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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Pontifications on the Extended Order - Part 1: Primitive War

Civilization is amazing. We take it for granted, never noticing how much we rely on it, yet we're completely dependent on it for life itself. Without the enormous increase in productivity that the global extended order supports, the planet could not support all six billion of us. If civilization we're to disappear overnight, most of us would die in short order.

The extended order encompasses a wide variety of topics: human nature, genetic and memetic evolution, societal organization, belief systems and dogma, and economics, to name a few. I find these topics so fascinating that I'm planning on posting a series of related essays on the subject. Hopefully, my plans won't come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines, but will develop into something coherent over time. I'd like to say that I've already outlined the whole series, but that wouldn't be true, so success, at least on the "coherent" front, is probably not terribly likely. But I've got to start somewhere. The place to start, I think, is before humans existed and the topic to start with is something that I'm convinced was inherently part of primitive human nature. And that's war.

The topic begins by contemplating when, in primate evolution, did war, or at least war like behaviors, start. Did war exist before homo sapiens, or was it "invented" relatively late in the game? Some have contended, like Rousseau with his "nobel savage" concept, that civilization itself caused war. But looking at some moderately recent archaeological research, Rousseau's ideas were flawed.

According to this discussion of Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, there is now a large and growing body of evidence that other primates also frequently engage in violent and warlike behavior:

Demonic Males discusses new evidence that killer instincts are not unique to humans, but rather shared with our nearest the common chimpanzee. The authors argue that it is this inherited propensity for killing that allows hominids and chimps to be such good hunters.

According to Wrangham and Peterson, the split between humans and the common chimpanzee was only 6-8 Mya [Million years ago]. Furthermore, humans may have split from the chimpanzee-bonobo line after gorillas, with bonobos (pygmy chimps) separating from chimps only 2.5 Mya. Because chimpanzees may be the modern ancestor of all these forms, and because the earliest australopithecines were quite chimpanzee-like, Wrangham speculates (in a separate article) that "chimpanzees are a conservative species and an amazingly good model for the ancestor of hominids" (1995, reprinted in Sussman 1997:106). If modern chimpanzees and modern humans share certain behavioral traits, these traits have "long evolutionary roots" and are likely to be fixed, biologically inherited parts of our basic human nature and not culturally determined.

Does this mean chimpanzees are naturally violent? Ten years ago it wasn't clear....In this cultural species, it may turn out that one of the least variable of all chimpanzee behaviors is the intense competition between males, the violent aggression they use against strangers, and their willingness to maim and kill those that frustrate their goals....As the picture of chimpanzee society settles into focus, it now includes infanticide, rape and regular battering of females by males (1997:108).

Since humans and chimpanzees share these violent urges, the implication is that human violence has long evolutionary roots. "We are apes of nature, cursed over six million years or more with a rare inheritance, a Dostoyevskyan demon...The coincidence of demonic aggression in ourselves and our closest kin bespeaks its antiquity" (1997:108-109).

Why does this matter? Because the narrative that forms the basis for hypotheses regarding how the extended order evolved is profoundly affected by whether human nature is non-violent (according to Rousseau) and we've become more violent over time, or if we've always been a nasty, brutish, and violent species (the Hobbesian view). Given the accumulating evidence regarding chimpanzees, I'm pretty convinced that latter view is more representative of the truth.

But what about all those stories of primitive tribes, isolated from civilization, that when discovered, were completely peaceful? The ones that didn't have a word for war? It turns out that they are all just stories. Primitive people were and are virtually universally violent and frequently engage in war. This point is argued extensively with supporting data in War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley and Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage by Steven LeBlanc. First, an excerpt for War Before Civilization:

The high war death rates among most nonstate societies are obviously the result of several features of primitive warfare: the prevalence of wars, the high proportion of tribesmen who face combat, the cumulative effects of frequent but low-casualty battles, the unmitigated deadliness and very high frequency of raids, the catastrophic mortalities inflicted in general massacres, the customary killing of all adult males, and the often atrocious treatment of women and children. For these reasons, a member of a typical tribal society, especially a male, had a far higher probability of dying "by the sword" than a citizen of an average modern state.
Keeley claims that the typical tribal combat casualty rate in a typical tribal society was 0.5 percent per year. While that may not sound like much, that would be the equivalent of nearly 1.5 million Americans dead from combat each year. By contrast, since 9/11, we've only actually lost around 1,000 Americans per year because of war and war-like events.

