A Science Voice from New Zealand

War. What is it good for?

by Bill Morris

My friend Lemuel Lyes is writing a fascinating blog based on his interest in history:

In a recent post, Lemuel analyzes his own academic interest in the history of warfare and comes up with this dilemma;

“I think deep down I suffer from one of the curses that has plagued humanity ever since two men banded together to throw rocks at another two men.

Our own personal sense of identity is often tied into the narrative of a community.  In turn, that narrative often seems to in part be defined by conflict with others.  On some level I think there is a personal empowerment through the “celebration” of what in an evolutionary sense is deemed to be a good trait, the ability to fight for the lives of your family or community.”
Why do we go to war? Not an easy question to answer and scientists have tried for decades to understand what drives human beings to fight. From the perspective of evolutionary biology, are there advantages to being “belligerent?” (a scientific term for an individual and a society’s preparedness to go to war).

In 2008 I went to Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, filming toque macaques – a species of monkey that inhabits the ruined temples and remnant jungles of that island. For several months I followed troops of macaques through the dense Sri Lankan heat, observing them at play and at war; feeding, mating, politicking and fighting. It was a fascinating experience that opened my eyes up to how much we can learn from our relatives in the animal kingdom.

There were a dozen or more troops in the area we were filming in, each one controlling a strictly demarcated area of territory. Toque macaques fight often – many adult males bear atrocious scars on their bodies and some are missing eyes, limbs and testicles. With their fearsome canine teeth and arrogant, aggressive demeanours, the big males are a frightful proposition, but the real power in the troop lies with the females.

Using sex as a bargaining tool and forming strong alliances with one another, the females pull the political strings that determine the make-up of the troop and to a large degree its “foreign policy” in relation to neighboring troops. The females are tied to territory – their concern is in retaining access to prime food resources. Males in the troop fight with each other and with males from neighbouring troops to defend their mating rights and in the process, maintain domination over territory.
For several decades, the researchers at Polonnaruwa have watched troops expand and contract; divide and conquer. In times of drought, or whenever there is competition between neighbouring troops for access to fig trees and other food sources, it is the biggest, most well-organized and warlike troops that thrive and expand at the expense of the others.

Aggression and gregariousness could therefore be seen as behavioural adaptations in response to scarcity of resources.  In short, the troop that sticks together and fights together is more likely to control a greater territory, and thus provide better prospects for its offspring.

Watching the vicious battles fought by macaque monkeys on a daily basis, it would be easy to view them as a warlike species. However I talked to Dr Wolfgang Dittus, head researcher at Polonnaruwa about the subject and he had this to stay;

“Monkeys, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors are actually at peace most of the time, solving their selfish conflicts (within the group and between groups) by communication and negotiation and avoidance of outright violence. It’s when things get out of balance that all hell can break loose – briefly.  The problem is that even a rare event can have a devastating effect.  One war with one death is a terminal event for the killed in action. You can live 20 years in peace, then undermine your life-time of peaceful efforts with one mishap.”
A rational analysis of warfare therefore suggests that to fight should be a last resort?

But is this really the case? It’s something I’ll explore in further posts.

What are your thoughts?








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