Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tough call.

“Primitive human society ‘not driven by war’”
BBC 18 July 2013

Researchers from Abo Academy University in Finland say that violence in early human communities was driven by personal conflicts rather than large-scale battles.

They say their findings suggest that war is not an innate part of human nature, but rather a behaviour that we have adopted more recently.
The research team based their findings on isolated tribes from around the world that had been studied over the last century.

About those “isolated tribes”: if I read the sentences correctly, it would appear that the researchers are extending their findings of isolated modern tribes to prehistorical human group behavior. It would appear there are tons of assumptions there that haven’t been addressed, the most important of which being the assumption that the behavior of modern tribal societies mirrors that of past tribal societies. Without detailing exactly why one would make that assumption, the entire rest of their argument is suspicious. Why should we assume that all tribal societies throughout our time on the Earth have behaved similarly? What evidence do we have that that’s true?

Remaining tribal societies live in generally inhospitable places with minimal pressures from anyone wanting to take over their territory. I’m not sure those societies would behave the same as ones in the middle of resource-rich environments with many peoples coveting their land/territory. Furthermore, the remaining tribal societies are almost all in a permanent state of warfare with their neighbors as were the native societies of Europe and America and Asia. A reader of Peter Matthiessen’s Under the Mountain Wall, would get a very different picture of warfare among modern tribal societies than the authors present. It’s hardly personal feuds, as the authors suggest. One would have to examine their data carefully. But even if they found that most modern conflicts are limited personal conflicts, it doesn’t mean that larger-scale operations haven’t always operated in resource-rich areas. It’s a big jump that, perhaps, the authors cover in their paper but was missed in the reporting. One hopes.

The issue, it would seem, is one of scale. Small, local conflicts can be described as personal conflicts; but that may just be because hunting-gathering societies don’t tend to gather in such large organized masses as farming societies do, so the conflicts of farmers tend to be larger in scale than those of hunter-gatherers. Are the authors reserving the use of war to large-scale conflicts? That would seem defeating and inaccurate. In the end, it seems a semantic problem more than anything else.

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