War, Peace, & Human Nature

Update 2018: See Dean Falk Is the Clock Ticking Toward Doomsday? in Sapiens (January 2018) for a debunking of the Pinker ideas regarding a decline in violence for state societies. Falk’s post provides an accessible account of his co-authored Current Anthropology article “Annual War Deaths in Small-Scale versus State Societies Scale with Population Size Rather than Violence” with Charles Hildebolt. Although Falk and Hildebolt were not included in the War, Peace, and Human Nature volume, their article would make a great addition and I use it in my Anthropology 2018 course outline.

The 2013 volume on War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views is an important intervention in public discourse. This edited volume is very timely. It tackles many of the issues which emerged in Jared Diamond’s use of ethnographic evidence in The World Until Yesterday. Ideas about War, Peace, and Human Nature are also connected to Napoleon Chagnon’s 2013 Noble Savages memoir, as well as the forum on The Edge. The War, Peace, and Human Nature volume provides a huge dose of empirical insight.

Editor Douglas P. Fry assembles a very interesting cross-section of highly qualified researchers. The table of contents at Oxford University Press reveals the breadth and depth of coverage. When I wrote the review of Diamond, I concentrated mainly on what immediately came to mind from how anthropologists examine the ethnographic record. I was not enough aware of how these issues have become entangled with evolutionary psychology, Steven Pinker, and return to the long-running theme of Human Nature and Anthropology.

Since the turn of the century, there has been a circulation and recycling of stories emphasizing an inner core of human violence and cooperation to wage war. In this story, those core human tendencies are only subdued by modern states and modern moral codes. The classic anthropological lesson of insisting on studying humans as inextricable from history and culture is lost. Moreover, these recycled brutal savage myths circulate at the highest levels of society–Bill Gates is a Jared Diamond & Steven Pinker fanboy.

Brian Ferguson, whose work has been so crucial for understanding an anthropology of war (and debunking incorrect anthropological data) contributes two crucial chapters.

In the chapter “Pinker’s List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality, Ferguson discusses how extrapolations from a graph in Keeley’s (1996) War Before Civilization have become recycled and foundational for many of these works. Ferguson’s review is clear:

By considering the total archaeological record of prehistoric populations of Europe and the Near East up to the Bronze Age, evidence clearly demonstrates that war began sporadically out of warless condition, and can be seen, in varying trajectories in different areas, to develop over time as societies become larger, more sedentary, more complex, more bounded, more hierarchical, and in one critically important region, impacted by an expanding state.

Is [Pinker’s] sample representative of war death rates among prehistoric populations? Hardly. It is a selective compilation of highly unusual cases, grossly distorting war’s antiquity and lethality. The elaborate castle of evolutionary and other theorizing that rises on this sample is built upon sand. Is there an alternative way of assessing the presence of war in prehistory, and of evaluating whether making war is the expectable expression of evolved tendencies to kill? Yes. Is there archaeological evidence indicating war was absent in entire prehistoric regions and for millennia? Yes. The alternative and representative way to assess prehistoric war mortality is demonstrated in chapter 11 [“The Prehistory of War and Peace in Europe and the Near East”], which surveys all Europe and the Near East, considering whole archaeological records, not selected violent cases. When that is done, with careful attention to types and vagaries of evidence, an entirely different story unfolds. War does not go forever backwards in time. It had a beginning. We are not hard-wired for war. We learn it. (2013:126)

Following this debunking chapter, Ferguson proceeds to “The Prehistory of War and Peace in Europe and the Near East,” a thorough review of the archaeological record:

This chapter challenges the repeated refrain of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” War does leave behind recoverable evidence. True, in some cases, war could be present but for some reason not leave traces. However, comparison of many, many cases, from all different regions, shows some clear patterns. In the earliest remains, other than occasional cannibalism, there is no evidence of war, and barely any of interpersonal violence. In Europe’s Mesolithic, war is scattered and episodic, and in the comparable Epipaleolithic of the Near East, it is absent. Neolithic records vary, but all except one begin with at least a half a millennium of peace, then war appears in some places, and over time war becomes the norm. War does not extend forever backwards. It has identifiable beginnings. (2013:191)

My suggestion is that as archaeologists search for signs of war, they also consider the possibility that humans are capable of systematically dealing with conflict in peaceful ways. . . . Across all of Europe and the Near East, war has been known from 3000 BC, or millennia earlier, present during all of written history. No wonder we think of it as “natural.” But the prevalent notion that war is “just human nature” is empirically unsupportable. The same types of evidence that document the antiquity of war refute the idea of war forever backwards. War sprang out of a warless world. Humankind has suffered infinite misery because systems of war conquered our social existence. Better understanding of what makes war, and what makes peace, is an important step toward bringing peace back. (2013:229)

Interestingly, as Paul Heikkila pointed out in comments on the Facebook page, although Jared Diamond does not mention Brian Ferguson in the book version of The World Until Yesterday, Diamond does list Ferguson’s work in the web version of “further reading.” For me, this only complicates the issue. If Diamond has actually read Ferguson, or Ferguson and Whitehead’s War in the Tribal Zone, it certainly has had zero impact on his discussion of non-state peoples as more prone to violence!

