John Horgan and the “Warfare is Innate” Red Herring

The Blank Slate may be dead, but its zombies still walk among us.  One of the most persistent is the myth of the purely cultural origins of warfare.  With a pedigree extending at least as far back as Rousseau’s “noble savage,” it has been refined and reinvented many times since then.  According to the latest version, the ubiquity of human warfare throughout history is just an unfortunate coincidence.  Its independent appearance at several places on the planet is a purely cultural artifact of the introduction of agriculture.  This, of course, is very convenient, because the relevant evidence becomes both increasingly sparse and increasingly amenable to “interpretation” to fit pet theories the further one goes back in time.

John Horgan, who blogs for Scientific American, recently published a series of articles in favor of this “nurture not nature” interpretation of warfare.  According to their titles, “A New Study of Foragers,” “A New Study of Prehistoric Skeletons,” and “A Survey of Earliest Human Settlements,” all “Undermine the Claim that War has Deep Evolutionary Roots.”  A glance at the first of these will familiarize us with the types of “studies” we’re dealing with.  The authors of the “new study of foragers” are identified as Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg of Abo Akademi University in Finland who, we are informed, are anthropologists.  In the first place, one might ask why one would ever uncritically accept the word of any modern anthropologist for anything.  Modern anthropology is more of a narrative than a science, and we have recently seen what anyone who strays from that narrative can expect in the form of the almost unbelievably vicious smears and reprisals directed at Napoleon Chagnon.

Indeed, Horgan himself was an avid participant in the Chagnon witchhunt, writing a gushing review of Patrick Tierney’s vile, “Darkness in El Dorado,” for the New York Times Review of Books.  Among other things, the review set forth the kind of “evidence” Horgan finds compelling as follows:

…his book’s faults are outweighed by its mass of vivid, damning detail. My guess is that it will become a classic in anthropological literature, sparking countless debates over the ethics and epistemology of field studies. Tierney evokes Derek Freeman’s “Margaret Mead and Samoa,” which argued that Mead’s portrayal of Samoan life was just a projection of her utopian fantasies. But Mead, at worst, misrepresented her subjects; she did not incite, sicken and corrupt them: When anthropologists speak henceforth of the observer effect, the horrors documented by Tierney will be exhibit A.

It’s a classic in anthropological literature, all right.  Readers interested in a somewhat different take are encouraged to read Alice Dreger’s “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association.”  In a word, the uncritical assumption that anthropologists are all so many purely objective men of science, who needn’t have the slightest fear of endangering their careers if they publish “incorrect” results is perhaps somewhat too optimistic.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at the paper Horgan cites.  Entitled ”Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War,” it appeared in Science in July of this year.  For the purposes of their study, the authors define war as “coalitionary aggression against other groups,” and contend that it was largely absent among the forager groups they studied, including the Aranda and Tiwi of Australia; Kaska, Copper Inuit and Montagnais of North America; Botocudo of South America; !Kung, Hadza and Mbuti of Africa; and Vedda and Andamanese of South Asia.  As it happens, there are accounts of at least some of these groups written by people who weren’t anthropologists at a time before their activities were regulated by modern states.  For example, in the case of the aborigines of Australia, an interesting account appeared in the October 1814 edition of the British Quarterly Review.  The article in question was a review of a book published by Capt. Matthew Flinders, in which he described a voyage to Australia in the years 1801, 1802 and 1803 for the purpose of “completing the discovery of that vast country.”  Flinders describes the native Australians as living in family groups, which were almost constantly engaged in “coalitionary aggression” against other families.  As recounted in the Quarterly,

The paucity of their numbers would not seem to be owing solely to poverty and scarcity of food.  Families and relations are perpetually destroying each other either by stratagem or open combat.   If one man seriously injure, but more especially if he put to death, any member of a neighboring family, all the relations of the party aggrieved think it incumbent to put the offending party or any of his relations to death, unless he be willing to expiate the offence by standing exposed to as many as may think fit to hurl their spears at him… When this species of retaliation is not resorted to, the revenge of the family injured extends to every branch of the offending family, and persons on both sides, even to the children, are put to death whenever an opportunity offers.

In the case of the Andamanese, the results of the study are even more dubious.  The Andamanese are notoriously violent and aggressive towards outsiders.  They routinely killed shipwrecked sailors who fell into their hands, and were bombed by the Japanese during WWII for their hostility.  According to the Wiki blurb on them, “In 1974, a film crew and anthropologist Trilokinath Pandit attempted friendly contact by leaving a tethered pig, some pots and pans, some fruit and toys on the beach at North Sentinel Island. One of the islanders shot the film director in the thigh with an arrow. The following year, European visitors were repulsed with arrows.”  And so on, and so on.  It strikes me as somewhat surprising that none of this data ever fell in the way of Fry and Soderberg when they were collecting their evidence.

I will add another bit of evidence on foragers different from any of the groups addressed in the study.  It was supplied by Robert FitzRoy, the Captain of the Beagle during the famous voyage on which Charles Darwin tagged along as the expedition’s naturalist.  His story also appeared in the Quarterly, in the edition of December 1839.  The foragers in question are the Patagonians of Tierra del Fuego.  The ships first encounter with them went off peacefully enough, and some agreed to join the voyage as interpreters.  The crew had named two of them York Minster and Jemmy Button, and FitzRoy describes their reaction on seeing others of a different tribe on shore in the distance as follows:

To them who had never seen man in his savage state – one of the most painfully interesting sights to his civilized brother – even this distant glimpse of the aborigines was deeply engaging; but York Minster and Jemmy Button asked us to fire at them, saying that they were “Oens-men – very bad men.”

