Brian Ferguson’s research on the origins of war, going back to the beginning of human history and our closest ape relatives, suggests war is not part of our evolution.
By April M. Short
War and all of its brutality is attention-grabbing and memorable. Recollections of war and conquests tend to stick around and take up the spotlight in historical records. However, a war-centered narrative paints an incomplete picture of human history—and human nature. While there is a popular opinion in the anthropological community that war is an evolutionary, inborn tendency of humans, there is also pushback to that theory. There is a growing argument for a human history that predates war altogether and further points out that war is not innate to human nature, but instead, is a social and cultural development that begins at certain points around the globe.
However, once war takes place, it tends to spread, explains historical anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson, who has spent more than 40 years researching the origins of war. Ferguson, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, notes that war is not the same thing as interpersonal violence or homicide. War implies organized, armed conflict and killing sanctioned by society and carried out by members of one group against members of another group. Ferguson argues that current evidence suggests that war was not always present but began as a result of societal changes—with evidence of war’s origins appearing at widely varying timestamps in different locations around the world. He estimates that the earliest signs of war appear between 10,000 B.C., or 12,000 years ago.
“But in some areas of the world you don’t see any signs of war develop until much more recently,” he says, noting that in both the U.S. Southwest and Great Plains there is no evidence of war until around 2,000 years ago.
Ferguson wrote an article in the Scientific American in 2018 titled, “War Is Not Part of Human Nature,” in which he details his take on war. In the article, he summarizes the viewpoints of two anthropological camps, dubbed hawks and doves by late anthropologist Keith Otterbein. The hawks argue that war is an evolved predisposition in humans dating back to when they had a common ancestor with chimpanzees. Doves, meanwhile, argue that war has only emerged in recent millennia, motivated by changing social conditions. In the article Ferguson writes:
“Humans, they argue [doves], have an obvious capacity to engage in warfare, but their brains are not hardwired to identify and kill outsiders involved in collective conflicts. Lethal group attacks, according to these arguments, emerged only when hunter-gatherer societies grew in size and complexity and later with the birth of agriculture. Archaeology, supplemented by observations of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, allows us to identify the times and, to some degree, the social circumstances that led to the origins and intensification of warfare.”
Ferguson has studied the anthropological and archeological records throughout ancient, and sometimes into more modern, human history. He says there is a lack of evidence of war or large-scale violence, in many places around the world throughout various periods of history. He has spent four decades researching and historically contextualizing the various origin points of war around the world. He has also contextualized incidents of group violence in humanity’s closest ape cousins, chimpanzees. He argues that war is not innate, evolutionary nor inevitable behavior for humans.
Ferguson spoke with Local Peace Economy correspondent April M. Short about his findings and theories surrounding war and human history.
April M. Short: The big questions are: have humans always gone to war, or is there a point of origin for war? And, is war innate to the human species (or maybe just men)? Is there an evolved predisposition to war or is it a social, learned behavior that emerged with particular organizations in societies?
Brian Ferguson: There is a great deal of interest regarding this in anthropology in particular, and in archeology, and political science as well. It’s been a very active field and they are many different issues that are involved [here] that are connected to each other.
To mention one issue about whether war has always been with us, there is the related question of how war was affected by the expansion of colonial systems. In particular, related to Western Europe, but other [colonial systems] as well. I maintain that colonial expansion generally led to more intensive warfare than a lot of the fighting that we’ve seen around the world in the past few hundred years, from the Age of Exploration onward. This is not a reflection of human nature but a reflection of circumstances, or the contextual situation.
But, even before the beginnings of colonialism, war was quite common around the world. War leaves a number of different signs, which is indicative of violence in the archeological records, the most important of which are skeletal trauma and settlement data of different sorts. There are other indicators as well, but if you have a lot of information on those two things, then if war is present, it will show up.
AMS: Another, related question is whether there is evidence of a clear starting point for war?
