Ancient Greek polychromatic pottery painting (dating to c. 300 BC) of Achilles during the Trojan War. (Wikimedia)

Humanity is not doomed to war

Anthropologist Brian Ferguson of Rutgers-Newark University explains how research debunks the notion that war is embedded in human nature.
Ancient Greek polychromatic pottery painting (dating to c. 300 BC) of Achilles during the Trojan War. (Wikimedia)

Subscribe to “Nonviolence Radio” on Apple Podcasts, Android, Spotify or via RSS.

In this fascinating interview with distinguished anthropologist, Brian Ferguson, who has made a deep study of this critical question we learn much about how anthropology is done, about how easy it is to think we’re seeing signs of warfare when we’re not, and most importantly how we’re justified in concluding that war is not inevitable and we can learn to avoid it.

Prof. Ferguson’s new book– Chimpanzees, Men, and War: Are Men Born to Kill?– will be released in June of 2023. Find this book as well as his other books, articles, and interviews at his website.

Stephanie: Greetings everyone and welcome to another episode of Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook, and my co-host and news anchor is Michael Nagler. And we’re from the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, California.

Have you ever heard something like this? That war has been around as long as humanity and probably even longer, reaching way back into our evolutionary heritage. So, actually, this statement is false, yet it continues to fuel a dismal view of human nature and sometimes an outright apathy to resist war.

So, part of the burden of changing our view of human nature to one that shows that nonviolence is, as Gandhi said, as old as the hills, and something that’s deeply embedded within the human being, is debunking these old myths of war and violence that persist in spite of a lot of evidence to the contrary. There’s growing evidence out there.

We had the opportunity to speak with Brian Ferguson. He’s a scholar of anthropology at Rutgers. And he’s been asking these questions for a long time. How did war begin and is it a part of human nature? And you may be surprised to learn that his conclusion is that war is not something innate, but learned. And he offers some thoughts on how shifting our view of this natural theory of war and human nature can help us to take more informed action to help stop war.

Stephanie: Now, you are considered an expert on warfare. What does that mean?

Brian: Well, first of all, not all warfare. I have not studied the histories of warfare by major states, European or Asian or otherwise. But I have studied war from an anthropological perspective. And I’ve tried to be a generalist in it.

When I was in graduate school, there was – well, there was interest in war when I was in graduate school. Anthropology itself was uninterested in war for most of the 20th century, but got interested during the Vietnam era. And that’s spawned a lot of research.

But then when the Vietnam era wound down, so did anthropological interests in war. That’s right when I got into the subject. So, that was the ‘70s. So, I’ve stayed there ever since. I’ve continued to do research on war and tribal societies and the archeological record, and primatology. And I’ve also written for public audiences, but that includes writing about the contemporary U.S. military whenever it was contemporary.

So, I wrote about the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, and have written about the wars in Iraq, etc. There’s a lot of areas that I don’t know. And if I don’t know about it, I don’t talk about it. It’s really one of my ground rules. If I’m going to talk publicly about things, it’s got to be something that I know something about.

Michael: I should really adopt that rule. Yeah. My approach overlapped with anthropology very strongly because I was in literature and literary criticism. And at the time that I was wrapping up my career at Berkeley, we got very excited by Jean-Pierre Vernant, and other anthropological studies of war.

I remember a lecture in particular, to get kind of specific here, about an archeological discovery of small dwellings in northern India which all had kind of piles of rocks in them, you know, stones. And so the immediate interpretation was that they were sling stones. You know, used for killing animals or people.

Then somebody discovered that the agriculturists who lived there have these leather bags that they put stones in and shake it up with the wheat to thresh the wheat. And then, of course, over time, the bags deteriorate, and you’re left with this pile of stones.

And it seems to me, and I get this a lot from what I’ve read of your work also, that there’s a tendency to misinterpret in the direction of violence.

Brian: Yeah. I don’t know that particular example, but it’s a good one. I wish I had it. Sling stones themselves are things that are sometimes used as diagnostics. In the Andean region, one of the first claims of warfare is from piles of stones like that. Much archeology has gotten more cautious. Sometimes that caution is a problem about making those interpretations.

