Moving past a myopic view of war & peace

Scholarship in the field of peace and conflict studies has, for much of its history, been primarily concerned with questions regarding what Johan Galtung called negative peace, which he defined as the absence of war: what it is, how to accomplish it, et cetera. Negative peace, in this myopic view of peace scholarship, is simply “not-war” and can thus be described with the same terms, variables, and processes as war. In recent times, some scholars have begun to explore questions which focus on negative peace’s counterpart, positive peace. Galtung characterized positive peace as peace which allows the “integration of society”. Put simply, it is the absence of indirect (or structural) violence. However, this alone does not provide a very clear picture of what positive peace is.

Verbeek operationally defines the broader term peace through a more granular look at its types, describing peace as, “Behavioral processes and systems through which species, individuals, families, groups, and communities negate direct and structural violence (direct peace; structural peace), keep aggression in check or restore tolerance in its aftermath (sociative peace), maintain just institutions and equity (structural peace), and engage in reciprocally beneficial and harmonious interactions (sociative peace)”.

Under this definition, positive peace is a sort of combination of structural peace and sociative peace. By understanding these definitions and distinctions, it becomes clear that negative and positive peace are not contradictory nor are they competing concepts, but rather complementary stages of an on-going peace process. This essay argues that we should study them as such — that we should give peace the same reverence that we do “not-peace”. One of the major problems with the prevailing focus on war and negative peace is that it frames all discussions around examples of human violence. This is evident in the heavy emphasis on war in historical and scholarly texts about the rise and fall of human societies and kingdoms. However, the preoccupation with war does not align with modern understanding of human history and nature. In contrast with the popular belief that humans are inherently violent, Fry, Peters, and Verbeek have presented evidence that demonstrates humanity’s overwhelming propensity for peace and cooperation. An important consideration in their work, and that I take up very broadly in this essay, is whether war, which Peters and Verbeek define as “an organized form of direct violence”, is species-typical or atypical for humans.

Fry, Peters, and Verbeek have found through their research that, when measured from the beginning of human history, we have spent far more time as a species living in peace than we have in war. Lawrence Keeley, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, comes to some contrary conclusions in War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. He suggests that peaceful societies are an exception, and that ninety to ninety-five percent of known societies engage in war. Those that do not, he says, are almost always nomads or defeated refugees. I find his view to be reductionist, especially to be that of a professor of archaeology. He has limited his study and subsequent suggestions of human propensity for warfare to a small portion of human history. The modern human species, Homo sapiens, is between two-hundred and three-hundred thousand years old. From Keeley’s own argument, the earliest known evidence of warfare is only from around fourteen-thousand years ago. Even then, it was not until the rise of the state around five-thousand years ago that war as we know it became prevalent. So why does Keeley’s entire premise, that there was no “peaceful savage” and that humans are inherently violent, completely disregard the huge majority of the human species’ history? If a species has only been observed to display a certain behavior throughout less than ten percent of its history, how can we say that it is their nature? If I have owned a dog for ten years, and in the last year he has started to sometimes eat a vegetarian diet, can we conclude that my dog is a vegetarian?

Loose analogies aside, there is a growing sentiment concerned about why there is not more academic interest in exactly those things which Keeley leaves out. What was happening in human societies during the one-hundred eighty-six thousand to two-hundred eighty-six thousand years that preceded evidence of “modern” warfare? Both archaic humans (e.g. other Homo species) and non-human primates of various species display a highly developed propensity for cooperation and peace, which seems to me to be good evidence for our propensity, as well, being their cousins. In recent times, human societies have shown remarkable willingness to work together even, and perhaps more so, in places where resources are scarce. This flies in the face of the idea that war came about as a result of resource scarcity and humans becoming territorial.

As we can see with Keeley’s position and responses to it, there are generally two schools of thought about the human willingness to participate in violence. One believes that war came about long ago in our human-chimpanzee common ancestors as a way to eliminate competitors for mates, resources, and so forth. On the other hand, some believe that war is a relatively recent phenomenon that has evolved due to the rapidly changing landscape of the world and human societies. Subscribers to these two theories were called by Keith Otterbein “hawks” and “doves”, respectively.

Anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson falls firmly into the second camp. In 2018, he wrote in Scientific American asking “do people…have an evolved predisposition to kill members of other groups […] to take up arms, tilting us toward collective violence?” The perspective that war is an inborn trait also requires there to be extensive evidence of war throughout human history. LeBlanc and Register wrote in support of this belief, with further agreement from political scientist Francis Fukuyama and Bradley Thayer. Thayer argued that evolution pushed groups toward distrust of others and that war is a natural result of that sort of ethnocentrism, which is a sentiment supported by the neurology of bias.

The doves, including Ferguson, do not agree. While doves typically concede that humans are certainly capable of engaging in warfare, they contend that humans are not hardwired to do so. The archaeology that the hawks rely on to prove their point, the doves say, allows them to identify the times and circumstances that led to war. Nearly all of the archaeological evidence, Ferguson cautions, can be interpreted in more ways than hawks would admit. For instance, the presence of maces does not necessarily indicate the presence of weapons, especially when the maces uncovered had so narrow of handles that they were almost certainly used in a purely decorative or ritualistic manner. Skeletal remains probably offer a better insight into determining when war began, but even those can be misleading. There are just not many mass graves from the distant past, which would be indicative of collective violence. Single skeletons offer good evidence of homicide, but homicide is not war. Interestingly, archaeologists have frequently uncovered skulls with healed cranial depressions that did not cause death. This would seem to suggest nonlethal fights to resolve interpersonal conflict, which has also been supported in the ethnographic record of isolated human societies. So, in sum, Ferguson argues that the archaeological evidence is ambiguous at best and does not in any way indicate that humans have been waging war for the whole of the species’ history. Ferguson echoes the premise of this essay in saying that scholarship, and by extension the media, is preoccupied with evidence of violence; they ignore the countless archaeological excavations that show not-violence.

