Jonathan Haas (Ed.): The Anthropology of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1990, pp. xiv + 242).
by JOHAN M.G. van der DENNEN, University of Groningen, the Netherlands
This volume stems from an advanced Seminar held in the USA in March, 1986. It contains the
following nine chapters: Clark McCauley (Conference overview); Brian Ferguson (Explaining war);
Clayton Robarchek (Motivations and material causes; on the explanation of conflict and war);
Napoleon Chagnon (Reproductive and somatic conflicts of interest in the genesis of violence and
warfare among tribesmen); Thomas Gregor (Uneasy peace: intertribal relations in Brazil's Upper
Xingu); Thomas Gibson (Raiding, trading, and tribal autonomy in insular Southeast Asia); Neil
Whitehead (The Snake Warriors - Sons of the Tiger's Teeth: a descriptive analysis of Carib warfare
ca. 1500-1820); Jonathan Haas (Warfare and the evolution of tribal polities in the prehistoric
Southwest); and Robert Carneiro (Chiefdom-level warfare as exemplified in Fiji and the Cauca
Although all chapters are very interesting, and eloquently and persuasively written, I shall attempt
to resist the temptation to devote a discussion to all of them, and instead focus on (some of) the
major controversies to which this volume owes its existence.
From its inception, the study of 'primitive' war (or war in tribal or pre-state-level or 'traditional'
societies, as the current euphemism goes) has been fraught with controversies, in methodology as
well as, and foremost, in substance. In essence these concerned, and still concern, assumptions about
human nature underlying the contending theoretical positions (even if some schools claim to make
no such assumptions whatsoever), the most important one being the Ratomorphic
versus the Ratiomorphic view of the human condition. These conflicting paradigms
are still rampant in the present volume. (TheRatomorphic image of Man - the term
was coined by Robarchek - refers to the truncated, reductionist image of Man in behaviourist
psychology: Man as just another kind of rat in the maze).
The various models of causation in explaining warfare, exemplified in this book, can be divided into
three major schools of thought:
(a) The materialist/ecological school (as represented here by Ferguson and Carneiro), holding that
the causes of warfare in tribal societies are to be found largely in the material foundations of the
(b) The biocultural school (as represented by Chagnon) generally maintains that the causes of
warfare are ultimately to be found in a combination of ecological and biological elements; and
(c) The historical school (as represented by Robarchek) argues that the explanation of war is to be
found in the specific historical context of the events in question and the personal motivations of the
people involved in those events.
The introductory chapter, by McCauley, presents an exceptionally lucid account of the conference's
proceedings, in which he captures the quintessence of the controversies:
The inclusive fitness argument: The possibility of explaining war in terms of
behaviour selected to maximize inclusive fitness was given considerable attention, at least as much
as the "killer instinct" was given some twenty years ago (see Fried, Harris &
Murphy, 1968). Still, the discussion did raise some doubts. For instance, if war increases somatic
and, ultimately, reproductive success in individuals who fight, why is war not continuous and
ubiquitous? The other problem discussed was how inclusive fitness maximization can be translated
into the proximate mechanisms of individual motivations.
The cultural selection argument: At the conference, Chagnon and Dyson-Hudson
argued for the importance of both biological and cultural selection in understanding warfare, while
Carneiro and Ferguson remained largely unconvinced of the necessity of going beyond cultural
selection. The pure version of cultural selection espoused by Ferguson maintains that pre-state war
is carried out for material resources such as land, water, food, and trade goods. Even war that
appears to be only for status can be understood as improving terms of trade for the group winning
higher status. It is not necessary that individuals recognize the material goals that support their
behaviour; just as biological selection can operate via proximate motives ultimately based on
inclusive fitness, so can cultural selection operate on proximate goals of ritual, value, or religion that
are associated with material success.
The culture as preadaptation argument: The idea of preadaptation is essentially
historical: ecological change or stress would lead to cultural adaptation mediated by human choices
based on pre-existing culture. The importance of this idea is that it emphasizes that ecological and
especially material factors cannot be more than crude predictors of cultural change, since the same
objective conditions can be interpreted very differently by different groups depending on the culture
through which they understand these conditions. With regard to war, preadaptation means that social
or material challenge or stress may or may not lead to war, depending on the history of the
Preadaptation especially means that war or peace, and particular directions of warlike of peaceful
reactions, will be made more or less likely by the infrastructure of culture which is itself the product
of group history. Such a view is apparently closer to the ratiomorphic than to the ratomorphic
paradigm, and also inclines toward a strategic rather than a
cataclysmic model of war.
Ferguson elaborates his excellent exposition of the materialist theory of war in the 1984 volume
edited by him (Ferguson, 1984). He outlines the three mutually reinforcing premises that make this
school 'materialist'. The first is the endorsement of the causal primacy of the infrastructure. The
second is that there may be competition between and selection among groups. The final materialist
premise concerns motivation. Non-material goals will not regularly lead to war unless they
accompany material objectives, and peace is expected if the probable costs of war are not
outweighed by potential benefits.