But yes, that is a problem. And what is, I think, has been even more of a problem is a tendency to go to situations where there is clear evidence of war, and there clearly was war in prehistory. There’s no doubt about that. And take the cases that are strongest and show the highest level of casualties.

Put them together and say, “This is what the archeological record shows.” And it’s cherry-picking. I’ve talked about that cherry-picking. And contrasted it to other work, where I tried to look at all reports that could possibly pertain to war in Europe and the Near East. And my work there basically stopped at the Bronze Age. By the Bronze Age, war was pretty common, and sometimes celebrated across much of the world.

But in those earlier periods, you find evidence of war in some places and times. And sometimes you don’t have enough evidence to make a judgment at all. That’s another issue. But sometimes you do have enough evidence to make a judgment. And none of the evidence indicates warfare. Or there’s a possibility of warfare sometimes, but there is also other possibilities, like the example that you stated.

For example, I’ll tell you, one thing that I wrote myself was looking at archeological signs of war. And one of the things that I accepted, you can’t use a spear or an arrow point as proof of war, even though they’re used in war and sometimes the same tools that are used in hunting.

But I took the finding of a mace to be pretty much a sure sign of war. However, then when I did more research on the Near East, what I found was a profusion of mace heads, but the mace heads were made out of stone with a hole ground through them to put the – to haft it on a stick or whatever it was going to be hafted on.

And then some places, the center point, the midpoint of that shaft was only a couple of centimeters in diameter and would not survive a single blow, you know, it would break. Which made me think, “Oh, why else might you have maces?” And one time I saw at my college a person walking with this elaborate stick on a pillow. And I said, “Is that the university mace?” And she said, “Yes, but you can’t touch it because it’s a symbol of authority.” And that’s one of the things that maces indicate.

So, sometimes if it looks functional, it’s a good sign of war. But if it looks non-functional, it seems to be an indicator of some kind of recognized authority, which may be something that is instead of war.

Michael: There’s so much investment of symbolism and especially with regard to competition and authority. I was a Homerist back in the day. And I was just thinking of Achilles saying that he was going to be very violent because Agamemnon has taken his – well, his slave captured woman away. And he pointedly says, “I didn’t even care about the girl, but she was mine and he had no right to do this.”

Brian: Yeah. Well, first of all, the – and one of the things I should clarify here is I talk a lot about warless societies and then early war societies. And if I were to say something such as – and I’ll get to your point. If I were to say something like if you didn’t have any kind of war, if people didn’t know about war, it would be difficult to get people together and say, “Let’s go out and kill the people next door.”

And the answer to that often is – and say, “Oh, come on. How difficult could that be?” You just got to talk well enough and convince them. But that’s in a world where people know war, where people expect war. If you don’t have war, that would be a different proposition.

And Achilles, the story that you just told, that could be interpreted in different ways. If you’re a sociobiologist, it would be interpreted in terms of male competition. But in my view, what’s the better explanation is that the societies with war, when they go to war, they usually already have some kind of a bad relationship on the ground.

And when that bad relationship exists, then any slight or insult can be enough to provoke an attack. I wrote once that Yanomami could go to war over a banana, but it’s not the banana that’s at stake. It’s the relationship and someone doing something that is deemed insulting, which is more likely to happen when the relationship is already bad, will be a sufficient cause to start fighting. But it’s not why you have the situation leading into that in the first place.

Stephanie: One of the topics that we want to explore with you, Brian, is about the relationship between war and aggression and human nature, in particular. And I know it’s a broad topic, so I just want to kind of offer that to you to see where you think for our listeners might be the best direction to go in. People who still may hold ideas that war is part of our human nature.

Brian: Well, it’s a great question. It’s my question. But it rests on a really uncertain foundation. The foundation is, how many people think it is human nature to go to war? And in our society, and I’m not speaking about some place else, the people I know, the people I talk to, most of my students, do not think it is. But I live in New York, and I teach in Newark. And this is not a representative sample of the country. There’s no way I’m going to get one.

