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Margaret Mead’s war theory kicks butt of neo-Darwinian and Malthusian models

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Why war? Darwinian explanations, such as the popular "demonic males" theory of Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, are clearly insufficient. They can’t explain why war emerged relatively recently in human prehistory—less than 15,000 years ago, according to the archaeological record—or why since then it has erupted only in certain times and places.

Many scholars solve this problem by combining Darwin with gloomy old Thomas Malthus. "No matter where we happen to live on Earth, we eventually outstrip the environment," the Harvard archaeologist Steven LeBlanc asserts in Constant Battles: Why We Fight (Saint Martin’s Griffin, 2004). "This has always led to competition as a means of survival, and warfare has been the inevitable consequence of our ecological-demographic propensities." Note the words "always" and "inevitable."

LeBlanc is as wrong as Wrangham. Analyses of more than 300 societies in the Human Relations Area Files, an ethnographic database at Yale University, have turned up no clear-cut correlations between warfare and chronic resource scarcity. Similarly, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley notes in War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford University Press, 1997) that the correlation between population pressure and warfare "is either very complex or very weak or both."

Two tribal societies—the Semai of Malaysia and the Waorani of the Ecuadorian Amazon—represent especially striking exceptions to the Malthusian model. According to the anthropologists Clayton and Carole Robarchek (pdf), who lived among both societies, the Semai population is 60 times denser than the Waorani, and they have much less food, because their soil less fertile and game less plentiful. And yet the Semai, the Robarcheks pointed out, "are among the most peaceful people" known to anthropology (even though some Semai helped British colonialists fight communist insurgents in the 1950s). The Waorani, however, are one of the most violent known societies, with casualties from warfare claiming as much as 60 percent of the population.

War is both underdetermined and overdetermined. That is, many conditions are sufficient for war to occur, but none are necessary. Some societies remain peaceful even when significant risk factors are present, such as high population density, resource scarcity, and economic and ethnic divisions between people. Conversely, other societies fight in the absence of these conditions. What theory can account for this complex pattern of social behavior?

The best answer I’ve found comes from Margaret Mead, who as I mentioned in a recent post is often disparaged by genophilic researchers such as Wrangham. Mead proposed her theory of war in her 1940 essay "Warfare Is Only an Invention—Not a Biological Necessity." She dismissed the notion that war is the inevitable consequence of our "basic, competitive, aggressive, warring human nature." This theory is contradicted, she noted, by the simple fact that not all societies wage war. War has never been observed among a Himalayan people called the Lepchas or among the Eskimos. In fact, neither of these groups, when questioned by early ethnographers, was even aware of the concept of war.

In discussing the Eskimos Mead distinguished between individual and group violence. Eskimos were "not a mild and meek people," she noted. They engaged in "fights, theft of wives, murder, cannibalism," often provoked by fear of starvation. "The personality necessary for war, the circumstances necessary to goad men to desperation are present, but there is no war."

Mead next addressed the claim that war springs from "the development of the state, the struggle for land and natural resources of class societies springing, not from the nature of man, but from the nature of history." Here Mead seems to invoke Marx as well as Malthus. Just as the biological theory is contradicted by simple societies that don’t fight, Mead wrote, so the theory of "sociological inevitability" is contradicted by simple societies that do fight. Hunter–gatherers on the Andaman Islands "represent an exceedingly low level of society," but they have been observed waging wars, in which "tiny army met tiny army in open battle."

Australian aborigines, similarly, occasionally interrupted their wanderings "from water hole to water hole over their almost desert country" to battle each other. They seemed to fight not for any of the usual reasons—the "the struggle for lands, struggle for power of one group over another, expansion of population"—but because war was part of their tradition.

Warfare is "an invention," Mead concluded, like cooking, marriage, writing, burial of the dead or trial by jury. Once a society becomes exposed to the "idea" of war, it "will sometimes go to war" under certain circumstances. Some people, Mead stated, such as the Pueblo Indians, fight reluctantly to defend themselves against aggressors; others, such as the Plains Indians, sally forth with enthusiasm, because they have elevated martial skills to the highest of manly virtues; fighting bravely is the best way for a young man to achieve prestige and "win his sweetheart’s smile of approval."

The original motivations for war’s invention may have been those mentioned by Mead: conflicts between different groups over food, fertile land, women and status, perhaps driven by overpopulation. But the question remains why war spread so rapidly around the world after its initial invention. After all, unlike inventions such as cooking, agriculture and writing, which have obvious benefits, war is an extremely risky enterprise.

Mead did not directly address this question, but her successors have. The Robarcheks pointed out that war is in a sense "contagious," because when one group in a region resorts to war, "others must either take it up or be destroyed." Keeley, similarly, noted that war among North American Indians often stemmed from the aggression of just a few extremely warlike tribes, "rotten apples that spoiled their regional barrels." He added, "Less aggressive societies, stimulated by more warlike groups in their vicinity, become more bellicose themselves."

Societies in a violent region, the political scientist Azar Gat emphasized in War in Human Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2006[HARDCOVER]), have a strong incentive to carry out preemptive attacks. Societies may "attack the other side in order to eliminate or severely weaken them as a potential enemy. Indeed, this option only makes the other side more insecure, rendering the security dilemma more acute. War can thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fear of war breeds war."

War, in other words, is a self-perpetuating meme. So how can we end it? Contrary to the claims of her critics, Mead was far from a naive optimist. In "Warfare Is Only an Invention" she asked, "If we know that it is not inevitable, that it is due to historical accident that warfare is one of the ways in which we think of behaving, are we given any hope by that?" Not necessarily, because "once an invention is known and accepted, men do not easily relinquish it." Writing at the dawn of World War II, Mead had good reason to fear that militarism had become too deeply embedded in modern culture to eradicate. "The deeds of our warriors are immortalized in the words of our poets; the toys of our children are modeled upon the weapons of war," she wrote.