The question whether the objective of "security against threats" can be properly labeled
material is apparently immaterial to Ferguson. And I cannot help wondering if there is no more to
war than a material cost/benefit calculus - a theoretical stance which easily degenerates into vulgar
materialism: "cherchez la ressource", and a translation of equally
inadequate, though popular, modern 'economic' theories of war causation - even though, admittedly,
this theory of war is compatible with the ratiomorphic paradigm stressing the role of purposeful
decisions made by thinking, cultural beings. Its motivational psychology, however, is basically
limited to what Plato called pleonexia (greed).
Robarchek's chapter essentially duplicates his 1989 article "Primitive Warfare and the
Ratomorphic Image of Mankind" (Robarchek, 1989), so I use both contributions to clarify his
line of thought. Robarchek rejects both teleological functionalism and materialism, together with
some variants of sociobiology. He notes that
"Both terms of the 'material cause' equation are open to serious question. Are material causes,
in fact 'material'? And are they 'causal'? That is, even if people specifically reason together and
decide to go to war to acquire more wives, or more buffalo horses, or a better salmon stream, does
the ultimate cause of the behavior lie in the 'material' end to be served? Or is it to be found in the
cultural values that put a premium on salmon over other foods, or on buffalo horses as sources of
status, or on multiple wives as symbols of virility or success?
Also questionable is the causal primacy of the material world, the theoretical proposition that only
material factors are relevant to the explanation of behavior. From there the ontological assumption
is made that only material causes are 'real', thereby banishing human intentionality from the realm
of science. Marvin Harris, for instance, "holds that 'the assumptions [that the human actor
knows the purpose of meaning of his behavior] are totally alien to the spirit of science'
(1964:91)". Of course, Harris cum suis, in their comfortable armchairs, know
exactly why the 'primitive' warrior fights.
The solution most commonly proposed in ecological and sociobiological approaches to the problem
of linking material 'cause' with behavioural 'effect' has been to relegate the intentionality to
Culture, reifying and ascribing purposes to it, to make society and culture think for the people.
Somehow, the 'correct' (in terms of inclusive fitness or ecological efficiency) decisions were
institutionalized as part of the culture, as cow worship or female infanticide or polygyny or warfare.
Individuals thereafter do not have to make decisions, they simply obey the dictates of their
Once made explicit, however, this sort of 'solution' to the problem of motivation is obviously also
unsatisfactory on several grounds. Not the least of these is that it simply pushes the decisions back
into the past where the analyst does not have to deal with the processes involved. More seriously,
it entails an unacceptable degree of cultural reification and cultural determinism.
While culture provides us at least with a partial answer to the question about the basis for choices
among options. But considered as a determinant culture, too, is unacceptable. The existence of a
culturally institutionalized pattern of behaviour (such as warfare) is at most a necessary, and not a
sufficient, condition for its performance (It is not, in fact, even a necessary condition; if it were,
culture change would be impossible).
Though the peacefulness of a number of human societies has slowly percolated into
the anthropological literature - as witnessed by e.g. Leacock & Lee (1982), Foster &
Rubinstein (1986), Pitt & Turner (1989), Silverberg & Gray (1992), and Sponsel &
Gregor (1994) - probably the most unusual aspect of the conference was its considerable attention
devoted to three peaceful societies (Buid, Semai, and Xinguanos - the latter actually being a
conglomerate of disparate tribes living on Brazil's Upper Xingu River). Perhaps the most notable
commonality of these three peaceful groups - besides their egalitarian nature - is what Gregor calls
an 'antiviolent' value system which stigmatizes many or all manifestations of violence; a value
system supported by supernatural beliefs, and embodied in a (sometimes extravagantly ethnocentric
and xenophobic) contrast between the peacefulness of the ingroup and the violence of outgroups.
McCauley aptly remarks that apparently "hating violence requires violent people to
hate". This is disenchanting only for the dyed-in-the-wool pacifist who does not realize that
everything in life, including peace, has its price.
This volume - which undoubtedly will appear to be a landmark in one of the most important
intellectual challenges and controversies of our time: What image of man shall prevail - contains
a combined subject and name index, and an integrated bibliography.
Ferguson, B. (Ed.) (1984) Warfare, Culture, and Environment. Orlando: Academic
Foster, M.L. & R.A. Rubinstein (Eds.) (1986) Peace and War: Cross-cultural
Perspectives. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.
Fried, M.; M. Harris & R. Murphy (Eds.) (1968) War: The Anthropology of Armed
Conflict and Aggression. New York: Doubleday.
Leacock, E. & R. Lee (Eds.) (1982) Politics and History in Band Societies.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pitt, D. & P. Turner (Eds.) (1989) The Anthropology of War and Peace. South
Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.
Robarchek, C.A. (1989) "Primitive Warfare and the Ratomorphic Image of Mankind".
American Anthropologist, 91, 4: 903-20.
Silverberg, J. & P. Gray (Eds.) (1992) Aggression and Peacefulness in Humans and
Other Primates. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sponsel, L & T. Gregor (Eds.) (1994) The Anthropology of Peace and
Nonviolence. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
Please send your reactions and personal URL to