War is in the air. Sad to say, there’s nothing new about this. Nor is there anything new about the claim that war has always been with us, and always will be.
What is new, it seems, is the degree to which this claim is wrapped in the apparent acquiescence of science, especially the findings of evolutionary biology with respect to a war-prone “human nature.”
This year, an article in The National Interest titled “What Our Primate Relatives Say About War” answered the question “Why war?” with “Because we are human.” In recent years, a piece in New Scientist asserted that warfare has “played an integral part in our evolution” and an article in the journal Science claimed that “death in warfare is so common in hunter-gatherer societies that it was an important evolutionary pressure on early Homo sapiens.”
The emerging popular consensus about our biological predisposition to warfare is troubling. It is not just scientifically weak; it is also morally unfortunate, as it fosters an unjustifiably limited vision of human potential.
Although there is considerable reason to think that at least some of our hominin ancestors engaged in warlike activities, there is also comparable evidence that others did not. While it is plausible that Homo sapiens owed much of their rapid brain evolution to natural selection’s favoring individuals that were smart enough to defeat their human rivals in violent competition, it is also plausible that we became highly intelligent because selection favored those of our ancestors who were especially adroit at communicating and cooperating.
Conflict avoidance, reconciliation and cooperative problem solving could also have been altogether “biological” and positively selected for.
Chimpanzees, we now know, engage in something distressingly akin to human warfare, but bonobos, whose evolutionary lineage makes them no more distant from us than chimps, are justly renowned for making love instead. For many anthropologists, “man the hunter” remains a potent trope, yet at the same time, other anthropologists embrace “woman the gatherer,” not to mention the cooperator, peacemaker and child rearer.
When in the 1960s and ’70s, the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon began reporting his findings concerning the Yanomamo people of the Amazon, whom he claimed lived in a state of persistent warfare, his data were eagerly embraced by many — including myself — because they represented such a beguilingly close fit to our predictions about the likely positive correlation between early human violence and evolutionary fitness.
In retrospect, even though I have no reason to doubt Yanomamo ferocity, at least under certain circumstances, I seriously question the penchant of observers (scientific and lay alike) to generalize from small samples of our unquestionably diverse species, especially about something as complex as war.
I have little doubt that the perspective of many evolutionary biologists and some biological anthropologists has been distorted by the seductive drama of “primitive human war.” Conflict avoidance and reconciliation — although no less “natural” or important — are considerably less attention-grabbing.
Yet peacemaking is, if anything, more pronounced and widely distributed, especially among groups of nomadic foragers who are probably closest in ecological circumstance to our hominin ancestors. The Hadza people of Tanzania have interpersonal conflicts, get angry and sometimes fight, but they assuredly don’t make war and apparently never have. The Moriori people, original inhabitants of the Chatham Islands off the coast of New Zealand, employed several methods (including social ridicule) that prevented individual disputes from escalating into group-versus-group killings. The Batek of peninsular Malaysia consider overt violence and even aggressive coercion to be utterly unacceptable, viewing themselves and their larger social unit as inherently and necessarily peaceful.
The problem with envisioning Homo sapiens as inherently and irrevocably warlike isn’t simply that it is wrong, but also that it threatens to constrain our sense of whether peacemaking is possible and, accordingly, worth trying.
I am counseling neither greater nor lesser involvement in specific wars. But I urge that any such decisions not be based on a fatalistic, empirically invalid assumption about humanity’s warlike nature.
There is a story, believed to be of Cherokee origin, in which a girl is troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fight viciously. Seeking an explanation, she goes to her grandfather, highly regarded for his wisdom, who explains that there are two forces within each of us, struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other, war. At this, the girl is even more distressed, and asks her grandfather who wins. His answer: “The one you feed.”
[Note: This piece appeared a few weeks ago as an op-ed column in The New York Times; reprinted here with permission.]
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, just published, is Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science (Oxford University Press).