“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease – the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.” — Barak Obama, in his Nobel acceptance speech.

“I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.”   — Mark Twain

Barak Obama is certainly no imbecile, but like most of us, he has been badly misinformed about just how innately warlike our species really is. For reasons having nothing to do with scientific accuracy, Hobbes’ dire sloganeering about the misery of pre-civilized human life echoes down the centuries. Who among us, three and a half centuries later, has not heard that our ancestors’ lives were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”? This demonization of human existence in pre-state societies is essential to preserving the legitimacy of God and country—both of which run a protection racket promising to guard us against our own demonic inner nature. Hobbes’ infectious meme is certainly among the most famous phrases ever penned in the English language, and it shows no sign of fading. Indeed, his dismal view of human nature is still being enthusiastically spread by neo-Hobbesian presidents, pundits and professors.

When Steven Pinker was recently asked which five writers he would invite to a dinner party, Thomas Hobbes headed his list. And what would Pinker serve Hobbes and his other distinguished guests for dinner? Perhaps we find a clue in Raymond Dart’s vivid description of our species’ ancient appetites. Dart, who in 1924 discovered the first fossil of a human ancestor in Africa, added his colorful twist to the neo-Hobbesian narrative when he described early humans as “carnivorous creatures, that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death … slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.”

Please pass the potatoes.

When not gorging on the hot blood and writhing flesh of their prey, our ancestors were apparently after each other. New York Times science journalist, Nicolas Wade, for example, assures readers that, “warfare between pre-state societies was incessant, merciless and conducted with the general purpose, often achieved, of annihilating the opponent.” Harvard’s Richard Wrangham and his co-author, Dale Peterson agree, memorably asserting that modern humans are, “the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million year habit of lethal aggression.”

But take a close look and this blood-soaked vision of human prehistory—and, by extension, of human nature—is quickly revealed to be little more than a sustained outbreak of mass hysteria among a group of mostly white, middle-aged men fueled by fading testosterone, elitism, unacknowledged neo-colonial politics and sloppy thinking.

The neo-Hobbesians present three primary types of evidence to argue their case:

1) Primatological data drawn mainly from chimpanzees, with whom we shared a common ancestor about five million years ago (hence, Wrangham and Peterson’s “5-million year habit of lethal aggression”)

2) Anthropological information seeming to show that contemporary hunter/gatherer people reflect our ancestors’ brutality;

3) Archaeological findings suggesting persistent warfare extending back many millennia.

It is hard to say which leg of this stool is the wobbliest, so we will take them in order. Space constraints allow only a few, representative examples of the slip-shod reasoning that plagues each element of the neo-Hobbesian narrative, but you will soon get the idea.

Primate Evidence

Using chimpanzee group-level conflict to explain the origins of human war is the pseudo-scientific equivalent of saying, “The devil made me do it!” If war really is an expression of something embedded so deeply in us that it goes back to the last ancestor we shared with chimps five million years ago, maybe war really is unavoidable.

First off, chimps are  not “our closest primate cousin,” though you would need a sharp eye to find any mention of our other, equally intimately related cousin, the bonobo, in most mainstream discussions of primate violence. Like a crazy relative who lives in the attic, bonobos tend to get mentioned in passing—if at all—in these sweeping declarations about the ancient primate roots of war. There are plenty of reasons easily embarrassed journalists might want to avoid talking about bonobos (their penchant for mutual masturbation, their unapologetic homosexuality and occasional incest, as well as a general sense of hippie-like shamelessness pervading bonobo social life). But the biggest inconvenience may be the utter absence of any Viking-like behavior ever observed among bonobos in the wild. Bonobos do not rape or pillage. No war. No murder. No infanticide. No support for the primate origins of human war.

Given the fact that the common ancestor eventually evolved into humans, chimps and bonobos, you might think discussion of bonobos’ anti-war ethos would get as much space in these articles as accounts of chimpanzee brutality. You’d be wrong about that.

In Nicolas Wade’s 1,260-word New York Times article (“When Chimpanzees Go on the Warpath,” June 21, 2010) for example, bonobos are mentioned just once, in a subtly misleading sentence in the twelfth paragraph. Bonobos are described as “the chimps’ peaceful cousin” while chimps themselves are described as having a joint ancestor with humans, thus leading the average reader to mistakenly conclude the human genome shares more with chimps than with the bonobos.

The bonobo’s absence is conspicuous not just in discussions of war. Look for the missing bonobo any time a somber authority figure claims an ancient pedigree for human male violence of any sort. See if you can find the bonobo in this account of the origins of rape, from biologist Michael Ghiglieri’s book The Dark Side of Man: “Men did not invent rape. Instead, they very likely inherited rape behavior from our ape ancestral lineage. Rape is a standard male reproductive strategy and likely has been one for millions of years. Male humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans routinely rape females. Wild gorillas violently abduct females to mate with them.” (Emphasis is in the original.) Each of the great apes is mentioned in support of the deep roots of rape thesis except the one that could call the thesis into question: bonobos.

Leaving aside the difficulty of defining rape in nonhuman species unable to communicate their experiences, rape has never been witnessed among bonobos in decades of observation. Not in the wild. Not in the zoo. Never.

Shouldn’t that inconvenient fact merit at least a footnote, if we’re going to claim this argument is “scientific”?

Anthropological and Archaeological Evidence

Sadly, neo-Hobbesian discussions of anthropological and archeological findings are just as biased as their forays into primatology. I have written elsewhere about Pinker’s penchant for distorting data to suit his poorly-hidden political agenda in The Blank Slate and a widely-seen TED talk he presented in 2007. Unfortunately, he continues the habit in his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).

The thesis of Pinker’s book is that levels of violence and warfare have been decreasing from a Hobbesian past in which “chronic raiding and feuding … characterized life in a state of nature.” “Violence,” Pinker claims, “has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence” (p. xxi).