BF: Everybody wants to know when war began. It’s difficult to give an answer that will satisfy people because you have to ask where you’re talking about. Evidence for war appears at different times in different locations. And, once war began, sometimes it went away for a while, though that was not the case most times. Oftentimes war would spread, and it would change over time as political systems changed. It’s a very complicated field.
But the question people really want to know the answer to is [whether] war [is] human nature? And in one sense, the answer is definitely yes, because humans make war, we’re capable of making war, it’s one of the things humans do. But I think the more meaningful question that people are trying to get at is: is there something that has evolved in human beings, or maybe just in men, that makes them inclined to try to kill—or at least to act with extreme fear to—people outside their own group. Is it a natural human tendency or predisposition to kill outsiders? That is what has been argued by a lot of people. [cognitive psychologist and science author] Steven Pinker is one, there are many others.
Other people have argued something a little different than that, which is: maybe there isn’t any inborn tendency to want to kill outsiders, but war will happen naturally unless you have some kind of system in place to stop it. That’s sort of what Thomas Hobbes was talking about in Leviathan, right? He didn’t know about genes and this was before [Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution]. He wasn’t saying people had an “evolved” predisposition to kill outsiders. He just said that people pursuing their own interests, without some kind of larger civil society, will naturally turn to violence to further their own interests, and that will lead to war. And what that means is war is a natural condition of human society. So, is [war] part of human nature or is it the nature of humans in society?
The bottom line is, in one view, humans have always made war since they’ve been humans. But what I have been arguing for some time now is that if you look around the world, in the archeological records, the earlier remains don’t have evidence of war.
Now, when we go very far back—say 30,000 years or more—there is almost nothing to indicate the humans were even there. Maybe you have a stone tool or something, but you can’t say based on evidence whether there was war or not. But, when you come closer to the present and you look at the material evidence, you do not find evidence of war for some time.
What you find is a global pattern. At different times in different places around the world, if you go from the earliest archeological evidence [and move] forward, there will come a time when evidence of war will start to appear. Those changes occur without a dramatic increase in archeological recovery. It’s not like we’re starting to get good [evidence in] archeology, [or] good data, and only now are we starting to see [signs of] war. We hadall of it but there weren’t any signs of war. Then signs of war started to appear.
A colleague of mine, Doug Fry, works in this area and has been making a bigger point about this, and it’s a very good point. We’ve been accumulating a number of cases from the archeologists who work in particular areas, and archeologists themselves aren’t interested in the question of when war began, they’re just digging their own digs. They’re generally not interested in making global comparisons like I am. But we find that when archeologists provide summaries of the evidence of interpersonal violence of a deadly nature, more and more of them are showing that war has a starting point.
AMS: You mentioned this is the pattern everywhere you look, is it the global pattern?
BF: In the Americas alone, which I’ve been working on lately, [the pattern of evidence of war emerging during a given time in the records] includes the Andean region, it includes the Oaxaca region in Mexico, it includes the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada, Northwest Alaska, the Eastern Woodlands, the Great Plains. I’m not sure whether you can say the same for Western California, because Western California is unusual for having a lot of violence that goes back very far, so I’m not sure whether you can say there’s clearly a time before you have evidence of war there. But it’s the case in all these other places. I also looked at the patterns in Europe and the Near East where you see the same thing: you don’t have any evidence of war, and then war shows up.
One more note on this: it’s often said that an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so if you don’t find evidence of war, that doesn’t mean war [didn’t happen] there. For any particular case, any particular [archaeological] dig, that is absolutely true. But if you are talking about a larger region with multiple excavations, that is not a scientific statement, because it cannot be challenged, it cannot be falsified. If you’re saying: “Even if you don’t find evidence of war, war probably [still happened] there,” how do you disprove that? But if I’m saying that in these different areas you’re not going to find any evidence of war before certain periods of time, because no war took place there, that’s easy to disprove. You just find the evidence.
It’s a little tiring to me to have the phrase repeated, “just because you don’t find the evidence doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” because the pattern of seeing [war] start-up is so clear in so many places. It’s time to consider the possibility that, really, war wasn’t there at all before a certain point.