For an invention to become obsolete, Mead argued, "people must recognize the defects of the old invention, and someone must make a new one." In this way trial by jury supplanted trial by ordeal or combat, which had come to seem "unfair, capricious, alien." She added that "to invent new forms of behavior which will make war obsolete, it is a first requirement to believe that such an invention is possible."

Only on this point do I disagree with Mead. We already have inventions—notably the United Nations—for resolving conflicts peacefully. We just need to use them instead of resorting to the worst invention of all time: war.

Photo of Mead courtesy of Wiki Commons

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  1. 1. scarface 6:30 pm 11/8/2010

    War is a consequence of human behavior It is usually a response to a threat, whether real or imagined. It is not an abstract concept for deliberation.

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  2. 2. hartson 8:10 pm 11/8/2010

    Whether war is a resent invention or not, it has become a global necessity to outlaw it. This global economic crisis caused by a few greedy individuals on Wall Street and in the global bank thievery shows how unstable of economy is. A war that would involve the world would be the ruin of the world.,except WWIII. "When a nation state rises up against it’s neighbor, ALL the other nation states must rise up against it" This was done and was very successful. The only state that suffered was that state. There was only one small error. The leader of that state should have been captured and tried for war crimes. The world missed that opportunity and hopefully has learned that lesson. This is the time when we shall learn war no more and we’ll beat our spears into pruning hooks and our swords into plow shares.

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  3. 3. Shenonymous 9:21 pm 11/8/2010

    Problem is…this is not Darwinian. Perhaps you are thinking of Herbert Spencer. And Malthus’s theory said that population tends to increase at a faster rate than its means of subsistence and that unless it is checked by moral restraint or disaster (as disease, famine, or war) widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result. Nearly half the world, if the world has 6+ billion people, do the math, over three billion people, are currently living on less than $2.50 a day. Another article says $2.00. and
    We do not see moral restraint in the world, and degradation has resulted. Malthus was right. Was Spencer right too?

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  4. 4. rwstutler 9:23 pm 11/8/2010

    Hobbes and Rousseau are not contradictory,they are complementary, and both are correct in their description of human nature. Humans are compassionate and cooperative to those within their social groups, and suspicious and hostile toward those outside their social groups. This follows from our aggressive carnivouous hunter nature as well as our cooperative nature. The historic, archeologic and ethnographic record demonstrates that "war" (intergroup violence) has existed as long as our species has existed. "War" before civilization was responsible for the extincetion on our species hominid cousins, and the genocide that befell many prehistoric human groups. What we define as "war" today would be incomprehensible to our prehistoric ancestors, but what those prehistoric ancestors would define as "war" we would readilly recognize as terrorism, murder, feuds, or guerilla warfare. Bioloigically, we evolved to be predators and killers – the most sucessful ones in the planets history, but we hunt and kill as pack animals, in cooperative fashion. We cooperate, feel compassion and trust for our fellows, and we fear, mistrust and murder (war with) outsiders. The archeologic,ethnographic and historical record demonstrates that as time passes our species wars less and less, and our world is becoming more peaceful and less dangerous and violent as our social groups grow in size, as our social organizations grow in complexity and as the rule of law grows to encompass more disparate groups in ever larger social webs. Meade errs when she describes Eskimos as non warlike, because she sees falsely sees their warlike activities and violence as categoricaly different from "war" as we have come to know it in the historical era. I strongly recommenr "War Before Civilization" and "The Science of Fear" as a startingpoint to gain a more balanced and useful perspective on this subject.

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  5. 5. kristi276 10:07 pm 11/8/2010

    How do you explain the concept of war in the context of human evolution? Charles Darwin and the Evolution of a species did not try to tackle the evolution of the human species, but does Margaret Mead explain the need for war?
    We as a species have been around for six million years, and in that time the concept of war has been around for a mere 15,000 human years. Was war created out of scarcity, or was it out of abundance? Fifteen thousand years ago humankind turned away from hunting and gathering to develop of horticulture domestication of animals. Was war a byproduct of scarcity or the need for nce of one group over others? The evolution of nations is carried on by the nce of one group over others, the land and the resources that come from the land. War can not be taken out of the social historical content of human social evolution in the creation of classes,Indus Valley Civilization slavery (Greek, Roman,and Arab),Feudalism and Capitalism. Without war there would no state and no nations. As Napoleon stated that the state is the armed body of men. The War Council, the armed body of men, are in the purpose of the armed body of men is to wage war for the protection and expansion of the state.

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  6. 6. Raghuvanshi1 10:37 pm 11/8/2010

    From ancient war was fought only for economic reason.Some might conceal in religious dogma.Some were hide in superiority of race.But behind all this concealment economic reason nakedly came out.

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  7. 7. rwstutler 1:58 am 11/9/2010

    @ kristi – Our species has existed for less than 200,000 years, and has been waging "war" since that time. Our ancestral species were waging "war" long before that. Our species, and our ancestral species evolved to be pack hunters – the most successful killers and carnivores in the planets history. But because as individuals we (and they) were not strong or deadly individualy, we evolved to be cooperative pack animals and killers. We have strong tribal and pack loyalties – we are cooperative and compassionate toward our pack members, but we have equally strong mistrust, fear and hatred of those outside our tribes or our packs. Strong evolutionary pressure selected for both (seemingly contradictory) traits – xenophobia and group loyalty – within the human psyche. Proximate causes for war can be rationalized – economic; competition for scarce resources; territorial expansion; revenge for rape, murder or theft; etc – but they all have one thing in common. Xenophobia. It is possible to learn ways to mitigate this instinctual trait, and it is possible to find ways to rationalize it, but fear and hatred of "the other" in an instinct deep in the human psyche.

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  8. 8. rwstutler 2:05 am 11/9/2010

    one last little thing – "War", as we have come to know it is a creation of the State or Nation. Prior to the existence of these political systems, what we call ‘war’ was called murder, terrorism, feuding, raiding, conflict, or any other of a number of weasel words used to differentiate civilized "war" from pre-civilized "war".