But the archeological evidence shows precisely the opposite of what Pinker argues. In fact, as Doug Fry writes in War, Peace, and Human Nature (2013), “The worldwide archaeological evidence shows that war was simply absent over the vast majority of human existence…. But with a gradual worldwide population increase, the shift from universal nomadic foraging to settled communities, the development of agriculture, a transition from egalitarianism to hierarchical societies—and, very significantly, the rise of state-level civilization five thousand to six thousand years ago—the archaeological record is clear and unambiguous: war developed, despots arose, violence proliferated, slavery flourished, and the social position of women deteriorated.” (p. 15) According to Fry’s view—which has the benefit of being supported by overwhelming evidence—civilization has not reduced the ravages of human violence; rather, civilization is the source of most organized human violence.

Pinker offers a certain kind of evidence in support of his interpretation. In an argument reminiscent of the misleading mess he presented in The Blank Slate, he offers eight “hunter-gatherer” societies to use as a base-line for rates of death in war that are meant to reflect mortality rates typical of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. To save space, we will let Pinker slide on the question of how representative eight contemporary cases could be of the general hunter-gatherer experience 20,000 or more years ago. Let us also set aside the fact that he has once again mislabeled horticultural societies as hunter-gatherers as well as the absence of any methodological rigor in his selection of these particular examples. Let us just look at the quality of the evidence Pinker presents—sparse and cherry-picked though it may be.

Fry dug up the original ethnographic sources Pinker used for his data on war deaths among foragers. What he found is astounding: “For two of Pinker’s cases,” Fry writes, “the Ache of Paraguay and the Hiwi of Venezuela/Colombia, all of the so-called war deaths involved frontiersmen ranchers killing the indigenous people, a tragic situation that has nothing to do with levels of warfare death in nomadic hunter-gatherers during the Pleistocene” (emphasis in the original). Clearly incensed at Pinker’s shamelessness in presenting these murders as representative of ancestral conditions, Fry continues, “To be absolutely clear, the only so-called war deaths reported [among the Hiwi] are those where indigenous people were murdered or massacred by Venezuelans. All of these killings have been counted as so-called war deaths [by Pinker], as if they have relevance to estimating war-related deaths in the Pleistocene” (p. 17, emphasis in original). In summary, Fry writes, “The degree of disconnect between what the archaeological and nomadic forager data actually show, on the one hand … and what … Pinker assert[s] on the other is monumental” (p. 20).

*  *  *

While this evidence of politics posing as science may seem like just another ego-driven academic dust-up, there are in fact few issues more worthy of serious consideration than the source and nature of our inhumanity to our fellow beings.

As long as politicians believe that war is as old as humanity itself, it will seem futile to imagine—and work toward—a world without war. The narrative pushing the ancient origins of violence functions less as an explanation of human nature than as a justification for the oppressive institutional control of social life. If war is the result of human nature, as the neo-Hobbesians insist—despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary—then these institutions are needed to protect us from one another. But if man’s inhumanity to man is a consequence of the institutions themselves, and in fact, we kill one another despite our inner nature, then it is time we recognized that civilization is the malady that calls itself the cure.

Clearly, like chimpanzees, human beings are capable of horrible cruelty, but like bonobos (and, normally, chimpanzees), we are also capable of astounding kindness and generosity. But do not be confused. Despite the wide range of possible behaviors, remember this: no one has ever suffered from PTSD because they helped a stranger.

Published On: January 25, 2015

Christopher Ryan

Christopher Ryan

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. is co-author (along with Cacilda Jethá, M.D.) of the New York Times bestseller, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray and What It Means for Modern Relationships. His work has been featured just about everywhere, including: MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, The Times of London, Playboy, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Outside, El PaisLa Vanguardia, Salon, Seed, Big Think, and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish.

A featured speaker from TED in Long Beach, CA to The Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House to the Einstein Forum in Pottsdam, Germany, Chris has consulted at various hospitals in Spain, provided expert testimony in a Canadian constitutional hearing, and appeared in many documentary films.


  • Matthew Watkinson says:

    I see, so, essentially, the entire history of micro and macro violence among modern humans tells us nothing about human nature because bonobos are peaceful. Gotcha.

  • Tim Kohler says:

    Christopher, I suggest you continue to look for recent primary sources on archaeology. With several co-authors I recently published an article in American Antiquity (2014, 79(3):444-464) that documents episodes of very high rates of violent trauma to human bone during portions of the AD 600-1280 period in southwestern Colorado. On the other hand, such trauma is generally less common, and tends to decline through time, in the northern Rio Grande region on New Mexico between about AD 900 and 1600. The reasons for the decline are numerous, but they seem to include increasing importance of market exchange—one of the causes that Pinker also used to explain the decline he saw. I realize that this is only the recent past, and just two cases, but the archaeological evidence for violence is more common than you seem to believe.

  • John Reed says:

    I see, so, essentially, the entire history of micro and macro BENEVOLENCE among modern humans tells us nothing about human nature because chimps are violent. Gotcha gotcha

    • Helga Vieirch says:

      All animal populations have the potential for over-population (overshoot). Increased mobility is one strategy for sustainability, for keeping ecosystems productive and not taking more than can be replaced. Human tendencies to emotional blowups and simple wanderlust (adventure and curiosity) may indeed have evolved because groups with higher mobility (and lowered territoriality) tended to survive the consequences of climatic change, while more territorial groups did not. In other words, groups with larger networks could also better adjust the composition of their communities, and limit stress from overwork.
      Hunting and gathering, of the highly mobile sort, was therefore the most successful and sustainable human economy throughout the 99% of our evolutionary history because that history played out during a period of unpredictable climate turmoil that prevailed for well over a million years before the Holocene. It does not mean that sedentary hunter-gatherers did not exist during that time, it only means that their sedentism would have been short-lived, undone by the next fluctuation.
      Networking, thus, and for much longer than we imagined, was a conduit for ideas as well as technology and skills. Recently John Hawks talked about possible networks across Africa, pointing out that snail-shells, with holes drilled so they could be strung as necklaces, occur from southern Africa all the way into the Middle East during the Pleistocene, indicating that such minor innovations in personal decoration had spread via networks over this vast area. It is not unlikely that these networks encompassed many local linguistic (and also local genetic) variants. Our evolved human multilingual capacity easily dealt with this. It only needs a few translators among neighbors to have information and materials flow around the world today.

