The War over War


1 Comment

Join 36.9K other subscribers

I periodically get asked, what do I think about the controversy over Steven Pinker’s Better Angels? Truth is, I did not find anything particularly new in the book. For those of us interested in the role of war in social evolution most of the empirical material he goes over is quite familiar. There is a bitter ‘war over war’ in academia, and now thanks to Pinker’s book it spilled over into blogosphere and popular magazines.

There are two extreme positions in this debate, neither of which makes sense to me. The first one is the myth of the peace-loving “noble savage” going back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A less complimentary variant, but leading to the same conclusion, is the idea of ‘primitive war’ of certain Eurocentric military historians, who view war among the ‘savages’ as somehow non-serious and even comic affair. Here’s how the American anthropologist Harry Turney-High, whose Primitive War: Its Practice and Concepts influenced a generation of anthropologists studying warfare, describes war among the Australian aborigines:

The aborigines came together, formed some kind of battle line, then tried to out-scream, out-insult, and out-threaten each other, meanwhile hurtling missiles at relatively safe ranges. It is true that sometimes one or more contestants were maimed, and even killed, but this was incidental almost accidental, to the action. In such a fatal case, both sides ordinarily disperse, if they had not done so before out of boredom. … The Australian confrontation, as is so much of primitive war, was a tension-release device and no more.


A tension-relieving device? A pair of skeletons belonging to people who were killed in a massacre 13,000 years ago as the result of climate change, are going on show in the British Museum, London. Pencils pinpoint out pieces of weaponry responsible for their demise. Source

Both the myths of peaceful savage and primitive war-as-game were demolished by Lawrence Keeley in his ground-breaking book, War before Civilization. Keeley writes, in particular, how archaeologists “pacified the past” by refusing to see evidence of prehistoric warfare. Or how they swept such evidence under the rug, even when it literally “stared them in the face.” He collected data from archaeological and ethnographic sources and demonstrated that death rates (in other words, probability of being killed in war) were an order of magnitude higher in pre-state societies compared to even the bloody twentieth century.

The opposite extreme is the view that the distant human past was an unrelenting Hobbesian “war of all against all.” This position has been recently occupied by the psychologist and author of popular books Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Here’s how Pinker starts Chapter 1, A Foreign Country:

If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the very fabric of our lives.

The bulk of Pinker’s book is devoted to showing that the long-term trend for all forms of violence, including homicides, civil wars, and interstate wars, has been one of decline. There were some local peaks and valleys, but the violence curve starts very high and then gradually declines. It’s a “declining sawtooth” in his words.

Pinker’s book triggered a storm of controversy, with both supporters and detractors dissecting the data on which his conclusions are based. Of particular interest is the assessment of the Pinker thesis by academic anthropologists. One of the most thorough of such critiques is War, Peace, and Human Nature, a collection of articles by a number of eminent archaeologists, anthropologists, and primatologists, edited by Douglas Fry.


In his summary of the evidence Fry makes several excellent points. He agrees with Pinker that after the rise of the first states, or roughly over the last 5000 years, the overall trend has been a decline of violence. But Fry violently disagrees with Pinker about the trajectory during the first 5000 years after agriculture, but before the states. His review of evidence shows that violence, and especially warfare, actually increased, before it started to decline.

I agree. Multiple lines of evidence suggest that during the last 10,000 years curve of war can be represented with the Greek letter Λ (lambda). Both the ascending and the descending trends are of course ‘jagged,’ because there were local increases and decreases superimposed on the long term Λ-trend. The peak position also varies among world regions, and generally coincides with late pre-state and early state societies.

While I find many of the points Fry, and others who contributed chapters to War, Peace, and Human Nature valid, he goes too far when he suggests that “war was simply absent over the vast majority of human existence” prior to 10,000 years ago.