AMS: Why do you think the popular theory has been that war is innate to humans, or we’ve always had war?
BF: That’s a great question, and it’s a difficult question to answer. If I’m talking about whether there are signs of war in Europe in a particular year, I can talk about that in terms of evidence. But when you get to the question of why people tend [to lean] toward either the theory that “people are innately belligerent” or “people are innately good,” (which is often suggested to be the Rousseau versus Hobbes point of view), some of it is individual variation in opinions. But I also think when you look at the prevalence of these ideas, they’re time specific.
Back in the late 19th-century when Darwin’s work was new, there was a real emphasis on this struggle for survival. There was a racial part to it too, which was the idea that some races are superior to others, and the struggle and fight [between the races leads to] the superior ones conquering the inferior ones. That whole Social Darwinist ideology was very common, and it fed into other theories back then, which were a bleak view of humanity. Freud was very bleak. Early psychologists were very bleak and would talk about humans having instincts, and one of the big instincts was the instinct of pugnacity. Pugnacity is a word we don’t use much anymore, but pugnacity was said to be the instinct in which people just wanted to fight. So, if you wanted to know why wars exist, it was because we had the instinct for pugnacity.
World War I provoked a kind of revulsion against war. There was a change in how people looked at things. There was a 1915 study that was really revelatory, titled, “The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples: An Essay in Correlation.” It looked at a number of different societies around the world (in what today would be a very crude method). It said that the simplest societies may have some war, but they had less war than more developed societies. It began to seem like war wasn’t part of human nature, it was part of developing larger-scale, hierarchical societies. It came with that political evolution.
Time went on and in the 1960s there developed a very strong intellectual argument for war being innate. There were several writers who were key in [the development of] this [argument]. One was an Austrian ethologist (ethologists are people who study animal behavior) named Konrad Lorenz. He was on the German side during World War II. He was of the view that if you play a martial tune, men will drop everything and go off to war. He wrote the book On Aggression that was very influential.
Then there was Raymond Dart, an Australian paleobiologist (though they didn’t use that word at the time) who found early skulls and remains, and was convinced that in every skull he found he saw evidence of a violent death and cannibalism. Dart’s work was picked up by a very gifted writer, Robert Ardrey, who wrote several books, including African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, which were part of his Nature of a Man series. That was the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” If you’ve ever seen the beginning of that film, these proto-apes had something changed in their minds by black obelisks from outer space, and they start killing each other, and that’s the beginning of human creativity. That’s what Ardrey basically believed to be the truth about humans, and he popularized it.
And then, there was the famous book, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Golding came up with this idea that people were just real pieces of work. All of these concepts were part of the popular culture in the 1960s, and it was very influential. It became the accepted wisdom that that’s the way people are.
The Vietnam War made a big difference. Anthropologists had not really been interested much in the study of war before Vietnam. The Vietnam War went on for a long time, and demonstrations against it were very big on college campuses, which is where anthropologists are. I was a draft-age student back then and that’s really when the anthropology of war as a field first developed. It grew from there and different perspectives developed. Some of them held that war has always been with us, some said it was a biological instinct, some argued that war was a cultural product, and a relatively late development. Margaret Mead [cultural anthropologist] was one of those, who said “Warfare is Only an Invention, Not a Biological Necessity.” And I think she was right. Since then, this argument has continued on in a more scholarly way, with people producing evidence. Now we’ve been doing that for a couple of decades and we’ve got a lot of evidence.
AMS: You mention in your Scientific American article that the people who argue that war is innate often use the example of chimpanzees being warlike. They point to the common ancestor shared between chimpanzees and humans to argue humans are innately warlike. You have spent two decades analyzing all of the recorded incidents of violence relating to chimps, and you have written a book on the topic, which is soon to be published. In your book, you theorize that chimpanzees are not, in fact, warlike but that their incidents of violence can be attributed to cultural and social contexts, largely involving human interference. Can you share a bit about your work on chimpanzees?
