Thursday, 6 March 2014

War Instinct?

Is there a War Instinct?

by David P Barash

Many evolutionists believe that humans have a drive for waging war. But they are wrong and the idea is dangerous
There is something peculiarly — even paradoxically — appealing about taking a dim view of human nature, a view that has become unquestioned dogma among many evolutionary biologists. It is a tendency that began some time ago. When the Australian-born anthropologist Raymond Dart discovered the first australopithecine fossil in 1924, he went on to describe these early hominids as:
Confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of the victims and greedily devouring living writhing flesh.
This lurid perspective has deep antecedents, notably in certain branches of Christian doctrine. According to the zealous 16th century French theologian John Calvin:
The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure and infamous. The human heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench.
It’s bad enough for the religious believer to be convinced of humanity’s irrevocable sinfulness, punishable in the afterlife. But I’m even more concerned when those who speak for science and reason promote a theory of human nature that threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, in his influential book African Genesis (1961) the American playwright Robert Ardrey described humans as ‘Cain’s children’:
Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon. It is war and the instinct for territory that has led to the great accomplishments of Western Man. Dreams may have inspired our love of freedom, but only war and weapons have made it ours.
The drumbeat that argues for war as a defining feature of the human condition has, if anything, increased in recent decades,
spreading beyond the evolutionary and anthropological worlds. Here is how the English philosopher Simon Critchley began his review of John Gray’s The Silence of Animals (2013) in the Los Angeles Review of Books: ‘Human beings do not just make killer apes. We are killer apes. We are nasty, aggressive, violent, rapacious hominids’.
Then there is the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who devoted decades to studying the Yanomami people of the Venezuelan/Brazilian Amazon. His best-selling book The Fierce People (1968) has been especially influential in enshrining an image of tribal humanity as living in a state of ‘chronic warfare’.
Chagnon has been the subject of intense criticism but, to my mind, there is simply no question about the empirical validity and theoretical value of his research. In a field (call it evolutionary psychology or, as I prefer, human sociobiology) that has often been criticised for a relative absence of hard data, his findings, however politically distasteful, have been welcome indeed. Among these, one of the most convincing has been Chagnon’s demonstration that, among the Yanomami, not only is inter-village ‘warfare’ frequent and lethal, but that Yanomami men who have killed other men experience significantly higher reproductive success — evolutionary fitness — than do non-killers. His data, although disputed by other specialists, appear altogether reliable and robust.
So I admire the man, and his work, but I have a growing sense of discomfort about the way that Chagnon’s Yanomami research has been interpreted and the inferences that have been drawn from it.
I fear that many of my colleagues have failed, as previously have I, to distinguish between the relatively straightforward evolutionary roots of human violence and the more complex, multifaceted and politically fraught question of human war. To be blunt, violence is almost certainly deeply entrenched in human nature; warfare, not so much. A fascination with the remarkably clear correlation between Yanomami violence and male fitness has blinded us to the full range of human non-violence, causing us to ignore and undervalue realms of peacemaking in favour of a focus on exciting and attention-grabbing patterns of war-making.
As an evolutionary scientist, I have been enthusiastic about identifying the adaptive significance — the evolutionary imprint — of apparently universal human traits. For a long time, it seemed that Chagnon’s finding of the reproductive success of Yanomami men who were killers was one of the most robust pieces of evidence for this. Now I am not so sure, and this is my mea culpa.
There has also been a tendency among evolutionary thinkers to fix upon certain human groups as uniquely revelatory, not simply because the research about them is robust, but also because their stories are both riveting and consistent with our pre-existing expectations. They are just plain fun to talk about, especially for men.
Remember, too, the journalists’ edict: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ You are unlikely to see a newspaper headline announcing that ‘France and Germany Did Not Go To War’, whereas a single lethal episode, anywhere in the world, is readily pounced upon as news. Language conventions speak volumes, too. It is said that the Bedouin have nearly 100 different words for camels, distinguishing between those that are calm, energetic, aggressive, smooth-gaited, or rough, etc. Although we carefully identify a multitude of wars — the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the American Civil War, the Vietnam War, and so forth — we don’t have a plural form for peace.
