War & Peace – Is Man Prone to War Naturally?

An ongoing debate exists as to whether humans are innately aggressive creatures prone to warfare and violence, or if they only become that way as a result of socialization.  The debate ventures as far back as early philosophers and continues to this day among Ivy League researchers.  There is evidence to point in both directions, but it really depends on which scientist you believe.

Early modern philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacque Rousseau first brought up the debate of whether or not humans are innately violent.  Long before we had anthropologists observing chimpanzees and archaeologists studying bones, we had inquisitive minds asking the big question: Is mankind innately aggressive or are humans at heart a peaceful species, only influenced by civilization?

Hobbes believed that primitive human lives were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  He believed that man was innately a self-serving species, prone to violence and warfare and driven by fear.  According to Hobbes, it was within man’s human nature to be violent and aggressive regardless of his surroundings and outside influences.

Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1753
Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1753

Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that man was essentially a peaceful animal, at one with nature and harmonious with his surroundings. Rousseau viewed original man as a “noble savage.”  He argued that man was innately good and peaceful and that it was only when acted upon or influenced by external circumstances that he would become aggressive.

In the 1970s, Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees in Tanzania. Goodall went into the study believing that the chimpanzees would be relatively peaceful unless provoked.  She disagreed with the theory that primates were naturally violent.  She was wrong.

She and her team actually witnessed a gang of male chimps beat a female chimp to death and eat her 18 month-old baby. Although she was reluctant to believe that the animals she was studying were, by nature, violent aggressors, she did find evidence to support just that.

After seeing various chimps attacking other members of their group, she had no choice but to lament that chimpanzees were in fact predisposed to aggressive and brutal behavior.

Adult chimps. Photo: Caelio / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Adult chimps. Photo: Caelio / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Some years later, in 1978, fellow anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon studied the tribal people of Yanomamo.  Chagnon argued that the Yanomami lived in a “constant state of warfare,” engaging in non-stop chest pounding duels and inter-village raids.

He claimed that violence and the threat of violence dominated the social culture of the Yanomami.  However, Chagnon’s findings were challenged, with some saying that his sampling of the culture was so limited that his findings had no application to the world at large, and certainly not to human beings in general.

Given that anthropology and archaeology are not exact sciences, there is no way to state with any sense of surety that either camp is right. Was Hobbes correct in presuming that all men have the innate desire to wage war and stage aggression?  Or was Rousseau correct in asserting that man is peaceful and at harmony with nature?

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes

If what we see on the news today is any indication, one would be hard-pressed to agree with Rousseau.  However, researcher Stephen Pinker of Harvard University has recently challenged the doctrine that “war is not an instinct, but an invention” and argues that, believe it or not, warfare and violence are actually on the decline.

He theorizes that it is only with the advances in technology that archaeologists can accurately count the number of bodies and bones showing evidence of acts of aggression.  He claims that from the Romantic era of the 18th century through to today, the number and proportion of deaths caused by violence have gone down significantly.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE