The Human Implications Of War

Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 5 comments



This article is purely an opinion piece, based around the bits and pieces I have collected in my brain recently, but it is an area I’d like to look into further. Of interest to me is the question of violence in society, particularly within our evolving cultures. I hope you find these ideas as interesting as I do.

I’ve noticed of late that there is a battle going on between two distinct camps in anthropology. Camp A insists upon a model of human historical development and social evolution that sees our warlike tendencies as innate, soft-wired into our social hierarchies. Camp B however proposes that war is a learned behaviour, one that we created over time, and therefore not part of “human nature”. Although this may be interesting from a purely academic and anthropological standpoint, the question itself raises some concerns that go beyond the realm of human nature. And this dichotomy is nothing new; The argument can be seen as far back as 1669 with ideas such as The Noble Savage, and questions on whether mankind is inherently violent or peaceable.

There is an active war of words going on in the world of anthropology, recently sparked by books such as Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature“, and to a lesser extent EO Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth” both see humanity as coming from an innately violent past, based on archeological finds which show “warlike conditions” and “high violent mortality”.

Further , on the side of of the warlike nature of our past, include articles like this lecture from Richard Wrangham (pdf) which asks the question of whether humans are altruistic and caring by nature, or competitive to the point that aggression is the natural outcome. He is definitely on the side of the argument of “innate human warlike tendencies”, and concludes that in the positive saying:

“Given that aggression today has been favored by our past, the strong evidence of a sustained reduction in violence over historical times is impressive. The fact that humans come equipped with peace-­‐making mechanisms that have evolved within social groups is not an explanation on its own, since we have always had that capacity. The multiple sources to which Pinker (2011) attributes the decline include strong governments, increased trade, empowerment of women, extension of empathy, and rationality.”

On the other side of the fence, and the one that currently holds more favour among the majority of anthropologists, is in the realm of the “learned warlike behaviors”. There are are far more articles being produced these days, for instance this group of articles, that say that humans are innately altruistic, but are forced into warlike situations by others, and that war is a human invention. As I’m relatively new to this area I’m unsure which is the best article on this topic, however if you browse through the linked article I’m sure you’ll get a feel for that side of the story too. Also worth checking is this overview of recent ideas which strive to debunk the “innate war” model.

So what does it mean either way? What does it matter if humans are  or aren’t naturally warlike?

This is by no means a trivial thing, for the implications go well beyond just human history, and into the core of what it means to be human. Biology, evolution, sociology. Apart for the idea that we’d like to know the “truth” about how humanity arose, there seems to be a lot of emotional baggage on top of the debate. For instance, some of what is at stake is a view of humanity as either inherently warlike, in which case we can identify this and work consciously against it (identify the problems with our warlike nature), or we are naturally altruistic and peaceable, and war has been foisted upon us by our situations, therefore we are to blame for our own warlike natures.

What I see is this:

  1. those that fight FOR the warlike nature of humanity would like to see “war” as categorised in terms of “nature”. We can’t be held to blame for our species’ past, but can work toward a better future.
  2. Those that fight AGAINST the warlike nature of humanity would like to see “war” as categorised as a man-made construct, and therefore we ARE responsible for the deeds of our past, and need to approach our attitude toward war from a purely “man-made” standpoint.

On top of this, if “A” is true, then we could actually be working toward a more consciously “less-violent” world, and have some sort of power to change this. If “B” is true, then we are belying our nature, and simply following along with the “meme” of violence in society.

Furthermore, we are dealing with a perception of human nature, one where either we are at the mercy of our circumstances, or we are the victims of our own past. If we are at the mercy of our nature, we can walk forward with a sense of blamelessness for our past atrocities, and (if Pinker is correct and violence is truly on the decline overall) the way humanity is developing is a beacon of hope for the future. However if we have invented a warlike state, a much less comfortable proposition, we must look at humanity with a certain sense of  revulsion of our development, and stand to bear the blame of all past wars and colonial violence that we have invented.

There is also a push-back from people who take to task anyone who says an indigenous or less developed culture is violent. This comes from the backlash against the label of less-developed cultures as “primitives” and “savages”, and using the idea that we are innately warlike further reinforces this pejorative attitude toward indigenous or tribal cultures.

Personally I have no problem with humanity either way; I know we are animals, and I know we are evolved from other animals, which in turn evolved from others. We will never be fully removed from our past, nor can we face the future without properly understanding what our likely, innate, reaction might be in the face of future challenges.

This is really just the start of a journey, and many questions are raised by this, but it’s something I hope to revisit again in later blogs.

Thanks to Jason Antrosio and Dan Arel for help in creating this blog.

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  1. Hi Martin, thank you for the thoughtful post and the link. You may
    also find helpful the just-out “Survey
    of Earliest Human Settlements Undermines Claim That War Has Deep
    Evolutionary Roots” by John Horgan,
    My one quibble
    with the above would be the idea that arguing against “deep roots of
    war” necessarily means arguing for a natural peacefulness or inherent
    altruism. It is more to take the position that there is not a human
    nature independently of the historical and environmental circumstances
    in which humans grow–see “Anthropology
    and Human Nature”

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  2. We’re competitors.  We will be as long as we have to compete to survive.  And sometimes, right or wrong, we get the idea that we’ll survive better if we bump off the people who are competing with us.

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  3. Very interesting stuff. I certainly prefer the thought that we invented war rather than it being in our genes, makes a less violent future seem more in reach. But either way it would be neat to know.

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  4. A lot of the arguments seem to be over the nature of war, even the recent work claim that early settlements didn’t engage in warfare (and there reasoning seemed dodgy to me) showed that they were extremely violent. It was just that the violence wasn’t very organised. It is doesn’t seem to unreasonable to say we are violent species who have learned to organise that violence and if you believe Pinker that organisation has reduced the over all levels of it

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  5. The Secret Book of John (Apocryphon of John)

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