      In summary, over the tumultuous climate history of Africa and Eurasia over the last 100,000 years, such a system of cultural evolution based on cumulative ideas and techniques, assembled from as wide a field of variation as possible, might have saved our species, again and again.

      This variability might have been pretty useful in meeting the challenges posed by potentially catastrophic environmental changes which happened during our evolutionary past.
      This hints at another set of cognitive mechanisms also clearly an outcome of natural biological selection. These produce cognitive sensitivities and behavioral tendencies that not only preserve variability but also regularly introduce innovation. The role of “altruistic” giving and sharing behavior is central here, because cultural variation in this indicates that cultures use this to regulate not just individual economic effort (via dependency ratios and competition for reputation), but also reproductive success. The San saying “gifts make slaves” was never so true as in the Potlatch, while the freeloader is never so deterred as among the Dobu of Melanesia. Yet both of the latter systems also served to up-regulate individual work effort, and in turn, ensure that individuals who are most sensitive and responsive to the requirements of their culture, most likely to live up to the ideals of that culture, would tend to be most successful at raising children. In a sedentary population, because of the potential fragility of the adaptation, cultural patterns that stabilized population below carrying capacity would tend to persist, and one of the consequences of competitive raiding and warfare is increased mortality.

      So individual reproductive success is closely tied to the same suite of characteristics in all cultural systems: 1) ability to absorb cultural ideals of conduct, 2)strong drives to embody those ideals, 3) ability to communicate these ideals effectively to offspring. Note that #3 includes communication by observance of taboos.

      Over the long term, those behaviors that kept flow of genes and well as cultural information constrained to smaller areas, and among smaller numbers of people, would tend to be less likely to survive various environmental setbacks and upheavals than those that managed to extend their networks further afield. The size of the field of potential innovation and diversity, both biological and cultural, tended to produce more rapid and appropriate adaptation to environmental shifts. The diversity of culturally transmitted information and behaviour worked in tandem with the genetic inheritance in ensuring survival of the host deme. This echoes how Agustin Fuentes recently described culture:

      “……This is a dynamic system wherein innovations (e.g., ideas and behaviors) and elements (e.g., material components and their use) can be gained and lost depending on innovation opportunities, social densities, and transmission fidelity. Novel innovation is often generated by combining existing technologies, elements, and perspectives. Social and material innovation can emerge individually or via cooperation, with accuracy of transmission between individuals and across generations acting to increase resilience of innovations.. The actual number of innovations per generation–time period will grow with increases in the density of technologies, elements, and perspectives (i.e., the “raw materials” of innovation) and possibly with increases in population density (due to a higher likelihood of innovation transmission both laterally and vertically, Powell et al. 2009).”

      Since, at least when using an economy of hunting and gathering, humans tend to have a much larger range and lower population density than we see, for example, in chimpanzees, even within the same environment, it follows that cultural systems with a larger network, for sharing information, would be more likely to persist than small ones. This enlargement of the network was very likely due to the steep natural section during the regular changes in rainfall and temperature occurring throughout the Pleistocene. As Winder and Winder suggested:

      “There is a growing body of archaeological and primatological evidence (Hublin 2009; Spikins et al. 2010) consistent with the hypothesis that populations which were a little smarter and more compassionate would be able to mitigate the effects of natural selection faster and discover new ways of becoming synergetically fit again….The last 6-7 million years have seen more positive selection in the chimpanzee line than our own (Bakewell et al. 2007), a result consistent with the hypothesis that chimpanzee lineages did not acquire the flexible, co-operative strategies needed to hide deleterious genes from selective winnowing. Our ancestral lineages seem to have formed a braided stream of crossing and re-crossing flows. These flows would have converged and deepened into a small number of recognisable species, many of them capable of flexible social learning, pro-social, empathic, and compassionate.”

      Genetic polymorphisms that induced greater human cognitive and behavioral individuality would also be beneficial to cultural resilience. Mating systems that narrowed sexual selection criteria would be less successful than those which created and preserved variation. For adaptation consisting of inter-personal and inter-generational information transfer to work, you need whole collectives of local groups, each generating and exchanging innovations, each conserving the variations on a complex web of cultural themes. To have enough variation, both biological and cultural, to keep the cognitive phenotype and the cultural replicator responding to this selection pressure, a larger gene pool is needed. You need a minimum cast of thousands, just to keep most large mammalian species viable , and it seems logical to assume that as the selection pressure on cultural systems must be equally constraining if not more so.

      Culture, thus, is also a replicator with an agenda: each culture survives by virtue of its accumulated variation in information, so the deeper and wider that information is, the better. Such knowledge exchanges are a function of the extensiveness of the social networks – something that is as true in forager economies as in any other.

      “Many contemporary human social systems form complex social networks where individuals are connected to each other at multiple levels of organization. Examples include the structure of e-mail networks (Guimera et al. 2003), the formation of cliques in the US House of Representatives (Porter et al. 2005), networks of jazz musicians (Arenas et al. 2004), actors (Newman 2003) and co-authors of scientific publications (Newman 2004). We suggest that hunter-gatherer social organization can also be viewed as a social network. The network arises from interactions and exchanges of energy, material and information between individuals, which occur within the context of a hierarchical group structure. This hierarchical structure is constrained externally by seasonal variation in local ecological conditions and internally by the human life history. In foraging societies, energy and material flows typically include the exchange of food resources, trade goods and raw materials for tools, clothing and shelter, and information transfers include both gene flow through reproduction and the exchanges of many kinds of culturally transmitted information by means of language or other signals.” { The complex structure of hunter–gatherer social networks
      Marcus J Hamilton, Bruce T Milne, Robert S Walker, Oskar Burger, James H Brown
      DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.0564 Published 7 September 2007 http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/274/1622/2195 )

      Individual networks vary from one person to the next. In a single family the combined networks of husband and wife generally exceed 150 persons, and may well be double that, if the main point of overlap in the network was created by the marriage. In a system where maximizing available networks has survival value. Indeed, this has been shown to be a significant factor in mare selection, helping to explain why many hunter-gatherers marry outside their immediate kinship circles: they prioritize “relationship wealth”.