BF: I’m not a primatologist. I’ve never worked with chimpanzees. I’m a historical researcher, so I read the observations by other scholars, and I contextualize those observations. I did that with war, and I’ve done it with chimpanzees.
Back in 1996, a book came out called Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. It painted a really grim view of human nature, as evolved to kill strangers. And the argument was that chimpanzees do this… not because they’re hungry or they’re in some kind of immediate contest over resources. It’s just: they’re programmed biologically, by evolution, to do it. And the argument was that, then, so are humans because chimpanzees and humans got it from their common ancestors anywhere from six to 13 million years ago.
I started [going through all the literature] in the late 1990s, and now the book is finished. I’ve called it Chimpanzees,“War,”and History. And you’ll note I put quotes around “war.” For the book, I went through every site [where chimpanzee group violence took place]. What I found was that while people would say their [warlike] behavior of looking for outsiders or strangers and killing them is normal chimpanzee behavior, it’s really rare. If you talk about a war as being sequential killings of members of another group, then there are only two chimpanzee wars that take place in a span of about nine years. I mention this in the Scientific American article:
“My work disputes the claim that chimpanzee males have an innate tendency to kill outsiders, arguing instead that their most extreme violence can be tied to specific circumstances that result from disruption of their lives by contact with humans. Making that case has required my going through every reported chimpanzee killing. From this, a simple point can be made. Critical examination of a recent compilation of killings from 18 chimpanzee research sites—together amounting to 426 years of field observations—reveals that of 27 observed or inferred intergroup killings of adults and adolescents, 15 come from just two highly conflicted situations, which occurred at two sites in 1974–1977 and 2002–2006, respectively.
The two situations amount to nine years of observation, tallying a kill rate of 1.67 annually for those years. The remaining 417 years of observation average just 0.03 annually. The question is whether the outlier cases are better explained as evolved, adaptive behavior or as a result of human disruption. And whereas some evolutionary biologists propose that killings are explained as attempts to diminish the number of males in rival groups, those same data show that subtracting internal from external killings of males produces a reduction of outside males of only one every 47 years, fewer than once in a chimpanzee’s lifetime.”
The gist of my argument is that evidence shows deadly intergroup violence is not a normal, evolved behavior pattern of chimpanzees, but a situational response to a local history of human disturbance. That is what the book demonstrates.
AMS: I’ve read that bonobos share just as much DNA with humans as chimpanzees and are not warlike or violent—in fact, they’re practically nonviolent. Do you look at bonobos in your book?
BF: Yes. My book has 10 parts and part eight [is about] bonobos. Bonobos are a fascinating comparison. They’re as related to humans as chimpanzees are. We have, however, never seen a bonobo kill another bonobo (although one killing of an infant is suspected, but very possibly didn’t happen). Another thing that’s different about bonobos is that they have on occasion accepted outside adult males into their groups. Now, chimpanzees have accepted adolescent males to their groups, and they’ve also temporarily tolerated stranger adult males in their groups, so it’s kind of a fine point, but it is a qualitative distinction between [chimps and bonobos].
The saying was chimps are from Mars and bonobos are from Venus. Chimpanzees are partial to violence, aggressive and totally male-dominated; and bonobos are, as the story goes, female-dominated and not as hostile, not as aggressive… I wouldn’t say bonobos are matriarchal, instead, I would say their society is gender-balanced—which is very different from chimpanzees.
And this takes us back to the question of inborn predispositions because if chimpanzees are born to kill, and if the bonobos don’t kill, is that because somehow [bonobos] evolved out of the killing mode? Are they biologically evolved so that they don’t kill?
Other than the two extreme behaviors I mentioned, accepting outside males into their groups and killing, almost everything a chimpanzee has been seen doing, a bonobo has been seen doing. There’s a lot of overlap in what they do. It’s kind of a difference in frequencies rather than cut and dry differences.
… Bonobos don’t have the things that I think make chimpanzees fight, which is a scarcity of resources connected to human impact. Bonobos haven’t had that. And at the same time, they have something that goes against fighting, which is a social organization that’s very different from chimpanzees. I don’t think this is a result of instincts or inborn predisposition.