LeBlanc, who wrote his book after Keeley's came out, "unequivocally argue[s] that, for most of its existence, homo sapiens has waged almost constant war on its own kind and that primeval society was far more warlike than any of its civilized successors."

Convinced about the inherently violent nature of humans yet? No? Well, neither am I. And here I need to discuss belief systems, which is itself an important extended order subtopic, a bit before continuing on. One things humans must do to survive is to make decisions and come to conclusions in the face of great uncertainty. The universe has essentially infinite information and by the time we learn everything there is to know about all but the most trivial topics, it's way too late. The purpose of a belief system is to provide the structure to be able to make decisions in a timely fashion based on extremely limited information.

My belief system, combined with my observations accumulated during my lifetime, resonates well with the views of Keeley and Le Blanc. So I'm going to buy into their view, hook, line and sinker. Or, more accurately, I'm not actually totally convinced, but I've spent all the time researching this particular aspect of humankind that I'm going to spend, and I've made my tentative conclusion for now.

In summary, I'm going to start the narrative regarding the evolution of the extended order based on the belief that the starting point was a bunch of violent primitive tribes frequently at war.


Hey Skipper said...


Very interesting start.

I can't claim any special knowledge here, but a couple things struck me.

First, the focus on primates. While that seems obvious at first, it maybe that focus is too narrow. Both porpoises and elephants have brain-body mass ratios not far from ours.

And both can be violent. Porpoises kidnap and rape. Elephants have been known to gang up upon hippos and kill them. But what's even more surprising, they also, apparently with intent, murder humans. In India, elephants murder -- and that is the the right word for it -- more humans than do tigers.

The second is tied up ijn this sentence "... the implication is that human violence has long evolutionary roots." That default position presumes that everything we are is evolutionarily determined. While that might well be true in general, in specific instances, that assumption breaks down.

For example, hemorrhoids are pretty much unique to humans. But that doesn't mean they have long evolutionary roots; rather, they are a byproduct of a quadraped anatomy that made the fewest possible changes becoming bipedal.

Similarly, warlike behavior (and religion, and mathematics) might be an emergent property of any brain sufficiently complex to posses both self awareness and futurity.

Not so much evolutionarily selected for, as unavoidable.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper,

Good points on the violence of other large brained mammals. Nevertheless, the evolutionary distance, both in terms of genetic code and time, is far smaller between us and chimps than between us and elephants/porpoises. 2.5 million years is only a couple hundred thousand generations. When I run genetic algorithm based optimization for some aspect of the robots I work on, a couple hundred thousand generations is nothing (though I use far smaller populations so it's not directly comparable). We're practically brothers with chimps (heck, a friend of mine's brother looks and acts like one)! So in trying to think about the behavior of pre-humans, I was more interested in very close relations, and in particular, very close relations that didn't yet have a strong memetic component. And what do we find? Violence and war like behavior.

I'm not necessarily following your point about long evolutionary roots. Unless you believe in Creationism or Intelligent Design, aren't we by definition what we've evolved (both genetic and memetic) to become? How else could've we become this way? It seems to me we've even evolved to be predisposed to getting hemorrhoids (well, maybe you have such a predisposition - not me :-). Just because a trait is emergent and/or closely coupled with other traits, doesn't mean the trait didn't evolve.

Same with warlike behavior. It may convey survival advantage in and of itself, it may be emergent, it may even be random (though I doubt it). But it's still an evolved trait and it seems to me, based on the pre-human primate studies, the archaeological record, and studies of primitive tribes, that it has long evolutionary roots. Again, I think every trait has evolutionary roots (long or short), some genetic, some memetic, some selected for, some emergent or even random but that don't hurt too much. No?

