This is the second of three responses to John Horgan’s piece of hauteur in Scientific American. In his blog post, he explained why he’s become “nuts”:
The biological theory that really drives me nuts is the deep-roots theory of war. According to the theory, lethal group violence is in our genes. Its roots reach back millions of years, all the way to our common ancestor with chimpanzees.
The deep-roots theory is promoted by scientific heavy hitters like Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and Edward Wilson. Skeptic Michael Shermer tirelessly touts the theory, and the media love it, because it involves lurid stories about bloodthirsty chimps and Stone Age humans.
I hate the deep-roots theory not only because it’s wrong, but also becauseit encourages fatalism toward war. War is our most urgent problem, more urgent than global warming, poverty, disease or political oppression. War makes these and other problems worse, directly or indirectly, by diverting resources away from their solution.
In response, Michael Shermer had this to say about war, which I quote with permission:
John Horgan has an understanding of war on par with a beauty pageant winner who declares her dream of “world peace.” He doesn’t understand the nature/nurture issue and he’s stuck in a 1950’s model of human behavior as either genetic and inevitable or cultural and malleable. Since he’s against war (how original) he can’t accept any genetic explanation for human conflict because he thinks this means war is inevitable. In brief, he makes three errors:
- Horgan doesn’t understand behavioral game theory and the evolutionary logic behind human conflict of all kinds, from murder to war. In The Moral Arc (p. 39) I begin with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene:
“To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food,” says Dawkins. But there’s a difference between a survival machine and a rock. A survival machine “is inclined to hit back” if exploited. “This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them.” Thus, Dawkins concludes, “Natural selection favors genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of different species.” (p. 66) Survival machines could evolve to be completely selfish and self-centered, but there is something that keeps their pure selfishness in check, and that is the fact that other survival machines are inclined ‘to hit back’ if attacked, to retaliate if exploited, or to attempt to use or abuse other survival machines first.”
This leads to moral emotions and behaviors that include altruism, pro sociality, and cooperativeness along with selfishness, competitiveness, and revenge when exploited. Conflicts are inevitable between survival machines competing for limited resources, reproductive opportunities, etc. Thinking of conflicts as either inherited or learned misses the point entirely. Such conflicts, from murder to war, often result from the logic of such competition. Horgan seems to think that if violence is genetic then it builds up like steam in a pipe that has to be released before it blows, but that’s completely wrong. And as a hockey player he should know better: when he gets slammed into the boards by the opposition, if he doesn’t slam back, and cultivate a reputation as someone who “inclined to hit back” if hit first, he’s going to lose status, reputation, and resources.
- Horgan is trapped in binary thinking that clouds his thinking about how frequent war was (or wasn’t) in the past. Here is what I wrote on pp. 97-98 of The Moral Arc:
“Forcing a continuum of violence into a category of “prevalent” or “pervasive” misses the point of what we’re interested in knowing here: whatever the rate of violence in the past—by whatever the means and whatever the cause—was it enough to affect human evolution? If you insist that the rate must be high enough to be called “prevalent” or “pervasive” then you have to operationally define these terms with a quantity, including the term “war” that by today’s definition has no meaning for the type of intergroup conflicts that happened during the Late Pleistocene epoch in which our species came of age. As [Samuel] Bowles explains: “In my models of the evolution of human behaviour, the appropriate usage of the term [war] is ‘events in which coalitions of members of a group seek to inflict bodily harm on one or more members of another group;’ and I have included ‘ambushes, revenge murders and other kinds of hostilities’ analogizing human intergroup conflict during the Late Pleistocene to ‘boundary conflicts among chimpanzees’ rather than ‘pitched battles of modern warfare’.”
In The Arc of War the political scientists Jack Levy and William Thompson begin by adopting a continuum rather than categorical style of reasoning:
“War is a persistent feature of world politics, but it is not a constant. It varies over time and space in frequency, duration, severity, causes, consequences, and other dimensions. War is a social practice adopted to achieve specific purposes, but those practices vary with changing political, economic, and social environments and with the goals and constraints induced by those environments.” (pp. 51-53). When nuanced in this continuous rather than categorical manner, we can see both how and when rates of warfare change. By defining war as “sustained, coordinated violence between political organizations,” however, Levy and Thompson have defined away prehistoric group conflicts that don’t at all resemble political organizations of today. As such, “war” cannot even begin until there are political organizations of a substantive size, which necessarily means that what we think of as war, by definition, was impossible before civilization began.”
Nevertheless, Levy and Thompson acknowledge that the rudimentary foundations for war as they define it were already there in our earliest ancestors—even suggesting that “border skirmishes” with Neanderthals in Northern Europe may account for the latter’s extinction some 35,000 years ago—including “the observation that hunting and homicide skills made suitable weaponry, tactics, and rudimentary military organization available,” and that “group segmentation helped define group identities and enemies, thereby also facilitating the potential for organizing politically and militarily.” (p. 1) Thus, they endorse “an early if infrequent start for warfare among hunter-gatherers,” which then increased over time in lethality with improved weapons and increased population sizes, and this continued throughout the history of civilization as states increased in size until nations fought nations, leading to an increase in the total number of deaths, but a decrease in the total number of conflicts.
- Horgan is wrong that there are no “deep roots” to war. I cite dozens of studies showing both the antiquity and frequency of group conflicts in both our Pleistocene ancestors and in modern hunter-gatherer bands and tribes. Here are a few:
Bowles, S. 2009. “Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?” Science, 324, 1293-98.
Gat, A. 2006. War in Human Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press.
Glowacki, Luke and Richard W. Wrangham. 2013. “The Role of Rewards in Motivating Participation in Simple Warfare.” Human Nature, Sept. 6.
Keeley, L. H. 1996. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lebow, Richard Ned. 2010. Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.
Wrangham, Richard and Dale Peterson. 1996. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
In conclusion, I think Samuel Bowles said it best in an email to me on this subject: “It seems to be a highly ideologically charged debate, which is unfortunate, because finding that war was frequent in the past, or that out-group hostility might have a genetic basis says something about our legacy, not our destiny.” (Personal correspondence, February 1, 2014.)