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  9. 9. Centaurus-A 5:08 am 11/9/2010

    Once again I see here that religion creeps into the commentary. Where in this article was religion mentioned as the motivation of war? Nada. So once again I have to try and point out to the anti-religious atheists that there have been dreadful deeds done in the name of secular ideologies in the last century. Marxism/Leninism tried to extirpate religion altogether and killed millions of people in continuous war both inside and outside the borders of Russia starting in 1917. The Nazi war machine was based on social Darwinism as one of the reasons justifying genocide. Yes, of course, religious fanaticism, particularly in the Medieval period of Europe and the Reformation was used as justification for countless conflicts that cannot be discounted. However, this pales in comparison to the secular ideologies of the twentieth century in the scope and sheer numbers of people killed in warfare in the name of nationalism, Communism and Fascism.

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  10. 10. 5:08 am 11/9/2010

    I too read Darwin and Malthus,"painstakingly". They were great minds. This does not mean that they were absolutely right. Malthus advanced the idea to use microbes or biological warfare as we understand it today for population control in England in his days. It was an interesting idea but not a great one. It caused great damage to the world today. The reality of war is clear. Its origin and necessity is still mysterious. It does have a certain functionality but population control has nothing to do with it. Some years ago I began to study human social evolution (from prehistory to present), that work is not yet finished. It appear to me that we should give greater credit to humankind and "mother nature". Number is more important to the survival of world than it appears. We do need each other. We are not living in nineteenth centuries anymore. The limit of resource was a valid concept when we thought that this world was the universe.

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  11. 11. Centaurus-A 5:24 am 11/9/2010

    Kristi, If you look at the record of human conflict it goes back to our ancestors, the apes. However, I think organized warfare has become less and less symmetrical as individuals have lost power to the state. As states emerged more power was concentrated there, and small armed bands that fought one another with the same tools used for hunting were increasingly replaced by larger more organized armies that fought each other for larger amounts of territory. By the time of the emergence of agrarian states in Mesopotamia and Sumer in 3000 BC this territorial state was well entrenched. The monopoly of the state caused war to become much more efficient and destructive.

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  12. 12. sunnystrobe 5:54 am 11/9/2010

    How naive of Margaret Mead to claim that, "War is Only an invention"; wearing her idealistic pink glasses (again), she missed seeing the wood for the trees, mixing up the ‘new tech’ technology of human warfare with the very primate, pre-human, pre-historic, evolutionary roots of all ‘evil’: aggressivity, which is clearly still driven by ‘hormonized’, not very ‘harmonized’,young males in their quest for alpha- status.
    To quote from the October 2010 issue of National Geographic: Jane (Goodall):Fifty Years (of studying our closest relatives) at Gombe:
    "That period of aggression (1974), known in Gombe annals as The Four Year War, led to the death of some individuals, the annihilation of the Kahama subgroup, and the annexation of its territory by Kasekela. Even within the Kasekela community, struggles among males for the alpha position are highly political and physical…

    From ancient Greek philosophers: "War is the Father of all things" to modern authors (Brecht’s Mother Courage): "War nourishes his folk!" the war theme is an ongoing one.
    The absurdity of destroying each others’ cultural landmarks to smithereens has a clear parallel in bird biology,: I remember Sir David Attenborough showing a brutally vandalized bowerbird’s courtship parlour: a jealous male competitor had undone his rival’ s beautiful art gallery. "C’ est la Guerre"!
    And not to forget that the reason for the Trojan War was none other than a certain female by the name of Helen of Troy ( "Is This the face that launched Ten thousand ships?" one poet mused.)
    No doubt Charles Darwin’s bestselling book had just the right title : The Origin of Species by way of Sexual Selection. It explains the really Big Picture to me like no other piece of human writing. (

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  13. 13. Centaurus-A 6:05 am 11/9/2010

    I should add that I don’t think much of warfare can be explained through Evolution. As Mead points out this is a cultural, and I would add a sociological phenomena. There is definite evidence, as pointed out, that humans are a pack animal and as hunting for other animals developed so did conflict with other human groups. However, I don’t believe evolution is a good theory to explain human behavior. Its limitation is that it is good for organizing (and at times explaining) inter species changes, and possibly some intra-specific animal behaviors, but human culture is much too complex to explain through Evolution. The misapplication of the theory to society is what caused the emergence of social Darwinism.

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  14. 14. Fabrice LOTY 7:50 am 11/9/2010

    @GregMS wrote:
    ”For example, one of the basic myths of Christian societies is that people are born ‘bad’, peoples basic nature is ‘sinful’. When a belief like this becomes prevalent it is unsurprising that one society becomes fearful of the other societies around it. This sort of fear can easily lead to war. ”
    Please, I understand that humanism includes some self glorification, but human self pride should remain reasonable and decent.
    Why do you think people tend to regret?
    Anyway, the Christian belief in mankind’s desperate situation is courageous, modest and effective. It promotes peace and will eventually bring the glory God reserves to humble ones.
    If a society is afraid of other societies because other societies are bad, then they are afraid of themselves because they are inherently human, sinners. So this fear would push them to change the others just as they themselves believed and were changed. This is a unifying view of people, we are all fighting the same fight for excellence, and those who are opposing our quest have not yet been drawn by the merciful one. We should avoid their wrong practices, but always pray for their good.