Instead, this seems to be an ongoing issue of listing additional readings without apparently considering their arguments, as was discussed by at least two authors in Questioning Collapse: Norman Yoffee says Diamond misinterpreted his book as well as Joseph Tainter’s work, the first two sources cited in the “Further Readings” section of Collapse (Yoffee 2009:177). Drexel Woodson “wonders how discerningly Diamond read the five books on Haiti” (2009:278).

In any case, the War, Peace, and Human Nature volume is a most useful intervention. It is suitable for an Introduction to Anthropology course, and I used it in my 2015 Intro to Anthro. Before wading into these issues around Diamond’s book, I had not realized how much the idea of a warlike human nature had become a near religious dictum. And I must again note the irony that Jared Diamond’s 1987 breakout article Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race pinned warfare not on non-state societies, but on agriculture: “Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”

War, Peace and Human Nature successfully debunks the idea that there is an inherently warlike human nature.Click To Tweet

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “War, Peace, and Human Nature: Converging Evolution and Culture.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/war-peace-human-nature-evolutionary-cultural/. First posted 12 February 2013. Revised 16 January 2018.

Please consider contributing to Living Anthropologically. Contributions fund ads to bring anthropology to public debates. Not tax-deductible. For more information, see Support Living Anthropologically.

For updates, please subscribe to Living Anthropologically. Living Anthropologically is also on Facebook & Twitter.

  • Jason, have you communicated at all with Steven LeBlanc about his paper? I read it some time ago, and below I will give some of the parts I find questionable and then I will discuss why.

    CONSTANT BATTLES: Why we Fight, Steven A. LeBlanc, St. Martin, 2004;


    [pp. 73-75]

    “…Not only are human societies never alone, but regardless of how well they control their own population or act ecologically, they cannot control their neighbors’ behavior. Each society must confront the real possibility that its neighbors will not live in ecological balance but will grow its numbers and attempt to take the resources from nearby groups. Not only have societies always lived in a changing environment, but they always have neighbors. The best way to survive in such a milieu is not to live in ecological balance with slow growth, but to grow rapidly and be able to fend off competitors as well as take resources from others.

    To see how this most human dynamic works, imagine an extremely simple world with only two societies and no unoccupied land. Under normal conditions, neither group would have much motivation to take resources from the other. People may be somewhat hungry, but not hungry enough to risk getting killed in order to eat a little better. A few members of either
    group may die indirectly from food shortages—via disease or infant mortality, …for example—but from an individual’s perspective, he or she is much more likely to be killed trying to take food from the neighbors than from the usual provisioning shortfalls. Such a constant world would never last for long.

    Populations would grow and human activity would degrade the land or resources, reducing their abundance. Even if, by sheer luck, all things remained equal, it must be remembered that the climate would never be constant: Times of food stress occur because of changes in the weather, especially over the course of several generations. When a very bad year or series of years occurs, the willingness to risk a fight increases because the likelihood of starving goes up.

    If one group is much bigger, better organized, or has better fighters among its members and
    the group faces starvation, the motivation to take over the territory of its neighbour is high, because it is very likely to succeed. Since human groups are never identical, there will always be some groups for whom warfare as a solution is a rational choice in any food crisis, because they are likely to succeed in getting more resources by warring on their neighbors.

    Now comes the most important part of this overly simplified story: The group with the larger population always has an advantage in any competition over resources, whatever those resources may be. Over the course of human history, one side rarely has better weapons or tactics for any length of time, and most such warfare between smaller societies is attritional. With equal skills and weapons, each side would be expected to kill an equal number of its opponents. Over time, the larger group will finally overwhelm the smaller one. This advantage of size is well recognized by humans all over the world, and they go to great lengths to keep their numbers comparable to their potential enemies.

    This is observed anthropologically by the universal desire to have many allies, and the common tactic of smaller groups inviting other societies to join them, even in times of food stress.

    Assume for a moment that by some miracle one of our two groups is full of farsighted, ecological geniuses. They are able to keep their population in check and, moreover, keep it far enough below the carrying capacity that minor changes in the weather, or even longer-term changes in the climate, do not result in food stress. If they need to consume only half of what is available each year, even if there is a terrible year, this group will probably come
    through the hardship just fine. More important, when a few good years come along, these masterfully ecological people will /not/ grow rapidly, because to do so would mean that they would have trouble when the good times end. Think of them as the ecological equivalent of the industrious ants.

