At Razib’s recommendation, I am reading Azar Gat’s “War in Human Civilization”. So far it’s pretty good, but one bit stopped me in my tracks to write this post. After deftly explaining that aggression is a useful option evolution has crafted into our genes but not a consuming drive like hunger or lust, we get this unscholarly echoing of the conventional wisdom: “[I]ndividuals, groups and societies [...] are conditioned to become more or less violent by the sort of environment to which they have been exposed. We intuitively know this to be true from dialy life experience: young people growing in violent social circumstances becoming violent; beaten children becoming beating parents; and so on”
It’s preceded by some stuff about developing brain plasticity which doesn’t suffice to show anything about behavioral development (fortunately there are no brain images). Just for completeness sake I’ll summarize Harris’ point: we can’t conclude on the basis of parent behavior to child behavior correlations that environment is the cause rather than shared genes, twin-adoption studies generally show the latter to be more important than the household environment (though peers are also an important influence). Gat does later mention the Swiss and Swedes becoming peaceful after a prior history of belligerence, which does support the argument.

UPDATE: The fighting among highland New Guineans is perhaps less famous than only the Yanomamo. New Guineans from the lowland are rarely mentioned. But apparently “[T]he Gebusi of lowland New Guinea had the highest homicide rate recorded anywhere”. The closest thing to a cite for that is to Bruce Knauft’s “Violence and sociality in human evolution”, but the footnote is attached to a block-quote on the causes of their violence rather than how it compares to other societies. On an unrelated note, a few pages later Gat seems to contradict himself on whether elephants are weak prey. “[P]reying on other predators, or even on very strong herbivores such as elephants, rhinos, and hippopotami, which are also dangerously equipped, is highly irregular. Normal preying is regularly done on species that are overall weaker and less dangerous than one’s own. (Contrary to appearance, this applies even to humans hunting elephants, not only to leopards hunting gazelles.)”.

UPDATE 2: I found myself with plenty of free time to read further and no access to the internet recently, so here are more notes. A discussion of comparative casualty rates elaborates on the Gebusi mentioned above. There may be a possible contradiction to his claim about their rate being the highest though: “The Waorani (Auca) of the Ecuadorian Amazon, who resemble the Yanomamo in their subsistence patterns and in the causes and style of fighting, hold the registered world record: more than 60 percent of adult deaths over five generations were caused by feuding and warfare”. This precedes the some numbers from other tribes including the following: “[A]mong the lowland Gebusi, 35.2 percent of the men and 29.3 percent of the women fell victim to homicide; the high rate for the women may be explained by the fact that killing was mainly related to failure to reciprocate in sister exchange marriage.” The citation is to “Reconsidering violence in simple societies: Homicide among the Gebusi of New Guinea” by Bruce Knauft.

Gat places a strange focus on the threat to sedentary agricultarists by raiding hunter-gatherers. This seemed odd to me since primitive agriculturalists war on each other all the time, hunter-gatherers tend to be displaced by agriculturalists and the nomadic raiders are more typically pastoralists (obviously not the case for the Apache/Navajo raiders of the pueblos, though I learned they only reached the area in AD 1500). Evidence given for the threat by hunter-gatherers specifically is that Jericho was walled and not nearby any other similar constructions. But couldn’t there be nearby agriculturalists who merely didn’t build similar structures? A few pages later it is acknowledged that Jericho’s fortifications are fairly unique and in other places cultivation did not lead to any signs of fortification. Also, if Jericho really is “Jericho”, would that refute the Levant=Arabian peninsula theory of Old Testament revisionism?

Gat clearly disagrees with James Scott: “[F]rom the 1960s anthropologists have become less confident than they used to be with the concept of ‘tribe’, and more conscious of its fluidity and diversity. But the same reservations apply to any other perfectly meaningful concept, such as the state, society, or a people. Tribal networks and affiliations in simple, pre-urban and pre-state agricultural societies are often – almost inherently – loose, but they exist. Skeptic influential anthropologist Morton Fried has gone as far as suggesting that the tribe is a ‘secondary phenomenon’, created only under the impact of more complex social entities (states), primarily, perhaps in the form of conflict. However, inter-tribal conflict predated the state and served as a powerful formative force for the tribe.”

On a final note (for today), Gat is pretty dismissive of some of David Anthony’s ideas about horse nomads. Anthony is known now (or I suppose he isn’t well known, I had to check) as the author of The Horse, the Wheel and Language, another mammoth history book which I found less engaging due to its narrower focus. I found Anthony’s marshalling of evidence fairly persuasive at the time, but I’m not competent to adjudicate such matters. Gat’s primary gripe is that chariots must have been superior or else militaries would have used the simpler setup of just warhorses, and indeed my recollection is that Anthony’s book (published a year later than Gat’s) describes the proto-Indo-Europeans as using war-chariots and wagons. I can’t remember what he said about horses vs donkeys and the shift from rinding on the back of the animal to a forward position, which is part of Gat’s argument.

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