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  15. 15. Shenonymous 8:26 am 11/9/2010

    Some answers to why humans war might be found in philosopher David Livingstone Smith’s investigation in “The Most Dangerous Animal,” where he provides anthropological and archaeological evidence that the human need for war is based on two determining evolutionary factors: an innate, or genetic, aggressiveness from the need to fight for food, shelter and the right to breed, and the human impulse to belong to a group, most likely due to the maxim of finding safety in numbers. Two reviews of the book might provide a cursory insight into the inherent ability to dehumanize others so that killing them is facilitated see and

    Also "The Origin of War: The Evolution of a Male-Coalitional Reproductive Strategy," by J.M.G. Van der Dennen

    It is one thing that can without fail be counted on from religionists to say that Marx and Lenin, oh and Stalin (you forgot to mention) and Mao all were atheists. The thing is that they did not oppress or murder in the name of no-god, of the Godless, of Atheism! The fact that they were non-believers is a peripheral issue, not `The’ issue as was the Crusades or the Inquisitions or the Witch Hunts which killed millions. Hitler, however, was a Catholic and he did take issue with the six million who worshipped the Jewish God, Yahweh. But while anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages was religious-based, Hitler made a political cause out of it.

    Historically, in 1793, a Cult of Reason was adopted by the revolutionary French Republic but was replaced about six months later with deism as the state religion, called the Cult of the Supreme Being (see The Twilight of Atheism, by Alister McGrath). Revolutionary France installed its campaign of dechristianization. A war developed in one French region called the first modern genocide, which included removal and destruction of religious objects from places of worship and the transformation of churches into "Temples of the Goddess of Reason. Long before Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach called religion an opiate. Seeing religion as giving illusory happiness, violence perpetrated by non-believer tyrants, however, were committed to the idea that humankind is at its foundation a history of struggle between social classes not by their atheism. The productive capacity of a society is the whole basis of society and its capacity to increase social relations of production through struggle of the classes.

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  16. 16. razausman 8:52 am 11/9/2010

    Touché my thoughts exactly. One only has to turn on national geographic to see groups of chimps conducting warfare against each other.
    Anthropology to my knowledge has not contributed anything of substance to science.

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  17. 17. notslic 11:48 am 11/9/2010

    Based on my own personal experience, I would have to agree with Mead. When I was drafted I had no dispute with Vietnam. In fact, I knew nothing about the region. I was told by my government that I had to travel halfway across the world and kill old people, women and children, in addition to other forcibly conscripted soldiers, because it was "in the interests of the United States", or else I would go to jail. There were no resources to be gained, there was no overpopulation issue. There was no social status or mate to be won.

    War is now purely political. The false "cause" of our present wars being about oil as a resource is merely a distraction. If resources were the issue, Iraq would now be U.S. territory. And don’t tell me to be afraid. I have put myself in a position where I don’t have to fear politics.

    But things have changed now in a tiny way. With the ending of the draft, now only those who choose to do so fight our wars. I feel sorry for them. The rest of us are just forced to pay for it.

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  18. 18. gesimsek 11:49 am 11/9/2010

    While agression is an intinct and biological, war is deliberate,hence, requires human intellect and justifiably called "invention". When individuals started to live in organized structures called states, their instinctual hardware needed to be formatted by the necessities of that structure so that they can live peacefully and productively. Institutionalized agression is what states do (apart from manifacturing consent via ideology) to force cooperation among its members. When a state needs to force cooperation upon other societies, it is called war. Xenophobia is a societies agression towards its certain members and it can not be properly called war. However that feeling can be manipulated by demagogs to achieve political ends.

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  19. 19. GregMS 11:56 am 11/9/2010

    Your comments simply prove my point. You have decided that people are sinners and need to be changed. When whole societies think like this war is inevitable.

    The fact that people regret seems to show that people are not inherently sinful and that this is simply a myth perpetrated by organised religions to justify the superiority of their believers. The same sort of self-glorification that you ascribe to humanists. I myself believe in a single creative power (God, if you like), but I believe that a perfect creator must, perforce, create perfect beings, so fear is unnecessary.

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  20. 20. Shenonymous 5:22 pm 11/9/2010

    War does not have anything to do with sinning, it has to do with genes and the imperative to survive, or the species would not have evolved at all. It is intrinsic. Suggestion: read the literature. Why the universe organized itself in this way is anyone’s guess and there have been many explanations religions are only a few of them. Science has its own as well. If anyone is really interested you might check out the article "Meduso-anthropic principle" at
    or google Louis Crane’s "Possible Implications of the Quantum Theory of Gravity: An Introduction to the Meduso-Anthropic Principle" for a PDF document, also Edward R, Harrison’s, The Natural Selection of Universes Containing Intelligent Life, in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 36:193. Of course, you will believe whatever you find most comfortable.

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  21. 21. jhaas 5:26 pm 11/9/2010

    A number of commentators state that warfare goes back to the beginning of the human species (either Homo sapiens sapiens or further back to earlier ancestors), an argument also raised by Lawrence Keeley, Keith Otterbein, David Livingstone Smith, among others; however, the archaeological record simply does not support this assertion. Conducting a review H.s.s. remains excavated around the world and dating to 10,000 B.P. or earlier, we have found that while there are hundreds of sites with human remains and thousands of human remains from a period of 200,000 years, only a very tiny fraction show any evidence of violence and fewer still show evidence that the violence was caused by other human beings. In later periods, with increased population densities, sedentism, and aggregation, the evidence for violence and warfare is much more rife in the archaeological record. In other words, when warfare appears the historical sequence of any given region, it is readily apparent in the human remains and material record left behind.

    The issue here is not trivial. If we make the unfounded and unwarranted assumption that warfare is somehow inherent to humanity, then we are no longer forced to look at the root causes of war. A report some years ago for the Department of the Army, for example, concluded that warfare was somehow biological innate and had been around forever in the human species. If this is the case, then any trivial thing can be blamed for the onset of war (e.g. the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand). By that reasoning, the aggressive, innate trigger found in all men/apes only needs to be stimulated and war breaks out. However, I would argue that the root causes of warfare are much more complex than allowed by any consideration of "natural instincts" and must be sought in demographic pressures, economic realities, and today at least, the political aspirations of state rulers, regardless of gender or intelligence. If we are to bring and end to war, we must look at the actual, not the imagined, causes of war.

