As you may recall, Science Contrarian John Horgan’s notorious “admonition to skeptics” blog post at Scientific American criticized the entire skeptical community for its supposed failure to campaign against war. That “hard target”, said Horgan, should take precedence over our attempts to attack “soft targets” like homeopathy, global warming denialism, and opposition to vaccination and GMO foods. But he also criticized those who propounded what he called the “deep-roots theory of war”. Let me refresh you on what he said (note that every single one of his “references” goes to a Horgan blog post!):
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 because it 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.
But war is a really hard target. Most people—most of you, probably–dismiss world peace as a pipe dream. Perhaps you believe the deep-roots theory. If war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable, right?
You might also think that religious fanaticism—and especially Muslimfanaticism–is the greatest threat to peace. That’s the claim of religion-bashers like Dawkins, Krauss, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and the late, great warmonger Christopher Hitchens.
The United States, I submit, is the greatest threat to peace. Since 9/11, U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have killed 370,000 people. That includes more than 210,000 civilians, many of them children. These are conservative estimates.
Far from solving the problem of Muslim militancy, U.S. actions have made it worse. ISIS is a reaction to the anti-Muslim violence of the U.S.and its allies.
Several of those attacked by Horgan have tendered responses. Here’s another one I got, quoted with permission.
John Horgan says that he “hates” the deep roots theory of war, and that it “drives him nuts,” because “it encourages fatalism toward war.” But what John Horgan hates has nothing to do with what is true, and his decades-long habit of letting his hatred guide his thinking has left a trail of fallacies and distortions.
Horgan has tirelessly endorsed the non sequitur that if war has deep roots in human prehistory, it would be futile to try to reduce it. This is an obvious blunder, because we can reduce all kinds of things that have deep roots in prehistory (illiteracy, disease, polygyny, etc.). In any case, history contains no examples of a leader justifying a war by citing human evolutionary history, to say nothing of chimpanzees.
Horgan writes, “Most people—most of you, probably–dismiss world peace as a pipe dream. Perhaps you believe the deep-roots theory. If war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable, right?” But he knows this is nonsense. He cites me as an advocate of the deep-roots theory, and he is well aware that I, of all people, do not dismiss world peace as a pipe dream: I’ve repeatedly gone on the record (most recently last month) as saying that we’re heading in just that direction. The military historian Azar Gat (with whom Horgan is familiar) has also documented both the deep roots and the recent decline of war.
Having chained himself to the fallacy that deep roots imply permanent war, Horgan has had to prosecute the case that war is a “cultural invention” on pain of being a war-monger. Sixteen years ago, in a New York Times review, he endorsed a vicious and fraudulent blood libel against the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who had documented high rates of warfare among the Yanomamö. Today Horgan claims that the evidence is that war is a cultural invention is “overwhelming” (his italics). One wonders how the scattershot archeological record from thinly spread human bands could ever constitute “overwhelming evidence” for anything. Horgan cites the dubious Margaret Mead (who infamously misdescribed the headhunting Chambri tribe as peace-loving) and the “anthropologists of peace” Brian Ferguson and Douglas Fry, who for decades have pushed the same moralistic fallacy as Horgan (Fry writes, for example, “”If war is seen as natural, then there is little point in trying to prevent, reduce, or abolish it.”)
In the years since I provided a review of quantitative estimates of rates of non-state violence in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Gat and Richard Wrangham have published their own reviews, which address the Ferguson and Fry claims (see also a new volume edited by Mark Allen and Terry Jones, Violence and Warfare among Hunter-Gatherers). Gat shows how the evidence has been steadily forcing the “anthropologists of peace” to retreat from denying that pre-state peoples engaged in lethal violence, to denying that they engage in “war,” to denying that they engage in it very often. Thus in a recent book Ferguson writes, “If there are people out there who believe that violence and war did not exist until after the advent of Western colonialism, or of the state, or agriculture, this volume proves them wrong.” Gat and Wrangham point out that one can define prehistoric war out of existence only by excluding feuds, raids, and individual homicides. But it’s common for a homicide to be avenged by more than one relative of the victim, setting off revenge for the revenge, which easily grows into a cycle of feuding. Whether this counts as “war” becomes a semantic question.
So does “cultural invention.” Unlike clear-cut cultural inventions such as agriculture and writing, which originated in a small number of cradles a few thousand years ago and spread to the rest of the world, collective violence has been documented in a large number of independent and uncontacted tribes, and, earlier this year, in a 10,000-year-old hunter-gatherer site in Kenya. If war is a “cultural invention,” it’s one that our species is particularly prone to inventing and reinventing, making the dichotomy between “in our genes” and “cultural invention” meaningless.
And speaking of false dichotomies, the question of whether we should blame “Muslim fanaticism” or the United States as “the greatest threat to peace” is hardly a sophisticated way for skeptical scientists to analyze war, as Horgan exhorts them to do. Certainly the reckless American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq led to incompetent governments, failed states, or outright anarchy that allowed Sunni-vs-Shiite and other internecine violence to explode—but this is true only because these regions harbored fanatical hatreds which nothing short of a brutal dictatorship could repress. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Project, out of the 11 ongoing wars in 2014, 8 (73%) involved radical Muslim forces as one of the combatants, another 2 involved Putin-backed militias against Ukraine, and the 11th was the tribal war in South Sudan. (Results for 2015 will be similar.) To blame all these wars, together with ISIS atrocities, on the United States, may be cathartic to those with certain political sensibilities, but it’s hardly the way for scientists to understand the complex causes of war and peace in the world today.