The Social Evolution Forum recently featured a contribution by Peter Turchin, who urged social scientists to give greater attention to the study of warfare. As a student of international relations (IR) myself, I found this call for greater attention a bit surprising, since the study of war is in many ways the bread and butter of IR research (see especially Azar Gat’s book on the evolution of war), and many journals are fully dedicated to related topics. But perhaps other social scientists aren’t giving warfare the attention it deserves? I find this a little dubious as well.

Economists have made some of the most significant contributions to the study of warfare. Thomas Schelling, for example, almost single-handedly revolutionized the way political scientists think of and model conflict among political actors. More recently, economists have also been increasingly eager to delve into evolutionary theory to examine various aspects of warfare, and Sam Bowles’ work on parochial altruism stands out as an example in this regard. Crossing academic boundaries, political economists have investigated aspects of warfare such as the relationship between trade and the likelihood of war, and the effectiveness of economic sanctions. Sociologists too, have long considered many forms of power relationships between political actors, and warfare is almost always a direct or indirect factor in these analyses. Anthropologists, needless to say, have now been deeply and explicitly engaged in debate on the origins, outbreak, and mechanisms of individual- and group-level violence for several decades. Notable recent books in this regard are Steven A. Leblanc’s (actually, an archaeologist) Constant Battles, and Keith Otterbein’s How War Began. As the Politics Section here at ETVOL has demonstrated, psychologists have also been particularly active in the investigation of warfare, not just in terms of examining ingroup-outgroup behavior, but also through examination of the evolutionary roots of warfare itself.

Nevertheless, and as if in response to Turchin’s call for greater attention, Science has featured an entire special issue on the scientific study of warfare. This issue is notable for many important contributions by leading thinkers in this field of study, and it covers applications from primatology (Boehm), religious belief (Atran & Ginges), and ethnic conflict (Esteban et al.). The special issue also considers broader themes such as the question of how and when humans psychologically categorize themselves and others into politically relevant groups (Ellemers). It appears Science has assembled a compelling mix of scholars, which for the most part is fairly representative of modern scientific research on war. One notable absence from the issue that kind of surprised me, however, was Richard Wrangham, who has done much of the pioneering research on coalitional aggression in chimpanzees.

We hope you enjoy taking a look through this special issue. In the near future, we will also be offering a more detailed review of the major contributions in this issue. So stay tuned for Part II.

Read all about it, at Science

Published On: May 21, 2012

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