    The second group, on the other hand, is just the opposite—it consists of ecological dimwits. They have no wonderful processes available to control their population. They are forever on the edge of the carrying capacity, they reproduce with abandon, and they frequently suffer food shortages and the inevitable consequences. Think of this bunch as the ecological equivalent of the carefree grasshoppers. When the good years come, they have more children and grow their population rapidly. Twenty years later, they have doubled their numbers and quickly run out of food at the first minor change in the weather. Of course, had this been a group of “noble savages” who eschewed warfare, they would have starved to death and only a much smaller and more sustainable group survived.

    This is not a bunch of noble savages; these are ecological dimwits and they attack their good neighbours in order to save their own skins. Since they now outnumber their good neighbours two to one, the dimwits prevail after heavy attrition on both sides.

    The “good” ants turn out to be dead ants, and the “bad” grasshoppers inherit the earth.

    The moral of this tale is that if any group can get itself into ecological balance and stabilize its population even in the face of environmental change, it will be tremendously disadvantaged against societies that do not behave that way. The long-term successful society, in a world with many different societies, will be the one that grows when it can and fights when it runs out of resources. It is useless to live an ecologically sustainable existence in the “Garden of Eden” unless the neighbors do so as well.

    Only one nonconservationist society in an entire region can begin a process of conflict and expansion by the “grasshoppers” at the expense of the Eden-dwelling “ants.”

    This smacks of a Darwinian competition—survival of the fittest—between societies. Note that the “fittest” of our two groups was not the more ecological, it was the one that grew faster. The idea of such Darwinian competition is unpalatable to many, especially when the “bad” folks appear to be the winners.”

    Helga’s response:

    INTENTIONAL ecological balance? What, now humans are in some kind of intentional control over their cultural systems? Surely no one could be that naive? One might try to create such control with careful permaculture systems under strictly controlled laboratory conditions — but there always seem to be element of chaos that intervene, some of which are social, some microbial, and some just oversights of reality. No, truly, such things could hardly have evolved. Why would they? For most of our evolutionary history, humans were foragers.

    Among mobile foragers on a diet of wild plants and animals, the mechanisms of birth spacing, of infant mortality, of accidental death, of periodic diseases and natural accidents and predation would have balanced the population without any thought being required. And this would have been the case during 99 % of human evolution.

    The only time thought was required was when too many kids started being born too closely spaced, and enough of them survived to accelerate the doubling time to the point where local game and wild plant foods became scarce. This might have happened, once in a while, to sedentary foraging peoples based on fixed resources like annual Salmon runs or huge stands of wild grain, but it would hardly have been typical of most mobile forager groups.

    However, when, throughout a culture area, reciprocal access to resources was no longer a viable strategy for long-term survival, then the scenario so skillful imagined by Steve DOES obtain. THEN the whole game has to change to the nastier one where you simply went over to your neighbours and took their food away (if they had any, and killed them all so that next year they would not do the same to you. An awful but effective survival strategy, increasingly common during the Mesolithic period just before food production systems got underway (another adaptation to resource scarcity and local plant depletion), and has been pretty standard practice ever since for the small fraction of humanity who got stuck in this demographic trap.

    Which means it is within the human range of possible responses to high population:, but also that it is a behavior algorithm that requires a trigger. That trigger, it appears, was usually an upward shift in population:resource ratios over a large culture area, a shift that precluded options based on reciprocal access (redistributive feasting, trade, and migration) and made raiding and warfare into an adaptive strategy for long term control to keep that ratio from getting much higher.

    Just because the resort to inter-group violence is within the range of human behavior does not, however, make it a likely part of our evolutionary environment of adaptation. The scientific evidence, both archaeological and ethnographic, does not support such a conclusion.

    The Mesolithic was only, at most, 12-15,000 years ago, and it did not begin then for all humanity, but only for a TINY proportion of the world’s human population. Most humans were still foragers until well into the last three thousand year period, indeed, in Australian, much of North America and Sub-equatorial Africa, they were mostly foragers until 150 years ago.

    Steve Lablanc seems to assume that population growth rates are under conscious control. There is no real evidence that this is really true of most human cultures. There is some evidence that individuals and family groups might make decisions to kill or abort the occasional child due for various reasons, but no evidence that anyone has fully understood the relationship between breastfeeding, prolonged weaning, hormonal cascades affecting ovulation, and the profound effects on this system of high calorie weaning foods. .

    Among many mobile hunter-gatherers, the birth spacing is much longer than among farming or pastoral people because of breast-feeding that continued well into the third year of a child’s life. Regular stimulation of the mother’s nipples, by suckling, causes a cascade of hormonal responses that tends to prevent ovulation – as long as breast-feeding frequency is sustained (every 2-3 hours). As long as the infant sleeps with its mother, breastfeeding can continue throughout the night without much disturbing the sleep of the parent. Among hunter-gatherers, were high calorie weaning foods such as cereals and animal milk or not available, this continuing lactation gives the child’s gut time to grow large enough to handle enough fruit, vegetables and meat to complete the weaning process during the fourth
    year of life.

