Why War? Biological vs. Cultural Explanations

Fighting

John Horgan, writing for Scientific American, asks the big question: why do humans wage war? He’s previously rejected the “demonic males” theory, and has found Margaret Meade theory more satisfactory:

Many scholars solve this problem by combining Darwin with gloomy old Thomas Malthus. “No matter where we happen to live on Earth, we eventually outstrip the environment,” the Harvard archaeologist Steven LeBlanc asserts in Constant Battles: Why We Fight (Saint Martin’s Griffin, 2004). “This has always led to competition as a means of survival, and warfare has been the inevitable consequence of our ecological-demographic propensities.” Note the words “always” and “inevitable.” […]

The best answer I’ve found comes from Margaret Mead, who as I mentioned in a recent post is often disparaged by genophilic researchers such as Wrangham. Mead proposed her theory of war in her 1940 essay “Warfare Is Only an Invention—Not a Biological Necessity.” She dismissed the notion that war is the inevitable consequence of our “basic, competitive, aggressive, warring human nature.” This theory is contradicted, she noted, by the simple fact that not all societies wage war. War has never been observed among a Himalayan people called the Lepchas or among the Eskimos. In fact, neither of these groups, when questioned by early ethnographers, was even aware of the concept of war.

In discussing the Eskimos Mead distinguished between individual and group violence. Eskimos were “not a mild and meek people,” she noted. They engaged in “fights, theft of wives, murder, cannibalism,” often provoked by fear of starvation. “The personality necessary for war, the circumstances necessary to goad men to desperation are present, but there is no war.”

Mead next addressed the claim that war springs from “the development of the state, the struggle for land and natural resources of class societies springing, not from the nature of man, but from the nature of history.” Here Mead seems to invoke Marx as well as Malthus. Just as the biological theory is contradicted by simple societies that don’t fight, Mead wrote, so the theory of “sociological inevitability” is contradicted by simple societies that do fight. Hunter–gatherers on the Andaman Islands “represent an exceedingly low level of society,” but they have been observed waging wars, in which “tiny army met tiny army in open battle.”

Scientific American: Margaret Mead’s war theory kicks butt of neo-Darwinian and Malthusian models

(photo by Polina Sergeeva)

(Thanks Bill!)

2 Comments

  1. Mead next addressed the claim that war springs from “the development of the state, the struggle for land and natural resources of class societies springing, not from the nature of man, but from the nature of history.”

    & what exactly is history? To me it is some kind of biological unfolding. The human brain is designed to survive. That is the goal of DNA; to live on forever. Collectives are not some random organization but a technique used by DNA for survival.

  2. Mead sounds like an anarchopacifist. I strongly approve. At the very least, large-scale war between groups is quite difficult when large groups are not both organized and clearly divided; ambiguous groupings make it difficult to know who to kill, and the more organized a force is (not necessarily hierarchically, as the success of cell-based subterfuge has shown, though the extreme end of the spectrum is quite well-illuminated by the various fascist states and how the relatively liberal states opposing them in WWII had to themselves approach fascism to defeat them) the more efficient it is at war.

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