War Is Good!

The two major known threats to our continued existence as a species today are global warming1 and the possible unleashing of nuclear weaponry during a war.  Regarding the first of these threats, it’s true that the discoverer of global warming—Svante Arrhenius—believed that global warming was a good thing.

In 1906 he published Worlds in the Making (translated into English in 1908), directed at a general audience, where he suggested that the human emission of CO2 would be strong enough to prevent the world from entering a new ice age, and that a warmer earth would be needed to feed the rapidly increasing population.

I would contend, however, that Arrhenius’s assessment that global warming is a good thing is understandable in light of when he lived (born in 1859, died in 1927) and where (Sweden).  Were he living today—and even in Sweden—it’s unlikely that he would sing the praises of global warming.

As to war, humans have had experience with it for centuries, millennia even.  Given the devastation, loss of life, and permanent scars resulting from war, one would not expect that anyone—except perhaps a deranged individual—would contend that war is, and has been, a “good thing.” Yet Ian Morris, in his recent (2014) War!  What is it Good For?  Conflict and the Progress of Civilization From Primates to Robots, makes precisely such a claim.  Responding to Edwin Starr’s song “War”—which begins this way:

War, huh yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, oh hoh, oh

Morris asserts (p. 7) (as his “central argument,” p. 10):

War has been good for something:  over the long run, it has made humans safer and richer.  War is hell, but—again over the long run—the alternatives would have been much worse.

This assertion leads me to ask:

(a) Is Morris mad—in the sense of being insane?  Or, rather,

(b) Is it simply a matter that his reasoning is flawed?  That is, are some of his assumptions—technically, his premises—in serious error from an empirical standpoint, so that although his conclusion that war is good is a valid one (i.e., the conclusion logically follows from his assumptions), it is a false conclusion by virtue of being derived from (some) false assumptions?

Of course, there is also the possibility that Morris is “on to something”,which is a possibility that we should not, of course, dismiss out of hand but, rather, must give serious thought.

Not being a psychiatrist I am not in a position to comment on Morris’s sanity or lack thereof—and I will grant him the benefit of the doubt on this matter.  What I will argue, rather, is that some of the assumptions upon which Morris bases his conclusion lack merit—so that the conclusion that he reaches (that war is good) of necessity also lacks merit.

Wars, per se, involve violence,2 of course, and the nature of weaponry has changed greatly over the centuries—so that weapons that exist now (e.g., atomic bombs) are far more deadly than those of the past.  However, although wars involve violence, the converse is not true:  Not all violence is associated with wars; rather, wars involve state-sponsored violence—with the magnitude of violence involved varying from war to war (depending, e.g., on the size of the states involved, the nature of the weaponry available—and used, etc.)

War has long been a subject of discussion,3 with Azar Gat’s massive War in Human Civilization (which he summarizes here), being a recent (2008) example.  In this essay, however, I limit my scope to the argument set forth by Morris in his recent book.

As a starting point here, it will be useful to note the three (3) points that Morris wishes to make in his book:

1. By (p. 7) “fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently.”  (In referring to dying “violently” here, I assume that Morris means both (a) dying in wars4 and (b) dying as a result of violence perpetrated by individuals/gangs within a society.

2. Although (p. 8) “war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way individuals have found” to do so.

3. The (p. 9) “larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer.”

A tacit assumption that Morris makes is that large societies are “good,” with two factors especially making them “good”—and with no negative factors being associated with large societal size that might act as a counterbalance to the two “good” factors.  The two factors which make large societies “good” per Morris, both of them related to societal size:

      1. The more peaceful it will tend to be (in that its leaders will be less likely to support belligerent policies with reference to other societies; i.e., be “warmongers); and,
      2. The less internal violence will be associated with the society.

In making these assumptions Morris seems to assume, further, the following:

(1) A small society is, by virtue of its smallness, prone to internal violence and external violence (i.e., initiating wars).

(2) However, as the fighting of wars requires organization, the fighting of wars promotes the development of organization—which, in turn, promotes an increase in societal size (via the incorporation of the conquered society within the conquering one?).

