Thursday, September 12, 2013

The End Of War?

Socialist Viewpoint reprints an article by science writer John Horgan entitled War has no deep evolutionary roots. The article looks to be an addendum to Mr. Horgan's recent book The End Of War (which I have not yet read). I say addendum because the article describes results from recent research that support the book's thesis.

In brief (read the article for details), ethnographers studied 21 hunter-gatherer societies and tabulated incidences of violence. They documented 141 "lethal aggression events"--the timeframe for which is not stated. Of these, only six societies experienced anything that might be considered "war," i.e., two or more victims killed by two or more perpetrators. The remainder resulted from individual personal disputes, including, e.g., domestic violence. Of the warlike cases, most came from a single tribe--the Tiwi of Australia.

From this, the study's authors and Mr. Horgan conclude that war is not an evolved trait since a large majority of the tribes didn't fight any. The obvious rejoinder is that the tribes were not observed over a long enough period of time. If, for example, one had ethnographed Japan from 1946 to the present, one would think they were a bunch a pacifists. Most Americans have never been in a war, and indeed, probably a majority have never been involved in violence since grade school. This list includes me. So from this research one can only conclude that war is rare, not that it isn't an evolved behavior.

My view of these issues derives from evolutionary psychology, so it's probably worth a moment to review what kind of information EvoPsych gives us. The discipline tries to determine the extent of human instinct. It does this by studying a wide variety of cultures and finding traits they all have in common. Presumably those represent instinctive behaviors. And then the ways in which societies differ are likely cultural artifacts.

So the clothes people wear, which side of the road we drive on, or how we poke fingers at our iPads--those are all cultural traits. On the other hand, behaviors that are crucial to the survival and propagation of our genes are likely to be instinctive--at least substantially so. And two aspects of human activity stand out: food and sex. These should depend heavily on instinct.

Food is certainly complicated, given the seemingly wide variation in cuisines. Much of this is influenced by climate--Japanese like sushi, while seal hunting is not a popular sport in Kansas. Still, all human beings have the same nutritional needs--we all require the 21 amino acids, vitamins and minerals, sugar and fatty acids. Thus cuisines are not really as different as they seem. Nobody survives on dirt, or grass, or tree bark, or insect exoskeletons. What tastes good is, in substantial measure, instinctive and biological.

I think sexual behaviors are less variable than food. When I lived in Uganda, despite the vast cultural differences I had absolutely no difficulty telling the boys from the girls. The rhyme beginning sugar and spice and everything nice applies as much to girls in Uganda as to those Kansas. Prepubescent school children were all dressed alike, with close-cropped hair--so I couldn't tell the genders apart. But come puberty that all changed, and dramatically so. Nature makes a special effort to fine-tune our sexual preferences--those are mostly instinctive.

So Mr. Horgan gives the game away with the off-hand remark: "96 percent of the killers were male. No surprise there." That kind of lopsided gender distribution, from cultures around the globe, strongly suggests that violence has something to do with sex. Being violent helps men successfully reproduce. While the degree of violence varies from culture to culture--or perhaps more accurately, varies within a culture from time to time--violence exists in all cultures. Even Mr. Horgan isn't surprised.

Mr. Horgan further remarks that "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." Most of the killings were in revenge for a previous attack. This is consistent with violence as a sexual behavior. Access to sex (for men) is all about status, and violence is a way of enforcing and enhancing one's status.

Mr. Horgan argues that "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." I think this characterization is flat-out wrong. As already mentioned, in my 62 years I have no first-hand experience with war. The last war on our continent was in 1865. So it is surely not true that the US has embraced war as a way of life.

If war is about sex and status, and given that the USA is at the top of the status heap, it is no surprise that lots of other peoples are taking potshots at us. Al-Qaeda's struggle is all about sex and status--they even use 72 black-eyed virgins in their imagery. It's not that we're war-mongers. It's just that we're currently the most successful society on the planet.

Violence is often good for individuals and groups of individuals, but it is usually bad for society as a whole. Thus most nations go to great lengths to prevent actual war. Instead they shadowbox to show off their capabilities, and then usually resolve conflicts short of war. This is like mountain goats bumping heads--rarely does the contest lead to actual injury. Instead the weaker animal simply concedes. This is why war is rare, even among hunter-gatherer tribes.

War becomes more likely when power relationships are in great flux, or when societies cannot accurately convey their true abilities. It is probably not true to class the Tiwi as a war-like tribe. More likely is that the power relationships between them and their neighbors is changing, and until a new modus vivendi is reached it comes to blows.

So I think war and violence have evolutionary roots, and I think the evidence in support of that thesis is pretty overwhelming. Mr. Horgan's recent evidence doesn't dissuade. But there is nothing instinctive about drones, nuclear warheads, or chemical weapons. These are cultural artifacts, which can conceivably be regulated, albeit with enormous difficulty.

Why does a Trotskyist newspaper like Socialist Viewpoint reprint Mr. Horgan's column? Trotskyists, like all Marxists, don't really believe in evolution. They believe human evolution stopped with the development of culture. Thus they claim that if we just change the culture we can perfect human nature. Their goal is to make a Socialist Man, i.e., a person who works according to his ability, and takes according to his needs.

I think that goal is neither attractive nor possible.

Further Reading:

1 comment:

  1. Received as e-mail from John Horgan and posted with his permission:

    Does evolutionary biology or any other gene-oriented field explain the differences between Japan and Germany today and in the 1930s? Does it explain why rates of violence in New York City and across the U.S. have plummeted over the past 25 years? Does it explain why war-related morality worldwide has dropped since the end of WWII? Does it explain why some tribal people, like the Yanomamo, fight viciously while others, like the Kung, not at all? No. Only culture can explain these things. You might say, violent male genes plus certain social or environmental differences, like inequality or scarcity of resources, triggers group violence. Wrong again. The evidence--and the modern world--support the view of war as a self-propagating meme, or "invention," as Margaret Mead put it. The view of war as a adaptive male strategy for achieving status and chicks should be discarded once and for all in history'd dustheap.