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  22. 22. Shenonymous 6:28 pm 11/9/2010

    Given that David Livingston Smith gave 34 pages of notes and references, I believe he has provided more than ample evidence for his theory about the origin of the war impulse. I don’t see any references from jhaas. Yes, it is true the issue is not trivial. However Smith’s work is not unfounded nor has unwarranted assumptions. A report from the Department of the Army does not constitute research into the nature of humankind. If there are those in the Army who have given the issue the kind of scholarly attention and investigative work that Smith has, then I’d like to see their references and why their conclusions ought to be more reliable than the likes of Smith. Many in the field of anthropology, philosophy, and archaeology have given his work remarkable reviews.

    You certainly have a right to express your argument but why would anyone think it has any validity? It is completely left in the realm of opinion, unsubstantiated opinion. It indeed is a complex topic, but David Livingstone Smith has certainly given it extraordinarily complex attention. Again, it is suggested that further reading take place and some evidence provided for which conclusions have been come to. As I already said, you have the right to believe whatever you wish. If you can show why your ideas are better than Smith’s then you ought to present them. I’m always willing to listen to anyone who can back up with some authentic confirmation what they declare is worthy to believe.

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  23. 23. jhaas 6:43 pm 11/9/2010

    I have written extensively on the topic with lots of references. In my case, I have gone to the original sources, not to compilations. Take a look at "War and the Evolution of Culture" in Archaeology at the Millennium.

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  24. 24. Shenonymous 6:49 pm 11/9/2010

    jhaas – I googled "War and the Evolution of Culture" in Archaeology at the Millennium and nothing was found. Could you provide a clearer reference. I will be glad to read it.

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  25. 25. jhaas 7:10 pm 11/9/2010

    search on Archaeology at the Millennium, by Feinman and Price. I don’t have it in pdf, or I would send you a copy. Sorry. I also just gave a paper on the topic at a conference in the Netherlands that has some of the more recent data. A part of this paper has involved accumulating the data not just on sites that show violence, but those that don’t show violence, which are in a very large majority. Otterbein (How War Began) has a list of the small number of cases of early violence, and Sam Bowles published a recent article in on evolution and war in Science (2009)that basically has the same sources. To get some idea of the number of sites that do NOT have signs of warfare, take a look at Holt and Formicola (2008) (American Journal of Physical Anthropology 137). It is not possible to provide adequate data in a blot piece, and my comments are mostly meant to get people to question what is all too commonly accepted as given – by people like Smith and many others.

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  26. 26. YetAnotherBob 8:48 pm 11/9/2010

    You quote Clausewitz. A better source would be Sun Tsu. "War is the failure of politics."

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  27. 27. YetAnotherBob 8:55 pm 11/9/2010

    Ant, Bees, Wasps, Orcas, Wolves, Lions. And yes, Chimps. Chimpanzees do attack other bands of Chimps. All of these Animals seem to practice warfare. Most social animals seem to.

    I suspect that more digs will find that war occurred before 15,000 years ago.

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  28. 28. YetAnotherBob 9:07 pm 11/9/2010

    Your emotional antipathy towards religion is not factually based. Yes, there have been bad cases. Muslim Jihad, Christian crusades, Hindu purges, Jewish and Confucian excesses, etc.

    But, I don’t think you can find any wars waged by Quakers, Amish, Jain or any of several other peaceful religions. It is not that religions start wars, it is that some religions embrace war. Some do not.

    You should either abandon your anti-religious jihad, or abandon your tendency to group all the different groups together with claims there are no differences. These are mutually exclusive. Or, I suppose you could just admit that you are illogical. Most hatreds are.

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  29. 29. jhaas 9:20 pm 11/9/2010

    Bob: There is a confusion between things that superficially look similar but really aren’t similar. You can look, for example, at giant ant piles and call them "architecture", or bird’s nest’s and call them "suburban housing", or bee hives and call them "storage lockers". But that does not make them in any way analogous to human patterns of human behavior.
    the similarities are only superficial. Ants, bees, lions, and other social animals do what they do by instinct. No one, not even the most ardent of socio-biologists, would argue that humans go to war by instinct. The similarities between humans and chimpanzees are appealing, but ultimately not relevant to the question of why humans go to war. You only have to look at chimpanzees, their canines, hair, sexual organs, body structure, etc. to see that for all their genetic similarities, there are radical differences from humans.

    You may be right that there will be more archaeological evidence of violence in early humans found in the future, but there is already a very substantial archaeological record of early humans that simply does not confirm the ubiquity of war. Indeed, you can look at the archaeological record of any world area (you choose) and you will find extensive archaeological records for hundreds/thousands of years without any evidence of warfare whatsoever. If you find such very long periods without warfare, then the socio-biological arguments, the social animal arguments, fall apart. There are, to my knowledge, no examples of non-human social animals that go without their natural patterns of competition/conflict for hundreds of years. Human warfare is profoundly different from any form of conflict in the animal kingdom, chimpanzees included. We have to look for the cultural causes of human conflict, not try to find biological roots amongst miscellaneous primates and other social animals

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  30. 30. mtoyama 4:18 pm 11/10/2010

    And here, jhaas, you’ve gotten down to the fundamental error at the heart a lot of the arguments in the comments here comparing humans to other animals: war is very different from intraspecies competition.

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  31. 31. Shenonymous 8:29 am 11/11/2010

    Finally an intelligible and lucid voice about socialism! Lawrence O’Donnell. He gave the long overdue swift kick in the ass to Glen Beck about socialism and I for one, leaped with pent up glee! Believing capitalism gives the best topography for a country to prosper by protecting private property and enforcing voluntary contracts, free wealth creation, and free enterprise to trade without coercion, I am not in any way a communist nor anything like what is classically thought of as a socialist. However, I do believe in the socialist programs that defines the liberal point of view of a successful society that cares about its people, a people who do not hold any privilege status except as being its vital core and basis to be a society. O’Donnell really said, if listened to closely, the he is a Liberal, but one that is not afraid to associate with it socialistic features. It was a knockout declaration!

