Origins of War and Human Destiny

July 14, 2010

by Judith Hand

2001 A Space Odyssey

The “man-the-warrior” hypothesis, the one science has embraced for quite some time, tilts us heavily toward pessimism. It’s not a particularly happy image. But the times, they are a’changin.’ This view of humanity’s deep past is being seriously questioned by recent data and reanalysis of old data. That’s one of the great beauties of science: the ability to reassess.

For decades the view of human ancestry, and of the origins of war, have been shaped by reference to what was thought to be our closest relative, the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). The general thinking was that our common ancestor way-back-when must have had behavior and drives much like what we would see in common chimpanzees, and so we had much to learn by observing our close kin in the wild.

Common Chimpanzee

Even before someone saw the first case of a gang of male chimpanzees sneaking up on another chimpanzee from a different group to kill it, many students of human evolution had bought into what has been called the “man-the-warrior” model of human evolution. The hypothesis was that humans became so good at cooperation, and ultimately so successful in colonizing the whole world, because we had made war. All that coordination to make war had made us, if you will, the extremely cooperative social creatures that we are.

If we hope to abolish war, how we view ourselves and how we view our deep evolutionary history has significance. If our males are born and bred warriors and our species became what it is today because it made war, hopes for ending war and envisioning how we might do it becomes problematical. Maybe the trait is so fixed in our genes that the behavior can’t be eliminated, no matter how much we alter our cultures and laws in ways to discourage, even possibly to attempt to eliminate, it.

Virtually everyone who has studied human behavior in a wide variety of cultures, including cultures legitimately classified as nonviolent and nonwarring, agrees that occasional killing of individuals—that is, murder—likely goes way back into our past, even possibly into the deep past of the species from which we descended. Murder, however, isn’t the issue. The question is, when did we start making war? When did we systematically organize to indiscriminately kill members of other groups?

Two notable anthropologists contributed influential supporting arguments for the man-the-warrior hypothesis. Lawrence Keeley wrote War before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996). In his book, he presented fossil and behavioral evidence that supports the warrior ape model. Anthropologist Richard Wrangham and his collaborator Dale Peterson wrote Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1996). In their book, they used their extensive studies and the studies of others on common chimpanzees as a model for thinking about how early humans might have behaved, including the disturbing observations of a group of male chimpanzees ganging up on another lone chimpanzee from a neighboring community to kill it. “A primitive case of war” is how this behavior has been described.

It’s possible to find recent popular reports that continue to support the view that war has made us who we are. For example, an article by Bob Holmes entitled “How Warfare Shaped Human Evolution” (2008, New Scientist Magazine, Nov.) describes how a variety of experts see war as having been a critical factor shaping our social lives, maybe the critical factor.

Perhaps the first important chink in this theory presented itself when primatologists realized that there was another chimpanzee that was just as close to us genetically as the common chimp, but which has a radically different social life and social structure: the bonobo (Pan paniscus).

Suffice it to say here that bonobos have relatively low rates of any kind of physical aggression, they tend to diffuse tense social situations by engaging in sex rather than fighting things out, the females are equal in social dominance to the males, and there are no recorded examples of gangs of males killing other bonobos. Bonobos are the sexy, peaceful chimpanzees. The anthropologist Frans de Waal, for example, offers online a brief description of interesting contrasts between the two species.

So which model should we use to think about humans in our deep past, common chimpanzees or bonobos? Or is it possible that our ancestors’ environment and social structure were very different from either of these relatives?


Recent data from a fossil find in Africa suggests that the line of primates leading to Homo sapiens lived social lives quite unlike the common chimpanzee. The remains of a remarkably intact skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi as the fossil female is affectionately called, have been described in detail (Science, 2 October 2009). An AFWW blog summarizes the astonishing findings about Ardipithecus teeth and about size differences between males and females that argue against any legitimacy of deriving ideas about human evolution from common chimpanzee social life and structure. In the same article mentioned above, Frans de Waal includes his own views on the negative impact the finding of Ardi has had on the man-the-warrior model.

Equally fascinating is a book by anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, Mothers and Others: on the Origins of Mutual Understanding. She argues that our species is likely descended from a primate that was  likely what biologists call a “cooperative breeder.” She powerfully presents and thoroughly documents aspects of cooperative breeding and the benefits it confers.

From her facts, it’s easy to suggest that rather than a “man-the-warrior” explanation for our evolution and success, we need to consider what I, as an evolutionary biologist, have called a “humans-the-cooperators” theory. Perhaps what has made us what we are is our evolved powers of empathy (mind reading) and group cooperation that were, and are, absolutely essential to the raising of offspring that are extremely dependent upon their caregivers for many years. AFWW provides a review of Mothers and Others

As for the origins of war itself, in a recent article (2010) in “Scientific American,” Quitting the chimpanzee fight club, “ Prof. John Horgan presents an excellent review of the data we have so far that bears on how deeply the group killing we call war goes into the human past. He also explains his conversion, why he has relinquished the “demonic-male theory.” For example, he points out that the oldest clear-cut evidence of group violence is a grave with 59 skeletons, some of which show signs of violence such as “embedded projectile points.” The grave is only 13,000 years old, a tiny drop in the bucket of a human history going back some 160,000+ years.

Despite the impression sometimes given in popular publications, or even at some scientific meetings, the issue of when exactly the species Homo sapiens began to make war remains open. Perhaps, as I and others argue, we only began war with the advent of settled living. If that proves true, we’ll need to revamp our view of ourselves—and especially of the actual causes of war.

What is clear is that the idea that what made humans so very cooperative and successful is best described by the “man-the-warrior” model is taking big hits. If I had to bet, I’d bet on a “humans-as-cooperators” theory.

San Mothers and Babies

But cooperation for what? To kill human competitors for resources? Or as presented in Mothers and Others, that cooperation was needed to care for dependent infants during the vast majority of millennia that our species existed as nomadic foragers who were living in an unpredictable environment at very low population density. To survive, Hrdy argues, we needed to cultivate allies, as many as we could muster, not enemies. That was our specialty, our genius.

Now our species faces a radically new environment. Where for eons there had been empty places in the world, new places with fresh resources for us to use, all the habitable places are filled and we are gobbling up critical resources at an unsustainable rate. Something major is going to have to change if our civilizations are to survive this major challenge.

AFWW is dedicated to the view that we can, if we choose, aggressively embrace that cooperative facet of our nature, enhance its use for positive purposes rather than to continue to facilitate the relatively recent and destructive bad habit of war. I suggest in an AFWW essay on the use of nonviolent tools for social transformation how our survival instinct is kicking in in response to this “full world” environment. At this critical point in evolutionary time for us, wasting resources on war should be considered a sin of enormous proportions. And of course, the entire thrust of AFWW is not only to explain why we can eliminate war, but how realistically to go about doing it in today’s world, the environment where Homo sapiens now resides.


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