I’ve looked to find whether there is public opinion surveys on this, and I spent a little bit of time looking for that, and I couldn’t find any. But some people do, and it’s I think – it might even be a more influential position that people have evolved to make war in scientific studies, in academic studies. And whatever the case may be on that.

What’s been my goal is to try to step into the human nature question in a scientific way. The problem with the question is that it is very big and vague. And you can be talking about something and find that the person you’re talking about really meant something else from the beginning.

But I’ve gone for a kind of simple bottom line, is that if it’s human nature to make war – and I should say that I define war at the simplest possible level. It’s not like I’m trying to define out small cases. War is basically when members of one self-recognized group get together into a social process, decide to go out and attack and kill, if necessary, or maybe if just they can, members of another group. And that can be groups down to ten individuals, or even less. So, it’s a very small-scale thing.

But the human nature question would be, and I think is, that throughout human history, men particularly, who have an inborn tendency to seek out and kill men who are not of their group, have had an evolutionary advantage. Or even if you leave out the evolution. Just say simply, a human tendency to war is that men tend to seek out opportunities to kill men of other groups. They naturally, that means without some kind of reinforcement, culturally enjoy it.

When you look at the literature – I mean, this is old literature. It goes back to Hobbes and Rousseau, goes back to the Greeks. Many branches, many different theories. Many specific theories in recent decades, sometimes contradictory, but to the same point – that humans have an evolved tendency to go to war.

And the evidence that is cited – I don’t think that you can just say, “No, that’s a fallacious assumption or belief,” and have people accept your word for it. So, what you have to do is go to the basis, the substance of those positions. And that’s what I’ve done over a period of decades.

And there have been three primary supports for that position. One is what’s called tribal warfare. Now, the word tribe has problems with it, but I’m not going to go into that here. But tribal by Indigenous people around the world who are not under the control of expanding state colonial imperial systems.

And there’s a lot of it. If you look at the ethnographic record, what you see is that upwards of 90 percent of the tribal people who have been described by historians, by explorers, by anthropologists, have engaged in war. They can split hairs on that. Is defensive war, fighting against someone who attacks you, is the same as offensive war? Well, leave those hairs aside for now. But a lot do. And more than 90 percent, I think.

However, whether it’s 5 percent or what, there are still people who fill the bill of being tribal people not under state supervision or control who do not make any kind of war. So, is it universal? No.

But for people who believe in the human nature argument, they’ll take 90 percent. The problem there is that they’re confusing what has been reported, sometimes in the past 100 years, sometimes in the past 500 years, since the age of exploration began, as representing humanity the way it always was.

So, I’ve gone in two directions on that. One is that I have looked at the main theories about tribal warfare in recent years as it has been portrayed. And the central example of that is the Yanomami Indigenous people of Brazil and Venezuela, who should be said – right here in Brazil anyway – information from Venezuela is very limited – but in Brazil, were under genocidal assault in recent years under the last administration. And thankfully, hopefully, the current administration in Brazil seems to be taking steps to protect them. That should be done.

But the work that I’ve done, and the focus was more on the side of the Venezuelan side, has looked at the work of Napoleon Chagnon who became very famous for writing a book called, “Yanomamo: The Fierce People,” which maybe the biggest selling book in the history of anthropology.

And then that and in other works, he and his colleagues have argued that the Yanomami fight for reproductive advantage. And in specific, this means that they fight over women. There’s other things he says they fight over too – revenge, etc. But they fight over women.

So, my first monograph, the book that I wrote, the whole thing, took a long time to write. And the Yanomami are often seen as people who only acquired a history since 1950. They were uninfluenced by the outside world until 1950. And they stayed relatively uninfluenced, at least up until the point when Chagnon and some others did their field work.

So, I got into the history. And there is a long history. It’s certainly spotty. But the Yanomami were hunted for slaves for a couple of centuries, and retreated into highland areas to – escape further into highland areas to escape that, and fought defensively against people who tried to attack them.

So, part of what I do is look at their history of fighting. But when you get closer to the present you can get into much more detail because there’s so many sources, Napoleon Chagnon’s work, key among them, but many others as well.