    O’Donnell spoke the truth about the absolute history of the US and its affair with socialist ideas and practices. To neutralize the “lethal and cruelty of capitalism” he spoke the truth that every single country in the world has elements of socialism. He rightly spoke of good socialism and bad socialism and the absurdity of fearing the word socialism. Perhaps a sane dialogue may begin that will put corrective lenses on what has hitherto been given a blind eye to the reality that defines this country.

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  32. 32. Shenonymous 8:30 am 11/11/2010
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  33. 33. Shenonymous 8:30 am 11/11/2010

    Sorry, wrong blog. My apologies.

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  34. 34. nexeu 1:16 pm 11/11/2010

    How would you define war?

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  35. 35. nexeu 1:29 pm 11/11/2010

    If war is a natural instinct then why does it take place frequently in some societies and infrequently in others? Why would the frequency change with history?

    War is a cultural phenomena. And just like any other cultural element it is reinforced by tradition and narrative.

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  36. 36. nexeu 1:53 pm 11/11/2010

    Also, the people who actually fight and die in war RARELY want to be engaged in the process in the first place. War is often the result of the leaders of a society being able to enforce its will on the rest of the population.

    If anything war is a statement about people’s willingness to blindly follow leadership and disregarding their own self-interest or even the interest of ANYONE they know personally.

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  37. 37. rwstutler 5:27 pm 11/11/2010

    jhaas writes: "A number of commentators state that warfare goes back to the beginning of the human species (either Homo sapiens sapiens or further back to earlier ancestors), an argument also raised by Lawrence Keeley, Keith Otterbein, David Livingstone Smith, among others; however, the archaeological record simply does not support this assertion."

    I believe you are mistaken in this assertion. Incomplete though it may be, the archeologic record demonstrates that violent death and injury has always been a significant factor in human and pre-human populations. The propensity for interpersonal violence is ubiquitious in our species, and in our ancestoer.

    the root causes for "war" are most often rationalizations. Justifications created by individuals to explain or excuse their actions to their fellows. With the increase in the sizes of our social groups, and the increase in the reach, scope and complexity of "law", individuals are less empowered to act violently, while "states" coopt or take this power over from the individual. With the rise of "states", violence has decreased, the percentage of people involvbed in war, killed in war, wounded in war, have decreased significantly.

    The solution to the problem of "war" is the extension of the rule of law, and the integration of the individual into social groups that buy into and are bound by the rule of law.

    As a side note, it continualy amuses me to see the believers and unbelievers blame belief and lack of belief for war and death. The simple fact is that war, or more properly organized group violence, can be rationalized in any way way one pleases, with whatever emotional, logical, or philosophical "reason" one likes.

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  38. 38. Shenonymous 3:16 am 11/12/2010

    jhaas, the difference between what you and I say about the origins of war in humans is a categorical one. I’m not saying you are wrong. You do not go back far enough. Your interest begins when men fell into large wars. I am discussing the evolutionary genetic impulse or the reason why the human organism went to war in the first place. This is on what Smith spent his long scholarly work. There are others who corroborate his work.

    Smith’s thesis is that humans are innately programmed to engage in warring behavior. You have not poked any holes in his conclusions. I agree with Smith and Dawkins, et al, that prior to human form, but certainly at the earliest mitochondrial stage onward to the organized precursor to humanity, there was an innate genetic trait that naturally selected for combat in order to build strength in the species to find sustenance and shelter as well. Science is provisional even at its best. And while I find no evidence to absolutely refute this claim, of course there is none at the cellular level to support it either. We can only look at biological consequences, millennia later.

    BTW: Your paper, Warfare and the Evolution of Culture, was accessible through a google search, by the way. I’m surprised you did not know that. The website is at a Santa Fe site:

    All that notwithstanding, from your apparently well-referenced paper, page 3, “Reconstructing warfare stands somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Direct manifestations of war can be identified in skeletal remains (projectile points stuck in rib cages, scalp marks on skulls, "parry" fractures on forearms). Weaponry can also be directly observed in the archaeological record, though is may often be difficult to distinguish hunting from war weapons. On the other hand, evidence of battles, war parties, and warrior organizations are another step removed from the material remains found archaeology. The ideology of warfare and the personal motivations of warriors are even more difficult if not impossible to extract from the archaeological record.” While there is undoubtedly some truth to this, evidences are being unearthed all the time.

    Warfare is caused by psychological thought both emotional and reasoned that give rise to physical action called war. As a psychological phenomenon, warring is deeply and genetically embedded in our subconscious as a result of evolution.

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  39. 39. jhaas 11:31 am 11/12/2010

    To Schenonymous and rwstutler: My research and publications on the prehistory of warfare have focused on the later time periods because that is where the evidence of warfare first appears. The statement: "the archeologic record demonstrates that violent death and injury has always been a significant factor in human and pre-human populations" is simply not supported by the data. In Otterbein’s recent book, How War Began, for example, he cites a total of 7 sites anywhere in the world prior to 10,000 years ago that show any signs of violence. None of these predate 20,000 years ago. Keeley (War Before Civilization) sites no more, and Smith cites none at all – he takes Keeley’s word for it. In contrast, there are literally hundreds of sites around the world with no signs of violence over the entire history of Homo sapiens sapiens (See Holt and Formicola: "Hunters of the Ice Age: The Biology of Upper Paleolithic People" In Yearbook of Physical Anthropology: 51: 70-99; Newell, R.R., T.S. Constandse-Westermann & C. Meiklejohn, 1979. "The skeletal remains of Mesolithic Man in Western Europe: an evaluative catalogue" . Journal of Human Evolution, 8(1), 1-228 – as but two examples of many). If you look at all of South America (where I am working at the moment), for example, there are but two examples of possible conflict dating to the 4th millennium B.C., none before that, and none after that until the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C. The large body of archaeological research at hundreds of archaeological sites from these time periods shows no signs of warfare or violence.