I spend a lot of time in the book laying out the fact that a young male chimpanzee grows up in an adult world where males dominate females, and females don’t spend a lot of time with other females. Males spend a lot of time hanging out with other males, so they’ve got a sort of boy club there, and this leads them to engage in status competition that’s male-on-male. Very often a group of two or three males together will kind of rise in the social hierarchy by hanging together and attacking any other males as a duo or trio, and that’s how they beat the alpha. And [being an] alpha has a lot of advantages.
For chimpanzees but not bonobos, the second hypothesis in my book is that the unusually aggressive, high-status males may, in some circumstances, engage in what I call ‘display killing’ of helpless individuals, even infants within their own group, in order to intimidate status adversaries.
But bonobos have a tendency of females to bond (which may have to do with the genito-genital rubbing that females engage in, although that’s not entirely clear), and they will attack a male who is too aggressive. If a male wants to rise up in the status hierarchy of bonobos [they need to be less aggressive]… because the society structure is [based on] a bisexual ladder. For a male to rise in the status hierarchy, what they do is they stick close to their mothers. The best ally for a bonobo male in getting access to feeding, getting access to mating and going up in the status hierarchy means being close to a high-status female. The status game is played with mothers, not brothers. That’s how a bonobo male takes care of his own business. It means that they’re attached to females and very often not attached at all to other males.
AMS: For me, just as a layperson coming into this, learning that we are just as related to bonobos as chimps undermines the idea that human warlike tendency is due to the common ancestor with chimpanzees. It’s interesting to consider how much social structures may be influencing behaviors, for humans as well as other apes.
BF: It’s a big area of research now, and field research has changed for a number of different reasons. One thing that’s happened in primate field research, and in laboratories too, is that work in non-intrusive studies that look at hormone levels and genetics has expanded. [Researchers] can get their samples by placing tarps under trees and waiting for chimpanzees to pee in the morning. And then they can collect data on the hormone levels and genes.
There is interest right now in the biology of these primates, and the argument in biology has been that chimpanzees and bonobos really are biologically different— genetically, hormonally and behaviorally. It’s a really interesting area that I find complicated because of the nature of these biological studies and the nature-nurture interaction. The idea that biology and environment combine and influence the development of any organism and these changes may be epigenetic and may have to do with the birth environment. The main action of epigenetics, [the study of heritable changes in gene expression] is based on what happens in early life, though epigenetics works throughout life and may be transmitted through generations, too.
The way I put my argument at one point [in my book] is: what if they were switched at birth? If an infant chimpanzee was put in with bonobos and vice versa, what would they grow up to be like? Would a chimpanzee raised among bonobos grow up to act like a chimpanzee with all the aggressive notions, male bonding and all that stuff? I argue that they would follow the local customs [of the bonobos], they would do what they saw others around them doing. Then along came epigenetics, and as it was applied to chimpanzees, it seemed to fit perfectly that the early childhood and the social experience of a chimpanzee and a bonobo at birth is very different.
AMS: To bring it back full circle to humans, how do you argue this idea of nature vs. nurture, epigenetics and socialization, might come into play anthropologically, and in relation to war?
BF: The implication, or lesson here, for humans is that humans are flexible. I think chimpanzees are very flexible, I don’t think that they have innate patterns to do things like fight with each other. I think it’s acquired in chimpanzees and bonobos. And I think that that goes for human beings too. And humans go a lot farther than that in the complexity of culture.
A lot of people will say that chimpanzees and bonobos also have cultures, they will use the word culture for these great apes. I think what chimpanzees and bonobos have is clearly learned traditions. They learn things to do, things that others in their group do. I don’t think that’s the same thing as culture, because culture involves a symbolic and linguistic medium to exist. And that culture exists in our thoughts and our language and our speech. That’s how you learn it. That’s how you communicate it. That’s how it’s passed on.