And what these show is that often there are reports of men who get into fights over women. That certainly happens. What exactly that means, men fighting over women, is a little more complicated, but going with the main story here. However, those fights over women don’t predict when they go to war. That is, there are fights over women when there’s no subsequent follow up, there are wars that have nothing to do with women.

What does explain their warfare – and this is a method that I developed in earlier work on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. What does explain their warfare is antagonisms – personal antagonisms that are related to the introduction and unequal distribution, and consequent exploitation, by Yanomami of other Yanomami, related to Western goods – many kinds of Western goods.

I talk about steel tools because it’s the biggest early on, and most obvious. But what you can do, and what I did, was to try and take all known Yanomami warfares from all reported attacks from all over their territories. And map them against the history of Western intrusion, colonial intrusion.

Now, this could be something massive, or it could be something slight, like an exploratory expedition that doles out machetes to everybody that they meet to get to where they want to go. And then the people who have those have an abundance of steel, which in some ways is comparable in its effect to gold on Western explorers. And other people don’t have any steel. And that can lead to various reactions – generosity or antagonism.

But my explanation of Yanomami warfare, when I say I explain war, I’m quite specific about that. And the explanation – when I say explain it, I mean to account for where there are times of intense warfare. And some anthropologists wouldn’t even call it warfare, but that’s part of my definition. By my definition, it’s warfare.

There’s some areas that have intense warfare and some areas that have little or no warfare. And then when there is war, a pattern emerges of what kind of villages or people get attacked and what kind of people do the attacking? So, those, I think, are very well explained by the historical patterning of contact with the outside world, particularly focused on machetes.

And I’ll say one thing before we go on to other stuff directly relevant, in other work that I’ve done and also still doing, I’ve come to see the general problem of war in non-state societies is the commodity trap. That they get introduced to commodities which are wonderful fantastic things, marvelous things, highly desired, even things like buttons, that then become necessities.

And to get those, there’s competition and there’s problems of production of Indigenous commodities to trade. But I think that that’s something that is – it’s not always steel tools. Sometimes it’s clothes. Sometimes it’s food. But that happens all over the world. So, that is tribal warfare.

Now, when I started before, I said two ways to look at this. One of the problems is looking at cherry-picked – or looking at the ethnographic universe in the past century and seeing 9 percent% or plus or more of people, known people, have some forms of warfare.

And here is the key and fallacious step, projecting that back through human history. And that brings us to archeology, which I would now speak about, unless you want me to answer something?

Michael: Two things have come up for me. One is that the phenomenon of cargo cults, that you can introduce a large amount of extraneous non-indigenous material without it necessarily precipitating war.

The other thing is called – Marija Gimbutas, and the whole idea of long periods of warless existence documented in what she calls, “Old Europe,” and other parts of the world. There, I think,I just want to elicit your comment.

Brian: Okay. Well, I’ll save Gimbutas for when I start talking about archeology. But first on cargo cults. Cargo cults are a subtype of what we anthropologists call millenarian movements. And there’s a lot of different ones. And they generally occur in societies that are under some form of basically irresistible control by state level societies. New Guinea being one of them. The Indigenous people can get, from colonial points-of-view, out of hand. But the colonial situation is persistent and weighty.

The Ghost Dance in the American West is another revitalization movement. These are things which are often provoked, or the basis of them, is the Western products that come in. So, in New Guinea and other areas around there, Europeans came in. And usually, some kind of colonial administrator, followed up very quickly by missionaries.

And the missionaries became the outstanding Western presence. And the missionaries gave instructions to people, that you have to follow the Bible, you have to pray, you have to give up certain heathen ways. And then you will be able to progress, and you can become like us. And people, very often, did that. But then they found out that they seemed to have been lied to. That they did those things, and the precious goods that they wanted, which is what cargo means – the things that come in from afar – did not appear.

And they started to formulate their own – even though the practices, to us seemed like crazy, from the perspective of the people who are engaging in them, seemed quite rational when you get into what they know. Like the missionaries would say, you know, when they were asked how certain things came to be, they would say, “Well, our people made them.” And that’s the life you can aspire to. But they couldn’t make anything. And if something broke, they couldn’t even fix it. So, obviously, that didn’t seem to be true. And there were many other things like that as well.