    If there are biological, genetic impulses to go to war, why is war absent from the human record until 20,000 years ago at the most recent (and then only 1 site), and highly episodic around the world for the next 10,000 years. Warfare is not invisible in the archaeological record, and after about 8000 B.C. signs of warfare appear with somewhat more regularity under conditions of increased population, resource shortages, and sedentism. When the data of the archaeological record are examined and not assumed, they reveal a clear picture of warfare as a very late phenomenon in human prehistory and extremely rare until comparatively recent times.

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  40. 40. notslic 11:33 am 11/12/2010

    I find it interesting that nobody else has posted a comment relating their own personal experience with war (please see my comment # 27). An interesting factor that has not been mentioned, and may be relevant, is PTSD. As recently as 150 years ago, in the Civil War, men came home from horrific battles and simply continued their lives. Violence was common on the frontier. Slaughter happened regularly. The point that I am making is…have we evolved a new sense of morality in such a small timespan? Or has our global culture made many of us more empathic to the human race? Now, so many of our volunteers come back from war with dibilitating psychological injury. This leads me to believe that warfare is indeed a cultural phenemenon, rather than an evolved instinct. 15,000 years is a blink of the eye in the human timespan. One more for Margaret Mead!!!

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  41. 41. scientific earthling 8:03 pm 11/13/2010

    Jhaas: Your response to YetAnotherBob I find arrogant in the extreme. It is this grandiose attitude that causes the barbaric destruction of our home planet.

    Every multicellular living creature with neurons, glial and possibly other supporting cells for cognition is capable of and does think – on different time-scales (depending on size) and to different extents.

    Please explain what is Instinct? Is it not the working of the brain that causes the creature to act based on experience and thought? Humans differentiated between human and animal thinking (ego at work) classifying animal thought as instinct.

    The homo sapien is so similar to the chimp and the orang-outang (we are the only surviving species of the genus Homo), perhaps we should try artificially fertilising a human ovum with a chimp/orang sperm nucleus (I understand how hard this would be 2.5% DNA different), to demonstrate the similarities – but the god people will howl like the animals they claim they are not.

    When it comes to cognition and a comprehension of self read "The Black Cloud" by Sir Fred Hoyle. Yes even a cloud has the electro-chemical activity that could be the underlying source of cognition.

    Understand the homo sapien is just another multicellular animal, no different to any other. This animal by virtue of its weakness was forced to use its thinking to survive. It was so successful, it gained control of its environment and some other species too. However due to its grandiose vision of itself it has been unwilling to accept its failings and now faces extinction.

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  42. 42. Shenonymous 11:26 am 11/14/2010

    Your paper, jhaas, seems truthfully to state a likely evolution of culture and the kind of warfare it generated. But is left open was the development of “warlike” violence between humans 30,000 years ago and much earlier. We are talking about “pre-history,” so only from archaeological and anthropological evidence can conclusions be theorized. Anything else is mere opinion. Yours and mine. Probable and reliable evidence makes the difference.

    Since the invention of spears and the bow and arrow about 30,000 years ago, the Cro-Magnon era, it is reasonable to assume tribal wars resulted from competition for hunted food supplies. Some theorists think the Neandertals were warred into extinction, others think it was due to climate change. Given that they “ruled” for 200,000 years, then about 30,000 years ago “mysteriously” vanished, as well as climate change, there is still a residue that their demise was hastened by warring tribes. Scientific evidence comes “By comparing the famous wound of the Shanidar III Neandertal with wounds of soldiers in the American Civil War; researchers have suggested that Shanidar’s rib wound is consistent with a thrown spear and that he was obviously a victim of human violence. The spear was probably thrown using a thrown spear, a technological device probably only used by anatomically modern humans, AMH. If the evidence is correctly interpreted, it is the first evidence of actual fighting between the two populations. See:

    From another report “The butchery in the early Stone Age was similar to that used by humans to cut up deer carcass…Neanderthals met a violent end at our hands. …For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place.”

    Evolution includes those who survive by warring and possess among their talents the ability to perceive predators of their own species who could harm them in their search for food. Living things that did not have the ability to withstand other warring groups died of starvation or were eaten. They did not survive to reproduce nor did their family members more than those who had the quality to combat well from strength or sapience (cognition) and thus had a better chance of multiplying. Thus, evolution produced the best warriors. Sapience is the defining aspect of the humanity into which we developed. We are called homo sapiens. Sapience means having or showing great wisdom, that is, sound judgment.

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  43. 43. jhaas 3:41 pm 11/15/2010

    We will not solve this issue in such posts to our mutual satisfaction. I have and continue to search the archaeological record for signs of violence and warfare. I would invite you and anyone else who is interested to do the same. Pick any world area you want, and actually look for evidence of violence or warfare before 10000 years ago. But also look at the full range of sites and human remains and notice the absence of violence and warfare as well. My main point is that there IS a rich archaeological record that is directly pertinent to the prehistory of warfare. Look at it and draw your own conclusions. Much better than making assumptions.

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  44. 44. rozy22 7:24 pm 11/16/2010

    @robert schmidt, religion at one point was the only means of control from government which was a major obstacle from society and chaotic existence. Although obselete now, religion was once of the upmost importance

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  45. 45. rozy22 7:24 pm 11/16/2010

    @robert schmidt, religion at one point was the only means of control from government which was a major obstacle from society and chaotic existence. Although obselete now, religion was once of the upmost importance

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  46. 46. zstansfi 3:24 am 11/17/2010

    Where did this claim about no human warfare prior to 15,000 years ago come from? And what is the definition of warfare used to produce this claim? Clearly humans fought prior to this period of time, and it seems undoubtedly true that they "battled". If we are–as I imagined–speaking of organized warfare the simple explanation is that prior to 15,000 years ago, neither population density nor societal organization were great enough to produce warfare on a scale which would be recognized as such by anthropologists. This, in concert with what are undoubtedly numerous other factors–as warfare often requires an inciting factor such scarcity of resources, including food and sexual partners–provides a simple enough explanation of the instigation of general warfare.