Human culture has cumulative development—and it needs language and symbols for this. You learn what one generation did, then you can do something on top of that. Everything we have in this world goes back to thousands and thousands of innovations, all of which have been based on the innovations that came before. Chimpanzees do not have cumulative innovations.
For war, I think the difference plays out in that humans do not have inborn predispositions. Some anthropologists will argue that humans have an inborn predisposition to not kill other human beings, that they’re born against doing that, and they have to unlearn that [in order to be violent]. That’s an optimistic way of thinking about human beings, and it certainly goes against the idea that people are natural-born killers. I hope it’s true, but I’m not convinced. I think that could just as easily be a result of the way that we’re socialized in our own societies.
What I’m saying is that, at a minimum, we don’t have a predisposition either way. We’re certainly not predisposed to kill. We’re not predisposed to be xenophobic. Ethnocentric is a little different because ethnocentric simply means at the basic level, that the way you were brought up is the way you think things should be done. Every culture teaches every new infant. Everybody thinks: “My way is the right way to do things.” But going beyond that, to the concepts that other people are inferior, or dangerous enough to be killed—that’s certainly not part of human nature. When we look at tribal people, when the Europeans first showed up, the initial response typically was to look at these strange people with curiosity. It’s not a natural reaction of fear, not this kind of tribal hostility that everybody always talks about, which is a lot of bunk.
The lesson is that humans have a great deal of plasticity. And we can be molded in different ways. We can be molded to be Nazis, or we can be molded to be passivists. Thinking that it is something that comes from the genes, that it’s evolved and that’s the way we are, is not going to help you understand what’s going on, and it’s going to confuse you.
At the end of my book, I summarize all the work I’ve done over the years on war. For the past few years, I’ve been talking about human nature and war. Before that, the big question for me was not, “Is it human nature to make war?” but, “How do you explain the wars that actually happened in tribal societies, and in modern society?” The book isn’t just about debunking theories about chimpanzees, it’s about: If you have this idea of culture that I just described, it leads you to ask a lot of other questions that are a lot more interesting, and probably more meaningful in terms of understanding why real wars happened and why people really get killed.
There’s an article I wrote in 2006 called Tribal, Ethnic and Global Wars, where I summarize my approach to wars that are going on around the world, based on what I know about tribal warfare. In it, I try to show how it is that wars have happened, and the relationship between practical self-interest and the symbolic values people have in a society. That, to me, is where the action is, and it explains what the cause of war is: it’s practical, and it’s also symbolic.
AMS: In this current moment in human history, where we have much more globalized and ongoing warfare than our ancient ancestors—and a more globalized world culture in general, is there hope for a future that’s not so war-inclined?
BF: Is there hope? Yes, absolutely. If you look at the long history of the world as I do as an anthropologist, you see that we’ve gone from having thousands of independent societies on this planet, which at first I don’t think were making war. Over time war developed in more places around the world and spread. Since then, over time we’ve had a consolidation of societies. There are fewer independent societies in the world today—and you’ve got to be independent to go off and make war. I’ve been using Europe as an example now for over 20 years. You would have never expected Europe to come together into the community that it is now [looking at where it] was heading toward [in the past]. The war between Germany and France and England and other parts of Europe was world history for quite a long time. Europe is just one thread, but it’s a strong example of how things have changed.
I wrote an article in 1988 called How Can Anthropologists Promote Peace?, and one of the things I said was that as an anthropologist, you can say that there are other possible worlds out there. The things that we can’t imagine to be possible now could become true. And in this article that came out in ’88, I said that one thing we can say with certainty is that at some point the militarized East-West frontier in Europe will cease to exist. It was hard to imagine that happening then. But the next year [after the article], it went away. So, we don’t know. There’s no general direction toward peace, but I think an important part of it is for people to mobilize themselves, for people to promote peace, for peace to be of value.
It’s important for people to see that a world without war is a realistic possibility. Maybe not now, but a world without war is something we can aspire to realistically, and work toward. If you think that’s something that can never happen, well that fatalism is one of the main props that is keeping war going. It’s good to break out of that mindset.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.