And they came to the idea that these white people, who in much of New Guinea initially were seen as ghosts because that’s the color of a ghost. These white people were somehow intercepting things that their ancestors or other entities had made for them. And they had to reach out to those people. And they did that by these ceremonies or practices that seem to be crazy. But it was the commodity trap, again.

But when I talk about this stuff or when I talk about chimpanzees, another basic point is that you have to look at the effect of anything in very historical specificity. It’s not a generalization. So, for chimpanzees, we’ll get to, I’m sure. People have the idea that I’m saying you give chimpanzees bananas, and they start going to war with each other. No. But in specific circumstances, the provisioning of bananas can pit one group of chimpanzees against another group of chimpanzees. And that’s when they get violent with each other.

And in cargo cults, there was certainly no incentive to go to war against another group because of the other groups that were in the same situation. And I’ll add one last thing. I’ve seen papers that as far as I know were unpublished, just to be fair, that in some areas of that part of the world – not just New Guinea, Solomon Islands and others – that the missionary presence has been, in recent years, an effective force in damping down intergroup hostilities because many of the people who might otherwise have fought with each other are now members of a more unitarian encompassing congregation. I don’t know much about that, but I know about it. And so, if I’m saying that the missionaries brought on things like cargo cults.

And then in the Yanomami territory, missionaries brought on fighting. Absolutely. But it’s not a blanket statement about all missionaries. Now, I would get to Gimbutas if I move onto archeology, should I move on?

Stephanie: Please move on. Yes, yes. It’s great.

Brian: Okay, so the archeological aspect of this – so the idea that war is human nature, one pillar of it is that basically all or almost all tribal people make war. Well, this was attached to the work of a few influential scholars. I must mention Lawrence Keeley, who wrote a book called “War Before Civilization.” And I agree with Lawrence Keeley in a lot of things. However, where I really disagree is that he posits that war goes – and this is my coined phrase – war goes forever backwards. As far back as you can look, you’re going to have signs of war.

And Keeley took a number of cases and put them together and estimated the death rate of adult males. I think he did adult males rather than the whole population. I’m not quite sure. And showed these very high rates. And then other work was used and followed up with that. So, there became this accepted position.

And when I say accepted, I mean it’s translated out into evolutionary studies, in history and political science, and even economics, to say that in humanity’s past 15 percent, sometimes 25 percent of people died violent deaths, mostly in war. So, that was something that was repeated without qualification. It was taken as an established fact.

And if you didn’t face up to that, you were just being a politically correct Pollyanna because that’s the fact. That’s the science. Well, it’s not. If you look at those cases – and I’ve got one article that’s called, “Pinker’s List” because Stephen Pinker and his book starts out with some of these tallies. And he accepts those figures.

And if you look, you see that those cases – I did. I looked at the cases that were put together in Stephen Pinker’s book. I think there were 25 or something like that. And I looked at them all, and I went to the original sources. And what you found, which I’m sure Professor Pinker regrets, is that at least three of them, and you could say four, were the same cases reported twice under different names.

When you looked at them, there was a number of cases where single individuals – and single individuals can have – single individuals who were found with projectile wounds of one sort or another. And a single individual can die from being shot with a bow and arrow or spear in many different contexts.

I doubt that hunting accidents were large. Hunting accidents don’t seem to happen among people who hunt for a living. I know about them from my friends in Albany, but that’s usually preceded by a lot of beer. But individual killings did occur. And Douglas Fry has been great about this. He’s the authority on this. I rely on him. That the individual killings can come from revenge. I think that revenge – I can talk about revenge more.

Revenge is really a greatly overstated cause of war. Greatly. But it’s not nonexistent. And there are also things that you can call executions. That someone who has become simply intolerable for a society that has no police and no jails, is killed by collective decision. So, you find one skeleton among ten that’s got an arrow point embedded in it, you can’t tell what it is.

When you find several or other kinds of evidence, or with other kinds of evidence, then you can make the inference that some kind of collective violence, or what I would call war, is present. So, that’s – I went back and looked at their cases that were summarized by Stephen Pinker. And a number of them are perfectly valid cases illustrating that point.

