THE ORIGIN OF WAR: THE EVOLUTION OF A MALE-COALITIONAL REPRODUCTIVE STRATEGY, by Johan Matheus Gerardus van der Dennen, Groningen: Origin Press, 1995, 2 vols., xiv+863 pp.
Reviewed by George Modelski, University of Washington, SEATTLE, WA 98105, for POLITICS AND THE LIFE SCIENCES, Vol.17, 1998.
This is not a book that is easy to read, or to review. It is the unedited doctoral dissertation presented by a long-time member of the Polemological Institute to the Law Faculty in the University of Groningen. Its long text comprises, in addition to a massive bibliography, of some 5000 items, and a full ethnographic inventory of peaceful societies, eight substantive chapters, that are each almost a monograph. Some of these are elaborations or remakes of published articles or chapters in edited books, and others that were written from scratch over a period of l5 years, and there is much overlap. Most difficult of all, perhaps, is the fact that the book consists almost entirely of reviews of a great variety of literatures : anthropological, and archeological, Darwinian theory, the "Killer-Ape" hypothesis; and Political Realism - to name just a few. The citations from, and the summaries of such works take up so much space that often it is difficult to discern exactly what the author's own argument is or where it is intended to lead. It might be noted, though, that while the sheer volume of references is just short of overwhelming, the frequent direct citations from the literature invariably lack page references. There is a Dutch summary, but no abstract in English.
The substance of this work is a confrontation of extant knowledge about primitive war with what the author calls "the newfoundland of sociobiology". Opening with an outline of evolutionary theory, including evolutionary game theory, the argument proceeds by setting the concept and characteristics of primitive warfare, elaborating i.a. on Quincy Wright's classic contributions. While "primitivity" is generally correlated with low-level warfare, or an absence of war, fear rather than aggression seems to lie at the basis of resort to hostilities. The main conclusion emerging from Chapter 3 is that "non-human" (that is, animal) "agonistic behavior" is "adaptive" (hence non-pathological) behavior in a number of non-human , and especially primate, species; and that the study of chimpanzees raiding can yield particularly valuable insights.
If biological theories can serve, in the author view, as the "ultimate level" explanation of the origin of war, then a review of such theories, including Charles Darwin's, leads to the view (following J.Tooby and L.Cosmides) that war can only have evolved to be common in circumstances in which the net inclusive fitness of warriors was enhanced. In this evolutionary sense the ultimate causes of war lie in sexual selection and in kin selection, even though that relationship may have more recently become unhooked. As distinct from ultimate ones, proximate-level explanations, that is cultural theories, only tell us why particular wars are fought.
Chapter 6 critically reviews the role of ethnocentrism, and in particular Shaw and Wong's recent contribution that, too, views it as an extension of kin selection, hence of inclusive fitness, and as a universal syndrome that makes groups into "forces of selection" permanently engaged in actual or potential conflict. Chapter 7 presents evidence derived from the author's Ethnological Inventory Project showing that the "Dogma of Universal Human Belligerence" is ill-founded, just as that of universal peaceability (proving wrong both Hobbes, and Rousseau). Data on some 500 primitive peoples claimed to be "highly unwarlike" ("war reported as absent or mainly defensive"), and some more with "allegedly mild, low-level, and/or ritualized warfare" are displayed at pp.595-674. This helps to justify the claim that peace is the normal human condition but has also obtained mostly among primitive societies that were small, and isolated, as on islands, or in mountain areas. But war and raiding has also been rational in certain conditions.
The final chapter draws together these several strands to conclude that "war may have evolved" (that is, may have arisen through natural selection) "during hominid/human evolution" (p.49), as a facultative, male-coalitional, reproductive (or parental-investment) strategy" (p.539). In other words, the origin of war (as a behavioral strategy of humans, and of chimpanzees,, though not necessarily as a social institution) might go back as far as several million years. However that strategy is only an optional one, employed in certain defined situations and is not necessarily a universal characteristic of human behavior. It probably arose in conditions of female exogamy (dispersal) that in turn favored a male-coalitional strategy for the defense of territory as groups of males began to cooperate over the issues of land and women.
"Opportunistic and occasional territorial aggrandizement and violent recruitment of females" (p.564) became "fundamental causes of hominid/human warfare" thus reflecting the different reproductive strategies of the two sexes, a strong theme of recent writings by evolutionary psychologists. These conclusions are obviously tentative (war "may" have evolved...) and reflect the author's generally skeptical, and cautious approach to theory and evidence. While hardly a light read, this comprehensive work will need to be consulted by all those exploring or pursuing evolutionary approaches to world politics. But there are some problems, too, of evidence, conceptual, and of significance.
The most obvious problem, common to all discussions of primitive war, is the problem of evidence. How to demonstrate the existence, and meaning, of war-like events that might have occurred hundreds of thousand, or millions, of years ago, with virtually no data except for extrapolations from contemporary ape behavior, and from recent eyewitness reports by "civilized" travelers and scholars. Caution is obviously the better part of wisdom.
Second, there is the military historian's understanding of early warfare as starting maybe only about ten thousand years ago (see .e.g. A. Ferril's ORIGINS OF WAR 1985). Is it useful to conceptualize warfare as being fought without weapons? That might be difficult yet the archeological record shows no such artifacts as bows, slings or daggers earlier than in that same timespan, and pictorial representations are just as scarce. Furthermore, there is the political scientist's understanding of warfare as a complex institution. Is it right to conceptualize it as "ultimately" biological in origin? On the author's own account, such social-cultural factors and in particular the male-coalitional part of the argument linked to the ability to cooperate could not be worked out without such cultural and social inventions as language (how could there be "oratory" in the Pleistocene - p.587 - if human language is only some tens of thousands years old?), cultural markers of identity, and sociability, and weapons.
Finally there is the problem of significance. What might be the value of this account to a political scientist specializing in International Relations, in particular given the fact that to-day such specialists rarely give attention to, or test their views against evidence from, events prior to the 20th or 19th centuries?
What this particular IR scholar appreciates in particular in this analysis is its facultative aspect. It is good to be shown convincingly that humans are neither inherently bellicose nor innately peaceable. Though it might at time have been opportune, war was not preordained in the long distant past, and it is not preordained in the future. On the other hand, it ought to be pointed out that the male-coalitional strategy has been key not only in war but in all the myriad other cooperative enterprises: business, political, religious, associational and sports, that have marked the evolution of the human race and of the world system. Nor does "reproductive strategy" appear sufficiently convincing as the ultimate cause of modern warfare. Territory remains an important bone of contention but hardly an all-encompassing imperative.
What appears to be missing from this account is sensitivity to evolutionary changes in such a basic political institution as war. Are we to understand that in its basic makeup warfare has remained unchanged for several million years? Or that its basic structure was laid down in the dawn of prehistory, and that all that followed, in the past five thousand years of civilization and of "history", has been nothing but "a nightmare" (p.593)? Has nothing changed in world politics even in the past one thousand years? Arguably, the biological(reproductive) component of the war syndrome is less powerful to-day, and the social (coalitional) more important, and working through social evolutionary mechanisms such as e.g. elections, or innovations, that are analogous to natural selection and genetic variation. That much might indeed be implicit in this account but it could be spelled out more fully if the author looked carefully at modern history as the record of world political evolution.