Yes, during the climatic chaos of the Pleistocene, warfare was probably rare. Human populations were in much greater danger of being wiped out by an advancing glacier, than by another foraging band. When glaciers receded, enormous areas opened up for human colonization. Avoiding aggressors by moving away was both preferable and feasible. Yet there must have been periods of relatively stable climate when locally the landscape would fill up with foraging bands. Nomadic foragers can be as territorial as farmers, and will defend rich hunting grounds or patches of valued plant resources. Once one group resorted to violence, war would spread because pacifist groups are eliminated by natural selection. But such episodes of warfare could have been relatively rare during the Pleistocene, and would leave no clear evidence in the archaeological record. If someone was killed by a well-thrown stone (or died later of the injury), how can you distinguish it from another unfortunate person who fell down the cliff? In any case, we have very few skeletons from the Pleistocene, so a statistical analysis is not currently possible.

2010 12 05 primitive art (0)

To be continued

Notify of
1 Comment
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
SEF Editor

A comment from Carl Coon:

It’s amusing being the only individual around with a conceptual framework that allows one to make instant judgments about the kind of controversy you have just put on your blog. If you would just read my “Short History of Evolution”, there would be two of us.

Of course you are right about war during the Paleolithic. When space got crowded, there was usually room to move into, no need to fight for lebensraum. When there wasn’t there might be a local small-scale fracas. The Mesolithic and the first part of the Neolithic was a transitional era when populations were still low and, more importantly, there was useful empty space to expand into. Also, as long as society was mostly cellular, with village size units at not only the core but dominating, several of the more important reasons for war had not yet emerged. When you get to small states and beyond, bingo, some of the more important benefits of war cut in. Probably the most important was the need for the aphrodisiac war supplied, especially for young males, to counter the antisocial strains that emerged as societies grew well beyond the cellular model of the village. That need is mostly latent when all you have is village level society, because it isn’t needed so much, but it takes hold in spades as societies get more complex. Its pressure is still very much in evidence, needless to say.

To save you trouble, here’s what I said:

Here are some of the more obvious reasons why war assumed the role it did in the early cultural evolution of our species:
• Whatever the proximate causes of the conflict, war usually resulted in the victors getting bigger, both in resources and in territory. As the groups grew in size, their capacity to provide for their citizens grew also. But problems of governance grew more complex as well. The emergence of new problems created new demands for new workarounds and new institutions.
• The victorious units were able to use slavery to add to their existing power base. Slaves could do jobs domesticated animals could not. They built roads and palaces, and almost everything else that required intensive labor. The more nubile females among the losers often ended up as concubines for the victors, providing a back door route to both genetic and cultural hybrid vigor.
• War provided an enormous stimulus for technological innovation. If your team lost a battle because the other team had bronze weapons and you didn’t, you became powerfully motivated to acquire this new-fangled bronze technology yourself. This kind of arms race continues to this day.
• Wars were won or lost not only on weaponry but on organizational skills and discipline. Hierarchies and rules evolved rapidly and the lessons learned spilled over into civilian governance as well.
• War had a decisive effect on gender relationships. Patriarchal rule, and male dominance generally, can trace their origin not to innate human nature but to this period when wars were fought under circumstances where the male’s body strength gave an advantage.
• Perhaps most important of all, wars provided powerful support for the development of group loyalty. Problems of governance multiply as the size and complexity of the unit increases. When concern for one’s reputation isn’t enough to keep the malingerers in line, the law steps in to fill the breach. When that is inadequate, and non-cooperation grows to the point that it threatens the integrity of the group, there’s nothing like a good brisk war to get everyone marching in step. Fear of conquest by some alien force is a powerful motive for cooperation.
War didn’t evolve by itself, any more than altruism did at an earlier stage in our evolution. One essential partner for war was religion, which co-evolved with it.

Even though my list is not inclusive, if you keep these half dozen points together and in mind, they do form a useful frame of reference when war is the subject.

© Peter Turchin 2023 All rights reserved

Privacy Policy