Darwinian War and Peace

by Roger Alford

A few weeks ago I addressed the question in this survey of whether war is part of the natural order of things and a necessary part of human existence. As of today, the survey respondents were equally divided 50%-50% on the question. Our readers appear decidedly ambivalent about the proposition that war is an inherent part of human existence.

For what it is worth, we now have some help on the question from biologists. An evolutionary analysis of the question of war and peace was just published in an interesting article by Robert Sapolsky in Foreign Affairs this month entitled The Natural History of Peace. The question posed in the article is whether other primates display behaviors of war and peace similar to homo sapiens. The thesis of the article is that humans are not exceptional in their aggressive, war-mongering behavior, but neither are they “killer apes” destined for violent conflict. In short, peace can be a learned behavior in all primates.

Here is an excerpt:

“In the early 1980s, “Forest Troop,” a group of savanna baboons I had been studying … for years, was going about its business in a national park in Kenya when a neighboring baboon group had a stroke of luck: its territory encompassed a tourist lodge that expanded its operations and consequently the amount of food tossed into its garbage dump. Baboons are omnivorous, and “Garbage Dump Troop” was delighted to feast on leftover drumsticks, half-eaten hamburgers, remnants of chocolate cake, and anything else that wound up there. Soon they had shifted to sleeping in the trees immediately above the pit, descending each morning just in time for the day’s dumping of garbage….

The development produced nearly as dramatic a shift in the social behavior of Forest Troop. Each morning, approximately half of its adult males would infiltrate Garbage Dump Troop’s territory, descending on the pit in time for the day’s dumping and battling the resident males for access to the garbage. The Forest Troop males that did this shared two traits: they were particularly combative (which was necessary to get the food away from the other baboons), and they were not very interested in socializing (the raids took place early in the morning, during the hours when the bulk of a savanna baboon’s daily communal grooming occurs).”

The authors then relate how disease decimated all the aggressive baboons in both troops who had been fighting over the new food source. The result was a much more peaceful, low aggression/high affiliation troop. Years passed and new males from outside the troop were added (unlike females, males leave their troop and migrate to other troops at puberty), diminishing the importance of the genetic imbalance toward low aggression males (so-called “selective bottlenecking”). Yet the peaceful culture of the troop persisted.

“At present, I think the most plausible explanation is that this troop’s special culture is not passed on actively but simply emerges, facilitated by the actions of the resident members. Living in a group with half the typical number of males, and with the males being nice guys to boot, Forest Troop’s females become more relaxed and less wary. As a result, they are more willing to take a chance and reach out socially to new arrivals, even if the new guys are typical jerky adolescents at first. The new males, in turn, finding themselves treated so well, eventually relax and adopt the behaviors of the troop’s distinctive social milieu…. [T]he savanna baboon became … a textbook example of life in an aggressive, highly stratified, male-dominated society. Yet within a few years, members of the species demonstrated enough behavioral plasticity to transform a society of theirs into a baboon utopia.”

The suggestion of Sapolsky is that peaceful behaviors can be learned by all primates, including humans.

“The first half of the twentieth century was drenched in the blood spilled by German and Japanese aggression, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility. Humans have invented the small nomadic band and the continental megastate, and have demonstrated a flexibility whereby uprooted descendants of the former can function effectively in the latter. We lack the type of physiology or anatomy that in other mammals determine their mating system, and have come up with societies based on monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry. And we have fashioned some religions in which violent acts are the entrée to paradise and other religions in which the same acts consign one to hell. Is a world of peacefully coexisting human Forest Troops possible? Anyone who says, “No, it is beyond our nature,” knows too little about primates, including ourselves.”

Of course, I’m not knowledgeable enough about biology or primatology to know whether this evolutionary theory has merit. But it is an interesting thesis. Sapolsky suggests we may be natural born killers, but we can be nurtured toward peace.


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