Friday thread: Perhaps ‘War’ brings a properly social benefit after all?

Today’s Friday thread is a talk delivered yesterday at the RSA in London by Ian Morris, author of a new book which posits the controversial idea that, over time, war is actually good for us, not necessarily as individuals but as societies.

The presentation is fairly short but it was around this part I think Morris gets to the hub of his thesis

Violence is an evolved adaptation. Pretty much every species has its own way of using violence. Each has evolved an equilibrium point in the use of violence.

What happens within each species is that you are too violent if you use a lot more violence than the equilibrium point, you will tend to drop out or your genes will drop out of the pool because if you fight constantly you’re going to get injured or killed fairly quickly are less likely to pass your genes on to the next generation.

If you’re not violent enough by the standards of the species also you’re going to be disadvantaged in passing your genes on to the next generation you going to  lose out in the race for food or mates or whatever it might be.

So each species evolves toward an average amount violence that uses average forms of using violence and we humans we are animals too. We evolved toward an equilibrium point which is just ten to twenty percent rate to violent death BC the stone age societies.

So we are just the same as all the other animals except that we are completely different from all the other animals. In our biological evolution produced the miracle of nature each of you is carrying around at the top of your body.

There’s nothing in nature quite like the human brain.   For all we know this is the most complex evolved object in the entire universe. The human brain basically changes everything.

Other species of animals change the amount of violence they use by involving biologically as an environment changes.  We do that too. We also evolve culturally as our environment changes and we can change our institutions and cultures and change the way we behave in response to that.

Other animals pretty much can’t change their behaviour in response to payoffs in this sort of way. That’s why the rates of violent death among humans has fallen by ninety percent over the last ten thousand years.

Even though we are basically the same animals we were 10,000 years ago, our behavior has changed dramatically assessing no other animals do that.

It’s changed I suggest in the book because these larger societies that we started creating produce stronger governments that change the payoffs from violence.

Now, I think there’s a lot in here to push back on, not least what happens to human agency when these stronger governments begin to manipulate the destinies of individual human lives. I’m not offering it as a proforma for our situation in Northern Ireland.

But it’s worth considering that after one of the most protracted periods of political violence in the last four hundred years of the island’s history, we may finally be in a position to understand the limits of violence as a political end, in and of itself.

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  • I guess this is the heart of the Conflict Resolution problem.
    Wars are meant to end with a “winner” and a “loser”
    We absorb it and move on.
    In a conflict where we all embraced the nonsense that ” we are all winners”
    Previous Conflicts like WW2, the winners de-nazified Germany.
    In Vietnam, the victors packed the losers off to re-education camps in the jungle.
    This is why we resist e blandishments of the Conflict Resolutionists here. They are attempting to apportion victory and defeat.
    There is really only one way for Wars to end.
    Unpalatable as it is to us as sophisticated people, one side needs to crush the other.

  • Mick Fealty

    And yet other conflicts (WW1, for example) did not give unto a permanent peace, despite having winners… He does talk about the ‘Hitler problem’ not long after or before the segment I’ve highlighted above…

  • Greenflag

    Fact A : War gets rid of a lot of bad people and some very very very bad people e.g Hitler , Saddam Hussein , etc etc .

    Fact B : War also gets rid of many many more good people -think the innocent civilians killed in bombing raids on London , Birmingham , Dresden , Hamburg , Hiroshima , Nagasaki and then the horrors of the Holocaust and the more recent mass killings and genocides in Rwanda , Bosnia , Democratic Republic of the Congo , India , Palestine , etc etc etc etc .

    The urge for war emerges from the rulers of societies who see war as a policy by which ‘objectives ‘ can be achieved for themselves and their society /ideology /religion /tribe /class .

    The cure is quite simple . Let those leaders who want to wage war go to the front lines and lead the first charge or advance against the enemy and let the children of the wealthy in these societies be subject to a general draft when there is a war .

    @ Fitz

    ‘one side needs to crush the other.’

    Not possible when both sides have nuclear weapons . And despite having nuclear weapons the USA lost against Vietnam . Jack Lynch on one famous occassion was heard to remark when Belfast Loyalists were burning out thousands of Belfast catholics from their homes .

    ‘We will not stand idly by ‘

    Who took him seriously ?

    The Ukrainians know that when the Russian hordes march into the Eastern Ukraine that the ‘world ‘ will stand idly by apart from a few more sanctions etc .

    The Russians have nuclear weapons -the Ukrainians don’t . It’s called realpolitik . or if you want ‘tyranny ‘ .

    And the answer is ? Turn the other cheek ?

    Good luck with that .

  • Greenflag

    I haven’t read your link yet Mick but I do recall reading ‘Report from Iron Mountain ‘ which was issued by a US think tank back in the 1960’s /1970’s and highlighted the need for a society /any society to be prepared for war or kept in war preparatory mode all the more to maintain control within society by the established interests . Failure to be ‘prepared ‘ would result in perceived weakness and would tempt foreign aggressors and competitors to attack .

    Despite the UN and the EU and the end of “communism ‘ some things don’t seem to change do they ?

    The big ‘wolf ‘ always seems to want more ‘lamb ‘ not so much because it tastes so good but because ‘wolfie ‘ would’nt be wolfie if he was restricted to vegetarianism .

  • TwilightoftheProds

    Nah Fitz

    Contrary to what those of us raised in the afterglow of world war two films believe quite a few wars in history ended less than decisively. Even where there was a victor, the loser did not end up crushed, but simply had to recalibrate their future goals. Or allow themselves to be co-opted in a new dispensation for a price.

    For all the tree hugging there is a pragmatism in the thinking of some of the the conflict resolution types that an eighteenth or nineteenth century diplomat would recognise. Just not the language.

    …but don’t like all the socio biology and political economy of war stuff above. Selective pressure, equilibrium, pay offs, he’d have been right at home in the RAND corporation. Too simplified. He’ll be getting Dr Strangelove’s slide rule out.

    …and he presents a really simple view of Hobbes too.

    Still,who’s gonna read a book called ‘War is Bad after all?’ He has to have a USP.

  • “If you’re not violent enough by the standards of the species also you’re going to be disadvantaged in passing your genes on to the next generation you going to lose out in the race for food or mates or whatever it might be.”

    It is useful if you can use others as the means to promote and act out violence. They suffer and die and by some miracle you still retain the biological advantage, you don’t lose out in the race for food, mates, money or power.

  • I read an article recently, possibly Harpers magazine, where a woman wrote that her father always said that us living people were the dregs of society, all the smart (?) and brave ones having been wiped out in the two world wars.

  • abucs

    I disagree with his comment about government being the peaceful influence on society. Modern Government has been responsible for more violent deaths than all other sources combined, and that’s not even counting legislated abortion facilitated by the state.

    As stated previously, when you destroy the economic order you allow a flurry of economic activity where people are rewarded for their enterprise because they do not have the structural power-blocks in society limiting their rise.

    Witness US and Australia. Also after the war Germany, Japan, South Korea, Britain, France etc.

    Witness Europe after the Black Death that killed about a third of the population.

    Suddenly in these situations labour is very important and there are opportunities to be well rewarded for your efforts, thus the economic spurt.

    Of course if a people are totally destroyed then any economic opportunities fall to colonisers.

    Also if a beaten people are kept down continuously by an outside power this continues the blocking of economic opportunity.