(3) That organization (in the form of government), once created, does not “fade into the background” after a war has been fought successfully.  Rather, it remains in place.

(4) Because it does, it is able to impose peace, and not only actually does so but thereby (p. 9) creates “the preconditions for prosperity.” That is, the emergence of a strong government enables a reduction in internal violence (in the now large society), while also reducing the loss of life via wars.  The latter occurs because (a) a large one is easier to defend than a small one (thereby less likely to be attacked than a small society), and/or because (b) a large society is less likely to be bellicose (i.e., prone to engage in offensive wars) than a small society.

(5) In addition (p. 23), “the cumulative effect of the last ten thousand years of fighting has been to make people live longer.”  (emphasis added)

I perceive little merit in any of these five (5) points, and therefore will not even bother rebutting them point by point.  Rather, I choose here to approach Morris’s argument from a different “angle,” beginning by making some observations about his evolutionary comments:

1. Morris states (p. 314) that “Biological evolution is driven by genetic mutations, with the mutations that work best replacing those that do not across thousands or even millions of years.”

2. Morris is correct in stating the mutations play a role in evolution, but doesn’t seem to recognize that it is mutations—acting in conjunction with certain mechanisms—that cause evolution.  In the case of humans those mechanisms are (a) the environment, and environmental change; (b) predation; and (c) (female-choice) sexual selection.

3. Morris refers (p. 333) to “waiting thousands of generations for natural selection to change us” and (p. 382) “the relentless pressure” exerted by natural selection.  If Morris is giving “natural selection” the same meaning given to it by Charles Darwin, (See my Ringing the Bell for Darwin). it must be concluded that “natural selection,” so defined, played no role whatsoever in human evolution!

4. Morris asserts (p. 298) that “our own violence, like that of other creatures, must be an evolutionary adaptation.”

I am in utter disagreement with this latter claim, basing my disagreement on my belief (developed to an important degree in my What Are Churches For?) that the Agricultural Revolution of about 10,000 years ago represented a significant “break” in human development—in that it marked the end of human biological evolution, and the beginning of “cultural” developments.

My view is that there was a co-development of humans as biological entities and their (gatherer-hunter—or forager) way of life during the exceedingly long period prior to that Revolution.  That is, on the one hand humans came to “fit” biologically, the gatherer-hunter way of life that they were practicing, and as human brain size increased, one result was subtle changes in way of life.  Peoples occupying different parts of the globe, of course, developed ways of life that “fit” the local environment—so that variation developed between the various gatherer-hunter groups.  But there was enough similarity from one group to another that the label “gatherer-hunter” could be applied to all groups then existing.

Whereas the local environment had some relevance for how the inhabitants of the area developed biologically (and changes in the environment—insofar as they did not cause migrationsalso had biological consequences), the primary relevance of the local environment was on the nature of the gathering-hunting activities that occurred in that area.

So far as how behavioral characteristics (having a biological basis) came to be shaped over time, two factors in particular were evidently involved.  First, those individuals living in groups had a higher probability of avoiding death at the “hands” of predators than those individuals living as isolates.

Because living in a group requires that one exhibit cooperative behavioral tendencies (at the risk of being banished from the group!), the members of a group would tend to be those individuals with a “natural” (i.e., genetic) proclivity for engaging in cooperative behavior—along with those individuals who had learned to be cooperative (either as a result of their observing how others behaved, or as a result of being explicitly taught that cooperative behavior was expected of them, as members of the group.

Second, it’s likely that female-choice sexual selection would be operating within any given group.  That is, rather than a harem-like situation (in which one male mates—and does so exclusively—with the various females in his “harem”), females would be the ones choosing which males with which to mate.  Females would especially be expected to choose those males (or that male) who (a) exhibited cooperative tendencies—e.g., in providing food to them, and/or (b) exhibited a willingness to provide protection for them against predators.  Insofar as the cooperative behavioral tendencies here had a biological basis (which would have been highly likely), the implication is that progeny would tend to be born with an innate proclivity for cooperative behavior.  And even those lacking such an innate proclivity would learn, over time, to be cooperative in their behavior relative to others in the group.

