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The War over War

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 Conceptsinfluenced 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.

Read entire article at Social Evolution Forum