The Myth of Savage Savages Needs DebunkingJanuary 25, 2014
Judith Hand, Ph.D.
A recent article entitled “Are we violent by nature?” appeared in the January 19 Los Angeles Times opinion section. Written by Luke Glowacki, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, it trumpeted a view of several scholars, primarily at Harvard. Glowacki asserts that “scientists have converged on something of a consensus: The human propensity for lethal violence against ‘out-group members’ has deep evolutionary roots.”
What he uses the phrase “lethal violence against out-group members” he is actually addressing the idea of war. He is implying that war has deep evolutionary roots, a fact of enormous significance if true. But is that true? Is there scientific consensus that the biological roots of war go deep?
Actually, there is no such consensus. For example, two recent books directly tackle the myth of savage savages (an apt phrase coined by journalist John Horgan who calls the main propagators of this myth the “Harvard Hawks”): my own book, Shift: The Beginning of War, The Ending of War,
and an edited book by the anthropologist Douglas Fry, published by Oxford University Press, War, Peace, and Human Nature. Both books examine the roots of war and conclude that the practice is a cultural one, of recent origin and that we could abolish it.
It’s true that the notion of the peaceful savage is a myth. Even in nonwarring and generally nonviolent cultures, homicide occurs. But it’s overwhelmingly a rare behavior, quite often the result of sexual jealousy, directed at specific individuals, and more characteristic of men than women. It isn’t war.
And remarkably, people from these generally peaceful cultures reporting cases of homicide to early anthropologists who did field studies also reported that men in these societies who committed a killing were punished by execution, sometimes by their own family members, or they were expelled from the group. Acts of lethal violence in even otherwise nonviolent cultures do prove that there is a genetic component to homicide, a point that needs to be conceded and to which the word consensus would apply. But apparently homicide was not tolerated and killers were prevented from (further) reproduction. One can make a good argument that actual killing was, in the phrase of evolutionary biology, “selected against.” Consistently practiced over the millennia of our evolution, execution or banishment could explain the existence of the well-known human aversion to killing another human being.
What, then, is the evidence for “out-group killing” as a regular practice among early humans upon which such a theory is based? Or among the few contemporary nomadic foragers still living today? Maybe killing within the group was suppressed, but killing outsiders now and then was embraced as a policy.
Given the written record of war after war, it’s no wonder the generally held worldview is that we have always made war. The but theory that out-group killing (war) has deep genetic roots has no sound basis. It is an extrapolation based primarily
on research on chimpanzees (not the other more pacific and equally closely related to us species pictured here, bonobos),
on studies of out-group killings in societies using hunter-forager technology but where mobility—the ability to move away from unfriendly neighbors and find fresh resources elsewhere—is severely restricted, and
on mathematical models that don’t take into consideration the effects on behavior when mobility is restricted and fresh resources could be had by moving, even with some difficulty, to a new location.
Glowacki does a good job of putting this debate about the nature vs. nurture component of human killing and war into a historical context that goes back to the 1600s. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for example, argued that our natural state is one of “war of everyone against everyone.”
But recent studies of actual nomadic forager life-ways—the way we lived during hundreds of thousands of years of our evolution by natural selection—are revealing a very different picture.
When serious conflicts occur, including ones involving insufficient availability of essential resources, the preferred option appear to be that some group members to pack up their few belongings and move on. Dispersal was Plan A, not the risky behaviors of war and retaliation. What seems to have moved us out of Africa to occupy virtually every habitable niche on the globe is our ability to cooperate, and a preference to avoid killing each other.
Moreover, the typical responses of nomadic foraging people who do maintain a sense of territory—that certain land belongs to their group—is to demand that strangers announce themselves and ask permission to cross the land or to forage on it for a time. Strangers who comply are not killed on sight, they are likely to be given permission because at some time in the future the favor may need to be reciprocated.
So what happens when nomadic foragers, for whatever reason, can’t move away from each other, when they are forced by geography or other circumstances to live beside each other permanently?
Their response, Plan B, is to invent customs, traditions, rituals, and shared laws that enable them to resolve conflicts without resort to actual killing. Tribal councils negotiate between aggrieved parties, setting penalties and providing for restitution. Sometimes these customs involve a display of relative force…contests of daring by members of both sides. These force displays may look like “war” to outsiders if they involve two sides brandishing weapons, or throwing spears. But examined closely, the usual outcome is that no one engaging in these displays of relative power is actually killed. Ritual displaying of power is a common pattern among males of many mammal species, so it’s not a surprise to any biologist to find it present in us as well.
As I propose in Shift, The Beginning of War, The Ending of War, the first human option when faced with severe conflicts (over anything, but especially over life-sustaining resources), Plan A if you will, is to disperse.
The second option, Plan B, is to devise customs and rituals that maintain peace and resolve differences without bloodshed when moving is precluded for whatever reason, depicted here with a tribal council.
Only when our groups take up settled living around a reliable food supply or have access to a reliable food supply (most especially, agriculture and the domestication of animals), and our population numbers begin to grow, and dispersal is no longer a viable option, and negotiations fail, only then do we start to see, among many cultural changes, that we take up war. War is a last choice—Plan C. It is NOT an evolved adaptation. Contrary to the view that the Harvard Hawks are propagating, humans are not by nature warlike.
In the human deep past, when we lived at low population densities in a planet that was basically empty of human competitors, war was NOT a first choice. And in fact, examination of the fossil record so far indicates no evidence of war before roughly 12,000 YA. Given that our lineage goes back approximately 200,000 years of a nomadic foraging existence, this makes war a newcomer to the human repertoire….and a cultural invention at that, not a trait built into our genes by natural selection.
Aggression in many forms, from angry words to hitting, kicking, and beating, even by women, are clearly a genetically based aspect of our nature. This sort of fighting is has been seen in all cultures that don’t have strong cultural controls to suppress it. But while war is made possible because we do have a capacity for violence that can be stoked by warmongers, war itself—the indiscriminate killing of people belonging to an “out-group”—is a cultural invention.
Rather than think of ourselves with the old phrase “Man-the-Warrior,” a more apt characterization is arguably “Humans-the-Cooperators.”
What we believe is of profound consequence. If we believe we have always made war, and that war has deep, biologically based roots, it becomes more difficult to believe that we could ever end the practice. Academics do harm to the hope of ending war when they conflate homicide and war, and assert without clearly distinguishing between these two behaviors that there is a scientific consensus that “The human propensity for lethal violence against ‘out-group’ members has deep evolutionary roots.” There is no support for their view, and much evidence against it.
If we make a commitment to eliminate the cultural conditions that are the breeding grounds for war, replacing them with conditions that foster all forms of nonviolent conflict resolution, we can cast war into history’s trashcan. How that amazing feat could be accomplished is the subject of Shift. Arguably, humans-the-cooperators have arrived at a time in history when they resolve to break free from the cultural chains of war.