      Even among different language groups living scattered over many thousands of square kilometers, as in the Kalahari today and the Australian outback until recently, networks forged by multilingualism , intermarriage and friendship permitted plenty of opportunity for ideas to be spread and new skills passed among whole culture areas, not just contained within the group where they originated. The size of the effective network matters in ensuring cultural fidelity and adaptive evolution over time. This has been demonstrated experimentally.

      “The remarkable ecological and demographic success of humanity is largely attributed to our capacity for cumulative culture1, 2, 3. The accumulation of beneficial cultural innovations across generations is puzzling because transmission events are generally imperfect, although there is large variance in fidelity. Events of perfect cultural transmission and innovations should be more frequent in a large population4. As a consequence, a large population size may be a prerequisite for the evolution of cultural complexity4, 5, although anthropological studies have produced mixed results6, 7, 8, 9 and empirical evidence is lacking10. Here we use a dual-task computer game to show that cultural evolution strongly depends on population size, as players in larger groups maintained higher cultural complexity. We found that when group size increases, cultural knowledge is less deteriorated, improvements to existing cultural traits are more frequent, and cultural trait diversity is maintained more often. Our results demonstrate how changes in group size can generate both adaptive cultural evolution and maladaptive losses of culturally acquired skills. As humans live in habitats for which they are ill-suited without specific cultural adaptations11, 12, it suggests that, in our evolutionary past, group-size reduction may have exposed human societies to significant risks, including societal collapse13.” ( Maxime Derex, Marie-Pauline Beugin, Bernard Godelle & Michel RaymondExperimental evidence for the influence of group size on cultural complexity
      Nature 503, 389–391 (21 November 2013) doi:10.1038/nature12774
      http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v503/n7476/full/nature12774.html )

      Extensive individual networking represents an adaptation to reduce those risks. It also increases the range of skills and knowledge available to any one local residential group, since these can be accessed through individual networking relationships. People do not need to have all the expertise assembled together all the time. Specialized skills and information are often held by very few within each culture, just as only a few people within each culture might have the interests that lead to discovery of new insights or technologies. And for each cultural system, opportunities to exchange such information with as many others as possible is a far safer long term strategy than expecting all useful and necessary innovation to be homegrown. The larger the network of human contact points for information transfer and exchange, the more likely local innovations are to be combined with those from other culture areas, even ones thousands of miles away. Thus the benefits to any one local culture – to one local linguistically distinct entity – of opportunistically and reciprocally interacting within a whole culture area, are not only obvious, they belie the mutual belligerence often assumed to have occurred among prehistoric human cultures.

      One of the ways that networks extending far beyond local linguistic and other localized affiliation tags are possible in humans can see such tags without assuming them to be barriers to socializing. Perfect strangers looking very different from one’s self are as like to elicit fascination and curiosity as they are to prompt hostility. The first thing most children do when meeting newcomers is to try to talk to them and find out all they can about each other. Group norms among humans are remarkably similar, in that, besides the general list of mutually cooperative and altruistic behaviors that are generally presented as desirable, very few societies tolerate deliberate mutual harm, physical or emotional, and violence tends to be tolerated only in highly ritualized contexts like sports, initiation ceremonies, and one-on-one “fights”. In all societies, children are socialized to group norms by imitating exemplars and observing punishments for violation.

      Thus, even young children respond to ritual and other behavioral modeling by older persons, by imitating and conforming to group norms. There is some evidence that children will more often focus on “role models” who are popular , so conformity with a group is clearly linked to adherence to certain desired behaviors positively reinforced by others and to fear of being ostracized. There is no doubt that children are strongly motivated to acquire the attitudes and behaviors that conform and receive approval, and that they reject attitudes and behavior when it is labeled as bad. But this is true within social groups, and does not necessarily apply to in-group vs out-group dynamics: it needs to be emphasized that the context is social control by ostracizing individuals who violate norms or fail to meet expected behavioral targets.

      The fact that children can easily be persuaded to reject classmates (even whole categories of classmates) who are identified to them as inferior in desired attributes, does not mean that ethnocentrism is “natural”. It only indicates that human beings are easily motivated to respond to even punitive levels of social control, and to conform with majority consensus, even if that potentially leads to lethal results. Thus the outcomes of the classroom experiments of Jane Elliot , and Stanford prison experiment , and the Milgran shock experiments all reveal a common feature. And has nothing to do with inter-group conflict and everything to do with intragroup mechanisms of social control. This is hardly evidence of innate ethnocentrism, any more than love of one’s family automatically translates into dislike of everyone else’s family. Nor does self-identification with a particular group indicate that one’s view of other groups necessarily need go very far in the direction of disparagement or rejection.

      The data on human inter-group behavior worldwide indicates that alliances and friendships are at least as common as hostility and enmity. That many hunter-gatherer ethnographic reports indicate alliances and friendships between different regional and even between different language groups should not be taken to indicate a bias towards pacifism. It indicates that humans have an evolved capacity for regulating intergroup behaviors for mutual benefit. Is this as innate as the aggressive dominance hierarchies of Pan troglodytes and the disarming of aggression through mutual sexual stimulation in Pan paniscus? Whatever it is, it is a great deal more permissive of actual information exchange among neighboring populations. Indeed, it privileges spread of innovation and retention of skills and knowledge, while preserving the integrity of local cultural ecologies and their associated cognitive niches, creating a mosaic of ethnicity in a sea of culture. That sea appears to be as beneficial to long term human survival as was the exchanges of genetic variation. Human nature evolved, by this model, as much due to the requirements of long term cultural survival as it is to long term genome survival.

