Evolutionary psychology and violence

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Christopher Boehm

“Global Conflict Resolution:

An Anthropological Diagnosis of Problems with

World Governance”

A Primer for Policymakers and

Public Policy Advocates
Edited by

Richard W. Bloom and Nancy Dess


Westport, Connecticut


Page 203

Global Conflict Resolution:

An Anthropological Diagnosis of Problems with

World Governance
Christopher Boehm

[Note: this is a scanned version of the publication; the page numbers refer to the text below the number.]
We live in a political world of dangerously disunited nations, states geared not only to economic, territorial, and ideological competition but to the violent settling of old scores and fighting out of national pride.2 The policy concerns I write about are geared to a belief that normal diplomatic thinking needs to be stretched in new directions and that new theoretical perspectives may be of assistance in doing so. We are interested in the practical possibility of estab­lishing a very different type of world order, one that makes it possible to readily and reliably police those who would wage war.

This would be a far cry from what we have today, for our problems with conflict and warfare are neither resolved nor even fully diagnosed. One way to approach such a diagnosis is to better understand the roots of these problems by looking into the political history of our species—a history that must be extended back into prehistory because human nature is involved. At a practical level, I believe we can use this theoretical advantage to better assess the amen­ability of armed conflict among nations to radical manipulation and suppression through global institution building.

Unfortunately, the habit of war among sovereign nations is deeply en­trenched. Indeed, a remarkable species that sends people to investigate other celestial bodies has not yet managed to set up a really effective world govern­ment. To diagnose this problem, I look into some ultimate causes of conflict, but also into natural propensities that underlie our capacity for peacemaking. This large-picture approach will include a Darwinian analysis that takes into account today’s human nature by examining an ancient human political career.

In important and fundamental ways, this career seems to have been amaz­ingly consistent for tens of thousands of years. At base we have been, and are, a competitive and (under many conditions) pugnacious political animal. This will continue unless human nature


changes, which is hardly likely—or unless our political environments and political practices are radically changed for the better, which might be within our power. Such changes certainly are conceiv­able, but as a practical matter the human nature I describe will tend to make this difficult.

The aim is to assess basic problems with world government in terms of contradictory basic tendencies in human nature, and to facilitate such a diag­nosis I introduce two political models that are ethologically oriented. One I term the egalitarian band/tribal model. Essentially this is based on what might be called the primeval form of human political society: an egalitarian band of hunter-gatherers that deliberately excludes any alpha role and makes its deci­sions by consensus. Along with tribes, which are larger and more recent but politically similar, these bands are so deeply committed to egalitarianism that their leadership is never very strong, let alone coercive. Yet they govern themselves rather well in the absence of formal institutions.

Second we have the despotic chimpanzee model. This refers to patterns of hierarchical behavior that take place within territorial communities of wild chimpanzees and also in large captive groups. Chimpanzee politics are carried on through an alpha male system, and they provide a crude but useful model for certain of the more despotic types of political behavior in humans (Boehm, 1999; de Waal, 1982; Wrangham & Peterson, 1996). Politically the two models contrast sharply, but, because aspects of both egalitarian and despotic ap­proaches emerge strongly in contemporary global political behavior, both will be useful diagnostically.

Using these two models in tandem will permit us to gain special insights into the possibilities for more effective world governance. The stakes are high, for we have moved from a world of nations in which destructive warfare is frequent to a world of nations that could accidentally or perhaps even delib­erately destroy human life itself. Our troubled planet has a Security Council, but in fact it seems to have less security every year as major national nuclear arsenals remain potent enough to accidentally ruin the world environment, new nuclear arsenals are added, innovative methodologies for delivering weap­ons of mass destruction become more potent, and what was an unambiguous balance of thermonuclear terror in 1985 becomes increasingly blurred because of proliferation.

“Human nature” has been around for a long time, as a concept people use when they wish to wax philosophical. Nonliterate people sometimes analyze motives of others in terms of human nature, and the ancient Greeks talked about it frequently in trying to define the human condition (see Arnhart, 1998). Over the past several decades, a deluge of books has appeared on the subject (e.g.. Konner, 1982; Sober & Wilson 1998; Wilson, 1978), but a frequent prob­lem is that scholars too often treat one aspect of human nature at a time, on


a laundry list basis, without considering the complex interactions of dispositions such as love or hate. As an extreme instance of oversimplification, scholars are prone to use human nature as a vehicle to characterize human behavior in terms of either-or propositions, as in "Are human beings really warlike, or peaceful?” The eternal debate between Hobbesians and Rousseauians is a prime example.