But in those cases – I won’t say in all of them, but in most of those cases which are valid representations of the position, iI you go to the original sources, they say, “This is really unusual,” the original sources. “This is really an unusual level of violence compared to other people of the same time period.” So, they were noted as that, but they’re not noted as that in the summaries.

So, what I also did in a companion piece for Pinker’s List, but in several other articles before that – all of these articles, by the way, are available on my webpage as PDFs, and I’ll tell you what that is later on, but anybody can see them. What you seem to find is that in the earliest archeological remains, which varies greatly around the world, but in the earliest remains, there’s usually no signs of war. War leaves a number of different signs.

Then, in that area, over millennia or centuries or whatever the sample is, you begin to see signs that do indicate war, that show up. And this is something that I’ve looked in, not just in Europe and the Near East, across North America, South America, the Pacific, that’s the generalization. So the conclusion, my conclusion is – now sometimes people will say – I’ve heard this many times – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. They might have had war, but we just can’t find it.

Now, this is a very unscientific statement. A scientific statement can be falsified, like the statement that all swans are white. You find a black swan, you know that’s not a valid statement. But if you say we can look and look and not find any signs of war, but they still probably had war, there’s no way to disprove that.

And it is certainly true that in any single excavation, you don’t expect to find signs of war. But when you’ve got a lot and excavations over many sites, as you do in Europe and the Near East, and you find the same result across these, and then you find the same result, that eventually you see signs of war. I think the reasonable explanation is that war had appeared out of a warless world.

I mean, if we were talking about something like the domestication of the goat and there was no signs of goats, domesticated goats anywhere, and then they appear, that would be your conclusion. But with war, it’s “No, it’s probably there even if we can’t find it.”

So, I went in to try to figure out what led to the origins of war. And we’ll never know why war started in different places. People ask me all the time, “What’s the date for the origins of war?” You can’t answer that question because in some places it could have been 1200 years ago and some places it could have been 12,000 years ago. It’s a variable thing.

But what I found in common was a number of what I call pre-conditions for war. That if you find these things, and you find more of them together, it’s more likely that you will see signs of war develop too. And I’m not going to go into all of them here, but like one is population density. Another is sedentism, that people are living in settled villages and can’t move away from war – which is one of the big ways that war is avoided in many societies. And there’s others.

I think one of the things that has not gotten nearly enough attention is the development of some kind of social and political hierarchy. And going along with that, the development of long-distance trade in elite items, like beautiful carvings of obsidian, things like that. Or even obsidian itself, which is not just an elite item, but people use it too – ordinary people use it too. When you find those things, you’re more likely to see the development of war.

That’s where, I think, that this long-distance trade in obsidian is key to understanding the development of war in the Near East. However, it’s not the only precondition. And I hasten to add – and this also is from the work of Doug Fry – that there are also preconditions of peace which are independent of war.

You know, for a long time I believed, until Leslie Sponsel convinced me otherwise, who’s an anthropological peace researcher in Hawai’i, that I thought that, ‘what is peace? Well, it’s just no war.’ And Leslie, in his works, demonstrated very strongly that peace is a positive state that includes many factors that cultivate peace.

And Doug Fry has enumerated these factors with evidence. So, for instance, a recognized authority to settle disputes, which could go back to the point I made about maces. Like a judge in a trial when he bangs on the desk, you know, that’s the law. And maces can be like that. But there’s more of those.

So, what I found is that the preconditions of war increased around the world, you found more cases of war starting up. And when war starts up it usually, but not always, but usually continues, and sometimes grows into like an elaborated cult, as it was in Bronze Age Europe. But one of the fascinating and hopeful things is that in the area that’s called the Southern Levant, which is the eastern coast of the Mediterranean lowland, from Syria down through Lebanon, and into Israel, Jordan, that you have a number of these preconditions present for a long, long time. For thousands of years. They came and they went.

Like one of the things you see over those long periods – and I’m talking about a 10,000 year span of time – was that some periods showed great environmental fluctuations with population displacements and crashes. Hard times. But if you look through that whole record, that 10,000 years, from about 13,000 bc to about 3000 bc, you can’t find any clear-cut signs of war. Now, there are a few places, three in particular, which have been suggested, “Well, that could be war.” And I agree, it could be war. But also for each of those, there’s other explanations for what it could be.