    Steve Lablanc does not go into any of this. He ASSUMES a rate of population growth, similar to that of a modern farming community, was true of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. Many archaeologists do. But we have lots of evidence that mobile foragers did NOT have this level of population growth.

    I would suggest that there was an fairly rapid shortening of the birth-spacing interval – from an average of 48 months to about 24 months- with the onset of sedentary villages around stores of food cached for long periods (like dried fish, cereal grains, potatoes etc.

    Generally these stored foods provided high-calorie weaning foods of a kind that mobile hunter-gatherers did not have on hand very often. So then, since their infants did not continue to suckle as frequently, mothers got pregnant sooner than they would have under the oldest, mobile, immediate return, forager system.

    HOWEVER, this scenario is rarely true of human inter-group relations during 99% of our
    evolutionary history. In a world of foragers, things would be a bit different. So, no, we are not the bewildered survivors of millions of years of little territorial groups who survived because we frequently went out and beat the shit our of each other and stole each other’s lands and females. Please.

    We evolved to be smarter and considerably more nuanced in our inter-group behavior than such a chimp-based model would suggest. We would hardly need all those inhibitory brain connections leading out of the prefrontal cortex into the old brain. Now THAT is an algorithm-generating module with an interesting agenda: it is the CEO of the final actions taken by the system, unless overridden by high emotion, fear, or “orders” from some political hierarchy… and it also permits humans to “stand back” mentally and evaluate impulses initiated by both rational and intuitive parts of the brain.

    I suspect that the rapid expansion of the prefrontal cortex in our species was to permit the full integration of information and careful evaluation of options for responding to culturally complex situations both within and between cultures. I think we evolved to be strategic thinkers, not only in the Machevellian sense, but also in the Humanist sense – we tend consider the long term benefits of alliances and trading partnerships (both in terms of expanding our own groups options in times of scarcity and also in terms of expanding our access to a wider gene pool).

    Finessing inter-cultural relations that permitted trading networks to span entire continents took subtlety and self-control far superior to that involved in resorting to violence every time someone had resources you wanted or needed. There is a reason we humans evolved a brain that can easily handle not just one but many languages, and not just one but many cultural inter-faces.

    The “man as nasty beast” model of human nature that is currently popular (it has been since the days of Plato and Aristotle), is based on the wishful thinking that some kind of state control system must control human badness (which is assumed to be inevitable) and is therefore justifiable.

    Newsflash: Man is not a nasty beast. He is smart and funny and, given half a chance, would rather talk things over than get into a fight that might hurt him or sour relationships with potential trading partners and allies – or even potential mates and in-laws. Give humanity credit for having evolved to be a bit smarter than other chimps. Please.


    • Hi Helga, thank you for this. Unfortunately I am not familiar with LeBlanc, but it seems several chapters in this forthcoming volume will address this work. One small comment on your last line would just be to note that the idea that people are smarter and therefore less violent than other chimps may perhaps result from an over-emphasis on violence in certain primatology literatures. Again, the section on The Primatological Context of Human Nature looks to have five useful chapters on these issues. Thanks!

      • Helga Vierich

        Sorry I made the crack about the chimps and their reputed violence. I got carried away… and I had just read Malcolm Pott’s silly book.

  • Stephen

    Jason, why do you think it is that narratives emphasizing some inner core of human violence gain so much traction? The arguments against such narratives are many and varied. And as you’ve pointed out, it does not appear as if Jared Diamond, for example, is unaware of arguments against what he’s saying. Nevertheless, Steven Pinker’s TED talk about how much more peaceful modern, industrial people are was very popular, and he and Diamond get interviewed on the Colbert Report and have access to other mainstream discussion venues. Starbucks patrons, especially, can’t seem to get enough of these guys.

    I know that many within the anthropology community have problems with Diamond, Pinker, Chagnon, etc., but do the majority of social scientists more or less agree with the idea that humans are innately warlike? If not, what is it about those arguments that makes them so popular in general discourse?

    • Hi Stephen, I really wish I knew! First, to be fair to Diamond, he seems to be the least problematic regarding that inner core. He does explicitly say in The World Until Yesterday: “It is equally fruitless to debate whether humans are intrinsically violent or else intrinsically cooperative. All human societies practise both violence and cooperation; which trait appears to predominate depends on the circumstances.” However, since Diamond does talk about “traditional” societies as more violent and more warlike, and since he does not really talk about pre-agricultural societies, as well as downplaying the interconnections, his current work does lean much more toward that violent inner core, basically putting him into what I’m now calling the Chagnon-Diamond-Pinker triangle.

