these days of hidebound militarism and round-robin
carnage, when even that beloved ambassador of
peace, the Dalai Lama, says it may be necessary
to counter terrorism with violence, it's fair
to ask: Is humanity doomed? Are we born for the
battlefield - congenitally, hormonally incapable
of putting war behind us? Is there no alternative
to the bullet-riddled trapdoor, short of mass
sedation or a Marshall Plan for our DNA?
Plato right that "Only the dead have seen the
end of war"?
the heartening if admittedly provisional opinion
of a number of researchers who study warfare,
aggression, and the evolutionary roots of conflict,
the great philosopher was, for once, whistling
in a cave. As they see it, blood lust and the
desire to wage war are by no means innate. To
the contrary, recent studies in the field of game
theory show just how readily human beings establish
cooperative networks with one another, and how
quickly a cooperative strategy reaches a point
of so-called fixation. Researchers argue that
one need not be a Pollyanna, or even an aging
hippie, to imagine a human future in which war
is rare and universally condemned.
point out that slavery was long an accepted fact
of life; if your side lost the battle, tough break,
the wife and kids were shipped off as slaves to
the victors. Now, when cases of slavery arise
in the news, they are considered perverse and
incentive to make war similarly anachronistic
is enormous, say the researchers, though they
worry that it may take the dropping of another
nuclear bomb in the middle of a battlefield before
everybody gets the message. "I know not with what
weapons World War III will be fought," Albert
Einstein said, "but World War IV will be fought
with sticks and stones."
war making will be a hard habit to shake. "There
have been very few times in the history of civilization
when there hasn't been a war going on somewhere,"
said Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian
and classicist at California State University
in Fresno. He cites a brief period between A.D.
100 and A.D. 200 as perhaps the only time of world
peace, the result of the Roman Empire's having
everyone, fleetingly, in its thrall.
and anthropologists have found evidence of militarism
in perhaps 95 percent of the cultures they have
examined or unearthed. Time and again groups initially
lauded as gentle and peace-loving - the Mayas,
the Kung of the Kalahari, Margaret Mead's Samoans,
- eventually were outed as being no less bestial
than the rest of us. A few isolated cultures have
managed to avoid war for long stretches. The ancient
Minoans, for example, who populated Crete and
the surrounding Aegean Islands, went 1,500 years
battle-free; it didn't hurt that they had a strong
navy to deter would-be conquerors.
have often been the most esteemed of their group,
the most coveted mates. And if they weren't loved
for themselves, their spears were good courtship
accessories. This year, geneticists found evidence
that Genghis Khan, the 13th century Mongol emperor,
fathered so many offspring as he slashed through
Asia that 16 million men, or half a percent of
the world's male population, could be his descendants.
are romanticized, subjects of an endless, cross-temporal,
transcultural spool of poems, songs, plays, paintings,
novels, films. The battlefield is mythologized
as the furnace in which character and nobility
are forged; and, oh, what a thrill it can be.
"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal
addiction," writes Chris Hedges, a reporter for
The New York Times who has covered wars, in "War
Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." Even with its
destruction and carnage, he adds, war "can give
us what we long for in life."
can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living,"
are humans the only great apes to indulge in the
elixir. Common chimpanzees, which share about
98 percent of their genes with humans, also wage
war: gangs of neighboring males meet at the borderline
of their territories with the express purpose
of exterminating their opponents. So many males
are lost to battle that the sex ratio among adult
chimpanzees is two females for every male.
yet there are other drugs on the market, other
behaviors to sate the savage beast. Dr. Frans
de Waal, a primatologist and professor of psychology
at Emory University, points out that a different
species of chimpanzee, the bonobo, chooses love
over war, using a tantric array of sexual acts
to resolve any social problems that arise. Serious
bonobo combat is rare, and the male-to-female
ratio is, accordingly, 1:1. Bonobos are as closely
related to humans as are common chimpanzees, so
take your pick of which might offer deeper insight
into the primal "roots" of human behavior.
how about hamadryas baboons? They're surly, but
not silly. If you throw a peanut in front of a
male, Dr. de Waal said, it will pick it up happily
and eat it. Throw the same peanut in front of
two male baboons, and they'll ignore it. "They'll
act as if it doesn't exist," he said. "It's not
worth a fight between two fully grown males."
the ubiquitousness of warfare in human history
doesn't impress researchers. "When you consider
it was only about 13,000 years ago that we discovered
agriculture, and that most of what we're calling
human history occurred since then," said Dr. David
Sloan Wilson, a biology and anthropology professor
at Binghamton University in New York, "you see
what a short amount of time we've had to work
toward global peace."
that brief time span, the size of cooperative
groups has grown steadily, and by many measures
more pacific. Maybe 100 million people died in
the world wars of the 20th century. Yet Dr. Lawrence
H. Keeley, a professor of anthropology at the
University of Illinois at Chicago, has estimated
that if the proportion of casualties in the modern
era were to equal that seen in many conflicts
among preindustrial groups, then perhaps two billion
people would have died.
national temperaments seem capable of rapid, radical
change. The Vikings slaughtered and plundered;
their descendants in Sweden haven't fought a war
in nearly 200 years, while the Danes reserve their
fighting spirit for negotiating better vacation
packages. The tribes of highland New Guinea were
famous for small-scale warfare, said Dr. Peter
J. Richerson, an expert in cultural evolution
at the University of California at Davis. "But
when, after World War II, the Australian police
patrols went around and told people they couldn't
fight anymore, the New Guineans thought that was
wonderful," Dr. Richerson said. "They were glad
to have an excuse."
Wilson cites the results of game theory experiments:
participants can adopt a cheating strategy to
try to earn more for themselves, but at the risk
of everybody's losing, or a cooperative strategy
with all earning a smaller but more reliable reward.
In laboratories around the world, researchers
have found that participants implement the mutually
beneficial strategy, in which cooperators are
rewarded and noncooperators are punished. "It
shows in a very simple and powerful way that it's
easy to get cooperation to evolve to fixation,
for it to be the successful strategy," he said.
There is no such quantifiable evidence or theoretical
underpinning in favor of Man the Warrior, he added.
Dr. de Waal and many others see it, the way to
foment peace is to encourage interdependency among
nations, as in the European Union. "Imagine if
France were to invade Germany now," he said. "That
would upset every aspect of their economic world,"
not the least one being France's reliance on the
influx of German tourists. "It's not as if Europeans
all love each other," Dr. de Waal said. "But you're
not promoting love, you're promoting economic
not just the money. Who can put a price tag on
the pleasures to be had from that wholesome, venerable
sport - making fun of the tourists?
Posted: December 7, 2003