And like a wall may be for defense, but it also may be a terrace in areas where the houses are built on top of, which they seem to have been in one of these cases. That these areas – it’s possible that they’re going to find war in that area in that time period. You know, I challenge people to go out and look for it.

But before someone says, “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence,” in that whole area of the Southern Levant, for 10,000 years, show me the evidence. Where is some place that has signs of war? And so, why would they have preconditions of war, but not war? And I think that, inspired by Leslie Sponsel and Doug Fry, they also had preconditions of peace. And that’s the hopeful thing, I think. That they had those things that are identified as leading to peaceful resolution of conflicts. And those things counteracted the preconditions of war.

And that was, you know, people say, “The Near East? Are you kidding me?” That came to a radical halt about 3200 bc. I think the early Intermediate Period 2 of the Bronze Age, but I might be off a little bit there. When Egypt entered the Age of the Pharaohs.

And although Egypt had existed with what’s now Jordan, in a kind of symbiotic relationship, trade relationship, no signs of violence for centuries before that. Now, Egypt becomes imperialistic. The pharaohs were imperialists. And they were genocidal imperialists.

And the first signs of military defense in that area has the – it’s not a hieroglyph, exactly, but a sign that’s a predecessor of a hieroglyph, that identifies the first pharaoh known as the Scorpion King. And that sign shows clearly that there was fighting against the Egyptian villages in the area, but at the same time, you begin to see signs of fighting between the Indigenous people, the local people of that area.

And that’s what Neil Whitehead, my late great friend and I developed as a concept of a tribal zone in a book called, “War In The Tribal Zone”. And a tribal zone is not under the control of an expanding state, but heavily influenced by that. And the tribal zone situation created a great deal of warfare. Not as you might expect. Colonialists fighting Indigenous people, although of course that was enormous, but it also created Indigenous people fighting against Indigenous people over things such as the commodity trap or when Indigenous people were displaced from one area and had to go into lands occupied by other people, and many other ways.

And that all happened in around the European expansion. And that’s why in the past 100 years, everything seems so violent. But before that, there had been an expansion of war over the millennia around the world. And one of the things contributing to that was climatic change. And the scenario for the climatic change is that a period that’s known as the Medieval Warm, a warm period, flipped over pretty rapidly to the beginning of the Little Ice Age.

And that happened sometime, give or take, 1350 AD. And throughout the Americas and throughout the Pacific, and I think you could make this argument in Europe and Asia too, but I don’t have enough knowledge to do that, you find a real expansion of warfare in that period. That was before the explorers got there.

So, the world had been warified, if you will, before the explorers got there. And then it got much more warified when they got there. And so, you end up with a 90%+ ethnographic universe of violence.

Stephanie: To wrap it up with some hope or something that people can do. So, based on your research, what would you suggest that people can learn from what you’re doing to help end war today? Or another question is just what are you really trying to achieve with the research that you’ve done on the question of war?

Brian: Well, I’ll answer the second one first. I think that, you know, asking – war is – as we see any time we turn on the news, just a horrible thing. It pains me. Although, I do have a – I do support the effort by Ukraine. I find it very difficult, personally, to deal with even reports of their success, although I want them to have it because so many people are – not just the combatants, but so many people are suffering because of this. And that’s the way war often is.

So, I think it’s good for us to try to understand why wars happen. And what I’ve tried to do in my work is develop a general theory about war that applies to tribal people, that applies to people 10,000 years ago, and applies to today. And there’s a lot to it. I’ve got an article called, “A Paradigm for the Study of War and Society.” And that has, I don’t know, 100 different ideas about war which I’ve tried to put together into a non-contradictory inclusive picture. All those questions are good to answer.

But with all those questions, you want to have some kind of a bottom line. And the bottom line that I have – and this is a simplification, and it’s not always true, it’s not always true about leaders, and it’s not always true about the results of war. But the simple phrase is, “Leaders favor war because war favors leaders.” That even with the simplest level of political hierarchy, starting with headmen in Amazonia or big men in New Guinea, going up to chiefs, and ancient kings, and today.

