Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hunting For Peace (And Also Gathering)

When images of war become particularly graphic and heartbreaking, it is inevitable that someone, somewhere, will begin to decry not just the perpetrators of the imagery in question, but in fact humanity itself. They will cry out to anyone who will listen, demanding to know what supreme deity would allow such madness to take place among their people, or alternatively, how we as a species could possibly stand by and let such madness to continue. Bonus points if they acknowledge any violence on the other side of the conflict as well. But inevitably, no matter how many times this cycle repeats itself, no matter how many calls for peace, in the end every cycle is met with a grudging or even jaded acknowledgement that violence is just what humanity does. It's nature. It's evolution. It may even be cited as a potential reason why aliens haven't shown up to say hi yet.

Douglas Fry and Patrick Soderberg of Abo Akademi University in Finland beg to differ. As they theorize in a study (behind a paywall) they got published in Science magazine, humanity, while certainly not peaceful by nature, does not have warlike tendencies hardwired into it. Instead, that aspect of humanity came about as a side effect of the trappings of civilization. There was a lack of evidence of war that they noticed in archaeological studies of the hunter-gatherer era, so that gave them the idea to check 21 hunter-gatherer tribes that have survived to the present day. As far as they were concerned, 20 of them did not express warlike tendencies; the outlier is the Tiwi people, living on the Tiwi islands off Australia's northern coast. For the rest, instances of violence were limited to person-on-person violence or revenge killings in response to a previous killing, neither of which they considered to be war. Among the contributing factors was small groups and low population density, which would cause a group to be more likely to run than fight. Only 15% of lethal events happened across societal lines (mostly from the Tiwi).

Now, I like the effort here, I like the message. But I disagree with it. We will leave aside the rebuttal that other studies (there are other studies) have in fact shown more warlike tendencies among hunter-gatherers and focus on what we have before us.

First, and this has been addressed in existing peer critiques, but Fry and Soderberg focused only on the oldest-existing records for each tribe they examined. Specifically, they selected their tribes for study from something called the Ethnographic Atlas, created in the 1960's, and picked the tribes listed purely as hunter-gatherers around that time. To examine them, they used data running back to, in some cases, the 17th century. This runs into a lesser version of the same problem that forced them to examine modern tribes in the first place instead of pre-civilization tribes: lack of information. As historical records reach further into the past, they get more and more murky, and more and more of our information about the past is based on glorified guesswork that we then have to go revise when new information is discovered. Maybe those old hunter-gatherer tribes were warlike. It's been tens of thousands of years. That's plenty of time for evidence to vanish.

My other problems aren't in the gathering but rather in the bookkeeping. 'Only' 15% isn't a very good number to be saying 'only about. One tribe out of the 21 did in fact express warlike tendencies. I don't think that can be ignored or dismissed, as the Los Angeles Times writeup tries to do at one point by rerunning the numbers after the Tiwi are removed. Wars get all the press in the news, but look around. Look at a map. Take any two random neighbors. Odds are, those neighbors aren't at war. They may not be best of friends, but they're not at war. Australia and Indonesia aren't at war. Jamaica isn't at war with Cuba. Italy isn't at war with Switzerland. Russia isn't at war with Mongolia. Ecuador isn't at war with Peru. Namibia is not at war with Zambia. And so on and so forth. And the vast majority of nations don't have civil wars going on either. I don't have a statistic for it so I can only estimate, but 1 out of 21 doesn't seem, to my ear, like it's that out of whack with the global numbers. If the studied tribes were getting proportional attention to nation-states, the Tiwi would dominate headlines. You'd hear about Tiwi this, Tiwi that all the time in the news, day in day out, and not hear all that much about the other 20.

And there's also the fact to consider that revenge killings (counted in the approximately one-third of killings involving one group against another, though with the paywall in place I don't know the exact proportion) were not counted as warlike. In and of themselves, they may not be war, but they can very quickly start them. Countless wars over the course of history have begun that way; blood feuds that have metastasized into large-scale conflicts. The process is very simple. A person from Tribe A commits an act against Tribe B that Tribe B feels is punishable by death. They therefore kill the member of Tribe A. The rest of Tribe A, not sharing Tribe B's view, decides that someone from Tribe B, possibly the tribe member that performed the execution, needs to die in revenge. So they do that. But in Tribe B's mind, this second killing is unwarranted. After they killed the offending member of Tribe A, the matter in their minds was over. Now they have a killing that must be met with revenge. A cycle of killing thus begins, as Tribe A and Tribe B do not agree on which are original killings and which are revenge killings meant to even things up, and if someone along the way does any extracurricular killing along the way, the feud can easily escalate and become a war. This is essentially how the Hatfield/McCoy feud played out, with the original act of outrage being a dispute over the ownership of a pig. (Wikipedia cites an earlier spark, a McCoy fighting for the Union in the Civil War, but this was locally regarded as bringing it upon yourself. Because Appalachia.)

For a more modern example, simply type 'israel palestine revenge' into Google, scroll down the results, and note how often each side is vowing revenge against the other. Through the first 20 results for me, the sides seeking revenge are: Palestine, Israel, Israel, Israel, Israel, Palestine, Israel, Palestine, Palestine, Palestine, Israel, Palestine, Israel, Palestine, Israel, and the remainder is either 'neither' or, much more commonly, 'both'.

The Hatfield/McCoy feud remains a 'feud' in the vernacular sense because there simply weren't the numbers to bring it up to the status of war. Clans and tribes worldwide, civilized or not, engage in blood-feud practices to this day. Fry and Soderberg note that small populations limit warlike tendencies, but they said it was because the hunter-gatherers were more likely to just run. Even if they didn't run, the populations are small enough that we wouldn't call it war anyway. Fry and Soderberg don't. We'd call it a feud or vendetta or some other word. We imagine wars to be conducted on a wide scale, encompassing many, many people. We don't imagine them as endless revenge cycles becoming indiscriminate killings between smaller clans, even though the behavior patterns can be very much the same.

It seems like a very... government-like description of the situation, missing the forest for the trees and getting lost in semantics. The presence of the Tiwi shows that a hunter-gatherer tribe can be warlike even by Fry and Soderberg's definition. A less restrictive definition will show that, while war may not be the common word, the seeds to lead there, at least to the extent the size of the group permits, are very much present.

I would love for them to be right. I would love to be able to come here and say that we as a species can be naturally peaceful, even if the actions required to be that way involve something as unrealistic and drastic as tearing down civilization and going back to hunter-gatherer ways.

But I don't think they have it right.

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