Is War Inevitable?

This is a complicated question and merits a reasonably complicated answer, but hang on, I shall try to make it as simple as I can, and if I’m lucky I may even be able to make it fairly clear.

As far as we know, war has always been part of our human history, and it probably occurred from time to time, in one form or another, even throughout our prehistory, that is, for as far back as humans existed. And even farther, since we now know that chimpanzees also wage a war of sorts, between bands, and they are our closest relatives. (We have good reason to believe that five million years ago our own ancestors looked a lot like modern chimps, and presumably behaved like them. If neither this nor the proposition that chimps go on the warpath seems plausible to you, check out the book, Demonic Males, by Wrangham and Peterson.)

I shall structure my argument around a threeway division of human history and prehistory: (1) from the dawn of humanity up to the Neolithic; (2) from the development of agriculture and the beginning of complex societies (ie the dawn of the Neolithic) until the 20th century; and (3) from roughly the present time on into the future.

The first period was when human nature was forged. Our ancestors had always been social, banding together in small groups, like our chimp cousins. As we developed speech and a capacity to make tools, these small bands gradually grew larger, more complex, and more efficient. They were competing with each other, and from time to time such competition would become violent. Bigger tribes usually prevailed over smaller ones, and the ones with greater internal cohesion had the edge over less disciplined groups. So there was a gradual evolution in a social or cultural sense toward larger groups with greater internal cohesion.

But this evolution proceeded very slowly during the Paleolithic. There was very little technological development; for many thousands of years there would, for example, be no new breakthroughs in such techniques as flint knapping. Our genetic inheritance, the DNA patterns which constituted the hard core of how we were constituted biologically, had time to adapt as our ways of living evolved. As Robert Wright put it in the 12/13/99 New Yorker, “…at some point, with the accumulation of tools and other forms of culture, culture itself can become an accelerator of genetic evolution. As those individuals best at manipulating culture reproduce more successfully than their neighbors, genes for deft intellect spread faster. This, in turn, speeds up cultural evolution, which further speeds up genetic evolution, and so on: yet another form of progressive evolution via positive feedback. In our lineage, this ‘co-evolution’ of genes and culture may have acquired momentum with the first handcrafted stone tools, more than two million years ago, when the brains of our ancestors were only half the size of modern brains.”

But when our ancestors invented agriculture and a host of related new techniques, population densities in favored areas went sky-high and all hell broke loose. The cultural rabbit started evolving so rapidly that it left the genetic turtle spinning in the dust. Here is how E.O Wilson puts it in his book, Consilience: “For tens of thousands of years during the Pleistocene Epoch the evolution of artifacts remained nearly static, and presumably so did the social organization of the hunter-gatherer bands using them. There was time enough, as one millenium passed into another, for the genes and epigenetic rules to evolve in concert with culture. By Upper Paleolithic times, however, from about 40,000 to 10,000 years before the present, the tempo of cultural evolution quickened. During the ensuing Neolithic agricultural advance, the pace accelerated dramatically…most of the change was far too fast to be tracked closely by genetic evolution. But there is no evidence that the Paleolithic genes simply disappeared during this ‘creative revolution.’ They stayed in place and continued to prescribe the foundational rules of human nature. If they could not keep up with culture, neither could culture expunge them. For better or worse they carried human nature into the chaos of modern history.”

Why and how did we shift gears? Let’s look a little more closely at that big transition that took place when the tribal-sized groups that first developed agriculture and animal husbandry started expanding greatly in numbers.

There’s an “us vs.them” syndrome that is an integral part of our human nature. We instinctively recognize our close blood relations as kin, and differentiate them from others. During the Paleolithic we learned to superimpose another layer, that of the tribe. We learned to recognize other members of the tribe as belonging to the group we identified ourselves with, and to differentiate them from outsiders. This was relatively easy to manage because everyone in the tribe knew everybody else. When a stranger walked in, everyone knew he was “them” not “us”–and it didn’t happen very often.

But this simplistic way of identifying and bonding the individual to his or her group just couldn’t hack it, when populations got dense and new technology required new life styles and new ways of regulating interpersonal relations. As tribes grew into cities and kingdoms, a lot of people had to start doing business on a day-to-day basis with strangers. This could only work comfortably if a way were found to establish an “us vs. them” identity for larger groups, so that the people you were doing business with weren’t really strangers, even though you didn’t live in the same small community that they did and didn’t already recognize them on sight.

The answer was the proliferation of distinctive cultural traits as a means of providing group identity for the larger groups. If you spoke the same language as the new fellow on the block, if you shared the same religious beliefs, if you dressed the same way and operated according to the same moral codes, you could tell at once that he belonged to your group. It wasn’t as good as if you’d grown up with him but it was a lot better than nothing.

