Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Science Special Issue on Conflict

Science has a special issue on the evolutionary roots of violence. A sample from this article:

...Early and mid-20th century studies of ancient people seemed to confirm a more Rousseauian view in which scattered populations, minimal technology, and ample game limited human violent conflict in the distant past. Cave paintings in Europe from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago portray hunting of animals but not human-on-human conflict. Archaeologists found little evidence of murder and organized violence before the military empires of the Near East sprang up 4000 years ago. Studies of living hunter-gatherer tribes in the first half of the 20th century appeared to show low rates of violence: American anthropologist Margaret Mead concluded in 1935 that in the Arapesh tribe of New Guinea, “both men and women are naturally maternal, gentle, responsive, and unaggressive.” And initial primate research found fewer violent tendencies in humanity's nearest cousins.

This Rousseauian perspective began to lose favor a half-century ago. Early Neolithic cave paintings in Spain recorded in the 1980s show humans shooting arrows at one another. Primatologists discovered that warfare and murder are not unusual among chimpanzees. And more intensive anthropological work began to shed light on a more violent side of small-group society.

In 1996, anthropologist Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois, Chicago, published War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, based on a wide range of data from prehistoric sites, modern hunter-gatherers, and other groups living outside established states. He concluded that more than 90% of human groups engage in war, including small-scale groups. For those people living outside states, Keeley estimated that the average annual rate of death in warfare was 524 per 100,000 people—twice that of the famously warlike Mesoamerican Aztecs in the 16th century. By contrast, even during the bloodiest years of World War II, Russia and Germany had violent death rates of about 140 per 100,0000 citizens. He concluded that living in a small-group society is significantly more dangerous than being a member of a more complex one.

Pinker uses Keeley's data and unpublished studies by economists to argue that complex society brought standing armies, laws, walled cities, and other innovations that restricted tribal fighting and protected the average citizen from violent crimes. “Hobbes understood this without having the data,” Gat adds.

Pinker blames what he calls “anthropologists of peace” for distorting the record on small-scale group violence. “The classic ‘gentle people’”—the Semang of the Malay peninsula, !Kung in Africa, and Central Arctic Inuit—“turned out to have higher homicide rates than those of American cities,” Pinker says. He criticizes what he calls a single-minded determination “to make hunter-gatherers seem as peaceful as possible.”