There is no scientist whom I admire more than Edward O. Wilson. He is an indefatigable investigator, explicator, and champion of all living things, from ants to humans, and he advances his views in prose more elegant and intricate than that of many accomplished novelists. His new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, eloquently elaborates upon his hope, first expressed in his monumental work Sociobiology, that science can help us achieve self-understanding and even, perhaps, salvation.
I have one serious complaint against Wilson, though. In his new book and elsewhere, he perpetuates the erroneous—and pernicious—idea that war is “humanity’s hereditary curse.” As Wilson himself points out, 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. At Gombe, where the chimps were well protected, Goodall spent 15 years without witnessing a single lethal attack. Many chimpanzee communities—and all known communities of bonobos, apes that are just as closely related to humans as chimps—have never been seen engaging in intertroop raids.
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—skeletons with projectile points embedded in them, weapons designed for combat (rather than hunting), paintings and rock drawings of skirmishes, fortifications—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. In his new book, Wilson actually spells out his faith that we can overcome our self-destructive behavior and create a “permanent paradise,” rejecting the fatalistic acceptance of war as inevitable. I wish he would also reject the deep-roots theory, which helps perpetuate war.
This piece is a response to Edward O. Wilson's argument that war is an unavoidable part of humanity's evolutionary heritage.
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. His book The End of War was published in January.