      Human cooperative sociability is conducive to seasonal shifts in the distribution of personnel over the landscape, no matter what the economy. Whether we assemble for ceremonies, for conferences, for sharing of food windfalls, or vacations on a nice stretch of beach on the Riviera. And, whether we come together to share the last permanent water sources during a dry season, or to share our latest research, it is the same pattern. All of these are occasions for communicating information and innovation, for reinforcing sharing networks and creating new ones, and occasionally, for transfers of personnel.

      All of these models strengthen the relevance of data from hunter-gatherers. Far from being unrepresentative of the economies and population dynamics during most of the Pleistocene, contemporary foragers reinforce the implications of the paleo-anthropological and genetic data gathered in the last twenty years. Certainly some hunter-gathers today live in areas considered marginal for farming or even pastoralism, but this does not mean that these areas are marginal refuge zones for foragers. Indeed, if the palaeo-climate data an indication, places like the Australian outback, the Kalahari, and the Central African rainforests are all within the range of environments within which foraging was a slam-dunk. And if we human really evolved this anti-fragile system during times of enormous environmental flux, then “richer” local environments permitting occasional more sedentary populations such as we saw along the North West Coast of North America, were hardly common, let alone typical, before the onset of the Holocene.

      When we cast our imaginations over the last 180,000 years, how behaviorally and anatomically modern humans might have spent their days, I suggest we picture small fluid camping parties dispersed over the landscape at least part of the year. Imagine families, formed, not necessarily always by any obligatory lifelong monogamy, but by a variety of unions, some more permanent, and some more transitory, which resulted in complex interrelationships, with step parents and step siblings, and even ties to step-grandparents, all of which increased the total field of choice about who was going to camp where and with whom at any one point in time. Imagine a world where the gravest difficulty, most of the time, was not securing a food supply, but rather fulfilling emotional commitments and yearnings played out within complexly overlapped individual networks that were just the smallest cogs in a cultural machine that linked thousands of lives together over whole continents… and beyond.

      Imagine networks that also differed from person to person, so that a bonded couple may work a combined network nearly twice what each person had before they teamed up. Imagine then navigating a social world of connections this large and varied, while simultaneously avoiding the people with whom they – or one of them – might have recently quarreled. Imagine all this, and imagine too, how such visiting arrangements might, rather often, become discombobulated by new conflicts over affairs and other foibles and misadventures.

      In short imagine a rich tapestry that makes life in all societies tumultuous and rife with drama and irresistible gossip.

      This was what I glimpsed among the Kua. During my fieldwork, this translated into an animated collection of over a thousand adults, each of whom basically knew, even if only from hearsay, most of each other’s life story including – especially, all the embarrassing bits. Indeed, many Kua also had quite a lot of stories to tell about friends or relatives in other language groups.

      A good reputation translates into larger networks of kin and friends. If individuals competed for anything, it was not for possessions, or for power, it was for honor. And there was one certain way to attain this: through striving to epitomize the most admired moral qualities:, generosity, kindness, compassion, honesty, integrity, self-control, humor, diplomacy, and diligence. If anything is sacred among hunter-gatherers it is the sharing imperative that follows from an egalitarian ethos.

      It was the same, but with higher degree of formal rank attached, among the Fulani, Mossi, Dagara and the Bwaba in Burkina Faso, in West Africa. What I found among these groups was a more formalized lineage-based seniority ranking, but even then, when the chiefdom-ship of a village came up, there was a lot of discussion of the candidates in the senior lineage; by consensus, to a nephew, not one of the sons, of the old chief. This nephew had the best reputation, the highest honor, and inspired the greatest trust. The term “first among equal” was embodied in such positions. These lineage systems are basically risk aversion strategies, and the leaders within them are often the reluctant recipients of appointments to positions involving maximum responsibility to safeguard community resource stores or stocks: the communal granaries, the communal grazing rights and authority over the management of the herds. Lineage elders often jointly formed counsels, which serve to prevent escalation and force resolution of, interpersonal and inter-lineage conflicts.

      If there is a kind of psychic unity within our species, this is it: our sociability did not – and does not, even today, submit to aggressive force easily, and the human heart still thrills to leadership based on trust and admiration, but chills and eventually rebels under subjugation and coercion.

      Intimidation by one or more people, directed against other(s), happens during the social life in all human cultures, but it does not always constitute aggression to reinforce rank, rather, it happens most often when rank reinforces control over violence or chicanery. In fact, of course, it is usually made unnecessary by the use of gossip, sarcasm, public shaming, and other non-physical mechanisms. As Hobbes once noted, “desire of praise disposeth to laudable actions” and certainly shaming is likewise an effective deterrent.

      Among the Kua, for example, social control is often undertaken, not by strong young men, by an older and physically weak persons. High moral rank trumps physical force. Incidents of social control are often played for a laugh, as when the old granny broke up the fight in my camp. It is not the only incident of its kind to be witnessed by fieldworkers among various forager groups in the Kalahari. I assume the language and gestures I saw represent common “put-downs”.

      As several years of fieldwork with the Kua drew to a close in 1980, I had secured some goats to be slaughtered, and arranged to have much of the community in my immediate field area over for dinner. About 150 people came and ate 6 goats and large amounts of vegetables and mealie-meal (made from maize meal). As the evening wore on, there was dancing and singing and pauses for more food to be eaten, and a lot of circulation from hearth to hearth. There was even a shaman planning a trance healing in the works. Young men were visiting the relatives of the young women they were courting and older people were chatting and telling stories. Suddenly a fight broke out between two young men,. They began wrestling and punching each other and rolled on the ground. The whole camp gradually fell silent and shouts were heard telling them to act like men and stop this foolishness.

      They broke apart and crouched panting, eyeing each other. Then one of them pulled his knife out. Into this tense moment a wrinkled old crone walked, muttering. She reached them and planted herself firmly between the two of them. They ignored her! They were going to edge around her! Then she picked up the tips of both her flapping breasts and held one extended in each hand, as close as she could, to the mouth of the each young hothead. “Suck!” She shouted, “Suckle then! You are just crawling babies, not men grown. Even a five year old is weaned and knows better than you do! Suckle little babies, who have no minds, and forget your little upset!”