Hey Skipper said...


I didn't mean to sound cretionist, although when I typed that I suspected it might come across that way.

To the extent my guess is worthwhile (which may be very extentless), or has a point, it is that while naturalistic evolution (i.e, the material world contains everything required for self organized complexity, although we obviously don't have all the details) is likely correct, that doesn't mean everything we are is selected for.

Of course, the premise is that there is a net benefit. But it may well be that it is impossible to have a brain sufficiently complex to be self aware, which entails awareness of ultimate mortality, without that brain also adopting religious belief.

Even though though the exclusionary nature of religious might actually , in and of itself, cause more mortality than would be the case in its absence.

(NB -- lots of mights here)

But if the advantage of having a big brain outweighs the disadvantages of having a big brain, then a big brain it will be. The selection was for the big brain, despite the inevitable consequences of having a big brain.

Perhaps a better illustration, and less likely to needlessly annoy those more religious than I, is mathematics.

There doesn't seem to be anything in our environment of evolutionary relevance (pre-civilization) that would select for anything like even algebra, never mind the sorts of math you are undoubtedly comfortable with (and I was, at one time).

For mildly clever creationist, this would seem to be the slam dunk argument against evolution, so long as you assume natural selection explains everything.

But if you assume that selection is for big brains, and big brains can't be built (or are pointless without) significant pattern matching and spatial reasoning, then such a brain will have latent mathematical ability as a ready to be emergent property, unavoidably there when the opportunity presents itself.

Maybe war is like that, a feature we could do without, but only at the price of giving up thought.

Or something like that.

Hey Skipper said...

BTW -- I forgot to circle back to my connection with elephants and porpoises.

Clearly they are nowhere near as closely related to us as chimpanzees. But if my notion of emergent properties is anything other than stringing a bunch of polysyllabic words to no sensible end whatsoever, then the factor to pay attention to is brain-body mass, not genetic relatedness.

If one were to plot mammal brain-body masses, and along with that some violence propensity index, would there be any correlation?

Bret said...

hey skipper wrote: "If one were to plot mammal brain-body masses, and along with that some violence propensity index, would there be any correlation?"

No doubt, but I don't think that's quite the right question. I think people who study this sort of thang (not me!!!) use something called the encephalization quotient (EQ) instead of straight brain-body masses. The EQ takes into account the fact that larger animals don't need linearly greater brain size to be equally intelligent.

There's a second problem as well. Given that species with larger EQs are indeed more violent on average, it may well be emergent not from brain size (or EQ), but rather that the higher EQ mammals are carnivore's and omnivores, while the lower EQ animals tend to be herbivores. As a result, my guess would be that being a predator drives both intelligence and violent (i.e. predatory) behavior. In other words, it's "wily coyote," not "wily cow."

Bret said...

hey skipper wrote: "But it may well be that it is impossible to have a brain sufficiently complex to be self aware, which entails awareness of ultimate mortality, without that brain also adopting religious belief.

Even though though the exclusionary nature of religious might actually , in and of itself, cause more mortality than would be the case in its absence.

This extended order series will eventually spend a lot a time on religion. I think we'll have some interesting discussions at that point. You'll see why I decided to title this series "pontifications" as opposed to "discourses" or even "essays" ("wild-eyed conjectures" was the alternate title that almost won it).

But in the meantime, my question would be "Are chimps religious?" I think not and that the early hominids were war like (like chimps) and non-religious (like chimps). And these assumption set the stage for the next evolutionary step.

Oroborous said...

Being a predator DOES drive intelligence, but isn't necessary or sufficient.
Humans, cats, dogs, squid, dolphins - hunters.
Whales, elephants, pigs - not hunters.
Sharks - stupid hunters.

Humans are inherently violent.
All violence requires is id. Cows are perceived as being passive, and they generally are, but they are capable of being violent in pursuit of their desires, even if they aren't being threatened.
This I know from personal observation.

