Monday, August 19, 2013

Neither Hobbes Nor Rousseau: The Lockean Way in the Evolution of War and Peace

The recurrent debate over the evolution of war and peace is commonly framed as a choice between Hobbes and Rousseau.  And yet the opponents in this debate end up agreeing on a position that is neither Hobbesian nor Rousseauean but Lockean.  Thus does the evolutionary anthropology of war and peace confirm John Locke's account of the state of nature and the evolution of government.

In his editorial introduction to War, Peace, and Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2013), Douglas Fry adopts the argument of Marshall Sahlins (in The Western Illusion of Human Nature, 2008) that the study of war and peace is distorted by the bias in Western culture towards a Hobbesian view of human nature as innately violent.  This bias is said to run throughout Western history--from Hesiod and Thucydides to Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the American founders.  Contemporary scientists like Edward O. Wilson, Azar Gat, Richard Wrangham, and Steven Pinker show this cultural bias in their claim that human beings have an evolved propensity to war and violence shaped in the ancient history of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.  By contrast, Fry says, those who can free themselves from this Hobbesian cultural bias can see that the scientific evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and primatology proves conclusively that war was not natural for our nomadic foraging ancestors, and that war first arose as a cultural invention less than 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture, dominance hierarchies, and centralized states.

One obvious question about Fry's argument is how he and a few others like Sahlins were able to break out of the Hobbesian bias of Western culture.   When Sahlins first stated this argument in 1976--in The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology--he said that his liberation from the Hobbesian bias came from his understanding of the modern anthropological concept of culture, which was first stated by Rousseau.  "Rousseau justifies the title some would give him as the true ancestor of anthropology by arguing the status of war as a phenomenon of cultural nature--precisely against the Hobbesian view of a war of every man against every man grounded in human nature" (8-9).

Even when he did not explicitly acknowledge Rousseau's influence, Sahlins embraced a Rousseauean view of human evolutionary history.  This is evident, for example, in his famous essay on "The Original Affluent Society" (published in Stone Age Economics, 1972).  Sahlins explains that in a hunting-gathering society, the means for satisfying  wants are limited, but the wants themselves are also limited.  Unlike the modern bourgeois, whose wants are always greater than the means for satisfying them, savages can fulfill their limited material needs easily and thus have plenty of leisure.  "We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don't have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free" (14).  Moreover, they are free from domination, because their rough equality of wealth prevents any subordination of the poor to the rich.  There is no war.  And they have a rich social life organized around family and kinship.  In contrast to the selfish competitiveness of bourgeois society, this hunter-gatherer society is a "kinship community" of sharing and mutual aid.  This corresponds to the second stage of human evolution in Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, the stage of "nascent society" that comes with the emergence of family life.  Rousseau pronounces it "the happiest and most durable epoch," and generally "the best for man" (Masters ed., 146-47, 151). 

In Fry's edited volume, Darcia Narvaez restates Sahlins' argument for the life of  Rousseauean hunter-gatherers as superior to the life of Hobbesian bourgeois society.  While hunter-gatherers are virtuous, cooperative, generous, and egalitarian, she claims, the people in bourgeois societies like the United States are vicious, competitive, selfish, and hierarchical.  She also explains that hunter-gatherers are superior in their "sense of Spirit," their "higher consciousness," and their "right-brain  holistic orientation" (343, 354).

According to Locke, the original state of nature was a state of peace that easily became a state of war.  A state of nature exists whenever human beings live without a common superior with authority to settle disputes among them.  Insofar as they can live together according to customary norms of fairness as judged by ordinary reasoning, this is a state of peace.  But when some individuals exercise force without right against others, this becomes a state of war.  In the state of nature, each person has the "executive power of the law of nature," which is the power of each person to punish those who injure them, and thus each person takes the law into his own hands.  The state of nature can be a state of peace when all or most people agree on the customary rules of behavior as enforced by informal mediation and arbitration.  But it becomes a state of war when it falls into a cycle of revenge and feuding in which life, liberty, and property are so insecure that people seek out some formal system of law and government to keep the peace (ST, 6-14, 123-31).

The state of nature is a social state because all human beings must begin their lives as children dependent on parental care.  Sexual mating, conjugal bonding, and parental care constitute the family as a natural social unit securing survival and reproduction.  And thus kinship becomes the primary social bond and the source of social authority (FT, 86-89; ST, 52-84).

In the original state of nature, human beings lived as hunter-gatherers--gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals (ST, 26-31).  This hunting-gathering way of life prevailed for most of human history until the development of agriculture and pastoralism, so that human beings began cultivating domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals.  This agrarian way of life provided the conditions for a sedentary existence with a growing human population and the emergence of formal governmental rule (ST, 32-38).

Locke thought that the original hunting-gathering way of life could be seen among the most primitive of the American Indian bands.  "In the beginning, all the world was America," and thus this was "a pattern of the first ages" (ST, 14, 49, 108).

Locke agreed with Hobbes that a centralized state was necessary to adjudicate disputes in a way that would overcome the tendency to feuding when each person is the judge and executioner in his own case.  But Locke also saw the tendency for the power of the centralized state being abused by rulers for the exploitation of the ruled.  And thus he sought ways to limit the power of government to securing the conditions for peaceful cooperation to emerge as a largely self-regulating order in civil society.  This would combine the individual liberty that had been enjoyed by hunter-gatherers and the high civilization that had been made possible by an agrarian and commercial economy.

In the current debate over the evolution of war, it seems to me that the opposing sides can agree on most of this Lockean account of human social evolution. 

First, they can agree that Hobbes and Rousseau were wrong in depicting the original condition of human beings as a totally solitary state, because even the most primitive hunter-gatherers live in families and kinship groups that enforce informal customary norms of good behavior.  Rousseaueans like Sahlins prefer to start with what Rousseau thought was the second stage of human evolution--the "nascent society" of family life--and thus they reject Rousseau's conception of the first stage as a condition of solitary animals with no social ties, and they accept Locke's account of family as the "first society."  Human beings are naturally social animals who began their evolutionary history living in families and in local and regional groups bound together by ties of kinship, language, and culture.

The second point of agreement is that Locke and Hobbes were right about the need for government to secure peace through the formal rule of law.  This is what Steven Pinker identifies as the "Hobbesian pacification," which is the first step in the history of declining violence.  Fry and others who seem to be critics of Pinker agree with him about this.  For example, Fry agrees that while hunter-gatherers can maintain some social order through "self-redress"--"taking justice into one's own hands"--this tends towards uncontrolled feuding and raiding that makes it desirable to have a rule of law imposed by government (see Fry's Beyond War, 90-99, 223-26).  (What Fry calls "self-redress" corresponds to what Locke calls "the executive power of the state of nature.") Governance is better than anarchy.  People in stateless societies with high rates of violence--like the Waorani and the Yanomamo--can see "the potential of police, courts, and a code of law for achieving justice without raiding and revenge killings" (223).  L

The third point of agreement is that our evolved human nature is neither basically violent nor basically peaceful, because that human nature contains mixed motives, and the expression of those motives depends on the circumstances of life.  As Pinker says, "human nature accommodates motives that impel us to violence, like predation, dominance, and vengeance, but also motives that--under the right circumstances--impel us toward peace, like compassion, fairness, self-control, and reason" (483).  Thus, Pinker declares: "violent tendencies are not hydraulic but strategic, deployed only in circumstances in which the potential gains are high and the risks are low" (37).  Robert Sussman agrees with this.  "I am not trying to ignore the role of aggression and competition in understanding primate and human social interactions," he declares.  "We are all aware that humans are capable of warfare and violence; it is a part of our behavioral repertoire, part of the human behavioral totipotentiality.  Thus, of course, it is part of our biology and our inheritance, just as is peaceful behavior and the ability to love" (in War, Peace, and Human Nature, 108).  Both Sussman (97) and Pinker (619-20) agree in rejecting the idea of a "warrior gene."  They agree that the expression of violence depends upon the circumstances in which human beings act.  Fry agrees with Richard Wrangham and Pinker that males tend to be more violent than females, but that the expression of this male propensity to violence is flexible in being open to environmental or cultural influence (Fry, Beyond War, 166-74; Wrangham and Peterson, Demonic Males, 231-58). 

This openness to environmental or cultural influence has made it possible over the past few centuries for the growth in Lockean liberal culture to produce declining violence in all the ways studied by Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature.  The Rousseauean critics of Pinker seem to agree with him about this modern liberal culture of declining violence, and thus they disagree with Rousseau's pessimism about the degrading effects of bourgeois liberalism.  The only disagreement is that the Rousseauean critics see this declining violence as an n-shaped curve: no war at all over human history during the foraging era, a spike in war beginning 10,000 years ago, and then a recent drop in war (Fry, War, Peace, and Human Nature, 15-16).

The fourth point of agreement among those debating the evolution of war is that "complex" warfare is not a natural adaptation but a cultural invention that began about 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture and settled societies.  In his lecture at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in the Galapagos, Wrangham gave the following explanation of the difference between "simple" and "complex" warfare:
"The major difficulty in identifying warfare from skeletal remains is that war includes two styles of military practice, only one of which can be recognized archaeologically.  In terms of fighting, the distinction is between complex and simple warfare: complex warfare regularly includes battles (escalated conflicts between committed opponents), whereas simple warfare is largely confined to surprise attacks such as raiding.  In terms of social organization, the distinction is between hierarchy and acephaly (lack of formal leadership)."
"A society that practices complex warfare and battles, and has a military hierarchy, is said to have 'true warfare' or to lie above the military horizon (Turney-High 1949).  In this system, soldiers fight under orders from leaders and battles are frequently lethal.  The result of a specific encounter can thus be a large number of deaths on both sides, which (especially when combined with metal weapons) is easily detected archaeologically.  Such battle evidence currently goes back to about 8,000 BC in the Middle East (Qermez Dere, Iraq, Ferguson 2006).  True warfare is therefore normally thought to begin within a few hundred years of the origin of agriculture 10,000 years ago, resulting from the development of hierarchically organized states."
"'Simple warfare,' by contrast, is practiced by small-scale acephalous hunter-gatherer and farmer societies whose warriors fight voluntarily, and whose communities are not integrated with each other by any political officials.  It consists mainly of raiding and feuding.  Simple warfare tends not to include battles, but when battles occur they normally stop after a few deaths.  Massacres can occur when one side has a massive power advantage, such as burning a hut full of opponents, but the majority of deaths in simple warfare occur when raiders kill victims in a surprise attack.  Raids often kill very few victims, such as only one, followed by the aggressors immediately making a rapid and complete retreat in order to avoid the risk of being confronted.  The fact that in simple warfare most deaths occur in very small numbers explains the difficulty of distinguishing archaeologically between murder and war." (4-5)

But now we see the one big disagreement in the recent debates.  Like Hobbes and Locke, Wrangham and Pinker identify feuding and raiding among hunter-gatherers as war, even if a "simple" kind of war.  But their Rousseauean critics deny that this counts as war at all.  Fry agrees that nomadic foragers show lethal violence, but he argues that the "personal nature" of this violence means that such violence cannot be identified as war.  He explains: "The targets of homicide attempts are rarely randomly chosen members of other groups.  They are offenders who have committed specific misdeeds or acts of abuse" (War, Peace, and Human Nature, 11).

Notice, however, that despite this disagreement over how exactly to distinguish murder from warfare, there is agreement that hunter-gatherer societies can show high rates of homicidal violence from feuding.  For Locke, it is this very tendency to violent feuding that turns the state of nature from a state of peace into a state of war.

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