Does the Deep Roots Theory of War Encourage Fatalism about War?

Something weird happened just when I stopped checking my favourite twiterati.

First there was an article by John Horgan.  Then suddenly there was this, this, this and probably much more, all saying that Horgan’s wrong about everything.


Maybe enough is enough.  Michael Shermer already has a good rebuttal to what Horgan wrote about war.   Still, I want to give my own take on the war discussion.

Horgan writes:

The biological theory that really drives me nuts is the deep-roots theory of war. According to the theory, lethal group violence is in our genes. Its roots reach back millions of years, all the way to our common ancestor with chimpanzees.

The deep-roots theory is promoted by scientific heavy hitters like Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and Edward Wilson. Skeptic Michael Shermer tirelessly touts the theory, and the media love it, because it involves lurid stories about bloodthirsty chimps and Stone Age humans.

I don’t know if all the people named above would say that war is “in our genes”.  However, it is obvious that very many humans are capable of great violence when they are placed in the wrong circumstances.  The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo seems relevant here.  Social situations, such as a prison environment, can tap into a violent side of human nature which is invisible most of the time.  Of course, many humans can be violent on their own but group dynamics often seem to magnify the violence problem.  If this means that group violence is in our genes then I guess I think that group violence is in our genes.

Horgan continues:

I hate the deep-roots theory not only because it’s wrong, but also because it encourages fatalism toward war….Perhaps you believe the deep-roots theory. If war is ancient and innate, it must also be inevitable, right?

I really struggle here but I think I kind of get the point.  It seems to be that if war has been around for hundreds of thousands of year and is so deeply embedded in human nature that it has penetrated all the way down into our genes then what’s the point of struggling against war?  We might as well just accept it.

I can grant that this idea is not crazy.  Still, upon reflection it just doesn’t make sense.

The drive to have sex must be “in the genes” and go really far back in time.  Yet human populations are able to control their growth even though the sex drive is strong and innate.

More to the point, I have never heard anyone say that there is no point in trying to contain our sexual desires and that females will be perennially pregnant because the sex drive is “in the genes”. If anything the opposite is true.  The widely acknowledged strength of the sex drive has led to technological and cultural innovations aimed at avoiding excessive pregnancies.  Perhaps the main reason we take the sex drive so seriously is that we know it is inate and strong so we need to work hard overcome it.

The main point in Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of our Nature” is that we humans have gradually been overcoming our in-built tendencies toward violence. Yet Horgan still cites Pinker as encouraging a fatalistic attitude that humans aren’t capable of winning the war against war.  This accusation is truly puzzling. Surely our long history of success in gradually overcoming violence should encourage us to believe that it is very much possible to continue further along this path toward peace.

Indeed. the link Horgan gives to unpack his claim that the “deep-roots” theory encourages fatalism about war goes to a story about Horgan meeting an ex military guy at a conference who thinks that war will be with us for the forseable future so we had better prepare for it rather than hoping it will go away.  The guy cites experience since Napolean and doesn’t mention anything about ancient, let alone pre-historic wars.  This story strikes me as a nonsequiter to the deep-roots-leads-to-fatalism claim.

What about the substative dispute about the roots of war?

As I understand it Horgan’s vision runs along the following lines.  A long time ago humans were peaceful.  Then some anomalous humans injected twisted ideas about warfare into our culture.  These carried us out of our natural, peaceful state to which our genes predispose us.

A central problem with Horgan’s vision, at least as I understand it, is that when the war idea comes it spreads and entrenches itself.  So the vision itself still seems to accept the premise that humans have the potential for group violence within them, ready to be tapped by entrepreneurs of violence.  That is, if the group violence idea is so alien to the human character why has it proved so attractive and resilient to humans?  Shouldn’t such an unnatural cultural implant be relatively easy to eradicate?


Maybe there is a good answer to these questions.  But for now I will continue believing that humans have inate tendencies toward group violence which can be overcome with enough effort.  We have had much success in violence reduction over the centuries and we should continue to work hard to do better in the future.  .

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