      She shook a nipple into each face. For a tense moment the tableau lasted, and I could see the sweat on the boys’ faces as they stared into each other’s eyes and then glanced away. One of them abruptly laughed, rubbed his head, and relaxed. There was a wave of tittering, jeering laughter from the crowd. The young fellow with the knife suddenly turned away and began to walk off, but the old lady followed and slapped him on the arm and he automatically handed her his knife. Then he walked off into the darkness. He returned after an hour and there was a girl with him and he was a bit sulky. Eventually, since she kept sticking her breast in his face and laughing uproariously, even he began to laugh at his foolishness.

      For weeks afterward, everywhere these young men went, women would greet them with a rowdy laugh and offer them a breast to suckled, calling them “oh our little babies with no minds”. I doubt either young man never lost his temper again, but I do think they remained in control of their actions and did not let things accelerate to the point of violence.

      It was after this incident that I finally learned about the time one man had killed someone, and the subsequent actions of the kinsman of that man. His own kinsmen, not the kinsmen of the murdered party, went out, tracked him down, and killed him. The story was recounted to me by his own brother, one of the party of executioners. The man, even after forty years had elapsed, was still visibly moved and shaken by these events.

      Such accounts of violence and social control among foragers are not exceptional, and this highlights a very important point: the relative infrequency of actual inter-group warfare does not indicate that foragers were pacifists; nor does it mean that those of us who have lived among foragers ignored violence or romanticized the lives of these people. It should be noted too that, for those individuals who fall under a cloud of social disapproval, whose reputations and rank suffer, there is evidence of increased stress, even if the situation is temporary, not lethal.

      However, despite such accounts (or perhaps because of them), it has been difficult, for many people, to accept that low frequency of warfare among mobile hunter-gatherers today, let alone accept that this perhaps indicates that it was likely rare during human evolution as well. Given the low population density of mobile hunter-gatherers, and the fact that they are healthy and can get more than enough calories, even today, in what appear to be relatively marginal environments, one might suppose that they hardly have anything to gain by a belligerent approach to neighboring groups, and a great many potential exchanges of valuable information and personnel to lose.

      However, the claim continues to be made, that conflicts over land or over women, motivated warfare during prehistory, and that therefore war was of importance in producing the human species. In support of notions of the deep antiquity of war, in fact, one idea keeps getting repeated – the idea that of exchange of and/or raiding between groups for purposes of capturing, women was of primary importance.

      Aside from the empirically shaky grounding of this speculation, given its rarity within forager ethnography, there is a certain appeal to the idea on biological grounds. Populations that grow too genetically homogenous have probably been at a disadvantage in every species. After that genetic bottleneck around 70,000 BP, humans might well have been in acute danger of inbreeding depression and extinction. In fact, even today, despite the subsequent cultural and linguistic divergence and diversity attendant upon the scattering of humanity to the far reaches of every habitable continent, our species has only achieved a level of variation molecular biologists normally attribute to a population of 20,000. The greatest genetic variability is still found among the southern African hunter-gatherers. Still, for humanity as a whole, the number of polymorphism per genetic locus, and overall number of genes with such variability, is inferior to that found within one subspecies of Pan troglodytes.

      Now most species preserve polymorphisms by disassortative mating. Disassortative mating occurs when individuals with different alleles mate more frequently than would be expected in random mating. Both assortative and disassortative mating cause the frequency of certain genotypes to differ from the frequencies predicted by the Hardy-Weinberg Principle, which states that allele and genotype frequencies should remain constant under a random mating system.

      Assortative mating often increases the proportion of homozygous individuals. By contrast, disassortative mating tends to result in a greater number of heterozygotes. Recently there has been an explosion of data on a kind of disassortative mating based on metabolic signals indicating immune system genes. Animals ranging from stickleback fish to elephants to humans appear to have a preference for mates with immune systems most different from their own. Known as the Major Histo-Compatibility Complex, this metabolic signature can be sensed – possibly through pheromone olfaction.

      I find it moderately obvious that, if the Major Histocompatibility Complexes are involved in mate choice, this illustrates how unconscious factors – in this case, microbiological ones – do aid individuals in producing viable offspring… and the obvious objective of this kind of dissassortitive mating is maximizing immunity. One might also expect that this, as well as sensitivity to MHC differences, would be higher in populations of animals with low variability, and tend to be of negligible importance where there is high variability. In fact this may explain why so many human systems of preferential marriage – involving exogamy, including incest taboos among closely related people, can make perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Thus the further afield one ventures to find one’s mates, the more heterogeneity one’s offspring are likely to have. ” Hybrid vigor” is the husbandry term for this.

      Indeed, the particular allure of guys and gals whose biochemistry screams “not from around here” may well be one of the formidable problems faced in keeping cultural systems “intact” despite contact. It has been noted frequently that ethnic differences become more clearly and aggressively defined around interethnic boundaries. Among the three main languages spoken in the south eastern Kalahari, lifelong friendships still blossom, as occasional mixed camps afford children time to play with one another, learn each other’s language. Among the Kua there were as many slightly derogatory jokes about the supposed failings, moral and physical, of the neighboring G/wi and the G//ana, as there were in each of these groups about the other. Among inter-community friends and married couples such put-downs are a frequent source of banter. And yet, despite all the parental plans and prohibitions, love affairs also happen, and some children are almost invariably produced across the “forbidden” zone. This does not always happen when different language groups come into contact among foragers, but It certainly appears to be one of ways of building networks, permitting both cultural and genetic exchange, increasing overall variation that facilitates long term survival. The obvious benefits of information exchanges, especially of innovations and skillsets, must be calibrated to make cultures permeable without dissolving the essential aspects of localized economic and institutional adaptations.

      Regional linguistic divergence may operate in tandem with cultural proscriptions and prescriptions to stem the flow of personnel across ethnic boundaries, class boundaries, and religious boundaries, creating and thus preserving differences among local genomes and cultures. Locally adaptive polymorphisms thus are prevented from disruption from too much gene flow, in a complex tradeoff with tendencies to spread variations that confer more generalized benefits, and enough to prevent inbreeding depression. The relative merits of such exchanges can only be judged within the longer stream of evolutionary time, as each population evolves biologically and either succeeds or fails to meet new microbial challenges.

