Today I attended a lecture "The Prehistory of War and Peace: When, Why, and How Did War Begin" which is a part of a lecture series on "Aggression and Peacemaking in an Evolutionary Context" which is being held at the Lorentz Center, which is part of my university.
This panel discussion was a mixture of anthropology, primatology, and psychology of war. Not so much focusing on the politics of it all. So I liked it.
One interesting point of debate was how do you identify if war is in our pre-history, if we can't find evidence. So one speaker said something quite nice "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." So we can't know -- we can only make theories.
Another guy did a study on the correlation between population density and the incidence of war among hunting-gathering tribes. Surprisingly, there was no direct correlation, but he did find a correlation between incidence of war and a new variable called "population pressure". He defined population pressure as a demand and supply relationship vs. population density. For example, if a particular region had a growing season of only five months, then the people of that region are more likely to suffer a food shortage and hence start fighting.
A third guy asked us to close our eyes and imagine that we were a soldier at Auschwitz, hacking away at some poor women and children. And to imagine the act of hacking and then to imagine the blood. Certainly, most of us find the thought appalling. So if we find such thoughts so revolting, then how could another do it.
Psychological studies show that most of us are ambivalent and it's the triggers and society that controls us. A 1999 study in a journal Military Review showed that a major's job was to find just 5% of the platoon who are ready to kill, and the rest would just need to kill to defend themselves (which is somehow more justifiable).
And today, most of us have evolved inhibitions towards aggression.
There were arguments both for and against aggression being in our genes.
I liked one argument on if there were no males, then there would be no "dominance drive", and there would be no war :) But if there were no males, there would be no mankind -- shucks!
My favorite musing in the talk was go back to the point in our evolution when our thoughts found a language. And we were able to think about our thoughts. That's a turning point we don't really think about too much. And I try to think now, if I weren't thinking in words, what would I be thinking in.
You can find the names of the speakers here.