Magazine article Science News

Gauging the Winds of War: Anthropologists Seek the Roots of Human Conflict

Magazine article Science News

Gauging the Winds of War: Anthropologists Seek the Roots of Human Conflict

Article excerpt

Gauging the Winds of War

In a 1971 Motown hit single, Edwin Starr posed the musical question, "War -- what is it good for?" His gruff response: "Absolutely nothin'."

Despite the grimly predictable tragedies of armed conflict, almost all ancient and modern societies studied by anthropologists have engaged in at least periodic bouts of warfare. The ubiquity of organized fighting between human groups -- currently brought home by the war in the Middle East -- has fired up the scientific study of warfare over the last 30 years and has sparked some bruising academic skirmishes.

A handful of warfare researchers described their findings and theories at last November's meeting of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans. These investigators do not praise fighting, but they assume that anything so common in human experience serves some purpose. They search for the "absolutely somethin'" that lights the fuse of violence in bands of foragers, tribes of hunter-gatherers, rudimentary political states and modern nations alike.

In the 1960s, as U.S. involvement in Vietnam deepened, anthropological theories of war's causes and consequences flourished, numbering at least 16 by 1973, observes Keith F. Otterbein of the State University of New York at Buffalo. However, he says, only about half of those theories still receive strong scientific support, and no persuasive new theories have emerged.

Current notions about the roots of war stem mainly from studies of nonindustrial societies lacking centralized political power and extensive military organizations. In Otterbein's view, all of these theoretical approaches focus on three themes:

* "ultimate" causes of war that influence the goals people fight for, such as competition within a society for scarce resources or mates, and intense divisions between groups of related men.

* "proximate" causes of war, such as a society's military preparedness and the goals of its leaders, often centering on the desire for land, natural resources or control of trade routes.

* consequences of war that influence further conflict, including population decline, improved access to resources, and increased prestige and power accorded to victorious warriors.

Although some anthropologists and sociobiologists contend that a genetic tendency toward physical violence greases the human war machine, theories of innate aggression attract few advocates today, Otterbein maintains. Nevertheless, disputes over the alleged biological roots of combat continue to erupt, ignited in many cases by the work of Napoleon A. Chagnon of the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose studies of warfare have become the most widely publicized research in this field.

Since 1964, Chagnon has conducted fieldwork among the 15,000 Yanomamo Indians who inhabit some 200 villages in the Amazonian jungle of Brazil and Venezuela. He has long stressed the ferocity and frequency of combat between Yanomamo villages. Some other anthropologists who have studied the jungle tribe argue that Chagnon emphasizes a misleading slice of Yanomamo life.

Chagnon's latest report, in the Feb. 26, 1988 SCIENCE, concludes that revenge fuels protracted, bloody battles between groups of men from different Yanomamo villages. Competition for food, water, territory or women creates the initial friction, he says. Minor bow-and-arrow confrontations ensue, escalating rapidly when a death results and the victim's male relatives exact revenge through raids on the offending village.

Blood vengeance apparently raises the social status and reproductive success of Yanomamo warriors, who represent nearly half of the men in the tribe, Chagnon maintains. On average, killers have more than twice as many wives and three times as many children as their peaceable counterparts.

Chagnon refrains from arguing that warfare generally proves biologically advantageous among the Yanomamo or in any other culture. …

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