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War’s End?

Scientists are wrong to think war may be a thing of the past.

By 8.12.09

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I have ceased to count the number of times I've heard self-proclaimed experts say the 20th century, with its multitudinous (yes, they like words like multitudinous) genocides, holocausts and world wars, was the bloodiest, most violent century ever.

Those who have bothered to study the subject know fewer than 3 percent of last century's global population succumbed to war, far fewer than in centuries past when man battled with catapults and clubs, rather than incendiary bombs and tanks. Lawrence Keeley, author of War Before Civilization, notes that had the wars of the 20th century killed the same proportion of the population that died in typical tribal wars, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million. Meanwhile experimental psychologist Steve Pinker has observed that violence in general is on the decline, noting that today's homicide rates in Europe are more than 10 times lower than in the Middle Ages. "[W]e are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species time on earth," he writes. A cause to celebrate, unless you are a hippie intellectual whose only purpose in life is to demonize civilization, the West and the scary Military Industrial Complex. Says Pinker: "No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better."

It is generally the latter who continue to maintain that before civilized society there were no warriors and thus few tribal wars, just happy-go-lucky, vegan flower children traipsing through the meadows after sacrificing virgins. It wasn't until some evil conservative came up with the idea to create culture and civilization and poetry and music and art that everything went to hell.

Not to fear. We may soon return to our pre-societal folkways, according to story in the new New Scientist. "A growing number of experts are now arguing that the urge to wage war is not innate, and that humanity is already moving in a direction that could make war a thing of the past."

Douglas Fry is another end-of-war theorist. In his book Beyond War, the anthropologist claims to have documented 74 "non-warring" tribes, many with minimal contact with civilization. This, he says, is proof that war is not only not hardwired into our genes, but that civilized societies actually promote war.

Brian Ferguson, of Rutgers, says the fossil record indicates that man didn't commence making war big time until about 14,000 years ago. Prior to that man lived in small nomadic tribes as hunter-gatherers. When trouble was a-brewing he and his fellow tribesmen would simply hop on their camels and ride off for greener pastures, so to speak. The portrait that emerges is of an era where half the population was nomadic bullies and the other half nomadic wimps. This, naturally, runs counter to Ferguson and Fry's theories, since the more belligerent nomadic tribes would have prospered and, thus, passed on their genes. The peaceable tribes that preferred flight to fight would have grown weak and gradually died out.

ALL THIS CHANGED, Fry says, when the hunter-gatherers learned agriculture and animal husbandry, which resulted in settlements, farms, granaries, temples, all of which gave peaceable man a reason to organize militias and fight for the common defense.

But a second problem with this theory is that not every pre-societal tribe was nomadic. Nomadic people existed largely on continents where there were vast plains and scattered resources. Islanders, whether in the Pacific, or in England, didn't have the luxury to just walk away from a fight. From the beginning they had to fight to keep what was theirs. Since early man trekked out of Africa he has been drawn to coastal areas and rivers and lakes, and it is unlikely these people allowed themselves to be shooed away without a fight.

In their final flight from reality, Fry and Pinker suggest that since war is not hardwired into our genes, if it is but an adaptation from nomadic to settled, man can re-adapt, and therefore he can become peaceable again. All we need do is eradicate those factors that caused tribal warfare in the past. And here's the real problem: to completely eliminate war we would have to eliminate the causes of war, i.e., most of man's excessive desires, and by that I mean his avarice, pride, vengeance, lust for power, and just plain lust (remember the Trojan War?). Wars are also fought over independence, scarce but valuable resources, ancient religious feuds, and political ideology, and I doubt any of these factors are going away any time soon.

While their may be fewer wars, it is puerile and utopian to think man can eliminate war completely. If there are fewer wars today it because the world has more democracies (about 100, up from 20 a half century ago), and democracies seldom go to war with other democracies. What's more, nations are increasingly linked economically, so the destruction of one nation may mean economic disaster for all. Or to put it another way, "other people become more valuable alive than dead" (Robert Wright). Then there is the deterrence of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Pinker credits the creation of more stable nations with effective legal systems and police forces. And increased empathy and diversity means we no longer react as violently and suspiciously to those outside our "tribe."

Barring some devastating natural disaster or the rise of another utopian political ideology, war will likely become even more rare, more localized, more tribal. But it will never go away completely. I suspect we can live with that.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.