    Also, while I like the idea that warfare may spread–as the fear of attack instigates further aggression within formerly peaceful societies–I don’t know that it is fair to claim that societies which do not conduct war are necessarily ignorant of its existence. Nor should this ignorance be legitimate to explain the fact that they are peaceful. Is it not reasonable to suggest that there are certain societies in which warfare is simply not feasible? The Eskimo warfare is clearly a difficult affair–the scarcity of resources, shortened seasons and general isolation certainly reduce many of the factors which might incite widespread, organized warfare. Undoubtedly similar reason could be found for numerous other peaceful societies.

    Overall, I don’t really see the point of this article. It looks like another one of John Horgan’s rabble-rousing ideas brought to life. Clearly our genetic heritage has lead to the development of many of our complex behaviours. This has produced a species where aggressive behaviour is easily instigated and often rewarded. As has been pointed out by others I am sure, if we were a tribe of sloths, or gorillas or mice or carrots, certainly we wouldn’t be instigating aggressive conflicts. But also warfare does not just begin in a vacuum. There are many social, technological and environmental factors which are required to produce the kind of complex, war-like state we are talking about. Why there is any reason to claim that Mead’s ideas are any better than Darwin’s is beyond me. What’s more, it is a kind of intellectual elitism, claiming that one kind of evidence is so much better than another, which obscures the true state of our knowledge on this topic.

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  47. 47. SirWilhelm 10:28 am 12/18/2010

    We all know the old saying to the effect that if we ignore history, we are doomed to repeat it. Ancient history, all too often seen as myth, tells how the "gods" of those times taught man how to make war by recruiting him to fight alongside them. Eventually, their wars evolved to men fighting their wars for them. Whoever those ancient "gods" were, we learned so well, we still, in most cases, ask for God’s support for our side’s in war. And today’s "War on Terror" is really a war with Islam, even if you believe it is only with their "radicals". Islam has been at war with Judaism and Christianity since it began, today’s war is just a continuation.

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  48. 48. SirWilhelm 10:34 am 12/18/2010

    How do you outlaw war? How would you enforce a law outlawing war? Murder is against the law, and it still happens, we can only punish those that we catch after they have committed it. The only way we can punish those that start wars now, is by those that are attacked defeating the attacker, or, there’s always surrender to the attacker, and letting them do what they want with you. Let me know if there’s any options I’m missing.

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  49. 49. SirWilhelm 8:35 am 01/2/2011

    All we have to do is look at history, or myth, as main stream scholars see it, and the answer is right there. The "gods" taught mankind how to make war, at the beginning of civilization, by recruiting them to, at first, aid them in their own, and eventually, ordering them to fight their wars in their names. Is not the only active war today a "religious" war? Islam vs the world, with Jews and Christians as the primary targets? As time passed, some men found their own reasons to make war, but more often than not, they still tried to invoke their "god" or "gods" to aid them. And what did the "gods" themselves fight over? Power, the ability to lord it over the other "gods". Alexander the Great believed he was a demi-god. And what did Caeser, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein want? On the other hand, today’s war has gone back to it’s roots. Islam strives for supremecy in the name of Allah.

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  50. 50. openeyes999 3:12 am 01/31/2011

    Like all other Malthusian ideas the idea that war is caused by high population density or lack of resources has been widely debunked.

    I’m not so sure there aren’t biological reasons for war though. Some animals engage in warfare. Chimps rumble with other chimp tribes and kill them for no apparent reason. Army ants and termites wage epic battles against each other. I think the argument can be made that war is nothing unique, it’s just a more advanced version of regular violence. Of course, I still don’t believe we’re necessarily doomed to be warlike forever. I think the main hope for humanity is Transhumanism, which will allow us to remake our biology so that we aren’t so violent. The source code needs to be rewritten if you want a different result.

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  51. 51. Byff70 2:23 pm 10/3/2013

    wOw. I can’t even begin to address the sheer number of misconceptions in this article (not to mention dealing with the already-long-discredited Mead).

    The ethnographic record exhibits evidence of organized warfare going back 80,000 years; long before behavioral modernity, and LONG before civilization. Warfare is territorial in nature…not the result of scarcity.

    So “not all societies wage war.” Of all the human groups known, TWO don’t have a recent history of war, and you think that means we don’t have a warlike nature? The two most isolated groups, which don’t even have neighbors to war with, outweigh the abundance of evidence to the contrary? They’re outliers, dude, not the norm.

    Population pressure is a force driving civilization, in that the cultural institutions of government, formal religion, formal marriage and traditions came into existence to compel group cohesion in the increasingly diverse, increasingly populous proto-civilizational societies of the time. Kin selection, the form of inclusive fitness operative on the natural state, only works when there’s a high degree of relatedness. That can not work in civilization; instead of kin selection, we have group selection, which must be reinforced by cultural means (since genetic feedback cannot reinforce it).

    Population pressure may have contributed to some war, but the fact of the matter is that territoriality ALONE is sufficient to explain war, in the distant past as well as today.

    Leftist “science” and its rigid adherence to dogmas that have already been disproven….Keynesianism, Mead, eugenics…try to keep science objective, guys, and make it a search for TRUTH, not just justification for your preferred public policy.

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  52. 52. Byff70 2:30 pm 10/3/2013

    “I think the main hope for humanity is Transhumanism, which will allow us to remake our biology so that we aren’t so violent. The source code needs to be rewritten if you want a different result.”

    To openeyes999: I can only say that this prospect horrifies me. The environment, not our preferences, should determine what characteristics are “desirable.” What you are talking about is eugenics, and it never, ever ends well, no matter how well-intentioned.

    What happens if we successfully breed out aggression and find that the drive to achieve has gone with it? What if aliens invade the next year, and we’re too peaceful to fight back?

    We should not be in the business of dictating which traits are worth keeping around. That’s Nature’s job, and she’s good at it because she’s *impartial*.

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