Reasons for Hope

Posted: July 22, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

A friend recently sent me a great article from The New Scientist called “Winning the Ultimate Battle,” which details the work of anthropologists and others showing that war is not inherent in human biology.

…[A]nthropologists Carolyn and Melvin Ember from Yale University…argue that biology alone cannot explain documented patterns of warfare. They oversee the Human Relations Area Files, a database of information on some 360 cultures, past and present. More than nine-tenths of these societies have engaged in warfare, but some fight constantly, others rarely, and a few have never been observed fighting. “There is variation in the frequency of warfare when you look around the world at any given time,” says Melvin Ember. “That suggests to me that we are not dealing with genes or a biological propensity.”

Anthropologist Douglas Fry of Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland, agrees. In his book, Beyond War, he identified 74 “non-warring cultures” that contradict the idea that war is universal. His list includes nomadic hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung of Africa, Australian Aborigines and Inuit. These examples are crucial, Fry says, because our ancestors are thought to have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers from the emergence of the Homo lineage around 2 million years ago until the appearance of permanent settlements and agriculture less than 20,000 years ago. That time span constitutes more than 99 per cent of the evolutionary history of Homo.

The article gives a good primer on the cultural changes that led to the development of warfare: the birth of agriculture, food stores, symbolic objects of value, etc. The author even contends that human culture has become less violent:

Indeed, perhaps the best and most surprising news to emerge from research on warfare is that humanity as a whole is much less violent than it used to be (see our timeline of weapons technology). People in modern societies are far less likely to die in battle than those in traditional cultures. For example, the first and second world wars and all the other horrific conflicts of the 20th century resulted in the deaths of fewer than 3 per cent of the global population. According to Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois in Chicago, that is an order of magnitude less than the proportion of violent death for males in typical pre-state societies, whose weapons consist only of clubs, spears and arrows rather than machine guns and bombs.

While excited about the rest of the article, I take this paragraph with a grain of salt. The marked decrease in violent death among males can be partially accounted for by:

  1. advances in medical science,
  2. technological advances that make it possible for one person to kill many more of one’s enemies, thus enabling societies to inflict lethal harm on enemy societies with fewer individuals from their society participating in the fighting; and
  3. specialization of labor, leading to the development of warrior classes who fight while others in a violent society do other specialized tasks.

Is it one thing to say that fewer people in a society are participating in violent conflicts, and another thing to say that “people” or “societies” have become less violent across the board?  I’m not sure, and it’s certainly not a binary choice. I just would have preferred to see the author deal with these other factors as well.

The research highlighted in the article reinforces the Seville Statement on Violence, made in 1986 by an interdisciplinary group of leading scientists. Here’s a summary of the five propositions made in the statement:


  • that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors.
  • that war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature.
  • that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour.
  • that humans have a ‘violent brain’.
  • that war is caused by ‘instinct’ or any single motivation.

You can read the full statement and its complete list of signatories here.

Considering the scientific community’s continued validation of the proposition that humans are not violent by nature, together with this and other assertions that humans are becoming less violent, I’m reminded of this passage from Revelation:

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
‘Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,*
for the accuser of our comrades* has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
11But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
12Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!’


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