On War -- Revisited

 

 

Anthropologists Debate Whether, and How, War Can Be Wiped Out

By KIM A. McDONALD

 

Can war be eliminated? Or is it simply a fact of life, an inevitable consequence of our innate aggressiveness and fear of outsiders?

Some scholars who gathered here at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association to review decades of research on war said they believed war could be abolished if nations worked together to prevent the escalation of armed conflicts.

Others at the meeting, which ended last week, weren't as optimistic, noting that wars are fought for numerous reasons and that few societies studied by anthropologists have ever been free of bloodshed.

Those who believe war can be prevented argued that such conflicts remain rooted in contemporary society largely because of the pervasive belief that humans are unable to overcome their aggressive nature.

"If war is just part of human nature, then what is the point of trying to change the unchangeable?" asked Douglas P. Fry, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona and the Finland-Swedish University of Abo, who specializes in conflict resolution. "The prophecy becomes self-fulfilling."

R. Brian Ferguson, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Rutgers University at Newark, agreed. "Instinctive fear of strangers, inborn tribal loyalties, young violent men seeking reproductive success, chimpanzee analogies, and more are presented as established facts that explain collective violence in the modern world," he said.

Mr. Ferguson, who is part of a group of scholars at Rutgers studying political violence, war, and peace in contemporary society, argued that such evolutionary explanations have been popularized by uncritical news media and by world leaders, many of whom would gain power and influence if their countries went to war.

"As a broad generalization, leaders favor war, because war favors leaders," he said.

He and Mr. Fry said they believed that war is not inevitable because anthropologists do not find conflict in all societies. "Many peaceful cultures can be found," said Mr. Fry. "Anthropology shows this."

But other scholars insisted that those examples are few and far between. Melvin Ember, an anthropologist and president of the Human Relations Area Files, a non-profit research organization at Yale University, said that he and his wife, Carol, also an anthropologist at the group, had found that war was "rare or absent" in only 9 per cent of 186 societies over the last century that they examined.

The researchers discovered that the most common feature among societies that waged war was that their food supplies or existence had been threatened by natural disasters like floods, droughts, or pests.

That pattern suggests that the threat of wars might be reduced in the future if societies were to help one another reduce the expectation of disasters, he added. "Just as we have the assurance of disaster relief within some countries, we could have the assurance of disaster relief worldwide."

"Fear of unpredictable disasters, rather than shortages themselves," Mr. Ember said, was the most likely predictor that a society would go to war. He noted that such societies probably felt pushed into conflicts by the need to gain land, money, and resources, such as food and oil, to mitigate the impact of disasters.

Other important, though less common, predictors of conflict were a "socialization of mistrust," or instilled fear of strangers, and the level of democracy within a society. "More-democratic societies are less likely to go to war than less-democratic societies," Mr. Ember noted.

As a result, one might have expected that the collapse of repressive regimes, such as the Soviet Union, would have led to greater peace. But the end of the Cold War has instead allowed long-suppressed ethnic conflicts, such as in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans, to re-emerge, said Clayton A. Robarchek, a professor of anthropology at Wichita State University.

Other scholars pointed out that the growth of nation-states and transnational institutions, such as the United Nations, have made it more difficult for conflicts to break out.

Karl G. Heider, a professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, noted that as smaller societies have been subsumed into larger ones, the tendency of larger bureaucracies to avoid conflicts has made war less likely.

"We seem to be a lot better at preventing war between groups than we are within groups," said Christopher H. Boehm, a professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Fry of Arizona cited as an example the creation of the European Union, an organization that can peacefully resolve conflicts and has now made war among its members unthinkable.

Also helping to reduce conflicts, some anthropologists suggested, are globalization and the growing influence of the Internet, both of which have made people feel more like members of one community and less afraid of outsiders, as well as the international prosecution of human-rights violations.

"Holding leaders accountable for human-rights violations can serve as an effective deterrent," said Mr. Heider of South Carolina.

Many researchers were hopeful that studies of non-human primates might offer additional insights into how people might prevent or resolve future conflicts.

In a related session on conflict resolution, anthropologists described how chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys, and other primates engage in various forms of reconciliation after fights to maintain harmony within the social groups and to preserve relationships between important individuals. Like humans, chimpanzees reconcile by kissing, extending an outstretched arm, or even hugging one another, they said, suggesting that the human inclination to reconcile and resolve conflicts has an evolutionary basis.

Female baboons, meanwhile, reconcile by grunting, said Joan B. Silk, chair of the anthropology department at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In her studies, she discovered that baboons use their vocalizations to ease tension among potential victims of aggression, signal a non-hostile intent when approaching an infant, and maintain social bonds with close kin.

Peter G. Judge, a researcher in the psychology department at Bucknell University, said his studies with rhesus monkeys had showed that overcrowding leads to more tension and more aggressive threats. But he noted that the monkeys minimize conflicts by becoming more submissive and less mobile, and by avoiding eye contact, as people do in crowded elevators.

Mr. Fry noted that while many other parallels exist between humans and some species of non-human primates in the way they defuse conflicts, such as sharing food, touching one another, and exchanging gifts, "humans do it in a much more complicatedway."

Understanding why we are more complex and why we differ from other primates, he and other researchers said, might help to make the next century less bloody than this one has been.

"This past century was the bloodiest century in human existence," said Carolyn R. Nordstrom, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, not only because of the number of deaths attributed to wars -- 109 million -- but because of the fraction of the population killed by conflicts, more than 10 times as great as during the 16th century.

However, Anna Simons, an assistant professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A., noted that globalization and the desire of countries like the United States to control problems abroad create other difficulties that threaten peace. "Whoseworldwide culture -- whose worldwide norms -- do we adhereto?" she asked.

Such difficulties have made Marvin Harris, a professor of anthropology at the University of Florida, skeptical about whether war can ever be abolished.

War is nearly ubiquitous among cultures, he said, and the few societies in which conflict is absent shouldn't lead researchers into naively believing that they can abolish war.

"Anthropology is biased with a 'talk syndrome' -- that if we can only talk to these people and convince them, they will stop war," he said.

That doesn't mean researchers and others should stop trying, however. "Realistically," said Mr. Fry, "we can and must abolish war if humanity is going to have any future at all."