At the source of war, or violence and evolution

Some historians believe that the war could not have arisen until after the Neolithic Revolution, with the transition to agriculture and sedentary life, linked to the escalation of territorial conflicts. However, this assumption is contradicted by archaeological findings.

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Nomadic hunter tribes fought each other as fiercely as ever. In search of the beginnings of wars, the American essayist Barbara Ehrenreich has already pointed the finger at the Mesolithic period.

It is wrong to think that wars only resulted from material needs, the desire to plunder raw materials or the need to obtain food. This is another stereotype that ignores ethnological data that show many other possibilities – for example, for many tribes war or participation in battle was a complicated religious initiation or ritual. This type of ritualism of war was also one of the reasons for the spectacular defeat of the armies of the Latin American empires in the fight against the conquistadors, despite the fact that these empires had an overwhelming numerical advantage. Aztecs and Incas, dressed in quetzal pens, danced and sang as the Spaniards fired.

Yet another example that war should not result from primitive materialism are the collections of skulls discovered by archaeologists. They evoke associations with practices known from later and better described periods (practices present on many continents): the headhunters of Borneo or the ancient Celts cut off and collected the heads of their adversaries in order to increase their militant prestige , and also to absorb the magic power of the enemy. They were killed not for self-defense or theft, but simply for the next skulls.

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The ubiquity of war and violence has made some theorists reflect on the importance they have played in the process of evolution. The tribes that won the battle had access to more women and thus managed to pass on their genes. This rule also applied in the case of an aggressive individual acting within a given group. The headhunter, through violence, obtained a higher social status, which facilitated his access to sexual partners and, consequently, allowed him to have more children. Didn’t the knight from European fairy tales who slew his enemies deserve the hand of a princess?

In the book Unsuitable. Why evolution does not follow British researcher and science popularizer Adam Hart noted, however, that violence, although it had evolutionary significance in the past, no longer fits today’s world. This is another example of the “displacement” of the tools with which evolution has endowed us. A talent for killing others no longer transmits genes: an individual who kills has less chance of procreating. Modern society fundamentally condemns all crime; the aggressive individual is isolated, losing rather than increasing the chances of having offspring. In light of Hart’s optimistic theory, violence appears as another example of the difference between culture and human nature, formed in times and worlds already past.

Illustration: Joanna Grochocka
Illustration: Joanna Grochocka

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Tomasz Wiśniewski

Tomasz Wiśniewski

Writer, editor of the imaginary section. Author of the books “On the Origin of Scoundrels”, “Shockingly Handsome Man” and “Stories Not Fully Made Up”.

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