Ferguson observes that most archaeologists (including Keeley) agree that war began sometime during the Mesolithic era, when European hunter-gatherers settled, developed agriculture, and began forming more complex societies. But this, too, is reductionist, Ferguson suggests. War almost certainly developed at different times across the globe. For instance, in Japan, it is exceedingly rare to find any violent death among hunter-gatherers up until 800 B.C., over eleven thousand years later than “warfare casualties” discovered in Northern Sudan. In addition, heavily studied North American sites show very few to no deaths as a result of collective violence, although there is significant personal violence found. In the Great Plains, only one violent death has been thus far recorded that occurred before 500 A.D. I think Ferguson shows clearly that the “hawkish” perspective of human violence is a flawed one. War was not a matter of fact for most of human history, and its presence in current human society does not mean that it is a permanent development.

Although the school of thought supporting the ubiquity of war has gained a large number of adherents over the years, the counterpoint is definitively not a new idea. Margaret Mead in 1940 wrote Warfare is only an Invention — Not a Biological Necessity. Mead contends in the introduction of her paper that warfare and humanity’s participation in it says more about the nature of history, with its rise and fall of states and conflicts over resources, than it does about the nature of humanity. She concedes that war is inevitable without a fundamental adjustment of our social system, but that is precisely what I think practitioners and scholars in the field ought to be advocating for. The starting point for that adjustment should be a dramatic increase in academic focus on peace, rather than war. Mead’s premise, that warfare is an invention not unlike marriage, writing, cooked meals, jury trials, and funerary rites, is another good place to begin. This characterizes war as what it is — something that has been learned, but that can be unlearned, as well. Mead points to peoples up to and in the twentieth century that have no warfare, including the Eskimo and the Lepchas. Neither group understands the concept of war, even as a defensive measure. They are particularly interesting examples because, while the Lepchas are gentle and conflict-avoidant, the Eskimo are often tumultuous and readily confrontational. There are numerous examples of fights, murder, cannibalism, and violent outbursts by members of the Eskimo community, but there is no warfare. In contrast, the Andaman peoples are hunter-gatherers with similarly low levels of social stratification to the Eskimo, yet they have war. This raises questions about the origins of organized violence that are still being answered. Mead’s conclusion, though, is that “simple” people and “civilized” people alike, passive people and assertive people alike, will go to war if their society has learned to do so. But just like any other learned behavior, societies can unlearn it, too.

The concept of war as a learned behavior is interesting, and Ferguson takes up that question as it relates to chimpanzees in his paper in Scientific American. Intergroup conflict among chimpanzees, he contends, is not an evolved strategy, but a response to human disturbance. Ferguson firmly states a belief based on comparative research that a case-by-case analysis of chimpanzees will show that they are not, as a species, violent. This position is supported by observational research from Verbeek, which has found remarkable kindness and perhaps even altruism from chimpanzees on multiple occasions over many years and in different chimpanzee populations in different places. Ferguson says that this research challenges the theory that human violence is connected in some genetically-passed-down way to archaic humans or pre-human primates. Ferguson’s research further challenges the notion that male chimpanzees are inherently prone to killing outsiders. Instead, he claims that his research shows that the most extreme examples of chimpanzee violence can be connected to human interference in chimpanzee lives. To determine this, Ferguson studied every reported chimpanzee intergroup killing from eighteen chimpanzee research sites — twenty-seven examples of observed or inferred intergroup killings in all. Fifteen of those came from only two conflicts at two sites from 1974 to 1977 and 2002 to 2006. Based on this, it is safe to say that most chimpanzees will not experience intergroup violence in their lifetimes.

Similarly, most humans will not be involved in warfare in their lifetimes. Even today when warfare is ostensibly a part of everyday human existence, the huge majority of us go about our lives without being involved in any sort of direct violence. If we take a small slice of the human population, we can get an idea for how rare it actually is. In the United States in 2019, there were around eighteen million veterans (both combat and non-combat roles). In a population of around three-hundred thirty million, this is a rate of around five percent. Why then the disproportionate attention paid to war? Is it not more relevant for more people to pay attention to peace?

Indeed, the discussion about how to study peace and war is going to continue to develop in scholarship and in society. If one was looking to begin research on human cooperation and peacefulness, there are many places to start and angles from which it could be approached. One of the angles that interests me the most is the biological purposes of altruism. Scientists interested in this angle could answer the question of how cooperation and altruism fit into the evolutionary model. Additionally, research could indicate the effects on human biology as a result of cooperation and peacefulness. For instance, do more peaceful cultures enjoy better health outcomes when compared to other humans who are less peaceful? Another possible area of research would be a comparative study of how different cultures conceptualize peace. For instance, peaceful societies such as Japan and Costa Rica certainly view peace differently than the United States or Russia. These are empirical questions that further research could begin to answer.

I have laid out in this essay a basic argument for a peace-oriented study of human history and societies. Yes, humans have developed an immense capacity for killing one another. But almost all of this development has happened in the last few thousand years, and more dramatically in the last few hundred. This is conclusively not our natural state, and therefore our capacity for peace ought to be equally, if not more heavily, studied. If we can change the language of the field, change the perspective of academics and practitioners working in the field, and influence the public to see human interactions in a different way, we stand a good chance at shining more light on the truly remarkable ways humans get along. It is through this shift, away from a singular focus on war and not-war, to a broader view which also focuses on structural and sociative peace, that we can begin to unlearn our morbid fascination with war.


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e. wiley smith

MA — peace & human rights. originally birmingham, alabama. currently washington, dc. writing on peace, conflict, human rights, and justice.