War is Not a Cultural Construct — Dispelling the Myth of the Noble Savage, (Again)

| by Reza Ziai |

Like last year, the holy month of Ramadan saw carnage erupt in many parts of the world. While the actual violence rages on, the debate over why this continues to happen does so as well. The right generally blames all Muslims while the left, aside from the usual “US foreign policy is to blame” trope, is all too silent on the matter. Is warfare biological and therefore inevitable, or can we point a finger at culture? If so, whose?

In 2014, Barack Obama said the conflict between Shias and Sunnis is “centuries-old.” His critics, mainly liberals, took this to mean that he was saying US foreign policy was not responsible for terrorism and religion was.

His critics were in the wrong. This conflict is centuries old — Shias and Sunnis were at each other’s throats long before US foreign policy even existed. I’ll go one further and say that “conflict” itself is eons-old

But not everyone agrees — especially those who believe in the myth of the Noble Savage — the idea that there was once a halcyon time when our ancestors peacefully coexisted with other groups of ancient humans while living in carefully balanced harmony with their ecosystems. If warfare is an evolved mechanism (i.e. the deep roots theory of war), then, to postmodernists, one is ignoring cultural components and therefore racism, sexism, rape, and genocide are then somehow justified.

John Horgan, author and critic of the deep roots theory wrote in his Scientific American article, “Japanese Study Deals Another Blow to Deep-Roots Theory of War” that war is a “cultural innovation, an especially vicious persistent meme [italics mine], which culture can help us transcend.” While I somewhat agree with Horgan that culture may help us be able to transcend war and that it is not inevitable, Horgan, and critics of evolutionary psychology, attack the deep roots theory because they mistakenly believe that a biological explanation is the same as saying it is morally appropriate (i.e. the naturalistic fallacy).  So to Horgan, if warfare has a biological basis then that is the same thing as saying it is morally correct. Obviously, this is not the case.

Despite committing this fallacy, Horgan continues and makes more errors. He thinks that if war has a biological basis to it then we will not be able to do anything about it [this is known as fatalism and is a common misunderstanding people have of EP]:

“The debate over the deep-roots theory matters, because many people think that if war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable.”

So in other words, to Horgan, if people ever found out that warfare is an evolved mechanism (i.e. that it has a biological basis to it) they would be too ignorant to do anything about it so it’s best to tell them that it is not an evolved mechanism — even if it is. The problem is that he’s approaching the whole thing backwards and seems more concerned about hurting people’s feelings than understanding human nature. If there is a biological basis to warfare and violence we would want to look into every nook and cranny for it because that knowledge could be beneficial in helping reduce it.

The study that Horgan cites in his article only looks at coalitional war and willfully excludes “homicides” in assessing rates of warfare in the Jomon Period of ancient Japan.  It’s not difficult to see that when one uses operational definitions like this conclusions become faulty because they are derived from skewed data. Arguably, if one wants to understand if there are biological roots to warfare, intentionally ruling out ancient homicides as a source of evidence is either intellectual dishonesty or methodological negligence in theory formation (#phylogenetics, see below). One should first look at the preponderance of the data and then formulate a theory from that. Positing a theory first (i.e. warfare is a cultural construct) and looking for evidence to support it second is clearly a methodological error.  In other words, a theory might explain a subset of the data — but does it also explain all of the other incidents as well?

Steven Pinker’s pointed criticisms of Horgan’s write up were published at whyevolutionistrue.com just weeks after the Scientific American article was released. It is aptly titled: “Steven Pinker demolishes John Horgan’s view of war  and is worth reading.

Despite this, (and despite decades of fair counter-refutations) many still believe that “war” has absolutely no biological roots whatsoever. Anthropologist, Jonathan Haas, supportively wrote to Horgan the following email:

“It is sad that we have to continue to confront the pernicious argument of the “deep roots” of warfare in humanity.  There is absolutely no scientific evidence in either biology or archaeology (the only two disciplines that really count in this debate) for human warfare going back more than 10,000 years.”

Just because there is no evidence for male coalitional warfare prior to 10,000 years ago is not a reason to assume there is no biological basis to it. When we look back into prehistory using loosely defined terminology (like “warfare”) can get ambiguously applied (for example: does it count as “warfare” when humans were eating each other or was that “food acquisition”?) and we could miss evidence. 

Postmodernists and “anthropologists of peace” are more hell bent in preventing us from seeing any biological evidence than they are in ensuring that we understand human nature. Since to Horgan, a biological basis to violence (“warfare,” “aggression,” or otherwise) is the same as saying there is no way to end it, it would be morally reprehensible if evidence existed for a biological basis to it. It seems as though Horgan and his cohorts need a safe space from biology.

