Why Social Scientists Need to Study War

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About a month ago I participated in a public debate, which followed the workshop in Knoxville on social evolution theory. Together with Jerry Sabloff I argued that warfare was a creative force in social evolution – it transformed humans from living in villages to living in huge states, building cities and civilizations, and ultimately made our lives more peaceful. Our esteemed colleagues Sander van der Leeuw and Tim Kohler argued against this thesis. At the end of the debate the audience voted, and our side was soundly trounced (I think there were perhaps five percent voting for the thesis). Fair enough, but I had a distinct feeling that the audience was not only swayed by the arguments of our opponents, excellent as they were, but that many simply voted “against war.”

More recently, I have been reading Evolutionary and Interpretive Archaeologies: A Dialogue edited by Ethan Cochrane and Andrew Gardner. It’s a fascinating book in many ways, but to me the most interesting article was by Simon James, on violence and warfare.  “Most would agree that rejecting beating of children and spouses, abolishing capital punishment and condemning militarism represents a general advance in human values,” James writes. In the last several decades, the level of violence experienced by most Westerners has declined strongly, and it became easier to view violence as an aberration from the norm. Discussing violence has become uncomfortable and, as James provocatively suggests, this topic has become a cultural taboo, just as sex was in Victorian England.

Laudable as such attitudes may be, they make it difficult for social scientists to study war. Scientists are part of the broader society and are affected by shifts in the public mood. As war became to be morally condemned, its scientific study fell out of fashion. Within anthropology and archaeology there arose a tendency to sweep under the rug any empirical evidence of war and violence. Although a high proportion of skeletons studied by archaeologists show damage diagnostic of violence, this evidence was simply not seen, and if seen, not reported. It became fashionable to explain away massive fortifications, for example, as symbolic statements of civic pride, or imperial grandeur. Lawrence Keeley in his 1996 book War Before Civilization calls this tendency “the pacification of the past.”

In history, similarly, the study of warfare fell out of fashion and military history almost became extinct as a discipline. Fortunately, recently there has been a bit of a revival, both of military history and of anthropology of warfare. But I wonder, whether it will be sustained. If you study war, does it mean that you excuse it, or even worse, glorify it?

Warfare is a difficult subject to study, because it is so emotionally fraught. War brings out both the worst and the best sides of human nature. It is difficult to approach analytically and dispassionately. Furthermore, war has diverse effects on societies, some of them bad, and some good. I have been developing an argument (this is what I talked about during the debate) that warfare is the direct cause of the evolution of large-scale complex societies, and the chief selection force that held such societies together. This creative role of warfare has been explored by other colleagues, such as the economist Sam Bowles, anthropologist Peter Richerson, and historian Ian Morris. If this view is correct, then we should be careful about how we go about abolishing warfare. Clearly the great majority of people on Earth, including myself, want warfare to cease. But suppose we abolish warfare and the result is fragmenting societies and failed states. Then a new spiral of warfare will inevitably follow, so all our work will be in vain. History is full of well-intentioned interventions with pretty awful unintended consequences.

A discussion of this uncomfortable topic would be incomplete without addressing the disconnect between moral condemnation of war and the actual practice of it by our own society. The USA spends nearly as much on what is called ‘defense’ as the rest of the world put together. And, as Madeleine Albright famously put it, what’s the point of having all these goodies if you don’t use them? So it should not come as a surprise that most current wars are either fought with US troops, or by various kinds of proxies.

This potent mixture of moral condemnation coexisting with energetic pursuit of war and the emotionally charged nature of the subject create a veritable mine field for social scientists brave enough (or foolish enough) to study war. But this subject is too important to be left entirely to politicians and other nonscientists.

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Brandon Valeriano

You sound as if you have never encountered a social scientist who studies war. The study of war is alive and well in political science, so alive, its hard to miss.

Patrick Stewart

There’s a vibrant group of political scientists studying the war using evolutionary theory, including Brad Thayer at Baylor U (IR perspective), Rebecca Hannagan at Northern Illinois U (gender and war) and John Orbell (game theory) U of Oregon. Here’s a link to an interesting study by Orbell and Morikawa looking at kamikaze attacks in World War 2: http://icds.uoregon.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/The_Kamikaze_Case.pdf

Peter Turchin

Thank you both for bringing up political science. You are quite right, it is just about the only branch of social science where the study of warfare is very alive. You take war out of international relations and you won’t have much left.

Incidentally, Brad Thayer is already a member of the SEF community (check out his commentary on Ian Lustick’s article). Another political scientist whose research is deeply informed by evolutionary theory is Dom Johnson at St. Andrews.

Evgeny Finkel

“You take war out of international relations and you won’t have much left” — this is not entirely correct. There is a large group of political scientists who study war and violence and have nothing to do with IR. The best example is the OCV Program at Yale: http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/ocvprogram/index.html

Dominic Johnson

Interesting article Peter! I would add that while war certainly is studied in political science and international relations (as the first commentators point out), there is nevertheless a strong resistance to certain interpretations of or questions about war within the discipline, often irrespective of evidence. These include human nature explanations of war, the role of war in human origins, and how war itself has shaped desirable aspects of international politics such as democracy. Many wars paved the way to getting there. In other words, some of the taboo topics that Turchin mentions have crept into the very discipline in which the study of war its central. It is a discussion well worth having.

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