      But, on your question of why the inner core of human violence gains such traction, my reply is mostly speculative. In general, most people want an inner core–any answer that says there might not be an inner core, no human nature outside of history, seems to be less popular. And if it must be an inner core, then it is either Hobbes or Rousseau. These days, the violent inner core has gained the upper hand, as a peaceful inner core seems too hippie, too optimistic, too fuzzy-headed. And so what whenever you argue against the empirical evidence for violent inner core, you are immediately branded as someone who automatically believes Noble Savage, or as Brian Ferguson has been called, a “neo-Rousseauian,” regardless of how much you declare that you are not trying to set up an alternative peaceful-inner-core idea.

      I do think anthropologists, in general, have been the ones most likely within academia to launch a critique of those North Atlantic universals (as Trouillot puts it) which assume the ever-progressive march of a pacifying state. However, that critique is hardly unified or unique to anthropology–and the idea of the West as pinnacle of civilization has scarcely been dislodged.

    • Joe

      Simple. It justifies the status quo. If humans are innately warlike, then the whole state system, despite it’s horrors, is the best of all possible wars. Otherwise, a much better world is arguable — which is a threat to everyone who is comfortable with the way the world is.

      • Helga Vierich

        Yes, and it is no wonder then that the writings of those, who say war is just human nature, that human nature is innately nasty, and that we need to be governed by our wiser (or is that richer) heads, is so popular?

        The scientific flaws in Keeley, Pinker, Diamond, and even EO Wilson’s recent attempt to sketch “human nature” as an evolved entity are widely ignored. Why?

  • spbrunner

    I found Azar Gat’s book called War in Human Civilization much better than Pinker’s book.

    • Hi, thank you for the reply and recommendation. It’s not my field, but seems like a potential effort to wrestle with some of the anthropology.

  • Dwight E Howell

    To say we are not hard wired for war is to give an opinion. Chimp groups fight often viciously. Maybe that isn’t war because the numbers are limited but it raises a pointed question. Very ancient remains of Homo show evidence of violence/cannibalism. Our understanding on this topic is rather limited but it is obvious that under the right circumstances people do bad things to other people.

    • Hi Dwight, thank you for stopping by, but I seriously recommend several of the primatology essays in War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. The chimpanzee information is not as conclusive as often advertised (and should be compared with the evolutionary equidistant bonobos). Also see So many primates for primatology.

    • Helga Vierich

      Lawrence Keeley made that mistake as well – confounding evidence of homicide and occasional violence with evidence for warfare.

      I have often noticed that in these discussions people think that the issue is whether or not humans can be violent. But that is NOT the issue. Of course humans can be violent. There IS evidence of occasional fighting and murder from most human societies. In fact, I suspect that if we have no such evidence for a particular society, that indicates insufficiently deep ethnographic work.

      When I went out to live with foragers in the Kalahari I had good reason to ask about and record all evidence of violence. Richard Lee was my thesis supervisor and he had already looked into this during his own fieldwork. In fact it was his published material on homicide that Keeley and Pinker quote as part of their case for “tribal” warfare. Aside from the oddity of this – as most mobile foragers are neither tribal nor warlike – I urge you to reflect on the fact that Richard’s own work indicated that the violence in these cases indicated conflicts over sharing, over romantic betrayals, and indeed over issues that arose when people got angry with one another over fundamentals that sustained the hunter-gatherer way of life – generosity, trust, loyalty, accountability, and above all, egalitarian principles. In other words, the violence can only be understood in the context of social control.

      This is highly significant. It even, upon further reflection, sheds some much needed light on the possible adaptive value of the human capacity for interpersonal violence. Instead of seeing this as some vestige of our violent chimpanzee-like behavioural heritage, we might consider that humans evolved a pattern of violence – occasional and often highly personal in context – that was calibrated to actually keep greed, dishonesty, hubris, bullying, and freeloading, to a minimum.

      In my own fieldwork, I also found evidence of occasional violence and even homicide. The Kua even told me a story, already two generations old, of how some men had to track down and kill one of their own brothers, for behaviour that seems to me to have been almost that of a psychopath.

      The potential for violence also has another aspect. People know it exists. That is why the stories are told and retold. When an argument breaks out, or anger is seen to be brewing between people who are camped together for a time, no matter what the specific issue that caused it, most Kua adults say that the proper thing to do is to step away and “let the hot hearts cool”. They do this by leaving the camp. I have seen people pack up and walk away in the early dawn, after a severe argument the night before.

      This is not interpreted as “running away” but as prudent and wise.

      I recall interviewing one man about this issue. He was sitting next to his brother. The two of them told me stories about the times they had been so angry with one another that they actually started pulling an arrow from the quiver. “I wanted to shoot you!” chortled the one fellow, and his brother laughed “me too!”. They often did not see one another for weeks or months, preferring to make the rounds of other camping groups and avoiding contact. Each time, when they began to miss one another, there was a quietly emotional reunion. These two guys were well into their late seventies when they told me all this: two grizzled old fellows who clearly relished their time together.

