Re: On the origin of .... war

From: Dace (
Date: Fri Sep 21 2001 - 20:52:18 BST

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    Subject: Re: On the origin of .... war
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    > <Ehrenreich deals with this in Blood Rites. Once warfare got
    > started, it
    > > must have rapidly spread. If another tribe is attacking you, you must
    > > fight
    > > back or gradually be destroyed. But to fight back is to begin learning
    > > the
    > > war ethic, at which point you're liable to turn around and attack
    > > tribe that still hasn't learned.>
    > >
    > If a tribe doesn't fight back it gets wiped out. Tribes that fight
    > back may survive. A bit too much social darwinism perhaps, but that is a
    > basic principle.
    > <It's rational in the sense of self-preservation.>
    > Exactly, and that's the principle by which natural selection works.
    > <But taken as a whole, it's perfectly insane.>
    > In what sense do you mean 'as a whole'? rational in the sense of
    > self preservation, in terms of natural selection is the whole.

    From the point of view of a society under attack, fighting back is rational.
    But from the point of view of human survival and propagation generally, war
    could hardly be more irrational. As a meme, war exists for its own benefit,
    not for ours.

    Here's Ehrenreich's take, from pages 232 to 235 of Blood Rites:

    "War is 'contagious,' spreading rapidly from one culture to the next. And
    once the famous 'cycle of violence' has begun, there is, of course, no
    stopping it; each injury demands the counterinjury known as revenge. Thus
    war is, in some not yet entirely defined sense, a self-replicating pattern
    of behavior, possessed of a dynamism not unlike that of living things.

    "Social science provides us with no category for such an entity, but other
    fields are beginning to offer what look, at least for now, like promising
    frameworks. One of these is the biologist Richard Dawkins's concept of a
    'meme.' Searching for a way to describe cultural evolution, he proposed a
    concept of self-replicating 'units of culture' analogous to genes... The
    underlying idea-- which gains a certain respectability from the new 'dual
    inheritance model' of evolution-- is that culture, like biology, may be
    subject to evolutionary laws of its own, with the 'fittest' memes winning
    out, in time, over the other cultural possibilities...

    "Considered as a self-reproducing cultural entity or meme, war appears to be
    far more robust than any particular religion, perhaps more robust than
    religion in general. Compare, for example, the 'reproductive' efficacy of
    war to that of a superficially rather similar religious practice: human
    sacrifice. Both involve killing people, and both tend to invoke rather
    exalted explanations for why the killing must be done. But human sacrifice
    can spread only by imitation; war, on the other hand, requires far less by
    way of human acquiescence. You may admire the religious fervor that leads
    the neighboring tribe to immolate its children, but you are not required to
    follow suit. In the case of war, there is very little choice; if the
    neighboring band decides to capture and immolate your children (or steal
    your herds and grain stores), your group can fight back-- or prepare to face
    extinction. Given its tenacity and near universality, war is surely one of
    the 'fittest' memes.

    "'Memetics' remains in its infancy, but for our purposes, the truly sobering
    aspect of Dawkins's idea is that 'fitness,' for a meme, may have little or
    nothing to do with the biological fitness or well-being of the people who
    act in conformity with it. If culture is governed by laws analogous to
    those of natural selection, these laws are not selecting for stronger or
    happier people, but for more successful memes. 'What we have not previously
    considered,' Dawkins writes, 'is that a cultural trait may have evolved in
    the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.'

    "Thus, if war is understood as a self-replicating entity, we should probably
    abandon the many attempts to explain it as an evolutionary adaptation which
    has been, in some ecological sense, useful or helpful to humans. Biology
    instructs us to raise large numbers of healthy children-- the clearest
    possible measure of biological fitness-- but culture can countermand this
    instruction with the idea that it is glorious to die young in war. Culture,
    in other words, cannot be counted on to be 'on our side.' Insofar as it
    allows humans to escape the imperatives of biology, it may do so only to
    entrap us in what are often crueler imperatives of its own."

    > <According to the war ethic, manhood is attained only by killing
    > another man
    > > and assuming ownership of his women and children. War, patriarchy, and
    > > slavery are all bound up in the same pathology. You might call it a
    > > memeplex. In many ways, it's the ancient prototype of the capitalist
    > > memeplex that currently divides the world into prey and predator.>
    > >
    > All war is about resources.

    War can adapt to virtually any society. For a rational, materialistic
    society such as ours, war will certainly involve control over resources.
    But in general war is about honor and glory, not anything remotely rational.

    As Lawrence Keeley points out, in War Before Civilization, the "goods" which
    tribes try to obtain through war usually have no material value, such as
    scalps, skulls, hands, penises, and captives for human sacrifice.

    > <That apes engage in a sort of proto-warfare in no way suggests that
    > > organized violence is instinctive among humans.>
    > >
    > That's like saying "that chimps and humans share 98% of genes in no
    > way suggests a common ancestor". Of course it does- what is hunting, if
    > organized and co-ordinated violence? The first modern humans lived by
    > hunting, meaning they were capable of organised acts of violence and
    > therefore capable of using those skills against other modern humans if
    > chose to, or needed to (some suggest possibly against neanderthals, for
    > example. I doubt we'll ever know for sure).

    Lewis Binford puts the origin of hunting at about 70,000 to 90,000 years
    ago. Prior to this we relied on scavenging for our meat. For most of our
    history, modern humans did not hunt. We were prey animals, not predators.
    Even when hunting did appear, its methods weren't applied to warfare until
    about 15,000 years ago.

    > > < By the time hominids arrived, all those old ape-like instincts were
    > > long gone. Without serious
    > > size differentials between genders, hominids had apparently outgrown the
    > > "big-ape" mindset in favor of the more egalitarian coupling
    > > of later humans. The structure of violence that held together ape
    > > no longer ruled. Our ancestors were taking a big gamble to emphasize
    > > brains
    > > over muscle, and this would have left them far more vulnerable than
    > >
    > Not if that increased brain size and capacity allowed us greater
    > capacity to adapt to circumstances, and innovate new ways of avoiding
    > danger, finding food and so on. Gender size differentials are smaller in
    > humans, but that hardly makes humans automatically egalitarian. Pretty
    > all of human history indicates otherwise, with the generally smaller
    > in the more subservient role.

    Patriarchy is a recent innovation, arising at the same time as warfare.
    Even in the last 15,000 years, women have not been universally subservient.
    There are ebbs and flows in patriarchy.

    > <Cooperation among tribes would have been essential for our
    > survival. >
    > No it wouldn't.

    Back when people were catfood, we were a lot more vulnerable to extinction.
    We couldn't afford luxuries like war, human sacrifice, religion, class
    division, etc.

    > I suppose what I meant was that there are some
    > superficial parallels between ape groups, with their usually dominant
    > and human tribes with their chiefs. That might be a specious comparison
    > though.

    It's called atavism. For humans to develop male-dominated social structure
    is no different than growing tails and swinging around in trees.


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