“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.
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).
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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.