      In the context of the life of hunter-gatherers, would such behaviour serve any purpose? If it is not just a remnant of our more “savage ape” past, if in fact in the past we more resembled the Bonobos than we did Chimpanzees (being genetically at least as close) why would such behaviour arise and/or persist?

      Richard Lee suggested many years ago that most forager camps break up and move on long before the local resources give out; that human mobility is an itch that scratches a social itch rather than a response to economic necessity. Could it be that this tendency to anger and outrage, to arguments and resentment over slights (real or imagined) is actually part of this “social itch” that sets foragers in motion? Is human “nature” calibrated by selection pressure rising from the fine-tuning of our adaptation to foraging?

      I ask this, not because I state it as an obvious hypothesis, but because it is the opposite. It is, rather, an elusive and difficult one. We are no longer mobile foragers.

      Our economies today, in most human societies, are not honed by the internal logic of sustainability that drives foraging – to leave each natural ecosystem as productive as we found it, if not even more so throughout the use of judicious burning to set succession communities back in a mosaic pattern that increased biodiversity and local biomass. This blinds us to the implications of our own past, and of the selection pressures that might have been active during that past.

      It may blind us to the implications of our current economic systems for the future of humanity – and the life support systems on this planet, but that is a topic for another day.

  • carmiturchick

    Whole bunch of things absolutely wrong here, so I will just make a big list:

    1) If you are making claims about the evolved behavior of a species, and you are, then you are actually required to support those claims with a hypothesis which is consistent with the theory of evolution as to how that behavior evolved. You folks have had a century or so and not one of you has tried to offer what your view requires to be remotely credible.
    2) Making this even worse is the claim that somehow our universal abilities to avoid war is evidence for your claims: “that humans are capable of systematically dealing with conflict in peaceful ways” when in fact just the opposite is the case. How do we evolve so many strategies to avoid war if there is no war? What selective pressure could possibly have been at work? No selective pressure if there is no war. What you have here is a just-cannot-be-so story.
    3) Piling on the wrong on evolution is the idea that anyone is claiming war is “hardwired” when of course no one with a smidgen of knowledge about evolution would EVER make that claim. War is as high risk as you can get and humans are highly flexible in their behavior, war would obviously evolve as a highly flexible behavior. This is another reason why the arguments based on our ability to maintain the peace are evolutionary gibberish. Of course we can avoid war, war is a huge risk for us.
    4) “Is there archaeological evidence indicating war was absent in entire prehistoric regions and for millennia? Yes.” This claim is absurd on its face, one cannot have such positive evidence unless one has recovered and examined the bodies of every person who lived in that region for millennia. Have they? How do they know they found them all? Again, this is a just-cannot-be-so story. It is literally impossible that it is true.
    5) With the possible exception of Bonobos, every social territorial species found engages in group level violence against conspecifics. Bonobos live in an area where resources are remarkably evenly distributed. Humans did not evolve in such an area. Your claim is that humans were another exception for reasons you and your friends will never seek to discover, until humans began to farm and then for other reasons you have not made an evolutionary hypothesis about we universally were triggered to begin to engage in war. Not very convincing.
    6) We are also still waiting for any explanation of how our ancestors still had jealousy, greed, beliefs in supernatural evil, lust, simple misunderstandings, angry and violence prone people, and still avoided war for 190,000+ years. None of these caused any men to get their friends together, as they do now, and go engage in violence? Not very believable.
    7) We also need to know what happened when changes in the environment caused groups to move in search of new areas to live in. They were welcomed and given a good fertile home with plentiful water? It has never happened in human history…and evolution says that a group that would give part of it’s territory to any arriving strangers would not fare well.

    You folks can define war in a super restrictive way so that you can deny it always happened. You can make wild claims about having proof that large areas were peaceful for thousands of years. You can make armies of straw-men about others claiming behaviors are hardwired and so on. But none of this actually helps us to understand the evolved psychological predisposition for war in humans or how to help us avoid war in the future. In fact your views make war more likely as they play into the belief that our side is inherently peaceful and the conflict is all the fault of the other side.

    Please. This is an issue that is literally life and death. You and your friends are betting the lives of thousands of people you have not met on your idealism and your fancy argumentation. People should never die so that other people can continue in their fantasies or in their beliefs that they are so clever. People should not have to die for just-cannot-be-so stories. Enough already.

    • Hi, thank you for the big list. I’ll confine my comments to the last bit, because it is one of the things that worries me about the discussion of war and violence in human prehistory: is it really a discussion that is “betting the lives of thousands of people”? If anything, the sort of “people have always been fighting each other” idea serves as a justification for either violent intervention in some cases or an argument for non-intervention when it might save lives.

