April 12, 2007. Warfare Could Become Obsolete—If We So Desire [book review]
Why should anyone quibble about the obvious? Don’t daily news reports show how violent we are? Don’t scholarly studies prove that humans males have evolved to be warlike?
In his new book Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, Douglas Fry doesn’t just quibble about these issues: he demonstrates quite effectively that they are based on many faulty assumptions. The goal of his book is to show how humanity has a very strong potential for peacefulness, which could lead, if people so desired, to social conditions that would make war obsolete.
He makes it clear at the beginning of his book that the basic question—why worry about whether or not humanity is essentially warlike or not—is critical. If we accept the assumption that fighting wars is an integral aspect of human nature, as so many seem to do, then we may have a tendency to not bother resisting what appears to be inevitable. If making war is only natural, the assumption may lead to a state of paranoia. Others are poised and waiting to attack; why bother to seek alternatives?
The author defines war as one community’s violence against another, in which the primary purpose is to inflict serious injury or death on multiple members of the target community. His definition excludes lethal violence, such as feuding, murders, or revenge killings, that is less all-encompassing than a whole community (society, state, nation) fighting against another. The definition is important since other writers have defined warfare among traditional societies more broadly to include those other types of violence, which has skewed their analyses.
In order to demonstrate that there are alternatives to war, Fry marshals arguments from his astonishing command of the anthropology literature. While some of his facts and viewpoints are taken from his earlier work The Human Potential for Peace (2006), he has extensively reworked and re-analyzed the information from that earlier book. And instead of broadly examining peacefulness and violence, he focuses this book specifically on warfare.
He argues that the evidence from hunter gatherer societies is probably more representative of the earlier millennia of human history, before the development of agriculture and settled communities, than data about more highly developed societies or non-human primate populations. He discusses the Siriono society of Bolivia and the Paliyan society of South India to illustrate his point that some nomadic hunter gatherer societies have developed cultures that are, in fact, quite peaceful and opposed to warfare.
To further his argument, he points out that the Ju/’hoansi, the Netsilik Inuit, and the Montagnais-Naskapi societies, while generally peaceful, all experienced some homicides as a result of interpersonal disputes, such as jealousies among lovers. But they did not fight wars. Their conflicts, sometimes lethal in nature, were between individuals rather than groups. The majority of simple human forager societies, Fry indicates, are (or were) nonwarring. The fighting they engage in is mild and is better characterized as revenge homicides and feuding, not warfare.
He describes the Australian aboriginal societies as having, in general, a functioning peace system. While lethal violence did occur, feuding and killing rarely led to all out warfare. These societies, and a number of others that he describes, illustrate his contention that fighting wars is not an essential attribute of humanity. He provides an appendix that lists over 70 nonwarring societies. He is careful to point out that these societies do, of course, experience different levels of internal violence.
In the course of the book, Fry describes numerous arguments made by the human-nature-favors-war crowd before demolishing each one, often with considerable wit and charm. For instance, one of the canards of the war proponents is that the walls of Jericho demonstrate the great antiquity of warfare in that part of the world. He points out that those famous walls may not have been built for military purposes at all. The moat around the walls didn’t really surround the site. Furthermore, other contemporary communities in the area lacked walls, there is no evidence at the site of ancient battles, and there is no evidence of warfare in the region at the time. The walls, in fact, may have been built to protect the community from floods. Jericho is next to a wadi—a dry wash—that appears to have carried a lot of flash floods 9,000 years ago.
He addresses the evolutionary theory of aggression, which suggests that human males are adapted for competition and aggressive behavior toward other males for mate selection. He argues that the larger physical size of men than women and their apparent tendency toward greater aggressiveness do not necessarily imply that humanity has an adaptive advantage to warfare. Males competing with males, he points out, is a facultative adaptation—it is flexible and adaptable. In sum, men may have a predisposition to compete for females, but that does not necessarily require them to fight wars.
Fry relentlessly builds the point that facts need to be separated from implicit assumptions. People in today’s world should challenge the dictum that war is an intrinsic facet of human character. The “man the warrior” scenarios, he tells us, “basically project present-day beliefs and circumstances onto the past” (p.209).
“If we step back and assess the big picture, the data suggest that humans, while very capable of engaging in warfare, also have a strong capacity for getting along peacefully. The view that warfare is ancient, natural, and an intrinsic part of human nature wilts under the light of fresh scrutiny. Warfare is not inevitable” (p.211).
He concludes his book with some ideas for fresh approaches in the contemporary world that could foster peace systems rather than warfare. He proposes what he calls “a new belief system” that would enhance security, promote cooperation, and stress that all of humanity shares the same world. In this proposed belief system, warfare would be “an obsolete social institution.”
In the best tradition of academic writing for a general audience, this book is authoritative, carefully documented, exhaustively researched, well-written, and easily accessible to any college student or adult concerned about getting beyond war and building peace instead.
Fry, Douglas P. 2007. Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. New York: Oxford University Press