I originally intended this as a WH quickie. But it ran a little long. Don’t worry, only 1000 words, you can still rip through it on your phone. (ed).
The BBC has estimated that currently on the planet two people are killed every minute in a violent conflict.
Think back through your history classes. Most of what you learned involved war, right? Civil War. War of Independence, King Philip’s, First, Second, Cold, Spanish-American, Boer, Thirty Years, Hundred Years, Spanish Succession, Spanish Civil, Vietnam, Falklands, Iraq I, Iraq II, Arab Israeli, Arab-Israeli, Arab-Israeli…You get the picture.
The big question for historians and anthropologists has been: is war endemic to the species, or a product of “civilization?”
Recently Steven Pinker at Harvard has staked out the position that we are intrinsically violent (yet also possessed of reason..). He presents a neo-Hobbesian point of view, that we fight for reputation, and women (resources in general). Then he goes on to assert that human society is getting less violent (based on historical statistics which may be difficult to prove). But even notwithstanding the bloodbaths of the world wars, state societies, he claims, are less violent than our hunter-gatherer forbears on a percentage of population killed yearly basis.
This is very controversial, but I’d like to focus here not on separating us farmers from them hunters, but on seeing all humans as doing the same thing–fighting–just in different contexts–sedentary society and hunter-gatherer society. The consequences are very different. Hunter gatherers have much smaller populations. Death by warfare therefore is a constant trickle. States tend to go at it massively for a short while, then exist peacefully for relatively long periods. The economic and political institutions of states just as often promote peace as war. Assessing exact numbers, however, is downright tricky.
Many other scholars consider our evolutionary background, concluding, like Richard Dawkins, that as “survival machines,” we needed an edge, capacity for physical violence being it. Pinker sees sexual selection as playing a role in passing down violent traits..pacifists tending to die on the vine, women tending to go for the warriors not the scholars.
But was there war before “civilization,” that is to say, before large-scale states, sedentary societies, etc? Lawrence Keeley’s book “War Before Civilization: The Myth of The Peaceful Savage,” says yes (naturally). An anthropologist, he looks at tribal societies and describes “battles” in which groups would face off across an open space. The Mae Enga of New Guinea, for example, do this: casualties are usually low. Taunts, threats and insults are exchanged, and sometimes buttocks are bared. But few are injured or killed. This may be changing now that spears have been replaced by AKs.
Then there is the dawn raid. Mae Enga and the Bering Straits Eskimos among others do this: huts are surrounded, spears hurled in, people killed as they come out. Sometimes entire villages are wiped out. The Subarctic Kutchin Eskimos also did this, to the Mackenzie Eskimos. One survivor was always left, purposefully, to tell the tale.
With the rise of the state and of large cities, raids were not effective. You needed big armies, and much more time. Walls went up (viz ancient and archaic Greece, Sumer, Babylon, etc.). In fact one major rationale for the creation of cities was protection. From Jericho to Catal Huyuk in Turkey and the early Sumerian cities such as Uruk, walls and protective architecture suggest violence as one prompt for getting together. Why else endure the close quarters, when, honestly, population density was not an issue?
As Keeley and many others note (see below) civilization is not the only locus of war. People who rail against Pinker’s assertion that things are getting progressively less violent, and Keeley’s that things were bad, way, way back, probably overestimate the peacefulness of pre-state, hunter-gatherer life.
Archaeology backs up the case for early violence. Cave paintings from 20,000 years ago depict human figures with suspicious spear like things protruding. Human feces from 850 years ago in the Americas has been found with human protein (cannibalism). Rock paintings in Australia show groups of people battling with spears and boomerangs. In the Sudan whole “cemeteries” have been found with mesolithic/paleolithic skeletons of men, women and children, murdered at close quarters. In England from 4000 BCE remains of a fortified settlement are strewn with arrowheads, and skeletons with arrowheads embedded. The list is long.
Ultimately, one could argue, we are a violent species. Much more so than most others. Few animals routinely kill members of their species. The exception: Chimps, with whom we share more than 95% of our DNA. Researchers have described chimp violence and even “warfare.” They form patrols along the borders of their territories. When they find a neighboring band, they attack them, often killing members of the opposing group.
But in case making this argument is altogether too depressing, consider the upside. War and violence are indeed human propensities. Yet their opposites, peace and cooperation, are present in equal measure. What made us “human” after all is our social life, our ability to get along. Unlike chimps whose impulse control is limited, the human animal only fights as a last resort. Niall Ferguson has made the point that the First World War would have been impossible without alcohol. Why? Because we have historically needed a way to override our natural taboos against killing. One way was to pretend the enemy were not in fact of the same species. Kooks, Japs, Rag heads, etc. Another was to get stoned, the history of mind-altering drugs beginning long before the Vietnam war.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Love it hate it. Take your pick. I don’t care.
David Livingston Smith: The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origin of War. (2007). A philosopher, at the University of New England. Good overview, lots of examples, lots of evolutionary biology/psych.
Lawrence Keeley: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996.) Grond breaking, much-cited.
For Fun: Hero: (Jet li). China’s history is a study in war. From many polities there was one. This movie gets at some of that. And has martial arts.