      • carmiturchick

        Look, the priority should be on whether or not your views are correct. John Horgan has even gone as far as demanding that others change their views on this topic not because they become convinced they were wrong but because he shares your “worries.” This is a shockingly anti-science position for a Scientific American blogger and essentially an open declaration that he is engaging in researcher bias. One should abandon one’s views because they are wrong, and the assertion of utility for being wrong is a highly dubious one at best.

        That said, even the idea that ignorance will help us make a more peaceful world is absolutely wrong. There are several subconscious processes that help predispose us for war, and if we are aware of these vulnerabilities we can consciously control for them. Seeing that our enemy is largely the victim of evolved psychological vulnerabilities to being manipulated to go to war makes us blame them less, and blaming them less makes us less angry at them. There are also universals of language that prepare groups for war by triggering our altruistic impulses to protect our group. These include describing the out-group as criminals, supernatural evil, violators of our norms, insane, or as various harmful creatures such as predators, diseases or disease carrying animals, snakes, rats, or other pests. Because this pattern is universal it can allow us to detect potential conflicts before they start and take positive actions to prevent them. If we accept that none of us are the “peaceful group” then we automatically question our leaders when they assert we are being wronged and are being forced into a war against our will.

        On the other hand, if war is entirely cultural then all the blame is on the enemy. If it is cultural then there should not be any universals that will allow us to detect it beforehand. If it is cultural then it will always exist because culture is infinitely variable and as there cannot be any universal patterns we will never know why or when a group is going to engage in war. If it is caused by agriculture and inequality then the only way to get a peaceful world is to kill most of us off and go back to hunting and gathering. No thanks. If it is cultural then we can happily continue to believe our leaders that we are the peaceful group being forced to invade nation after nation to protect ourselves or our “interests.”

        For more details and lots of citations you can see my Altruism and War paper here – http://theroadtopeace.blogspot.com/

        • Hi Carmi, thank you for the reply and the link. I would agree with you that whenever we see people beginning to describe others as “criminals, supernatural evil, violators of our norms, insane, or as
          various harmful creatures such as predators, diseases or disease
          carrying animals, snakes, rats, or other pests” then we are well on our way to some dangerous (and genocidal) ethnocentrisms. I would also agree that to blame everything on agriculture is a mistake, as I argued in my review of Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.

        • Helga Vierich
        • justme

          “If we accept that none of us are the “peaceful group” then we
          automatically question our leaders when they assert we are being wronged”

          You seem to take the concept of “our leaders” for granted. Maybe the way out of war is there, in the questioning of the existence and naturalization of the idea of “our leaders”. I mean, by saying “our” you seem to identify with the leader in the top of the hierarchy.

          It seems that for you it is also not the point of being correct, but there is a strong ideological element in your approach to the war. You are afraid that war being cultural opens the floodgates of hell and prevents us from overcoming war, since you just don’t like the consequences that you imply would result in admitting of warfare being the cultural result of inequality.

          The issue is more complex, but acting on our ideological fears and not admitting it to ourselves is not necessary the best way of solving the problems resulting from this.

          • carmiturchick

            I think, if you want to discuss this with me, it would be best if you would follow the link I provide above and read the “Altruism and War” paper I wrote. For me it is entirely about being correct. You will see that I take a path entirely my own in my quest to make some real progress on this topic. In fact I started this project by rejecting every ideology I was familiar with.

            The main reason the belief that we used to be peaceful is damaging is because it is wrong, and being wrong cannot lead to useful answers in our quest to find productive strategies to reduce the incidence of war. Another important reason is that the belief that we and our group are peaceful people is one of the critical evolved predispositions that make us more vulnerable to being lead to war. Ironically. And yes, I do point out that if war is entirely cultural then it will be impossible to take positive actions against it in these discussions, but only as a response to the entirely wrong assertions that this issue goes the opposite way.

            Without getting too far off the topic, you seem to have some Anarchist type views and let me address the issue of leaders and egalitarianism briefly. Humans can have egalitarian societies of a few hundred people. Beyond that number there will be inequality and hierarchy, because our methods of enforcing equality fail, and must fail, when the group grows much larger. Yes, we still have a desire for equality and egalitarianism. No I do not want to kill most humans off so we can live in egalitarian small groups again. Yes, going back to living as hunter-gatherers is one hypothesis for how we can have a peaceful world suggested by this book. No, again I do not think killing 97% of living humans is a good idea to see if we then become peaceful.

            If the conclusion is that agriculture and inequality cause warfare, then sorry but we are better off having warfare than we are “solving” the problem by killing nearly everyone so we can live in small egalitarian bands again. Not much of a solution, we better hope it is not correct.

    • justme

      AFAIK, we can approach this question several ways.