In other words, the successes of our ancestors changed the ground rules and required them to embark on a fundamental new adaptation, the use of culture to create new and larger social units.

These changes happened naturally and gradually rather than by design and all at once. And as these larger social units evolved, they took different directions and developed different and unique personalities. Dialects developed when groups who spoke a common language separated and became isolated from each other; and if isolation persisted they eventually were speaking separate languages. Similar distinctions evolved for religious beliefs, moral standards, non-verbal communication patterns, and visible attributes like dress and hair styles.

Ever since the Neolithic began, such culturally identified groups have been competing with each other, and more often than not, this competition has led to conflict. Take the Old Testament as text if you doubt this. The familiar pattern is that minor disputes over territory or religion or whatever will escalate and end in a battle royal. Winners and losers carry memories into their legends and mythology which only pave the way for another bash later on.

Anyone who has lived in the Middle East or South Asia, as I have, knows how important these cultural definitions are to the people who belong to them. Arabs versus Kurds versus Turks versus Greeks, Armenians, Persians—the list goes on and on. Ethnicity may be part of it, but it is seldom the whole story, or even a major component. The differences can be based more on religion than blood lines, or on language or moral codes, or on nothing more than a long history of beating up on each other. How and why these distinctions exist is a fascinating study, but the key idea, the one I want to emphasize here, is that they do in fact exist and you cannot understand what is going on in much of the world, even today, if you don’t appreciate both the existence of these culturally defined differences, and their supreme importance to the people concerned.

Why should these differences be so important? What is it about them that makes Serbs beat up on Albanians in Kosovo, for example, until we stop them, whereupon the Albanians do a little roughing up on the Serbs? Why cannot these people learn that it is in their own self-interest to live together in peace?

I believe this deep-seated pattern of intercultural conflict still pervades much of the world even today because it has until recently constituted the underlying paradigm for cultural and social progress for humanity as a whole. A low-level, intermittent pattern of intertribal conflict during the Paleolithic got kicked into high gear during the Neolithic and has continued ever since to constitute the prime vehicle for social progress. We are what we are today because our ancestors used to gang up in groups and beat the bejesus out of other groups, when they could.

You see, when cultural selection replaced biological selection as the prime vehicle for adaptive change, it followed new rules, quite unlike biological selection in details, but it was similar in one overarching respect: when several entities were competing for the same scarce resource, there were winners and there were losers. And it is self-evident, as well as amply confirmed by history, that the cultures that survive today are descended from the winners of bygone times, not the losers.

What qualities have enabled some cultures to compete more successfully than others? Well, obviously, one factor is internal cohesion and loyalty. If two groups of about the same size and level of complexity compete for the same turf, or get into a fight for whatever reason, the winner is likely to be the one with the greater internal cohesion.

Another factor is sheer size, and level of complexity. Other factors being equal. the larger group will prevail. Depending on the nature of the competition, it may either eliminate the smaller group, or absorb it, or let it continue in a subordinate role. History is full of examples.

These two factors explain much of human history. Culturally defined groups rise and fall, expand and contract, live in peace or go to war, but always the trend is toward larger and more cohesive units.

But why, as humanity got ever more “civilized,” has this killing pattern persisted?

(1)Because the evolutionary trend has been toward greater internal cohesion. This means in practice less tolerance not more, for the other group’s views and interests. The end result of this selective evolution can be seen in places like Kosovo and Rwanda.

(2) But isn’t there a deeper reason? Think back to our original point, the great evolutionary threshold that occurred when the Neolithic started. At that point competition between culturally identified social groups took over from biological evolution as the agent of change and adaptation for humanity. At that point, armed with culture, we became a new kind of animal.

At that point we no longer waited for nature to challenge us. We invented our own challenges. And most of them arose when we challenged each other. Imagine yourself as the leader of a pretty tough kingdom whose army has just been beaten by an enemy because it had bronze weapons and yours didn’t. You are going to leave the field of battle with a burning desire to get bronze yourself, and you will sacrifice a lot of other things if you have to, to get it. Think of the US reaction thirty or forty years ago to reports the Soviets were beating us in the nuclear arms race. Well?

Intergroup hostility is often bloody and inhumane but I think it only fair to say that over the past eight or ten millenia it has jump-started human progress, and that without it we might still be living in caves.

A deeply religious person, operating from this perspective, might say that there was a divine purpose served by this evolutionary thrust powered by conflict between cultures. I prefer the more modern, humanist idea that evolution operates without any preset goal, but in ways that lead to increased complexity and functionality, as undoubtedly happened very rapidly in the phase of human activity we’ve been discussing.

What Next?