Given these “mechanisms” operating with early humans, the tendency would have been for relative harmony to prevail within any given group; and because the number of humans was so small, prior to the Agricultural Revolution, relative to the size of the earth, little contact likely occurred between groups—and there is little reason to believe that the contacts with other groups that did occur would involve violence.

Thus, the thesis of anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley, presented in his War Before Civilization:  The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996) that war was common before civilization appeared on the scene is difficult to accept—given the above discussion.  On the other hand, however, it would be unwise to dismiss his thesis out of hand!

I am not sufficiently knowledgeable regarding the relevant research to be able to rebut Keeley.  I would note, however, that an opposing view has been argued by Raymond C. Kelly (see, e.g., this).  One scholar has made the following comment, for example, about the two gentlemen:

Raymond Kelly is not prepared …to give up the doctrines of the pacified past.  And, despite all the evidence he has mustered against those doctrines, Keeley takes Kelly’s argument seriously.  Why?  Because Kelly argues carefully and dispassionately.  He accepts almost all of what Keeley points out about tribal peoples since the Neolithic.  He also accepts that tribal peoples everywhere have been violent, not peaceful and gentle.  Yet, sifting the evidence finely, he still believes that warfare originated very late in human evolution and that he can pinpoint what led to its emergence and proliferation.  He observes that “excepting a single Upper Palaeolithic site, archaeological evidence points to a commencement of warfare that postdates the development of agriculture.  This strongly implies that earlier hunter-gatherer societies were warless and that the Palaeolithic was a time of universal peace.

My position on this matter is that although empirical evidence—such as that presented by Keeley—certainly carries a great deal of weight, so should weight be given to what scholars believe regarding the mechanisms involved in human evolution, and their implications.  Thus, although I am unwilling to discount the empirical findings presented by Keeley, my knowledge of evolutionary processes makes me somewhat skeptical of them—so that I find the arguments of Kelly rather convincing.  Especially if he is correct in his argument that “archaeological evidence points to a commencement of warfare that postdates the development of agriculture”—suggesting that gatherer-hunter societies tended to be rather peaceful—does his position have merit.

What I suggest, then, is that we leave the questions of (a) whether, in the distant past, humans were, or were not, violent, and (b) how violence may have either increased or decreased to the side, and await more definitive conclusions from scholars.

In the meantime, the argument regarding the development of violence, with humans, that I presently find most convincing is the following:

1. The development of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago, which occurred over a period of centuries, not years, resulted in a change in way of life for those involved.

2. One implication of this change in way of life is that the members of a society for which agriculture was becoming, increasingly, the basis for sustenance, (a) provided the members with an increasingly different set of stimuli, (b) required members to engage in a new set of behaviors, and also (c) required members to use their brains differently (e.g., engage in more abstract thought).  These changes meant that the members of developing agriculture-based societies were encountering increasingly discrepant conditions, so far as their “design specifications”—formed earlier, over a long period of time—were concerned. (See p. 38-117 in my What Are Churches For?.)  Put another way, the way of life that they were now beginning to live was increasingly “unnatural.”

3. This, in itself, meant increasing ill-being for those living in any given group—although that ill-being may have only been dimly sensed rather than consciously recognized.

4. Given the genetic variability that exists within any given group, some of those sensing increasing ill-being, and acting on their particular genetic proclivities, began to seek “position” within the group, and thereby authority—or at least some degree of control—over the other members of the group.

5. Associated with this (and for reasons for which I currently can offer no firm explanation),5 groups began to grow in population size.

6. As groups grew in population size, the mores, etc., which previously had served to control individual behavior, began to break down.

7. This fact, in conjunction with point (4) above, resulted in increasing differentiation within the group—i.e., the development of a hierarchical class system, with its differential rewards.

8. Given that those who sought, and gained, “position” in the society tended to have more aggressive (and thereby pathological!) personalities than the others in the group, they were able to get their (male) fellows to follow them into “wars” with neighboring groups.