      First, we don’t need to dig up every skeleton ever lived to say that there is no evidence of war before ca. 10k years ago. As Ferguson says, war leaves traces in the archaeological record and those traces start showing up at certain times, which means that in this case absence of evidence is an evidence of absence, since if warfare was an integral and functional part of prehistorical societies, there should be archeological evidence for it in sites that evidence is lacking.

      Warfare is different that interpersonal violence, which have been one way of preserving egalitarianism in human societies (check, for example, the writings of Bruce M. Knauft in Current Anthropology).

      Benoit Dubreuil and Christopher Boehm have written about evolutionary approaches for egalitarian societies. Boehm wrote how primate hierarchies made way for egalitarianism but resurfaced during neolithic period. Dubreuil pointed out, that hierarchies didn’t resurface in the same form but hierarchical societies that started to appear from the neolithic were based on the egalitarianism that preceded it and was not the resurfacing of primate hierarchies preceding that egalitarianism. Thus also, comparison of current hierarchies in human societies to primates is off-the-mark, since it omits several million years of human evolution, which we must take into account to explain the human propensity of cooperation and egalitarianism.

      That relates very much to the development of warfare as organized collective violence between two groups. Since making war is the area of human activity were hierarchy usually manifests most clearly and is most advantageous.

      However, the ways to maintain peace in society doesn’t necessitate the presence of war. It is enough to have interpersonal conflict in the group that is different from war. Threat of interpersonal violence is one way of preserving equality, when virtually anyone can kill “alpha male” using tools. Of how human cooperation developed, there has been proposals of humans being prey (Sussmann & Hart), also cooperative breeding seems to have developed early.

      Social harmony and egalitarianism are very functional in human society. In “simple” societies, competition is culturally frowned upon and interpersonal violence, ie. communally sanctioned murder, usually targets the would-be-leader, chronic liars and people who don’t share and try to use other for their own advantage.

      Thus we have an empirical case for no warfare before 10kya (no evidence for it) and theoretical case for why this is so, say, warfare emerged with the emergence of hierarchical society.

      There is also the case made by Clastres, that “primitive
      warfare” (his examples mostly from Amazon) is the function for
      preventing the emergence of the State. Then there have been cases made
      for “primitives” in Amazon region being descendants of more complex and
      stratified societies, which need to be taken into account before
      claiming them to be samples of primordial humanity instead of being
      post-collapse societies.

      • justme

        The book of Dubreuil:

        Human Evolution and the Origins of Hierarchies: The State of Naturehttp://www.amazon.com/Human-Evolution-Origins-Hierarchies-Nature/dp/1107670365

        Here you have an evolutionary theory of destruction of hierarchies during the lineage of human evolution. Very much recommended reading.

      • carmiturchick

        Just started reading this book. I am taking notes. It is a horrific mess so far.

        According to the first chapter by Fry ““Both
        Robert Kelly and R. Brian Ferguson point out that evidence of trauma on one or
        several skeletal remains is not enough to document warfare as opposed to
        homicide; there must be other archaeological indicators such as fortifications
        and settlements situated in defendable locations.”
        This is interesting given that both Fry and Ferguson assert that 99% of human history has been one of nomadic groups, allowing them to assert (wrongly) that we can use extent nomadic groups as examples of how our ancestors lived.

        So they believe the EEA was characterized by humans living as nomads and they then assert that unless these nomadic people built “fortifications and settlements situated in defendable locations” there is no evidence of warfare. This is of course hilarious. Nomadic by definition means you do not have settlements or anything to fortify. Basically the absence of evidence which ACCORDING TO THEM cannot possibly have existed, because all our ancestors were nomadic, is their “evidence of absence.” This adds a huge second fallacy to their first absence of evidence fallacy. Unless our nomadic ancestors were not nomadic at all then they were peaceful. Great logic.

        I have no idea why you or others think that egalitarianism is some sort of evidence of a peaceful human nature. It is not. It enhances group cohesion and limits infighting and schism so that the group is stronger when engaging in war with it’s neighbors. It enforces conformity. When group sizes grow too large, the strategies used to enforce egalitarianism fail because they cannot work in groups where consensus is hard or impossible to obtain, where there are stable sub-groups, and where not everyone knows everyone first-hand.

  • hhemken

    Whether or not war was absent in distant antiquity could be overshadowed by subsequent brutal Darwinian selection for groups that were successful at defeating enemies, raping and plundering victims, and thereby executing ethnic cleansing and culture replacement. This would tend to replace the less war-like with the more war-like over more recent evolutionary history in proportion to the extent of the ethnic cleansing. What matters is where we are now, not where we were several thousand years ago. War-like genes and cultural memes are infused throughout human society today. *That’s* what we need to come to grips with. Does humanity have a vast underclass composed of the inheritors of two or three millennia of war? How can they be recruited on a large scale to create a planetary society devoid of war-like behavior, potentially contrary to their “nature?”

    • hhemken

      There is also a colossal financial incentive driving war-like behavior today.