Impulses for warfare always were with us

Studies: Anthropologists are increasingly concluding that conflict does not derive from nations and economies but has been imbedded in human evolution.

March 23, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

BEFORE precision-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles, before artillery, before swords and spears, probably even before the first caveman's bright idea of chipping flint into a sharp point, there was war.

That is the conclusion of a growing number of anthropologists and biologists: that war is not a product of civilization -- of nations and economies and boundary lines -- but has somehow been hardwired into the brain, humanity's most potent weapon for good and evil.

From the study of warring tribes in Papua New Guinea to the discovery of bloody clashes among chimpanzees, the latest scientific evidence suggests that war results not just from the kind of rational policy debate that preceded the U.S. war against Iraq but also from deeper impulses embedded by evolution.

"New Guinea is us without thermonuclear weapons," says Paul B. Roscoe, an anthropologist at the University of Maine. He has spent years living with and studying the Yangoru Boiken people of Papua New Guinea, an island nation whose hundreds of tribal groups and relatively recent contact with civilization has long made it a laboratory for the study of human development.

"The idea that war begins with the city-state, or with civilization, or with the emergence of Europe, is palpably false," says Lawrence H. Keeley, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of War Before Civilization . "War goes back at least to the beginning of the human species."

Scientists who study the roots of war say that while Americans of all political stripes are riveted by the details of the conflict in Iraq, it is an apt moment to take a longer view.

If war is hell, why are human beings so ready to follow their leaders into it? And if it is our big brain that takes us into war, why can't that same organ -- "the most complex thing in this corner of the galaxy," Roscoe calls it -- find a less barbaric way to settle disputes?

The fact that war is such a fundamental human phenomenon "means it's going to be incredibly hard to get rid of," says Richard D. Alexander, an evolutionary biologist recently retired from the University of Michigan. "But there is nothing more interesting and more important to think about than that goal."

The debate over the nature of war has its roots in conflicting views of human nature, often symbolized by the clash of the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the 18th-century French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Hobbes famously pressed the view that the state of nature is a "State of Warre" -- that men are driven to fight one another by competition, fear and pride. Rousseau, by contrast, considered human beings in their natural state to be peaceful "noble savages" and blamed war on the emergence of states and the invention of politics.

Those views, opposing nature vs. nurture in the origin of war, can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and forward to American university campuses. In 1940, the pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead argued for Rousseau's thesis in an essay entitled, "War Is Only an Invention -- Not a Biological Necessity," asserting that war was not intrinsic to humans but merely a "historical accident."

But more recently Hobbes seems to have gained ground. Roscoe, of the University of Maine, says opinions like Mead's reflected a kind of wishful thinking among anthropologists.

Studies of tribes

"They all studied tribes, and they didn't want to feed the popular stereotypes of bloodthirsty savages," he says.

More recent studies of primitive tribesmen have found warfare was almost universal before outsiders first made contact.

Even as anthropologists tracked war into prehistory, wildlife biologists were making disturbing discoveries about the closest of human relatives.

For the vast majority of animals, violent conflict within a species -- usually between males competing for mates -- ends without fatal injury. Some male deer, for instance, begin by bellowing at one another and then engage in "parallel walking," pacing and snorting side by side. If that doesn't settle it, the competitors butt antlers until one gives up and runs off.

But chimpanzees are an exception. Jane Goodall and other scientists who study chimpanzees in the wild have established that gangs of male chimps will sometimes kill males from other groups whom they find alone or in much smaller numbers. The attacks can take place even when food is abundant and no practical motivation is evident.

Still more striking is the behavior of chimps under stress as witnessed in Gabon in the 1990s by Lee White, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. White found that as logging companies advanced, driving chimps into alien territory, the invading chimps were attacked and killed by local chimps -- who were themselves, in turn, pushed into rivals' turf.

By the time the cycle of displacement and battle ended, White found, as many as 80 to 90 percent of chimps were dead.

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