image: creative commons CC0 license from pixabay
Ask scientists the question about our inherent nature, and you will unearth a spectrum of answers, with most clustered at two poles: That we are inherently a violent, covetous, acquisitive and war-prone species, or that we have naturally evolved to coexist and collaborate with each other and with other creatures, and only engage in sustained acts of aggression in times of stress, crowding and scarcity.
We can never know, but you’ll probably not be surprised to hear that my research inclines me towards the second viewpoint.
Why then is history replete with endless stories of conquest and war? Partly this can be explained by the “headline news” phenomenon: That wars, bloody rituals and genocides are attention-grabbers, being sensational, and large in both scale and impact, so the history books dwell almost exclusively on them, and on the conquerors’ and defenders’ (usually inflated) hero-stories.
And partly it can be explained by the relative paucity of evidence of how humans actually lived for our first million years on earth, so all the evidence and conjecture is focused on what’s been unearthed about how we supposedly lived (and fought) during the last 10-30 millennia, just 1-3% of our species’ total history, a period which for many reasons may be completely unrepresentative of our behaviour for almost all of our “pre-civilized” history.
Scientists tend to presume, in the absence of anthropological evidence, that our apparent behaviour over the past 10 millennia must be our behaviour for 1000 millennia that preceded them, even though skeletal remains suggest that the further back we go in time the less indication there is of human-inflicted trauma.
There is abundant evidence that we were, for most of our history, vegans, consistent with our physiological lack of fangs, sharp claws, and speed, and that only after we invented killing technologies like arrowheads and spears, did we, probably of necessity as we expanded to areas where our natural diet was no longer available, begin to capture and kill other animals. Prior to that we simply did not have the means to injure and kill other humans at any scale, and, with low population density relative to resources, we didn’t have the motivation to do so, either.
It’s been suggested that our propensity for violence emerged at the time we began to domesticate ourselves ie to breed and train our children and communities to believe and obey what they are told. As I wrote about this a couple of years ago:
In his remarkable 1994 book Rogue Primate, the late Canadian naturalist John Livingston argued that humans have domesticated ourselves, possibly because our species appears to have all the qualities needed for easy domestication: docility and tractability, a pliable or weak will, susceptibility to dependence, insecurity, adaptability to different habitats, inclination to herd behaviour, tolerance of physical and psychological maltreatment, acceptance of habitat homogeneity, high fecundity, social immaturity, rapid physical growth, sexual precociousness, and poor natural attributes (lack of speed, strength, and sensory acuity). We share these qualities, he argued, with most of the creatures (and many plants) we have domesticated. The only difference is, we domesticated ourselves.
Domesticated creatures, he said, are by definition totally dependent on a prosthetic, disconnected, surrogate mode of approaching and apprehending the world, to stand in the place of natural, biological, inherent ways of being. Such creatures see the world through this artificial prosthesis, instead of how it really is, and this self-domestication is what we call civilization.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that self-domestication is both a precondition and a motivator for organized violence. Once we’re docile, dependent, and disconnected from our true, wild nature, we become far more easily conditioned and malleable by the mostly-psychopathic “leaders” who have directed most of the conquests, wars, genocides, crusades and other large-scale violence that has characterized our species since settlement and civilization became our predominant culture.
Rutgers’ anthropologist R Brian Ferguson, who’s spent his career trying to uncover what’s behind our propensity for war, writes:
The preconditions that make war more likely include a shift to a more sedentary existence, a growing regional population, a concentration of valuable resources such as livestock, increasing social complexity and hierarchy, trade in high-value goods, and the establishment of group boundaries and collective identities. These conditions are sometimes combined with severe environmental changes. War at Jebel Sahaba, for one, may have been a response to an ecological crisis, as the Nile cut a gorge that eliminated productive marshlands, eventually leading to human abandonment of the area. Later, centuries after agriculture began, Neolithic Europe—to take one example—demonstrated that when people have more to fight over, their societies start to organize themselves in a manner that makes them more prepared to go ahead and embrace war…
Simple hunting and gathering characterized human societies during most of humanity’s existence… Broadly, these groups cooperate with one another and live in small, mobile, [peaceful] egalitarian bands, exploiting large areas with low population density and few possessions…
Warlike cultures… became common only over the past 10,000 years—and, in most places, much more recently than that. The high level of killing often reported in history, ethnography or later archaeology is contradicted in the earliest archaeological findings around the globe.
He concludes, based on decades of studying chimpanzees, which are often described as sharing our warlike proclivities:
I conclude that “war” among chimpanzees is not an evolved evolutionary strategy but an induced response to human disturbance. Case-by-case analyses shows that chimps, as a species, are not “killer apes.” This research calls into question as well the idea that any human tendency toward bellicosity might be driven by an ancient genetic legacy from a distant ancestor of chimpanzees and humans.
Of course, we cannot know. Without substantive evidence, we will be inclined to believe what we want to believe about inherent human nature, wherever that falls on the homo rapiens / peaceful-species spectrum.
So I am inclined to believe that it is recent self-domestication, and the commensurate disconnection from the rest of life on earth, that enabled the emergence of abstract language and other essential attributes of human “civilizations”, and hence the possibility of organized human violence, and that the subsequent explosion of population and exhaustion of resources has moved that possibility into a chronic certainty over the past 10-30 millennia.
And, of course, that at a personal level we have absolutely no choice about where our beliefs fall on this spectrum, or about how we feel or what we do about the predicament our species now finds itself in. As pacifists, warriors, soldiers, enablers and sympathizers, we’re all just doing our best, the only thing we can do.