It makes evolutionary sense that human beings pay special attention to episodes of violence, whether interpersonal or international: they are matters of life and death, after all. But when serious scientists do the same and, what is more, when they base ‘normative’ conclusions about the human species on what is simply a consequence of their selective attention, we all have a problem.
The most serious problem with Chagnon’s influence on our understanding of human nature is one familiar to many branches of science: generalising from one data set — however intensive — to a wider universe of phenomena. Academic psychologists, for example, are still reeling from a 2010 study by the University of British Columbia which found that the majority of psychological research derives from college students who are ‘Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic’ — in short, WEIRD. Similarly, the Yanomami are only one of a large number of very different, tribal human societies. Given the immense diversity of human cultural traditions, any single group of Homo sapiens must be considered profoundly unrepresentative of the species as a whole.
Just as the Yanomami can legitimately be cited as notably violence-prone — at both the individual and group level — many other comparable tribal peoples do not engage in anything remotely resembling warfare. These include the Batek of Malaysia, the Hadza of Tanzania, the Martu of Australia, a half-dozen or more indigenous South Indian forager societies, and numerous others, each of whom are no less human than those regularly trotted out to ‘prove’ our inherent war-proneness.
In the Dark Ages of biology, taxonomists used to identify a ‘type species’ thought to represent each genus, but the idea no longer has any currency in biology. The great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr effectively demonstrated that statistical and population thinking trumps the idea of a Platonic concept of ‘types’, independent of the actual diversity of living things, not least Homo sapiens. Yet anthropologists (and biologists, who should know better) seem to have fallen into the trap of seizing upon a few human societies, and generalising them as representative of Homo sapiens as a whole. Regrettably, this tendency to identify ‘type societies’ has been especially acute when it comes to establishing the supposed prevalence of human warfare.
    War, on the other hand, is like arranging a wedding with a bridal shower or bachelor party, and laying on a hotel ballroom, an orchestra, a four-course meal and dancing
In his justly admired book The Better Angels of our Nature (2011), the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker made a powerful case that human violence — interpersonal as well as warring — has diminished substantially in recent times. But in his eagerness to emphasise the ameliorating effects of historically recent social norms, Pinker exaggerated our pre-existing ‘natural’ level of war-proneness, claiming that ‘chronic raiding and feuding characterised life in a state of nature’. The truth is otherwise. As recent studies by the anthropologist Douglas Fry and others have shown, the overwhelmingly predominant way of life for most of our evolutionary history — in fact, pretty much the only one prior to the Neolithic revolution — was that of nomadic hunter-gatherers. And although such people engage in their share of interpersonal violence, warfare in the sense of group-based lethal violence directed at other groups is almost non-existent, having emerged only with early agricultural surpluses and the elaboration of larger-scale, tribal organisation, complete with a warrior ethos and proto-military leadership.
Other well-regarded scientists have been similarly misled. Thus, in The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), the biologist Edward O Wilson calls warfare ‘humanity’s hereditary curse’. I applaud both Pinker’s and Wilson’s distaste for war, but I wish they had thought more deeply and consulted the cross-cultural and archaeological evidence more carefully before jumping on the ‘war has always been with us’ bandwagon.
Human history demonstrates how recent warfare is in our own evolutionary story. But what about our closest ape relatives? As with human societies, we have no living ancestors among the apes. We doubtless share a common ancestor with today’s chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons, but the social behaviour of the latter three are all dramatically different from that of modern human beings, while that of chimpanzees and bonobos are almost exactly opposed to one another: chimpanzees are known to engage in violent, group-level encounters, complete with search-and-destroy missions that conjure images of human skirmishing and outright warfare. Bonobos, on the other hand — genetically, no more distant from Homo sapiens — do nothing of the sort, and are renowned for making love, not war.
Read more here