Here, taking cues from Konrad Lorenz's ethological notion of a “parliament of instincts" (Lorenz, 1966; see also Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1974; Lorenz, 1989; Mas­ters, 1989), I adopt what I have called an "ambivalence" approach (Boehm, 1989, 1999) that assumes that human nature is usually is not a matter of “either-­or” but of “both-and.” In broad philosophical terms, this means we are a mix of nasty and nice, rather than one or the other. Hobbes and Rousseau were both right.

In any human group, large or small, a fundamental problem is that of in­ternal security. In assessing practical political problems that confront humanity, I suggest that there are dispositions that incline us to learn conflictive behavior quite readily, but also dispositions that foster the management and resolution of conflict. Both are important to the state of our political world, as are dis­positions that respectively lead us to resent and appreciate superordinate con­trol.

I suggest that with many of our more serious problems, the underlying causes are in part “Darwinian.” Our flexible human nature is the product of a long history of natural selection, and individual humans are innately disposed to enter into conflict; indeed, competition and even fighting are behaviors read­ily learned under normal social stimuli. Unfortunately, this can apply also to coalitions or groups if serious environmental scarcities exist, and too often even if they don’t. If one would prefer to believe that human nature does not contain such flexible dispositions, consider the facts. We know, anthropologically, that over time even the smallest and most peacefully inclined types of social units (hunting bands) will predictably experience homicides within the group, and that rather frequently there is killing between bands, as well.

The upside is that humans also seem to be innately averse to conflict within their social communities, for everywhere they try to manage and resolve their disputes. It is logical that propensities to fight and propensities to actively re­solve conflicts would have evolved in tandem, for fighting provides certain competitive advantages to individuals (and sometimes to groups), while our evolved propensity to resolve and manage conflicts reduces the damaging side effects. Although these two traits are seen clearly in the oldest type of human society, the hunting band, they also hold for nations, which must either manage their internal conflicts or face civil war. At a grander level, an entire world of nations faces the same ancient dilemma. There is destructive conflict, and then there is conflict management as a means of actively trying to reduce its effects.

Until recently, the overall balance between tendencies to fight and tendencies to reduce the effects of fighting has at least been “tolerable”—in the ultimate and amoral evolutionary


sense that the overall result has been survivable. We haven’t yet done ourselves in as a species, even though warfare causes untold suffering. However, we now face a world rife with thermonuclear weapons and increasingly effective biological and chemical agents, weapons that can be de­livered not only by nations but also by hard-to-target and sometimes suicidal nonnational political coalitions that may be disgruntled or vengeful, but that also may be ambitiously seeking world hegemony. An already very costly pattern of intergroup political competition is becoming increasingly compli­cated, and increasingly risky.

An obvious and secure answer to this problem would be an impartially vigilant and highly invasive world government, one vested with power sufficient to intervene as needed for purposes of inspection and elimination of weapons that threaten all. What we have instead are two global political systems, neither of which provides the needed security. One is the United Nations, with its inability to coerce any of the great powers. Everyone knows what is wrong with the UN as a world policeman, but at the level of the global community of nations, there is little serious debate about how to reconstruct this entity so that it could be come truly effective. The hunter-gatherer model will provide a diagnosis that could be instructive.

The other global political system is an informal alpha-nation one, in which large nations committed to their national interests also have roles in being the world’s policeman. Recently this superpower role has devolved on the United States, but there can be as many such “policemen” as there are alpha-nations with resources sufficient to play the role. The conflict of interest inherent in this “individualistic” policing role is a formula for disaster, and presently I enumerate a few examples of this. The chimpanzee model will clarify what is wrong with the present system, but also what aspects, if any, might be useful to a new world order.

At the level of diagnosis, why has our vaunted human rationality led us to be relentlessly unimaginative and ineffective in coping with a potentially ul­timate problem that we have been well aware of for half a century?3 Let us begin not with hunting bands and the great ape communities that preceded them in prehistory, but with single modern nations. Modern nations do quite a good job of preventing internal warfare within their frontiers, so let us con­sider a typical nation as a possible model for global governance.

Show me a nation, and I will show you—usually—a political success. The exceptions can be disastrous, as in the case of the former Yugoslavia, or merely unsuccessful as with the former Soviet Union aside from Chechnya. Other exceptions can combine short-term


disaster with long-term success, as with the U.S. Civil War. But by and large, nations all over the world are durable precisely because they do their job of preventing internal warfare.

