The Killer "Ape"

War Is Not Inevitable

Science writer John Horgan says that war is a cultural development, not an indelible part of our evolutionary heritage.

The claim that we are descended from a long line of natural-born warriors has deep roots—even the great psychologist William James was an advocate—but like many other old ideas about humans, it’s wrong. The modern version of the “killer ape” theory depends on two lines of evidence. One consists of observations of Pan troglodytes, or chimpanzees, one of our closest genetic relatives, banding together and attacking chimps from neighboring troops. The other derives from reports of intergroup fighting among hunter-gatherers; our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers from the emergence of the Homo genus until the Neolithic era, when humans began settling down to cultivate crops and breed animals, and some scattered groups still live that way. But consider these facts. Researchers did not observe the first deadly chimpanzee raid until 1974, more than a decade after Jane Goodall started watching chimps at the Gombe reserve. Between 1975 and 2004, researchers counted a total of 29 deaths from raids, which comes to one killing for every seven years of observation of a community.

Even Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, a leading chimpanzee researcher and prominent advocate of the deep-roots theory of war, acknowledges that “coalitionary killing” is “certainly rare.” Some scholars suspect that coalitionary killing is a response to human encroachment on chimp habitat. Even more important, the first solid evidence of lethal group violence among our ancestors dates back not millions, hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands of years, but only 13,000 years. The evidence consists of a mass grave found in the Nile Valley, at a location in modern-day Sudan. Even that site is an outlier. Virtually all other evidence for human warfare is 10,000 years old or less. In short, war is not a primordial biological “curse.” It is a cultural innovation, an especially vicious, persistent meme, which culture can help us transcend. The debate over war’s origins is vitally important. The deep-roots theory leads many people, including some in positions of power, to view war as a permanent manifestation of human nature.


We have always fought, the reasoning goes, and we always will, so we have no choice but to maintain powerful militaries to protect ourselves from our enemies.


Kemo D. 7

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