Sunday, November 30, 2008

Warfare Makes the Man, Woman, or Chimp

The New Scientist considers why we fight. Apparently, warfare — “as ancient as humankind” — plays an “integral role” in our evolution. This doesn’t strike me as overly surprising, but apparently, such information should not be taken for granted:

“A new theory is emerging that challenges the prevailing view that warfare is a product of human culture and thus a relatively recent phenomenon. For the first time, anthropologists, archaeologists, primatologists, psychologists and political scientists are approaching a consensus. Not only is war as ancient as humankind, they say, but it has played an integral role in our evolution.”

The article, by Bob Holmes, considers research suggesting that warfare makes up 10 percent or more of all male deaths in present-day hunter-gatherers. “That’s enough to get your attention,” says Stephen LeBlanc, an archaeologist at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum in Boston quoted in the article. Primatologists, according to Holmes, have long known that orchestrated violence regularly occurs between gangs of warring chimpanzees, our closest relatives.

Much of the article veers into the realm of social science. However, anthropologist Mark Flinn of the University of Missouri at Columbia looked into group-oriented responses on the hormonal level. Flinn studied cricket players on the Caribbean island of Dominica and learned that they experience a testosterone surge after beating another village. Their hormonal group surge ends when the game — er, warfare — ends. “The net effect of all this,” according to Holmes, “is that groups of males take on their own special dynamic. Think soldiers in a platoon, or football fans out on the town: cohesive, confident, aggressive — just the traits a group of warriors needs.” And here’s a new flash: Women are less aggressive.

Laura Moorhead

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