According to FitzRoy’s further account,

From the concurring testimony of the three Fuegians above-mentioned, obtained from them at various times and by many different persons, it is proved that they eat human flesh upon particular occasions, namely, when excited by revenge or extremely pressed by hunger.  Almost always at war with adjoining tribes, they seldom meet but a hostile encounter is the result; and then those vanquished and taken are killed and eaten by the conquerors.  The arms and breast are eaten by the women; the men eat the legs; and the trunk is thrown into the sea.  During a severe winter hunger impels them to lay hands on the oldest woman of their party, hold her head over a thick smoke, and choke her.  They then devour every particle of the flesh, not excepting the trunk, as in the former case.  Jemmy Button, in telling this horrible story as a great secret, seemed to be much ashamed of his countrymen, and said he never would do so – he would rather eat his own hands.  When asked why the dogs were not eaten, he said, “Dog catch iappo” (iapo means otter).

In a word, when independent evidence is available, it is not always in perfect agreement with that of modern anthropologists.  The question is, does it really matter?  I doubt it.  The Horgan school of anthropologists claims to be debating a strawman, or better, a legion of strawmen, of a type that exists only in their own imagination – the “genetic determinists.”  Maybe such creatures actually exist, but, if so, I have never encountered one, at least among serious scholars.  As Horgan puts it in one of his articles,

One of the most insidious modern memes holds that war is innate, an adaptation bred into our ancestors by natural selection.  This hypothesis – let’s call it the “Deep Roots Theory of War” – has been promoted by such intellectual heavyweights as Steven Pinker, Edward Wilson, Jared Diamond, Richard Wrangham, Francis Fukuyama and David Brooks.

In fact, to the best of my knowledge none of these authors have ever said that “war is innate.”  What they have said in one form or another is that, while not inevitable, warfare is a potential outcome of the expression of the innate human behavioral traits that have been loosely described as “human nature.”  In general, their argument has always been that it behooves us to understand these traits if we wish to avoid warfare in the future.  As the great but now largely forgotten Robert Ardrey once put it,

The command to love is as deeply buried in our nature as the command to hate.  Amity – as Darwin guessed but did not explore – is as much a product of evolutionary forces as contest and enmity.  In the evolution of any social species including the human, natural selection places as heavy a penalty on failure in peace as failure in battle.

In reality, then, the debate isn’t over whether or not warfare is innate, but over how it is best to be avoided.  Regardless of whether warfare happened in pre-Neolithic times or not, it has certainly happened since.  If there really are such things as innate human behavioral traits, then it seems to me absurd to erect a firewall between warfare and the rest of our observed behavior and claim that, while our other behaviors may be influenced by innate predispositions, warfare is purely a cultural phenomenon.  That argument is really nothing but a reflexive grasping after the rotting corpse of the Blank Slate.  This impression is given added weight by the habitual hostility of the Horgans of the world to anything emanating from the field of evolutionary psychology.

Horgan himself occasionally seems to recognize the real nature of the dispute.  For example, in his article on Prehistoric Skeletons he writes,

Some readers might conclude based on my criticism of Deep Rooters that they are all hawks, warmongers, who think that war, because it is innate, is inevitable and perhaps even beneficial in some sense.  Such views were once quite common, especially in the era of Social Darwinism.  President Teddy Roosevelt once said, for example, “All the great masterful races have been fighting races.  No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war.”  None of the Deep Rooters I have cited subscribe to such odious balderdash.  All fervently hope that humanity can eradicate or at least greatly reduce the frequency of war.  Deep Rooters believe that we will be better equipped to solve the problem of war if we accept the Deep Root theory.  Of course, I disagree with them on this point… I would nonetheless accept the Deep Roots theory if the evidence supported it, bu the evidence points in the other direction.  That is my main source of disagreement with the Deep Rooters.  In the interests of constructive dialogue, however, I’m providing a link, sent to me by anthropologist and prominent Deep Rooter Richard Wrangham, to a column supporting his position.  In the column, political scientist and self-described “conservative Darwinian” Larry Arnhart asserts that “explaining the evolutionary propensity to war in human nature is not to affirm this as a necessity that cannot be changed.  In fact, understanding war as a natural propensity can be a precondition for understanding how best to promote peace.”  Okay, so we all want peace.  We just disagree on how to get there.

Again, as I’ve pointed out above, while many of the “Deep Rooters” may agree that there is a “propensity to war in human nature,” I know of none of them who have ever said without qualification that “war is innate.”  In fact, the “war is innate” red herring was commonly used by the Blank Slaters of old and is still used by the leftover proponents of that ancient orthodoxy today to promote the false claim that their opponents believe that war is inevitable.  Several examples of such arguments may be found in Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater essays edited by Ashley Montagu.  Of course, this belated pacific comment by Horgan also flies in the face of his earlier statement, cited above, to the effect that his opponents are the bearers of “an insidious meme.”  As far as Horgan being receptive to the evidence of the Deep Rooters is concerned, I very much doubt it.  I can sum up the reasons for my doubt in one word; Chagnon.  Napoleon Chagnon published a great deal of evidence that conflicted with Horgan’s theories.  His response was not exactly a disinterested and objected weighing of the facts.  Rather, it was to join enthusiastically in the vilification and smearing of the bearer of that evidence.