Wednesday, October 02, 2013

are we hardwired for war?

NYTimes | WAR is in the air. Sad to say, there’s nothing new about this. Nor is there anything new about the claim that war has always been with us, and always will be. 

What is new, it seems, is the degree to which this claim is wrapped in the apparent acquiescence of science, especially the findings of evolutionary biology with respect to a war-prone “human nature.” 

This year, an article in The National Interest titled “What Our Primate Relatives Say About War” answered the question “Why war?” with “Because we are human.” In recent years, a piece in New Scientist asserted that warfare has “played an integral part in our evolution” and an article in the journal Science claimed that “death in warfare is so common in hunter-gatherer societies that it was an important evolutionary pressure on early Homo sapiens.” 

The emerging popular consensus about our biological predisposition to warfare is troubling. It is not just scientifically weak; it is also morally unfortunate, as it fosters an unjustifiably limited vision of human potential. 

Although there is considerable reason to think that at least some of our hominin ancestors engaged in warlike activities, there is also comparable evidence that others did not. While it is plausible that Homo sapiens owed much of its rapid brain evolution to natural selection’s favoring individuals that were smart enough to defeat their human rivals in violent competition, it is also plausible that we became highly intelligent because selection favored those of our ancestors who were especially adroit at communicating and cooperating. 

Conflict avoidance, reconciliation and cooperative problem solving could also have been altogether “biological” and positively selected for. 

Chimpanzees, we now know, engage in something distressingly akin to human warfare, but bonobos, whose evolutionary lineage makes them no more distant from us than chimps, are justly renowned for making love instead. For many anthropologists, “man the hunter” remains a potent trope, yet at the same time, other anthropologists embrace “woman the gatherer,” not to mention the cooperator, peacemaker and child rearer.