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Facts Behaving Badly: Humans Have Always Fought Wars

(Today's post continues a debate we started in July answering the question, "Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?"

Later: It also is now a part of our series on "The World is Getting Safer" There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

For more "Facts Behaving Badly", click below:

- Afghanistan is NOT the Graveyard of Empires

- A Fact Behaving Badly: The WMDs Went to Syria

- Facts Behaving Badly: Economics Edition

- Facts Behaving Badly: "Excellence by Anonymity

- Guest Post: Facts Behaving Badly: The FBI Prevented 148 Mass Shootings Last Year

- Russian Facts Behaving Badly

- Facts Behaving Badly: Soldiers Hate War)

Humans only use 10 percent of their brains. Imagine the potential of humanity if we could tap into that other 90 percent. At least four films (Inception, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Dinner For Schmucks and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) came out in 2010 that toyed with this very idea, treating our apparently 90 percent useless brain power as a fact. (Since then, the film Limitless repeated this claim.)

Unfortunately, it’s not true. At all. It’s a crack-pot understanding of human intelligence that we’ve all heard, some of us have repeated, and far too few people have thought, “That doesn’t sound right.” Mythbusters debunked it. So did Snopes. It’s shocking that five films--and countless television shows (*cough* Fringe *cough*) can assert a “scientific” fact that is completely, totally, factually untrue.

Since we aren’t ready (yet) for another “Quotes Behaving Badly”, we’ve decided to move our next round of debunking towards facts.

Since this is On Violence, we don’t want to smash just any old facts; we want to smash the “facts” polluting foreign affairs, military and philosophy debates. For example, many Americans think we spend 25 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. Unfortunately, for pundits and politicians, it isn’t true.

Today we start with our recent favorite topic, “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?” and three of the facts that behaved badly in that debate.

First, humans HAVEN’T always fought wars.

As Professor Mark Grimsley noted in his response, human warfare had a starting point in history. Anthropological evidence agrees with him; the vast majority of human history has gone on without tribal, inter-state, organized conflict...or war. Humans have always had a capacity for violence, but we haven’t always had war.

John Horgan’s post ”Quitting the Hominid Fight Club” expands this idea, showing that human warfare had a starting point around 10,000 years ago. There is evidence of violence in archeology, but organized warfare has a starting point in the fossil record. This means--since homo sapiens evolved between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago--humans have “always” fought wars for about ten percent of our time on this earth.

Second, humans DIDN’T evolve to fight wars.

John Horgan also debunks the idea that homo-sapiens descended from our ancestors to fight wars. Horgan describes research that shows that in chimpanzee societies coalitionary violence is actually exceptionally rare. And bonobo monkeys, a primate as closely related to humans as chimps, don’t have organized violence.

RadioLab also did an entire episode on this topic to ponder this question, if humans evolved to fight wars, to compete, how do you explain cooperation, benevolence or kindness?  It turns out that human cooperation could be the evolutionary change that helped homo sapiens achieve dominance over nature, not the other way around.

Third, wars are NOT about resource scarcity.
Maybe not. Again, returning to John Horgan’s “Quitting the Hominid Fight Club”, most incidents of chimpanzees participating in coalitionary killing--chimp warfare loosely--occurred after Jane Goodall started feeding the monkeys bananas. Resource density caused the conflict. Same with Robert Sapolski’s research. The chimps became aggressive after a vacation lodge started a massive garbage dump with basically free food for all the chimps. The excess food caused excess population growth, then violence.

This idea also bears out in recent human history. World War II wasn’t about Hitler’s Germany suffering from resource scarcity. Germany went to war after its economy had recovered. Same with Japan in World War II. Same with the U.S. in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars are about resources, but not necessarily limited resources.

So what?

Philosophically we need to understand why humans fight wars--we can’t rely on platitudes or untested assumptions. Perhaps human ancestors have always fought wars. Perhaps they haven’t. Perhaps, at some point, human societies decided to use organized violence to achieve political ends. The point is right now we don’t have evidence that “humans have always fought wars,” which is a good thing.

three comments

As a student of anthropology I am pleased to see a recognition of what anthropological study can bring to traditionally philosophical topics, namely, empirical evidence. Or as some people say, “Anthropology is philosophy with the people left in.”

One way anthropologists have examined assertions about the nature of warfare is by using the ethnographic record to do cross-cultural comparison (important names for this method include Melvin & Carol Ember, Keith F. Otterbein, and William Divale), though that kind of study is always going to grapple with issues of comparability. For example, slapping the unitary label ‘war’ on all intergroup human violence might lead us to assume that the underlying assumptions of all participants are just as unitary. Evidence shows otherwise.

Nice post!

Excellent post.

Yeah the philosophy bites podcast had an episode about how some philosophers are conduct experiments to see what people actually believe. Its about adding evidence to our assumptions.

In this case, I don’t know nearly enough about the anthropology to speak definitively. That said, most people don’t know enough to say, “We have always fought wars.” So the issue isn’t that simple.