Times of India, Science – July 21, 2013
A new study of tribal societies finds warfare is not an innate
concept but a recent phenomenon invented by ‘civilized’ societies…
Is it natural for humans to make war? Is organised violence between rival political groups an inevitable outcome of the human condition ? Some scholars believe the answer is yes, but new research suggests not.
A study of tribal societies that live by hunting and foraging has found that war is an alien concept and not, as some academics have suggested, an innate feature of so-called “primitive people”.
The findings have re-opened a bitter academic dispute over whether war is a relatively recent phenomenon invented by “civilised” societies over the past few thousand years, or a much older part of human nature.
In other words, is war an ancient and chronic condition that helped to shape humanity over many hundreds of thousands of years?
The idea is that war is the result of an evolutionary ancient predisposition that humans may have inherited in their genetic makeup as long ago as about 7 million years, when we last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees – who also wage a kind of war between themselves.
However, two anthropologists believe this is a myth and have now produced evidence to show it. Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg of Abo Akademi University in Vasa, Finland, studied 148 violently lethal incidents documented by anthropologists working among 21 mobile bands of huntergatherer societies, which some scholars have suggested as a template for studying how humans lived for more than 99.9 per cent of human history, before the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.
They found that only a tiny minority of violent deaths come close to being defined as acts of war. Most of the violence was perpetrated by one individual against another and usually involved personal grudges involving women or stealing.
About 85 per cent of the deaths involved killers and victims who belonged to the same social group, and about two thirds of all the violent deaths could be attributed to family feuds, disputes over wives, accidents or “legal” executions, the researchers found.
“When we looked at all the violent events about 55 per cent of them involved one person killing another. That’s not war.
“When we looked at group conflicts, the typical pattern was feuds between families and revenge killings, which is not war either,” said Dr Fry. “It has been tempting to use these mobile foraging societies as rough analogies of the past and to ask how old warfare is and whether it is part of human nature. Our study shows that war is obviously not very common,” he said.
Only a tiny minority of cases involved more organised killing between rival bands of people, which could fall into the definition of war-like behaviour. Most of these involved only one of the 21 groups included in the study – the Tiwi people of Australia who seemed to be particularly prone to violent incidents, Dr Fry said.
Rather than finding war ubiquitous , the two researchers found little evidence that hunter-gatherer societies were in a constant state of violent conflict with rival groups. In short they found that some of the most “primitive” peoples on Earth were actually quite peaceful compared to modern, developed nations.
“These findings imply that warfare was probably not very common before the advent of agriculture , when most if not all humans lived as nomadic foragers,” Kirk Endicott, an anthropologist at Dartmouth College told the journal Science, where the study is published.
The findings also question the conclusions of well-respected academics such as Harvard’s Stephen Pinker and University of California’s Jared Diamond, both of whom have recently published best-selling books on the subject of war-like aggression and tribal societies.