Id + aggression = war, and humans are aggressive.

It seems to me that religion requires both tool-making ability, and a curiosity about why the world is as it is. (Plus the aforementioned ability to discern patterns, whether real or merely perceived).

If the world could be different, and if we can change the world in small ways, might not there be a being(s) who could change the world in large ways, if we could persuade them to do so ?

If we don't care what the world is like, it just >is<, or if we cannot change the world in any way, then what's the point of religion ?

Hey Skipper said...


Elephants are inherently violent too, to the point of murdering humans.

Do elephants have id?

My guess would be yes.


I hadn't even thought of the carnivore - omnivore distinction.

Howard said...

Oroborous stated:

If we don't care what the world is like, it just is, or if we cannot change the world in any way, then what's the point of religion ?

I guess prayer could be construed as intended to change the world that is...

When I started asking questions about religion as a child, I was told: it arose as an attempt to answer the questions of where we came from and what happens to us after we die.

Oroborous said...

I lumped that in with "curiosity about why the world is as it is", although I suppose that there could be a religion composed solely of creation myths, with no active worshipping, or where the worshippers expected nothing of their God(s).

Bret said...

I think it's important to distinguish between creation myths and religion. Though every religion has a creation myth, it is possible to have a creation myth without a typical religion. Indeed, I think my post is the beginning of a creation myth, but is not religious.

Duck said...

Good discussion.

I would draw the distinction between extra-species killing and murder, which we classify as human-on-human or intra-species killing.

You see the behavior among lions. A pride is generally ruled by a single male or brother pair. Combat amont pride leaders or between a pride leader and a pride-less young male often ends in death, with the victor taking over the spoils of the pride, the females. The children of the former pride leader are murdered by the victor, so that the females will be forced to bear and care for his children.

I think that the selfish gene theory can adequately account for the warfare imperative. We like to think of ourselves as a single species, but to our genes we are just competing sets of genes aiming for supremacy.

Oroborous said...

If "selfish gene" behavior dominated among humans, then how would we explain the continued bloodlines of raping raiders or ravaging conquering armies, among the affected populations ?

Or stepfathers ?

Although humans do have "selfish gene" pressures, it's not a primary urge.

Duck said...


That's how the genes propagate themselves, by supplanting the male genes of other groups.

Oroborous said...

Yes, but wouldn't the males pairing with these females, after the raiders or invading army have moved on, kill the resulting children, if "selfish gene" were paramount ?

Duck said...

With lions, the new males stay on to protect their offspring. If the former males manage to win back the pride, then they would kill off the alien cubs.

With invading armies, I guess that many males would want to kill off the children of the marauders. Something like this happened in Bosnia, where Serbian fighters raped Bosnian women to purposefully impregnate them. In most societies women who are raped are treated as damaged goods, no matter the fact that they are the victims. Men don't want to raise other men's children, it is a universal condition.

You can see it in crime statistics. How often have you heard of men who were arrested for abusing or killing the children of their girlfriends, where the children were not theirs?

Oroborous said...

Yes, men are less attached to children to whom they don't have a genetic link, but abusing or killing step-kids is not the norm.

It's seen as abnormal and punishable.

Duck said...

It does explain the extroadinary lengths to which traditional societies restricted the freedom of women, and the extremes that you see in the Muslim world regarding honor killings. Traditionally the concept of honor applied to a man and his kin. You can look at honor codes as a set of rules by which a man ensured his paternity for his kin. A man without honor was (among other things) a man who had lost control of his lineage. A women's indiscretion, even when she is raped, puts dishonor on the whole family, but especially the patriarch.

It is a way of thinking that is very alien to us now in the West, but I think it is a way of thinking that is closer to our genes.

Bret said...

Duck wrote: "How often have you heard of men who were arrested for abusing or killing the children of their girlfriends, where the children were not theirs?"

And women too. My understanding is that virtually every culture has a cinderella type fable - and for good reason.