      These and other observations among hunter-gatherers suggest that the idea of making war, or raiding, to steal women, might be a rather haphazard and unwieldy reproductive strategy. For one thing, it does not permit much time for sensing differences in the MHC complex, and for another, there is always the hazard of the captured female acting to avenge herself, and of course counter raids by relatives of the captive are always a threat. It is far more rational to be opportunistic – to gain trading partners, friendships, and an exchange of information between groups. Besides, diplomatically achieved networking will lead to numerous occasions for sniffing around for mates in a more friendly fashion.

      So automatic hostility between groups, marked by raiding for women, and slaughter attendant to territorial takeover, is revealed as an extremely suboptimal strategy among hunter-gatherers. At this point we need not look for ways if explaining intergroup aggression as an evolved behavior, and can more fruitfully explain it as an institutional elaboration of coalitional social controls.

      Warfare, when seen as a collective and cultural activity, lacks the instinctive aggression of an “territorial imperative”. Instinctive aggressive in defense of territorial boundaries is hardly conducive to exchanges of information, technologies. In fact humans could not have evolved cultural systems had they been burdened with excessive territorial or rapacious instincts.

      Suggesting that humans did not evolve with intergroup warfare is not the same as suggesting we evolved to be individually pacifist. Humans have strong fear and aggressive reactions to threats and injustice. Murder – as a crime of passion – is definitely within the human repertoire. But so is cold and resolute execution of people perceived to pose a threat.

      The way the human brain evolved, to store and to selectively operationalize all kinds of information on social relationships, ecosystem dynamics, transforming raw materials into technology, suggests powerful natural selection not just for behavioral flexibility, but for capacity to overcome emotional reactions such as aggression and fear – with reflection and rationality. The enlargement of the prefrontal cortex to inhibit impulsive, emotional responses, in the interest of longer term rewards and objectives, reasoning and careful planning, is strongly suggested by the experimental evidence. That such an ability evolved to maximize benefits over the long term is not, I think, stretching available data too far. If I go further, a minor step, I think, it is to suggest that these same selective forces also involved development of mutually beneficial diplomacy between human groups, and that this launched cultural systems as THE major hominid adaptation. It might be a stretch to suggest that it was the continued selection for such rational intelligence that led to the emergence of behaviorally modern humans, but I doubt that.

      Seen in an evolutionary context, human warfare is an elaboration of political and cultural behavior, not territorial or instinctive behavior. As such it actually creates conditions contrary to human instincts, if one might so describe mutual interference between reason and emotion that must characterize prefrontal cortex function. In saying this, I am severing the frequent association between instinct and emotion frequently seen in the literature and popular imagination. Humans, if we can play with the idea for a moment, might be characterized as creatures who instinctively reason. We are not alone in diverting our immediate reactions into strategic reflection and action. Predators do this, whether individually, like stalking cats, or collectively, like pack hunters who employ flanking maneuvers. Human just do it more, and more of their behavior is based on the application of memorized scenarios (event memories) that offer alternative strategies.

      Strong emotions, especially empathy and love, do not so much interfere with reason, as redirect the course of reflection. Actions arising from reflection, especially when responding to the actions of people who damage the lives of others, are often subject to consultation. Discussion with others, to determine if one’s own information is reliable, one’s reactions understandable, and options viable and appropriate, is the main work of every human institution of social control. Whether familial, political, legal, or military, such institutions represent forums for reflection, discussion, and collectively sanctioned decision-making within every culture on the planet. In all cultures, precedents are set, discussed, and corrective or punitive actions are decided upon. This is the very essence of the concept “rule of law”.

      This is why the story of Hamlet is so tragic – he confides in no one, and arguably all his tragedy could have been avoided had he had only someone to talk to that he trusted; and perhaps, someone who could suggest to him that a ghost could also represent delusion, hallucination, or even malevolent enchantment. This same tragic isolation is also implicated in popular accounts of the evil descent of individuals the likes of a Caligula, an Emperor Napoleon, or a Hitler. These exemplify the fate of persons who end up in power positions more conducive to sycophancy than to debate.

      War is rarely undertaken without consultation and advanced planning. War is the creation of the seat of reason, not emotion. War, like genocide, is not a crime of passion, nor even of individual motives attached to self-interest; it is a collective activity undertaken with mixed feelings, and resolution – often based on absence of rational alternatives, and it often leaves participants in mental turmoil for the rest of their lives, even when they win.

      Of all the selection pressures favoring of an enhanced frontal cortex during human evolution, rational strategizing, within a context of inter-subjective communication, may be key. Particularly the prefrontal cortex acts as the seat of planning and impulse control; the active center of rational thought, where alternatives and consequences are considered: this is where chess moves originate. The prefrontal cortex, Ralph Holloway once told me, is “us”. And so, who are we, but the species that can stop and think? So, before we chose an action, in weighing the costs of starting a feud or a war, our ancestors, like the modern hunter-gatherers, often chose to be opportunistic, diplomatic and shrewdly generous. If they often chose to invite arrangements conducive to mutual benefit, this does not imply selfless altruism. Rather, this explains altruism as a biological consequence of the points of a bio-cultural confluence.

      Our human nature incorporates emotionality and irascibility as well. This gives rise to social turmoil of a kind and quality not subject to the same leveling mechanisms discussed so far. The people involved in minor spats and disagreements seldom see these escalating into embarrassing incidents of lost tempers and regrettable violence. Sudden departures of individuals or families at the crack of dawn; private, tense, and often tearful exchanges expressing hurt and bewilderment; social ruptures during which people are “not on speaking terms” for weeks, months or years at a time; these are all common dramas of social life in human communities, just as I found them played out in my years with the Kua. These more minor interpersonal spats probably contribute far more sheer turmoil and heartache within human communities, than any other aspect of human behaviour. And they happen within families as often as between friends, neighbors, and lovers. People in all cultures appear liable to jumping to conclusions, taking things the wrong way, getting into hissy fits over misunderstandings, and flying off various handles. I vividly recall the two elderly Kua brothers who sat companionably together while telling me about the times they had been so estranged they avoided camping together for years. Laughing as they recalled the issues that had sparked off various disputes, and proclaimed now, very silly, in hindsight. Not all families among humans appear to have heard of kin selection; many fly apart after minor-appearing disagreements.