When first created, nations presented a politically useful invention to the world. By this I mean that once nations started to appear, adjacent politically fragmented populations were obliged either to form nations of their own, or to become exploited by or absorbed into existing nations that were predatory. Inherent in this type of large organization is the political unification of popu­lation segments that originally were prone to factionalization and conflict. However, unlike warlike tribes, which only confederate ephemerally for specific purposes of defense or attack, nations are able to form permanent confedera­tions out of their constituent elements because they are so good at keeping internal security. The problem with nations is that they keep the peace well at home—but are prone to fight with other nations.

The political theories that inform these standard political interpretations are as old as tribal politics itself. Nonliterate tribesmen understand basic political patterns much as political scientists, political anthropologists, and modern statesmen do, and one fundamental premise I just applied is that external threats stimulate internal unification. Others are that humans in groups are prone to conflict over scarce resources or territory, and that as groups we are prone to form coalitions, with allies, in order to balance power. Indeed, many of the anthropological principles that make sense of segmentary-tribal politics (e.g., Bohannan, 1954; Chagnon, 1983; Evans-Pritchard, 1940) work seamlessly for larger units like nations.

Internally, a nation unites a population in a way such that internal warfare is no longer a predictable outcome when serious internecine conflicts of interest arise. These may stem from competing economic interests or regional, reli­gious, ethnic, class, or political-ideological bones of contention. A unifying national ideology helps, but ultimately, with large nations, it is coercive power at the political center that lies at the base of this successful arrangement. The alternative is to have a huge population that is prone to poorly regulated in­ternecine conflict, and is likely to splinter asunder or become so weakened that it is vulnerable to conquest from the outside. It is difficult to find a major nation lacking either a large police force or a standing army.

A successfully stable nation has a centralized government that is committed to the preservation of an existing political union, and it must have the force available to follow through if other means of conflict resolution prove insuf­ficient. After an incredibly bloody twentieth century, a question immediately comes to mind: Why haven’t we simply patterned our world government on the many successful national governments we have before us as examples? In a sense we have: the UN looks quite a bit like a democratic national government writ large. But then we haven’t, for the UN was absolutely powerless in the face of a perilous Cold War. For decades tensions between the two alpha-nations threatened all of humankind, and the global community stood by. The reason for this


impotency is obvious enough, for sovereign nations refuse to submit to any higher authority. No political behavior is more predictable.

So why, at a lower level of political segmentation, do the constituent political units within nations submit to centralized control—when the nations of the world show no inclination to do this? This question is pregnant precisely be­cause, in theory, at the world level a supernation or meta-nation should be able to end our ceaseless wars. It is tragic that humanity managed to get through just one year of the new millennium before its warfare pattern reasserted itself in a new and dangerous form.

At first blush, the UN with its General Assembly looks like a great big democratic nation. However, it cannot behave like a nation because its structure has been contrived to prevent this. The crucial job of conflict resolution is delegated to the Security Council, whose membership is heavily weighted in favor of militarily powerful nations, and in that council there is a veto with no recusal: any permanent member that objects can block any measure—including one directed at itself or one of its allies. Thus, the conflict-management function of this council is crippled in exactly the cases that are most likely to prove dangerous to the welfare of all.

Keep in mind that the UN army that engaged in resisting the North Korean and eventually Chinese invasion of South Korea did so when Mainland China was not a UN member and Taiwan held the Chinese seat. So when China became involved, it was not sitting on the Security Council. At the time, the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN because of the China issue, so it could not veto the UN police action against North Korea. Normally, UN police actions are directed at less powerful polities with neither a seat on the Council nor a veto-wielding Great Power to shield them from intervention.

In conjunction with the absence of an effectively centralized political struc­ture for decision making, the UN lacks two other crucial political features of nations. One is the capacity to forcefully demand taxes. The other is a sub­stantial standing army or police force that provides the coercive force needed for conflict management and other key governmental functions—including, of course, taxation. These liabilities are easily sufficient to cripple the UN when­ever a serious conflict develops with either a superpower or its close ally in the mix.

The existence of such liabilities is not accidental. If an effective diagnosis of the world security problem is to be achieved, one must look into the motives that led certain constituent nations, the largest and most powerful ones, to emasculate their own peacemaking organization. It is to make a contribution in this direction that I now introduce our two evolutionary models, which involve principles derived from the disciplines of biocultural anthropology and primate ethology.


Ethnographers have documented the behavior of several hundred hunting bands worldwide, for extant foragers have been available for study on all con­tinents—save for Europe and the Middle East. The great majority are nomadic, just as their prehistoric precursors surely were. With respect to politics, there is a rule of thumb that applies to every last group of these nomads: they are politically egalitarian.

