War and the Fantasy World of the Blank Slate

In the introduction to his book The Origin of War, published in 1995, Johan van der Dennen writes,

When I embarked upon the enterprise of collecting literature on human primitive war some 15 years ago – with the objective to understand the origin of this puzzling and frightening phenomenon of intrahuman, intergroup killing – little did I suspect that some ten years later that subject would be very much alive and kicking in disciplines as diverse as cultural anthropology, ethology, evolutionary biology and sociobiology, and the socio-ecological branch of primatology, generating an abundance of novel and intriguing theories, engendering new waves of empirical (cross-cultural) research, and lots and lots of controversies.

At that time, the question of the origin and evolution (if any) of human warfare was a totally marginal and neglected domain of investigation. Among polemologists (or peace researchers as they are known in the Anglosaxon language area), there seemed to be an unshakable consensus that war was a cultural invention and social institution, which had originated somewhere in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago (It actually was, and still is, a curious blend of the credos of the Margaret Mead school of anthropology, the simplistic dogmas of behaviorist psychology, and a historicist sociology – all consenting to the tabula rasa model of human behavior, i.e., the assumption of infinite plasticity and sociocultural determinism – inexplicably mixed with assumptions of a static Human Nature derived from the Realist school of political science). Such a conception precluded any evolutionary questions:  war had a history and development, but no evolution in the Darwinian sense.

He’s right, as anyone who was around at the time and happened to take an interest in the behavioral sciences is aware.  It seems almost incredible that whole branches of what were charitably referred to as “sciences” could have listened to the doctrine that “war was a cultural invention and social institution, which had originated somewhere in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago” without breaking out into peals of laughter, but so it was.  They not only listened to it without cracking a smile, but most of them actually believed it.  One would think the idea that a phenomenon that has been ubiquitous across human cultures on every continent since time immemorial was just a “cultural invention” must seem palpably stupid to any ten year old.  It was, nevertheless swallowed without a murmur by the high priests of the behavioral sciences, just as the dogmas of the trinity and transubstantiation in the Eucharist are swallowed by the high priests of more traditional religions.

The Blank Slate is now dead, or at least hibernating, and the behavioral sciences have made the startling discovery that there is such a thing as human nature, but there is still a remarkable reticence to talk about warfare.  It’s not surprising, given the political proclivities of the average university professor, but dangerous, nonetheless.  In a world full of nuclear weapons, it seems that a serious investigation into the innate origins of warfare might be a profitable use of their time.  With self-understanding might come insight into how we might give ourselves a fighting chance of avoiding the worst.  Instead, the learned doctors feed us bromides about the gradual decline of violence.  A general nuclear exchange is likely to provide them with a data point that will somewhat disarrange their theories.

Perhaps it would be best if they started by taking a good look in the mirror, and then explaining to us how so many so-called experts could have been delusional for so long.  What were the actual mechanisms that allowed secular religious dogmas to hijack the behavioral sciences?  The Blank Slate is not “archaic science.”  It was alive and well less than two decades ago.  Why is it that we are now supposed to trust as “scientists” people who were so wrong for so long, shouting down anyone who disagreed with them with vile ad hominem attacks?  Instead of seeking to understand this past debacle and thereby at least reducing the chances of stumbling into similar debacles in the future, they invent a few self-serving yarns about it, and just keep plodding on as if nothing had happened.

Perhaps we should be counting our blessings.  After all, the idea that war is a mere “cultural innovation” is no longer in fashion.  Occasionally, it is actually mentioned as a manifestation of certain unfortunate innate predispositions, usually along with comforting words about the decline in violence noted above, expanding our “ingroups” to include all mankind, etc.  Given the ferocity with which the spokespersons of the “progressive” end of the political spectrum generally favored by professors of the behavioral sciences attack anyone who disagrees with them, I personally am not particularly sanguine about that possibility.

Well, perhaps if a nuclear war does come, they will finally get serious and come up with some sound advice for avoiding the next one.  Unfortunately, finding publishers to spread the good news might be a problem at that point.