      How to explain this? Is this also explicable as an aspect of human nature? Well, what if we evolved this way because it resulted in higher overall mobility and lowered population density, constantly reshuffling the membership of local bands, regional bands, and even larger communities? What if all this made it much less likely that any forager community would be able to overshoot or degrade their environmental resource limits? To use Nassim Nickolas Taleb’s term, higher mobility among humans might have resulted in a cultural ecology that was ANTI-FRAGILE.

      Too phlegmatic and reasonable a people might generate too little turmoil, become too settled, and degrade their local habitat past the point of sustainability. So, we might be inclined to be irascible and snarly critters when crossed, but perhaps we come by it honestly.

  • Tony Biglan says:

    It seems to me that the critical question is what this analysis implies for reducing violence in the current world. If population growth and competition for resources contributed to increased violence since the advent of agriculture and communities, these seem like conditions we are unlikely to abandon. What does the analysis imply about malleable variables that would reduce violence? Marital and family research tells us a lot about this topic. The empirically supported theory of coercive interactions has contributed to the development of effective strategies for reducing conflict in families and schools.

  • Carmi Turchick says:

    This is the third recent article to make essentially the same blindingly wrong arguments: the first by Barash and the second by Patrick F. Clarkin. All three prop up the favorite baseless and illogical strawman of this dogma, that if war evolved then therefore it is automatic and unavoidable behavior. Then they assert that bonobos are just as valid a model for insights into human war behavior as chimps are, and assertion that is wrong in so many ways as to indicate ignorance of basically everything one should know to talk about this topic – evolution, ethology, primatology….
    Then we get the fallacy of argument by assumed (wrongly) effects of belief in the strawman that no one actually believes in.
    Finally they cite the recent work of Douglas P. Fry and friends, work which is so abundantly and obviously the result of extreme bias that it manages at times to combine multiple fallacies into single sentences.
    There are several reasons why bonobos are not a good model, even though they are just as closely related to us as chimps. First, they eat leaves and because of this their food is widely and evenly distributed, unlike the food of chimps and humans, and this allows bonobo groups to remain together basically always while foraging. Unlike chimps and humans. So first there is far less to gain from taking neighbor territory, there are plenty leaves for everyone already and their territory is not better than yours for bonobo fitness. Second, the main strategy of chimp and human guerrilla warfare, finding an enemy foraging alone, does not work because bonobos do not forage alone. This means the risks of attacking the neighbor group is far higher for bonobos. Then bonobos are extremely sexually promiscuous, so while chimps and humans gain access to females by engaging in group level violence bonobos can just show up and have sex with members of the other group, they have no fitness incentive to attack them for mating opportunities. So while chimps and humans are similar in all of the important ways that might cause evolution to select group level violence as a behavior, bonobos are dissimilar in all of those ways. Bonobos then are not the species to look to for insight on this topic.
    As for Fry…let me summarize his argument: “we can prove that our nomadic ancestors did not wage war because they did not make fortifications or defensive settlements.” This is combining the absence of evidence fallacy with a logical error of connecting two unrelated terms and topping it off with an assertion by definition. Nomads do not make fortifications or settlements, by definition. So his argument is, to restate it in a pure logic form, that unless we find circles with 90 degree angles, then all circles are purple. I am not convinced. Then Fry’s recent paper claiming to study nomadic hunter-gatherers and find them mostly peaceful was shocking in the blatant bias used. The main form warfare takes in these societies is a raid with one victim. But Fry and his co-author define that as not being war, they decide it is only war if there are two victims. One might get a similarly accurate result by studying modern warfare and defining anything using an explosion of any kind as not being war. Then they included groups that are literally physically isolated, cannot attack anyone else if they want to, or that live in nations where they are limited by outside forces in their violence, and still given all of that effort to cook the books into pure carbon they found a significant amount of war.
    The humans are inherently peaceful view is a fantasy, and what it worse it that it is a fantasy that actually leads to more war. A central component of our willingness to go to war is the belief that we, ourselves and our group, are inherently peaceful and are just defending ourselves from the threat “they” pose. Even Hitler made up fake threats to prod Germans into trying to conquer all of Europe to “defend” themselves. Recognizing that we all have evolved psychological predispositions that make us vulnerable to the siren call of war can help us to plug our ears when the song starts to be sung.

    • Helga Vieirch says:

      Carmi: “The main form warfare takes in these societies is a raid with one victim.” It is not a “raid” – it is a form of social control – an execution team whose sole purpose is the elimination of an individual who has, in most cases, already killed another person. We might as well, going by your silly reasoning that this is actually “war”, proclaim the actions of the entire legal system – especially in those countries where capital punishment is still practiced, as evidence of warfare. Where does it end? Is a man murdering his wife, or a wife her husband, or the boxer who delivers an ultimately fatal blow to an opponent in the ring… all proof of human warfare? Get a grip man. There is social control, there is elimination of psychopaths, there is punishment of murderers… all within the context of what is considered “civil” society. War? Not so much.

  • Catherine Claxton-Dong says:

    I think what the author is demonstrating is that any who make claims about man’s natural violence based on our relationship to chimps are offering a cherry-picked argument. That warlike behavior is not inherent isn’t proven, nor does the author suggest he can do so in this article. He simply asks us to question this Hobbesian assumption (which suggests the bias in Hobbes’ time concerning original sin). My own work suggests that humans aren’t “inherently” any one thing, but that the same urges that drive reproductive cycles lead us toward “unfit” actions – like war – because we do not take the phases of this cycle properly into account.

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