The tribal people who followed and largely replaced these mobile foragers had domesticated animals and plants and they lived in larger settlements that very often were permanent, but they remained vehemently egalitarian in their political behavior. I refer separately to these tribesmen from time to time, because they do a few things politically that egalitarian foragers do not do in their smaller nomadic groups. One is to form confederations, and the other is to engage quite frequently in intensive warfare and raiding, in addition to killing for revenge.

It is impossible to understand the sociopolitical history of humans, and our political nature itself, without taking this phenomenon of deliberate political egalitarianism into account. I am by no means suggesting that humans are innately egalitarian as opposed to hierarchical and that the marked hierarchies that later appeared with chiefdoms, kingdoms, and nations were some kind of environmental or cultural accident. The relations between innate human hi­erarchical tendencies and this prehistoric preference for egalitarianism must be clarified before we can fully understand the political dynamics that presently hobble the UN, and see how deeply they are grounded in human nature.

There was a time when many anthropologists believed that people in hunting bands were just naturally equal, that is, that something akin to primitive an­archy reigned because human nature was devoid of dominance tendencies. By this view, the social and political hierarchies that came later were merely en­vironmental effects, stimulated probably by modern population densities. This erroneous belief was facilitated by a Rousseauian perception of hunting soci­eties as being naturally nonviolent and naturally nonhierarchical, and the result was some really serious confusion about human political nature. If some so­cieties were despotically hierarchical and others egalitarian, at first blush it made sense to say that human nature must be a blank slate—that environments could impose any behavioral program they wished to.

That earlier implicit viewpoint can now be challenged definitively, and this is important in terms of building institutions for global governance: we are not likely to succeed unless we take our stronger natural propensities into account, realistically. Two cultural anthropologists, Bruce Knauft and Carol Ember, have demonstrated that in spite of being politically egalitarian, people in bands are far from being uniformly peaceful and nondominant. For one thing, hunting bands internally have substantial homicide rates, many being comparable sta­tistically to violent urban scenes in our own country (Knauft,


1991). Homicide is perhaps the ultimate form of domination, and everywhere humans are prone to do it. For another, the majority of these bands engage in some type of intergroup conflict every year or so (Ember, 1978), often in the form of smallish revenge parties, and only a handful show anything like a total absence of conflict between bands. A few nomadic bands even go to war as entire groups, and in aboriginal Australia this pattern appears to be at least 1,000 years old (Tacon & Chippendale, 1994; see also Kelly, 2000).

In my role as a biocultural political anthropologist, I have tried to make sense of these ethnographic facts by suggesting that egalitarianism in bands is by no means due to a human nature that is so noncompetitive that we are just “naturally” egalitarian. Rather, egalitarianism involves a deep political tension between individuals who are motivated to dominate, and a rank and file that decides it simply will not be dominated (see Boehm, 1999). This can be dem­onstrated ethnographically, for people in bands have antiauthoritarian ideolo­gies, and as moral communities their behaviors reflect this strongly. The rank and file astutely and effectively sanction (and thereby collectively dominate) stronger group members who deviate from a rule that can be stated as follows: no individual has the right to despoil, boss around, or otherwise dominate any other person in the group, and essentially every household head, male or fe­male, must be at political parity (see Boehm, 1999).

This means that a clever species which is innately hierarchically inclined (see Masters, 1989; Wilson, 1975) and is well set up to be violently dominant (Daly & Wilson, 1988) is using domination by groups to avoid domination by indi­viduals, and this tells us something quite different about human nature. It is the dominance and submission tendencies in that nature that make the for­mation of social hierarchies highly probable, and the twist is that sometimes, in small societies, the direction of domination can be reversed so definitely that the subordinates are firmly in charge—having first defined themselves as po­litical equals.

These individuals know that if they were to stand alone they would be dom­inated, but that if they individually give up on their personal chances of be­coming a dominator in order to ensure that they themselves will not be dominated, they can live in a “society of equals.” That way the highest status they allow to anyone, no matter how talented or physically or psychically powerful, or how adept at leadership, is that of primus inter pares (Fried, 1967). Given a human nature that fosters status rivalry leading to individual domi­nance, a society of “firsts among equals” will not simply stay in place. Group members must work continuously at policing upstarts, if they wish to over­come the natural tendency of humans to form pyramid-shaped hierarchies based on individual dominance (Boehm, 1993; see also Erdal & Whiten, 1994, 1996; Lee, 1979).

That dominance tendencies can be rather strongly predisposed in individuals is shown by the fact that in spite of a shared egalitarian ideology, all bands at one time or another will have to sanction aggressive upstarts who ignore this social contract. Faced with a would-be

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