Haas, offering a refutation of his own claim in Rapport’s style, continues in the email:

“Biological accounts of chimpanzee ‘warfare’ demonstrate that chimpanzees engage in intergroup conflict—under conditions that are remarkably similar to those affecting certain relatively recent human societies.” 

He then curiously states the following:

“This is simply not evidence for the biological foundations of human warfare, any more than using a sponge…to soak up water is part of the biological makeup of humanity.” 

But that is precisely where he is wrong. 



From The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence by Gomez, Verdu, et al.

The phylogenetic tree of life is the best evidence to support the idea that all life is related. Our brains are the results of billions of years of cosmic evolution. We are literally made out of stardust. The amygdalae in dinosaur brains were coded for by the same four DNA bases that code for the amygdalae in ours. Obviously, there is phylogenetic continuity in biological phenotypes, but there is also phylogenetic continuity in psychological phenotypes as well. In fact, the literature is replete with evidence showing phylogenetic continuity for aggression. The biological mechanisms for aggression in chimpanzees are essentially no different in black billed gulls than they are in lions, praying mantises, or in us. In terms of warfare, with the exception of ants and (depending on how one operationally defines one’s terms) chimps, the only thing that separates human violence from that in other animals is our evolved trait to form warring coalitions.

Horgan continues in his article with a claim often echoed by many sociologists, anthropologists, and postmodernists:

“The truly dangerous part of the “deep roots” theory is that provides a foundation for warmongers to ignore the actual root causes of war in the modern world, which are inevitably to be found in the material bases of culture—environment, resource availability, demography, and production.”

What this means is that a discussion of the biology of warfare is tantamount to ignoring the problem and therefore should be regarded as a counterproductive strategy — and demonized. This approach has two main errors to it:

Error 1: The myth of the Noble Savage. According to Horgan and his colleague, war could not have existed before 10,000 years ago until a dominant culture (which presumably gave rise to crony capitalism) sprung into existence from a vacuum. This is the left’s version of Creationism with a veritable Garden of Eden where equality existed up until the time when the white man came along and crushed the “spiritual” element of humanity. In other words, John Horgan is basically trying to make the case that the deep roots theory of war ignores proximal causes and therefore somehow justifies US imperialism — and of course, this is not true.

Error 2: The Blank Slate. If warfare had nothing to do with biology then all war could be blamed on being the product of environmental contingencies (i.e. culture or rewards and punishments). In other words, if warfare is a cultural construct then the blame can get pinned on poor public policy. Of course, it should be blindingly obvious that the “material” parts of our environment (Horgan’s words) are not the only things that determine human behavior. Sadly, there is a rampant denial of the biological basis of human nature when it comes to things like war, aggression, resource acquisition, mate preferences, punishing dissenters, altruism or short term mating strategies in women, and who knows what else. We aren’t just products of our environment and so “progressive” measures to counter social ills that only focus on environmental factors and ignore biological ones are doomed to fail.

And this is why the truly dangerous part isn’t that the deep roots theory enables warmongers. The truly dangerous part of John Horgan’s refutation is that it willfully ignores data. If we ignore one or more aspects of the cause of “warfare” then finding a way to ameliorate it becomes harder — if not impossible. Ignoring biological evidence in understanding aggression and warfare is like going to the dentist and having him only look at half of your teeth for cavities. 

It is no doubt that the religious right (Christian or Muslim) is threatened by Evolution. It threatens their narrative of intelligent design. But the left is certainly not immune from rejecting science (see Dan Kahan, et al.). The far left tends to see evolutionary psychology as an affront to their sense of equality and social justice. The narrative that our brains are the source of our thoughts, memories, language, metacognitions, culture, beliefs, music, loves, etc. and also happens to be an organ that is the result of natural selection creates a number of moral (ehem) “problematics.”

Despite this, the left must learn to niche pick a few narratives. Addressing the religious component in Islamic terrorism is one of them. The other niche the left must learn to dominate is the area of human biodiversity. As Steven Pinker said in The Blank Slate, if the left are truly interested in sharing the wealth to the disenfranchised, then identifying certain gene populations that are at risk would be helpful in determining who needs to receive benefits. But they won’t be doing this anytime soon since they are afflicted with biophobia. They don’t want to see how biology can help us transcend the “meme” of war or even poverty because they are sure it isn’t a factor. And I say that the left “must” do these things because if they don’t command the narrative in the field of genetic engineering (i.e. PGD and CRISPR cas9) the right will. We are already seeing the rise of soft-core eugenics. Who will lead the way? 


Reza Ziai has a Masters degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution. You can follow him on Twitter at @Reza_Ziai


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