I believe war was inevitable as long as the main organizing principle of human society, above the level of family and tribe, was humanity’s division into groups that identified themselves by their cultural distinctiveness. We have seen how such groups naturally drifted into conflict with each other throughout human history. But this was because the winners in these conflicts were usually the ones with intense internal loyalty and solidarity. How about the other principle, that winners tend to get bigger and more inclusive? Hasn’t that produced a qualitative change by now? Yes, and therein lies hope for the future.

The culmination of the natural trend for distinctive groups to grow larger was the nation state. World War II was the last act of a long era of human experience that started with the dawn of the Neolithic. Now we are beginning the next, third phase, where culturally identified groups will no longer play the central role in achieving human progress that they have played right up through the middle of the twentieth century. We’re not transforming ourselves willingly, or even for the most part consciously, but we’re doing it anyway because we have to. We’ve been pushed by new threats of our own making, notably the population explosion, increasingly obvious environmental challenges, and the threat of nuclear war leading to mutual annihilation. Like our ancestors ten thousand years ago, we are being forced by the results of our own actions and successes to mutate into a new kind of society based on a new organizing principle.

The transition has been evident in our own experiences, in our lifetimes, in the United States and a few other places where old-fashioned cultures have been mixed and blended and have lost their harsher outlines. The signs are all around us. Think about it, reflect on the implications of globalization, the internet, the new concept of universal human rights, the political incorrectness of ethnic humor, the growth of transnational economic institutions and regional political ones, new thinking about gender relations… It all is part of a massive change in the way people live and think. We are crashing through a kind of social sound barrier. We are doing it right now, it is happening in our lifetimes. We are witnessing the birth of a new kind of global society.

The course for all of us who want to make that brave new world more just and humane is simply this: get rid once and for all of the old culture-bound ways of thinking, first in ourselves and then in anyone else we can persuade. Move to a new level of “us vs. them”, where we include all humanity in our definition of “us”.

Does this mean the end of human progress? Certainly not, any more than the dawn of the Neolithic meant the end of human progress. Competition will continue in the future, but it won’t be between cultures, it will be between ideas, schools of thought, philosophies; we shall argue about our goals and how best to achieve them, but we need not enter into armed conflict. We’ll know better.

We are at a new beginning, and the view ahead, though cloudy, is rich with promise. War will continue for a while, certainly during the rest of our lives, but it will no longer be functional in an evolutionary sense, and it will wither away as everyone comes to realize and accept the essential unity of humankind.

CSCoon, 2/13/00

Note: These thoughts are set forth in more detail in my new book, “Culture Wars and the Global Village.” Prometheus Books is the publisher, and it is due out in June, 2000. has it listed already. If the foregoing ideas interest you, why don’t you order your copy now?

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27 Responses to Is War Inevitable?

  1. ANONOMOUS says:

    I find this page very disturbing due to the fact that its very long and i cant be bothered to read it

    • Carl Coon says:

      Sorry. I hope you develop an immunity to being disturbed by not reading things that are too long because quite a few of them, even ones worth reading, are.

  2. Melissa says:

    Well done. Disregard, as I am sure you already have, the previous comment. Some of us enjoy reading material that is more complicated than the side of a cereal box:)

  3. padraeg says:

    Excellent, wish I could read the author’s byline

  4. Marsto says:

    War is the engine of cultural evolution. Any culture that won’t war will be destroyed by one that will. Normally peaceful individuals will take part in war by rationalizing that a particular war is necessary for some “greater good for the world” – such as freeing slaves or fighting communism. Everyone dies, but when people die in war they are allowing the most adaptive culture to survive and grow. In that way they are heroes. Yes, the future will have competitions of ideas, schools of thought, philosophies – but these competitions will be wars. War is the only good tester. Most individuals hate war and will simultaneously take part in it when social dynamics dictate.

  5. norman Black says:

    Is it not the case that war is inevitable when all other avenues of agreement are either exhausted or ignored.?. Look at the 2 modern wars of signifance to us all, the two world wars: alliances failed and aggression and violence resulted in over 80 million deaths.
    Lessons were not learned and the world has had to contend with proxy wars, during the cold war, which have led to unimaginable massacres.
    Now the cold war is over war continues throughout the world. Although the threat of nuclear obliteration has receded somewhat, are we destined for ever to accept the inevitability of war, by ignoring reason and a way out.?.

  6. norman Black says:

    Further to my last perhaps the words of Tom Kettle best sum up the futility of war:
    Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
    Died not for flag nor King, nor Emperor,
    But for a dream born in a herdsman’s shed
    And for the secret scripture of the poor.
    Tom was a victim of world war one, but his words remain immortal.

  7. Gabriel A. says:

    Awesome work! I needed ideas about wars to work on for a high school project. This is more than I can wish! Thank you very much.

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