Fry has also identified 74 “nonwarring cultures” that—while only a fraction of all known societies—nonetheless contradict the depiction of war as universal. His list includes nomadic hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung in Africa and Aborigines in Australia. These examples are crucial, Fry says, because our ancestors are thought to have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers from the emergence of the Homo lineage just over 2 million years ago in Africa until the appearance of agriculture and permanent settlements about 12,000 years ago. That time span constitutes 99 percent of our history.
Lethal violence certainly occurred among those nomadic hunter-gatherers, Fry acknowledges, but for the most part it consisted not of genuine warfare but of fights between two men, often over a woman. These fights would sometimes precipitate feuds between friends and relatives of the initial antagonists, but members of the band had ways to avoid these feuds or cut them short. For example, Fry says, third parties might step between the rivals and say, “‘Let’s talk this out’ or ‘You guys wrestle, and the winner gets the woman.’”
Fry has sought to determine what distinguishes peaceful societies from more violent ones. One clue comes from his fieldwork among the Zapotec, peasant farmers descended from an ancient, warring civilization in Oaxaca, Mexico. There, Fry studied two Zapotec communities, which he labeled with the pseudonyms San Andreas and La Paz. San Andreas’s rates of male-on-male violence, spousal abuse, and child abuse are five times higher than those in La Paz. The reason, Fry suspects, is that women in La Paz have long contributed to the income of their families by making and selling pottery, thus earning the respect of the males.
Fry believes that empowering females may reduce the rate of violence committed within and by a nation. He notes that in Finland—which has a low rate of crime and violence compared with other developed countries—a majority of the cabinet ministers and more than 40 percent of the members of Parliament are women. “I don’t see this as a panacea,” Fry adds, recalling “iron lady” Margaret Thatcher, “but there are good reasons for having a balance of the more caring sex in government.”
The anthropologist Richard Wrangham is one of several scientists at Harvard who present a much darker view of human nature than Fry does. In his 1996 book, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (coauthored with Dale Peterson), Wrangham argues that “chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human war, making modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million-year habit of lethal aggression.” Natural selection has favored combative, power-hungry males, he contends, “because with extraordinary power males can achieve extraordinary reproduction.”
“I worked in the Congo,” Wrangham remarks drily when I call him in England, where he is en route to Africa to study chimpanzees. “It’s hard for me to feel that we’re a peaceful species when you have hundreds of thousands of people being killed there.” Wrangham says de Waal is exaggerating the significance of the bonobos, and he scoffs at Fry’s attempt to minimize warfare among hunter-gatherers by excluding “feuds.”
But like his more sanguine colleagues, Wrangham believes we can overcome our propensity for aggression. Primate violence is not blind and compulsive, he asserts, but rather calculating and responsive to circumstance. Chimpanzees fight “when they think they can get away with it,” he says, “but they don’t when they can’t. And that’s the lesson that I draw for humans.” Wrangham notes that male hunter-gatherers within the same band rarely kill each other; their high mortality rates result from conflict between groups.
Wrangham even agrees with Fry on how to decrease conflicts both between and within nations. He points out that as female education and economic opportunities rise, birthrates tend to fall. A stabilized population lessens demands on governmental and medical services and on natural resources; hence, the likelihood of social unrest also decreases. Ideally, Wrangham says, these trends will propel more women into government. “My little dream,” he confesses, is that all nations give equal decision-making power to two entities, “a House of Men and a House of Women.”
Like Wrangham, the archaeologist Steven LeBlanc is critical of scientists who emphasize the peaceful aspects of human nature. At Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where he serves as director of collections, LeBlanc points to a piece of carved wood hanging on his office wall. This, he notes, is a spear employed by Australian Aborigines (who, according to Fry, rarely or never waged war). A short, bearded, excitable man, LeBlanc accuses Fry of perpetuating “fairy tales” about levels of violence among hunter-gatherers and other pre-state people.