Many evolutionists believe that humans have a drive for waging war. But they are wrong and the idea is dangerous
There is something peculiarly — even paradoxically — appealing about taking a dim view of human nature, a view that has become unquestioned dogma among many evolutionary biologists. It is a tendency that began some time ago. When the Australian-born anthropologist Raymond Dart discovered the first australopithecine fossil in 1924, he went on to describe these early hominids as:
Confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of the victims and greedily devouring living writhing flesh.
This lurid perspective has deep antecedents, notably in certain branches of Christian doctrine. According to the zealous 16th century French theologian John Calvin:
The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure and infamous. The human heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench.
It’s bad enough for the religious believer to be convinced of humanity’s irrevocable sinfulness, punishable in the afterlife. But I’m even more concerned when those who speak for science and reason promote a theory of human nature that threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, in his influential book African Genesis (1961) the American playwright Robert Ardrey described humans as ‘Cain’s children’:
Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon. It is war and the instinct for territory that has led to the great accomplishments of Western Man. Dreams may have inspired our love of freedom, but only war and weapons have made it ours.
The drumbeat that argues for war as a defining feature of the human condition has, if anything, increased in recent decades, spreading beyond the evolutionary and anthropological worlds. Here is how the English philosopher Simon Critchley began his review of John Gray’s The Silence of Animals (2013) in the Los Angeles Review of Books: ‘Human beings do not just make killer apps. We are killer apes. We are nasty, aggressive, violent, rapacious hominids’.
Then there is the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who devoted decades to studying the Yanomami people of the Venezuelan/Brazilian Amazon. His best-selling book The Fierce People (1968) has been especially influential in enshrining an image of tribal humanity as living in a state of ‘chronic warfare’.
Chagnon has been the subject of intense criticism but, to my mind, there is simply no question about the empirical validity and theoretical value of his research. In a field (call it evolutionary psychology or, as I prefer, human sociobiology) that has often been criticised for a relative absence of hard data, his findings, however politically distasteful, have been welcome indeed. ‘
Among these, one of the most convincing has been Chagnon’s demonstration that, among the Yanomami, not only is inter-village ‘warfare’ frequent and lethal, but that Yanomami men who have killed other men experience significantly higher reproductive success — evolutionary fitness — than do non-killers. His data, although disputed by other specialists, appear altogether reliable and robust.
So I admire the man, and his work, but I have a growing sense of discomfort about the way that Chagnon’s Yanomami research has been interpreted and the inferences that have been drawn from it.
I fear that many of my colleagues have failed, as previously have I, to distinguish between the relatively straightforward evolutionary roots of human violence and the more complex, multifaceted and politically fraught question of human war. To be blunt, violence is almost certainly deeply entrenched in human nature; warfare, not so much.
A fascination with the remarkably clear correlation between Yanomami violence and male fitness has blinded us to the full range of human non-violence, causing us to ignore and undervalue realms of peacemaking in favour of a focus on exciting and attention-grabbing patterns of war-making.
As an evolutionary scientist, I have been enthusiastic about identifying the adaptive significance — the evolutionary imprint — of apparently universal human traits. For a long time, it seemed that Chagnon’s finding of the reproductive success of Yanomami men who were killers was one of the most robust pieces of evidence for this. Now I am not so sure, and this is my mea culpa.
There has also been a tendency among evolutionary thinkers to fix upon certain human groups as uniquely revelatory, not simply because the research about them is robust, but also because their stories are both riveting and consistent with our pre-existing expectations. They are just plain fun to talk about, especially for men.
Remember, too, the journalists’ edict: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ You are unlikely to see a newspaper headline announcing that ‘France and Germany Did Not Go To War’, whereas a single lethal episode, anywhere in the world, is readily pounced upon as news. Language conventions speak volumes, too. It is said that the Bedouin have nearly 100 different words for camels, distinguishing between those that are calm, energetic, aggressive, smooth-gaited, or rough, etc. Although we carefully identify a multitude of wars — the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the American Civil War, the Vietnam War, and so forth — we don’t have a plural form for peace.
It makes evolutionary sense that human beings pay special attention to episodes of violence, whether interpersonal or international: they are matters of life and death, after all. But when serious scientists do the same and, what is more, when they base ‘normative’ conclusions about the human species on what is simply a consequence of their selective attention, we all have a problem.