Violence and our evolutionary past

Over the course of his career primatologist and popularizer Frans de Waal has had a sustained interest in the relationship between human nature and violence. Circumstances in the study of our primate relatives has forced the issue: in the 1970s chimpanzees, which were previously thought to live in Edenic tranquility, were observed conducting raids and even killing one another. Meanwhile, their close relatives, the bonobos, entered the popular imagination as the hope for more utopian future: their females are empowered, and they resolve conflicts in tender orgies. Over at 3QuarksDaily, de Waal summarizes the debate about apes and human violence and thinks about how to apply it to violent conflict in the modern world. His essay is accompanied by a short video produced by the impressive Department of Expansion:

Here’s de Waal:

In recent history, we have seen so much war-related death that we imagine that it must always have been like this, that warfare is written into our DNA. In the words of Winston Churchill: “The story of the human race is War. Except for brief and precarious interludes, there has never been peace in the world; and before history began, murderous strife was universal and unending.” But is Churchill’s warmongering state-of-nature any more plausible than Rousseau’s noble savage?


Comparisons with apes hardly resolve this issue. Since it has been found that chimpanzees sometimes raid their neighbors and take their enemies’ lives, these apes have edged closer to the warrior image that we have of ourselves. Like us, chimps wage violent battles over territory. Genetically speaking, however, our species is exactly equally close to another ape, the bonobo, which does nothing of the kind. Bonobos can be unfriendly to their neighbors, but soon after a confrontation has begun, females often rush to the other side to have sex with both males and other females. Since it is hard to have sex and wage war at the same time, the scene rapidly turns into a peaceful gathering. Lethal aggression among bonobos has been unheard of.

The danger in any discussion like this is that we might bind the sense of possibility for ourselves by what happens to be reflected in both human history and the natural world. That’s a false restraint; things can change. Social arrangements possible in the modern world, from the United Nations to mass genocide, would have after all been unthinkable in past ages. What we see among apes should expand our sense of human possibility but certainly not contract it.

Click for full-size chart and reference.

To Churchill’s point, one can just as easily say the opposite is true, and far more so. Peace reigns over ordinary life far more than war, even if it goes unnoticed while violence excites our attention. So much is this the case that, in the early history of anthropology, it was thought that “primitive” tribal societies were on the whole blessedly peaceful compared to the turbulence of modern states. Like the observations of chimpanzees for so long, this turned out to be the error of impatient observers; wait around long enough, and they will fight. And they will die, on average, at actually far higher rates than were found in Europe and the US in the 20th century (see chart).

De Waal insists in the end that, given the chance, humans and other animals will opt for less killing. We’re caught between ancient, dueling inclinations to kill and to coexist. The latter, he believes, is the stronger.