The people who are the people with – sometimes it’s not power. Sometimes it’s influence. But, who have more of a voice than the great majority of people in their society, often find that their position of being leaders is enhanced by external conflict. It may not be war itself. Maybe just the threat of war. Among the Yanomami, they hand over authority to leaders in wartime that leaders don’t have in peacetime. And I think it happens all the time.

What my advice is, if you want to understand why wars are happening, try to understand who has more voice or power in a war situation. And look at what their interests are in that situation. And the interest may not be only – may not even be primarily – what they might gain from outside during war. Their interests may be mostly to elevate their own position and their influence or power and everything that comes along with it by external conflict. And I think that is very, very common. There’s a lot that I’ve written about that.

But these leaders don’t come out and talk about why we need to go to war in terms of their own interest, “Hey everybody, let’s go fight because it would help me out,” they do it in terms of the highest applicable moral evaluations of a society.

In our society it might be like democracy or women’s rights. When they started to go into Iraq, all of a sudden it became a crusade for women’s rights. I think that had very little to do with the actual decision to go in. But once we went in, that’s when we began to hear about it.

And revenge. Revenge is something that is found. It’s the most common anthropological explanation for war. And revenge, in one way or another, says by our standards of living, our morals, those guys started it and that’s why we have to go after them.

So, I call this process “Moral conversion:” that the leader’s interests are put in terms of the highest applicable moral values. And the leaders themselves, because of the old phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, may come to believe that themselves. Now, not all leaders are like this. There are leaders who, I think, could be called practically saints. But most leaders aren’t saints. And I think when you go into conflict situations, the bottom line – in a few words, is leaders favor war because war favors leaders. So, if you want to understand why you’re heading to war or in a war, look at who is making the decisions and what are their interests and how are they using moral values to justify them to themselves and to others. That’s the question, I think, people should ask.

And my reason of going into human nature – and I’ve argued this position for a long time. I mean, who reads the anthropology of war? But the reason why I’m so interested in human nature and history for so long, is because this stuff sells. You know, if it bleeds, it leads. And oftentimes I found illustrations of – if there’s an archeological site that finds 1 out of 100 and one of them finds a site of warfare, that’s the one that will be reported.

And archeologists aren’t claiming that it’s genetic or human nature, but all of that stuff feeds into this idea that it’s all in the genes, which isn’t what evolutionary theory today – if you had another hour – but it’s what evolutionary theory is about today. It’s far, far from the selfish gene theory of evolution.

But saying that it’s in your genes, kind of absolves people of responsibility and works against working against war. And if it’s the last thing I say, this is the – often-called by advocates of biological theories of human nature and war, that that’s the naturalistic fallacy, they call it. That just to say something is natural means it’s good. I don’t think that they’re saying that at all.

But I think to say that it’s natural, and to repeat that it’s natural, and to keep having examples that it’s natural, has an effect, broadly, of making people think that humanity is doomed to war. It’s in us and we can’t escape it. Humanity is not doomed to war.

There was a time before war. We’re not coming back to that time in any remote sense. We’re going forward to a new time. But the new time can be informed by the idea that war is something that – can it be abolished? I don’t know, you know. I mean, 200 years from now, I have no clue what the world is going to be like from now. I don’t have a clue what it’s going to be like in 50. So, I don’t know.

There was a time when it seemed that the East/West divide in Europe was timeless. It wouldn’t go away. It went away the next year. So, the present is not going to last. We don’t know what the future will bring. And I think everybody’s opposed to war, but people who really want to do something about it, should start with the idea that people – human beings can change. And there are pre-conditions for peace, as there were pre-conditions for war. And that’s what I hope people take away from my work and helps them in that direction.

Stephanie: You’ve been at Nonviolence Radio. You can find the show archived with a transcript at We want to thank our mother station, KWMR, also to Pacifica including WBAI and others. To Matt Watrous, Annie, Hewitt, Bryan Farrell at Waging Nonviolence, and to our listeners, until the next time, please to take care of one another.

Related Episodes