In an article from Evolutionary Psychology called The Peacemaking Primate? (pdf file) Craig T. Palmer suggests in his review of Douglas P. Fry’s The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence that Fry’s arguments would carry more weight if he had offered evidence rather then pointing to some hope that lurks in the corner.
There would also be widespread agreement that warfare per se is not an adaptation because warfare in the sense of large-scale socially organized armed combat between members of different territorial units did not occur in our species until several thousand years ago, due to the absence of the required forms of social organization. It is also hard to imagine disagreement over the proposition that there is cross-cultural variation in the frequency of both aggression and various forms of violence such as homicide, revenge killing, raiding, feuding and warfare. There would, furthermore, be near unanimity that humans often avoid violence and have ways of bringing violence to an end. Finally, I suspect that nearly all anthropologists would agree with Fry that it is possible for humans to exist without engaging in war.
The only real question of importance is how is the possibility of peace is to be operationalized? This is where we encounter the most important consequence of Fry’s polemical approach. Although he claims to be an advocate of evolutionary explanations of human behavior, Fry provides what is essentially a very nonevolutionary, cultural determinist explanation for the causes of current warfare, arguing that because war per se is too recent to be an adaptation, it must be a product of cultural beliefs. This position makes the mistake of thinking that identifying the ultimate cause of a trait (e.g., determining that a trait is a by-product instead of an adaptation) implies a specific proximate cause of a trait (e.g., that the trait is caused by culture).
As Fry himself emphasizes, humans (especially human males) have evolved numerous adaptations designed for violence and aggression. Instead of assuming that these adaptations are largely irrelevant to the proximate cause of warfare, a much more plausible assumption is that war is the result of an interaction of these adaptations with numerous novel environmental factors and other adaptations involved in such activities as the formation of coalitions. This alternative explanation would also help solve an even more fundamental problem with Fry’s argument: If the existence of a cultural belief in the naturalness of warfare is what leads to warfare, how did such a cultural belief come about in the first place?
Just try and ignore the academic semantics. Looking back over the last 2000 years it is difficult to argue that humans don’t have a propensity for war. There has seldom been a time in modern human history where there hasn’t been a conflict being waged or some group or nation on the verge of conflict. What struck me was how all this might relate to the current political climate. Maybe both can be true, that there is a certain level of mean determinism in our society and that there are greater levels of it within certain individuals who not only have that trait, but embrace it. One of the cheerleaders of the neocon approach to foreign policy is Michael Leeden who has said,
“Change — above all violent change — is the essence of human history,”
Leeden may be right up to a point, but like the fringe right who he represents he is in total denial about of human capacity to adapt, learn and come to terms. If Iraq was payback for 9-11against the world of Islamic radicalism then over a thousand Iraqis have died for every individual killed in the plane hijackings. One can’t help but think that while seeking justice for 9-11 is understandable our leaders have given into the worse part of human nature. By doing so they’ve extended the conflict, ignored other moderate means of dealing with the problem all the while creating more war and more injured parties that will in turn seek some form of primitive justice. Fry may be right, some of us have the potential to overcome social conditioning, but because violence is so attractive, even romanticized by the far right opposition ends up in fighting the clean up the right’s mess and a fighting a philosophical war with the right to keep their violent inclinations from being so scatter shot. One would think that preservation of society would be a deeply ingrained evolutionary influence on our behavior; if he is then conservatives have a pretty perverse brand of it. Obviously we have the potential to avoid conflicts and to make conflicts shorter and less brutal, but there will always be those that glory in the fight. I wonder whether that view is evolutionary or cultural. Culturally, the far right pundits, bloggers, and politicians extol the benefits of this ill defined never ending war everyday. If it wasn’t a part of our culture it is becoming part of it. The right is doing a bang up job for creating enemies for America’s children so they too can partake in the joys of war. There is some thing irrational going on here and since I don’t think conservatives all share the same fax machine part of the answer may be a trait evolutionary or cultural that is more pronounced in some people then others. Is being reactionary a cultural trait that conservatives have embraced and they’re pissed off because not everyone is buying it.
It was at this moment that Fyodor Pavlovitch played his last prank. It must be noted that he really had meant to go home, and really had felt the impossibility of going to dine with the Father Superior as though nothing had happened, after his disgraceful behaviour in the elder’s cell. Not that he was so very much ashamed of himself — quite the contrary perhaps. But still he felt it would be unseemly to go to dinner. Yet his creaking carriage had hardly been brought to the steps of the hotel, and he had hardly got into it, when he suddenly stopped short. He remembered his own words at the elder’s: “I always feel when I meet people that I am lower than all, and that they all take me for a buffoon; so I say let me play the buffoon, for you are, every one of you, stupider and lower than I.” He longed to revenge himself on everyone for his own unseemliness. He suddenly recalled how he had once in the past been asked, “Why do you hate so and so, so much?” And he had answered them, with his shameless impudence, “I’ll tell you. He has done me no harm. But I played him a dirty trick, and ever since I have hated him.”
Remembering that now, he smiled quietly and malignantly, hesitating for a moment. His eyes gleamed, and his lips positively quivered.
“Well, since I have begun, I may as well go on,” he decided. His predominant sensation at that moment might be expressed in the following words, “Well, there is no rehabilitating myself now. So let me shame them for all I am worth. I will show them I don’t care what they think — that’s all!”
from the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky