Thursday, June 18, 2015

Azar Gat on War in the State of Nature: Refuting Rousseau, Vindicating Locke

The debate among the early modern political philosophers over the state of nature can be settled by modern evolutionary anthropology.  Over the years, I have argued on this blog that this is an example of how evolutionary anthropology can clarify, and perhaps even resolve, disputes in the history of political philosophy. 

Evolutionary anthropologists studying the evolution of war and peace have been divided into Hobbesians who believe that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were naturally violent and warlike and Rousseauans who believe that hunter-gatherers were naturally peaceful.  But in setting up this debate as Hobbes versus Rousseau, they have overlooked the position of Locke.  This is a serious mistake, because the weight of the evidence and argumentation on this issue today is on the side of Locke's account of the state of nature as a state of peace that tended to become a state of war.  It seems now that while Hobbes was partly right and partly wrong about the state of nature, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, Azar Gat is one of the leading scholars defending the Hobbesian side of this debate and criticizing the Rousseauan side.  He concedes, however, that Hobbes was wrong on some points, because he failed to see that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were social animals and not solitary individuals, and that they were capable of living in peace for long periods of time, despite their propensity to violence and war.  Gat does not recognize that Locke was closer to the truth about the evolutionary state of nature than either Hobbes or Rousseau, and that the Hobbesians and Rousseauans today have been moving towards agreement on the Lockean account of the state of nature.

Gat elaborated his reasoning in his 2006 book War in Human Civilization (Oxford University Press).  Now he has restated some of this reasoning and surveyed some of the most recent research in an article that has just been published--"Proving Communal Warfare Among Hunter-Gatherers: The Quasi-Rousseauan Error," Evolutionary Anthropology, 24 (May/June, 2015): 111-126.

In this article, he shows that the Rousseauans have been retreating from Rousseau over the past 30 years, because the scientific evidence against the Rousseauan state of nature has been accumulating to the point that it cannot be ignored.  He shows that the Rousseauans have moved through three positions. 

First, they embraced Classical Rousseauism, which was Rousseau's original claim that human beings in the state of nature were totally peaceful, until the settlement into sedentary and agricultural life, which brought violent conflict. 

Second, they adopted Extended Rousseauism, which claimed that serious violence did not arise until the emergence of centralized states.  This position is associated with the "tribal zone theory," according to which simple hunter-gatherers and complex hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists did not become violent until they came into contact with intrusive states.  So, for example, the Yanomamo people of the Amazonian rain forest, whom Napoleon Chagnon made famous as the "fierce people," were said by Brian Ferguson to show the effects of a century of violent conflicts with European invaders.

Finally, most recently, the Rousseauans have adopted a Quasi-Rousseauism that breaks totally with Rousseau, because they concede that hunter-gatherers in the state of nature show the violence of homicide and feuds, and yet the Rousseans insist that this violence is not war.  Therefore, they can argue that war in the strict sense is not natural for human beings, but is a purely cultural invention of the states that began to appear around 5,000 years ago.  The Quasi-Rousseauans include Raymond Kelly and Douglas Fry.

Gat argues that this Rousseauan retreat from Rousseau is in response to the growing evidence from primatology, archaeology, and ethnography that largely confirms Hobbes's claim that the state of nature is a state of war.  As in his book, in surveying the evidence, Gat stresses the importance of Aboriginal Australia as the best natural laboratory for studying the hunter-gatherer way of life.

The primatological evidence includes the evidence for chimpanzee warfare, in which bands of adult male chimps belonging to one chimp community raid the territory of other communities, and if they have the numerical advantage over their opponents, the raiders attack or kill their opponents, and then the raiders return to their community, without suffering any injury to themselves.  This kind of behavior is similar to what human hunter-gatherers do when they launch raids, often at night, into the territory of other groups and make surprise attacks on their opponents.  Bonobos, however, do not show such violent behavior; and thus the Rousseauans look to the bonobos as their models for our primate ancestry.

The archaeological evidence includes skeletal evidence of injuries or lethal assaults from attacks, ancient weapons and shields, and signs of defensive fortifications.

The ethnographic evidence comes from reports of how hunter-gatherers have lived.  Since preliterate people have no written records of their history, the only records we have come from European observers.  Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau relied on the reports of Europeans who first discovered foraging societies in Africa and the New World.  The problem here, however, is the "contact paradox":  we cannot know how these people have lived until we contact them, but then any contact can distort their behavior.

As Gat indicates, the Australian Aboriginals appear to be the only case where the contact paradox is minimized.  Until the Europeans first arrived in Australian in 1785, Australia was an isolated continent of hunter-gatherer bands and tribes, with no pastoralists, agriculturalists, or states.  The earliest English reports of how they lived showed a history of lethal feuds, raids, ambushes, with fighting between individuals, families, and tribes.

Gat shows that surveys of the evidence for violence and warfare among hunter-gatherers and prestate horticulturalists manifest rates of violent death as high as 25% of adult males and 15% of the adult population.  These rates of violent death drop dramatically with the establishment of formal government and laws, thus showing the Hobbesian pacification of life under the Leviathan.  Those rates have dropped even more in modern liberal states, as Steve Pinker and others have shown.

Oddly enough, the Quasi-Rousseauans agree that there really is a pattern of declining violence here.  Their only disagreement is their insistence that the violence in the state of nature is personal violence--homicide and feuding--that does not satisfy any proper definition of war.  Gat responds to this by arguing that Hobbes and Rousseau saw "war" as including any kind of violence, and by arguing that there is evidence for large group-against-group conflicts among hunter-gatherers (such as the Australian Aboriginals) that should count as war.

The emotional intensity of this debate over the evolution of war is explained by Gat as reflecting the false assumption that if we see war as a natural evolutionary adaptation, then we must conclude that the pursuit of peace is a futile denial of human nature.  Gat denies this by arguing that while war is a naturally evolved capacity, it is not a biologically determined necessity.  We have evolved capacities for both peace and war, and whether we have war or peace depends upon the ecological and cultural circumstances of life.  If we understand this, we can look for ways to make peaceful cooperation more likely and violent conflict less likely.

In all of this, Gat is implicitly taking Locke's position.  Locke's state of nature is a state of peace, because human beings are naturally social animals--bound together by familial, tribal, and cultural bonds--who engage in mutually beneficial cooperation, which shows how human beings with natural reason can grasp a natural moral law, and enforce that law with the natural disposition to punish offenders.  And yet, Locke's state of nature can easily become a state of war, because where everyone has the natural power to punish offenses against the natural law, with individuals tending to be partial to their own interests, people tend to fall into endless feuding and raiding.  To escape from that natural state of war, the establishment of government and law, so that there is a common judge to settle disputes under the rule of law, can provide the conditions of peace.  Nevertheless, when those with governmental power rule arbitrarily and absolutely for their own interests and against the public interest, then the people can reclaim their "natural executive power of the state of nature" in resisting that tyrannical rule. 

As the rhetoric of Lockean liberalism succeeds in promoting the ideas of government by the consent of the governed directed to securing individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, we see ever declining violence and the spread of the liberal peace, as described by Gat, Pinker, and others.

I have developed these points in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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