A History of Violence

(Promoted from comment discussion: http://www.haloscan.com/comments/emeasure/2688151665992694820/?src=hsr#212644)


Only three types of creatures engage in warfare--humans, chimpanzees, and ants. Among humans, warfare is so ubiquitous and historically commonplace that we are often tempted to attribute it to some innate predisposition for slaughter--a gene, perhaps, manifested as a murderous hormone. The earliest archeological evidence of war is from 12,000 years ago, well before such innovations as capitalism and cities and at the very beginning of settled, agricultural life. Sweeping through recorded history, you can find a predilection for warfare among hunter-gatherers, herding and farming peoples, industrial and even post-industrial societies, democracies, and dictatorships.

A reasonable start, but at that point Erhenreich goes completely off the rails. She starts by noting that war occurs not only in virtually every human society, but also in our closest animal relations, from whom we separated six million years ago. Next she wants us to believe that an instinct that served to protect us from maurauding beasts somehow survived a million years of our role as an apex predator despite the obvious carnage it wreaks among its practitioners. This does not compute.

She hopes to uproot war by considering it something external to ourselves. This is the folly of self-delusion, the very folly which perpetuates war. If you want to eliminate war, murder, rape, whatever, you need to face it honestly. She advances some feeble arguments that war is not natural:

Contrary to the biological theories of war, it is not easy to get men to fight. In recent centuries, men have often gone to great lengths to avoid war--fleeing their homelands, shooting off their index fingers, feigning insanity. So unreliable was the rank and file of the famed eighteenth century Prussian army that military rules forbade camping near wooded areas: The troops would simply melt away into the trees.

This ignores the obvious fact that there are always those willing and eager to volunteer for war. It also ignores the fact that games that simulate war are among the most popular forms of children's (actually, boy's) play.

Determined to raise our children violence free, my wife refused to let them have toy weapons. Until she noticed our three-year old chewing his slice of bread into a gun shape and pretending to fire it.

Of course she is also wrong about only ants, chimps, and us being warlike. Animals from coral reefs to lions to wolves engage in something very much like warfare. The reasons are obvious: competition for resources.

Napoleon Chagnon, who carefully studied the Yanomamo Indians of South America, noted and documented that killers left more offspring than "wimps." There is plenty of independent research to indicate that this result is usual in hunter gather societies. It could hardly be otherwise. War is such a dangerous activity that any propensity toward it would have been quickly extinguished if it weren't profitable, genetically speaking.

Our violent history was adaptive in the primitive hunter gather societies that were universal until 15000 years or so ago. There is little reason to suppose it is still adaptive for individuals, though it may still be for nations. Among nations, the strong survive and the weak feed the crows.

If you would eliminate war, start with reality, not fantasy. The reality is that our history of violence is radically incompatible with the notion that it is some sort of abberation. What is needed is not some fantasy of wishing and hoping it away, what is needed is attention to the factors that produce it and its replacement by moral equivalents.


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