9. By incorporating conquered peoples into the society, the society tended to grow even more.

10. As the society continued to grow in size, the “forces” that had been unleashed grew more and more intense—a sort of “snowball” effect.

Granted this alternate “explanation” for why war emerged is basically of a speculative nature, but in my defense, I would note that Morris himself relies on speculation to a degree: For example, he states (p. 18) “The plain fact, as [Thomas] Hobbes had understood, is that over the past ten thousand years war made the state, and the state made peace.”  But then on p. 16 Morris “confesses” that Hobbes “was always more interested in abstract speculation than in evidence.”  (Why, then, does Morris regard Hobbes [1588-1679] as an authority on violence?!) 6

In conclusion, although I may be wrong in my belief about the “peaceful savage” (for me, this is still an open question), I believe that my “scenario” (perhaps a better term than “explanation”!) of how war developed has merit, and should be “tested” against whatever “facts” are currently available.

My most important quarrel with Morris, however, is that he seems to believe that war has (p. 22) “evolutionary functions.”  I, however, see war primarily as a “fruit” of the “Fall”—into agriculture, that is.7 It might seem to follow logically, from such a conclusion, that to eliminate war, it would be necessary to “return” to a much “simpler” way of life (but not necessarily a gatherer-hunter one).  My view regarding that, however, is that:

(a) Such a “return” would not be possible—at least given the size of the world’s population at present.

(b) Even if a literal return were possible, it would not be desirable.  As Gregory Bateson recognized,8 in doing so we would likely lose the wisdom that we have gained over the centuries—making it likely, then, that we would simply repeat the mistakes of the past!

(c) Given that our species appears headed for extinction currently (by 2040 per John Davies, by 2030 per Guy McPherson), there is no point in even trying to “save” ourselves!

  1. One should keep in mind that the term “global warming” is not a single phenomenon but, rather, is shorthand for a number of related phenomena:  Not only a global trend in atmospheric warming, but also, e.g., (a) an increase in the number of storms, (b) an increase in their severity, and (c) increased variability, at any given location (more at some locations than others, of course), in weather conditions.  An implication of this latter fact is that the very concept of “climate” is becoming increasingly meaningless—like “unicorn” a name for something that has (increasingly, at any rate) no referent (although it might be more accurate to say that it is like the Cheshire cat’s grin—i.e., it is gradually fading away).  For that reason I prefer the term “global warming” to “climate change”—although I like “trendular atmospheric depatternization” (!) even more—although I will admit that that term is a tad (!) cumbersome. []
  2. This assertion, although being generally true, requires qualification.  The “counting coup” practiced by Plains Indians in what became the United States did not necessarily involve killing:  “Any blow struck against the enemy counted as a coup, but the most prestigious acts included touching an enemy warrior with the hand, bow, or with a coup stick then escaping unharmed.” []
  3. For example, going back centuries in time, there is the “History of the Peloponnesian War [by Thucydides, which] recounts the 5th century BCE war between Sparta and Athens to the year 411 BCE.” []
  4. If one dies in a war, this can be either because (a) one is an active participant in the war or (b) one is a civilian killed by an invader (via its army, navy, or air force)—for example, the thousands of Japanese we killed (unnecessarily!) with our bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. []
  5. My best guess, at present, however, is that the new agriculture-based way of life somehow conduced growth in size (population) of the group. []
  6. Note that Morris, in referring here to “the past ten thousand years,” is referring to the period of time since the Agricultural Revolution got underway.  By implication, then, he admits that prior to that Revolution—when all humans were gatherer-hunters—war was either rare or non-existent! []
  7. I have borrowed the term “Fall” from geographer Warren Johnson’s  Muddling Toward Frugality (p. 43 of the 1979 Shambhala edition).  The word “Fall” usually is given a religious interpretation, of course. []
  8. See his Steps to an Ecology of Mind:  Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology.  Northvale, NJ:  Jason Aronson Inc., 1987, p. 500.  Originally published by the Chandler Publishing Company, 1972. []

Al Thompson is retired from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: ivor5367@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.