[Marxism] A natural history of peace

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 3 09:24:41 MST 2006


A Natural History of Peace
By Robert M. Sapolsky, Foreign Affairs
Posted on March 2, 2006, Printed on March 3, 2006
http://www.alternet.org/story/32755/

The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, "All species 
are unique, but humans are uniquest." Humans have long taken pride in their 
specialness. But the study of other primates is rendering the concept of 
such human exceptionalism increasingly suspect.

Some of the retrenchment has been relatively palatable, such as with the 
workings of our bodies. Thus we now know that a baboon heart can be 
transplanted into a human body and work for a few weeks, and human blood 
types are coded in Rh factors named after the rhesus monkeys that possess 
similar blood variability.

More discomfiting is the continuum that has been demonstrated in the realm 
of cognition. We now know, for example, that other species invent tools and 
use them with dexterity and local cultural variation. Other primates 
display "semanticity" (the use of symbols to refer to objects and actions) 
in their communication in ways that would impress any linguist. And 
experiments have shown other primates to possess a "theory of mind," that 
is, the ability to recognize that different individuals can have different 
thoughts and knowledge.

Our purported uniqueness has been challenged most, however, with regard to 
our social life. Like the occasional human hermit, there are a few primates 
that are typically asocial (such as the orangutan). Apart from those, 
however, it turns out that one cannot understand a primate in isolation 
from its social group. Across the 150 or so species of primates, the larger 
the average social group, the larger the cortex relative to the rest of the 
brain. The fanciest part of the primate brain, in other words, seems to 
have been sculpted by evolution to enable us to gossip and groom, cooperate 
and cheat, and obsess about who is mating with whom. Humans, in short, are 
yet another primate with an intense and rich social life -- a fact that 
raises the question of whether primatology can teach us something about a 
rather important part of human sociality, war and peace.

It used to be thought that humans were the only savagely violent primate. 
"We are the only species that kills its own," one might have heard intoned 
portentously at the end of nature films several decades ago. That view fell 
by the wayside in the 1960s as it became clear that some other primates 
kill their fellows aplenty. Males kill; females kill. Some kill one 
another's infants with cold-blooded stratagems worthy of Richard III. Some 
use their toolmaking skills to fashion bigger and better cudgels. Some 
other primates even engage in what can only be called warfare -- organized, 
proactive group violence directed at other populations.

As field studies of primates expanded, what became most striking was the 
variation in social practices across species. Yes, some primate species 
have lives filled with violence, frequent and varied. But life among others 
is filled with communitarianism, egalitarianism, and cooperative child 
rearing. Patterns emerged. In less aggressive species, such as gibbons or 
marmosets, groups tend to live in lush rain forests where food is plentiful 
and life is easy. Females and males tend to be the same size, and the males 
lack secondary sexual markers such as long, sharp canines or garish 
coloring. Couples mate for life, and males help substantially with child 
care. In violent species, on the other hand, such as baboons and rhesus 
monkeys, the opposite conditions prevail.

The most disquieting fact about the violent species was the apparent 
inevitability of their behavior. Certain species seemed simply to be the 
way they were, fixed products of the interplay of evolution and ecology, 
and that was that. And although human males might not be inflexibly 
polygamous or come with bright red butts and six-inch canines designed for 
tooth-to-tooth combat, it was clear that our species had at least as much 
in common with the violent primates as with the gentle ones. "In their 
nature" thus became "in our nature." This was the humans-as-killer-apes 
theory popularized by the writer Robert Ardrey, according to which humans 
have as much chance of becoming intrinsically peaceful as they have of 
growing prehensile tails. That view always had little more scientific rigor 
than a Planet of the Apes movie, but it took a great deal of field research 
to figure out just what should supplant it. After decades' more work, the 
picture has become quite interesting. Some primate species, it turns out, 
are indeed simply violent or peaceful, with their behavior driven by their 
social structures and ecological settings. More important, however, some 
primate species can make peace despite violent traits that seem built into 
their natures. The challenge now is to figure out under what conditions 
that can happen, and whether humans can manage the trick themselves.

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