence of competition for resources.
Instead, Mead proposed that war is a cultural “invention”—in modern lingo, a meme, that can arise in any society, from the simplest to the most complex. Once it arises, war often becomes self-perpetuating, with attacks by one group provoking reprisals and pre-emptive attacks by others.
The war meme also transforms societies, militarizes them, in ways that make war more likely. The Tiwi seem to be a society that has embraced war as a way of life. So is the United States of America.
Needless to say, I’m awaiting more research on the subject. But whatever the case is, I think it’s important not to view mass violence in such a fatalistic way. That mentality would only perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which we’re more willing to accept war as an institution — or solution — by virtue of its apparent inevitability. This same approach accounts for many other moral and social evils.
Even if such negative behaviors do have deep roots, that’s hardly an excuse for not trying to mitigate their influence. Most human behavior stems from both nature and nurture, and I’m not aware of any human characteristic that strictly falls under one sphere or the other. Thus, there is always some avenue for improvement, albeit through concerted multidimensional efforts — better material conditions, in combination with quality education (formal and informal), tends to lead to a vast reduction in social ills.