Querela Pacis: Confession of an Irreparably Benighted Researcher on War and Peace


Open Letter to Frans de Waal and the ‘Peace and Harmony Mafia’


By Johan M.G. van der Dennen (University of Groningen, the Netherlands)


I have to confess that I have been professionally studying aggression, violence, and warfare in man and other animals for more than 30 years now. I have reported on this fascinating subject in numerous publications. I have always thought that mine is as honorable a profession as any, but since recently I am suspect, castigated by Frans de Waal as belonging to a dubious category of “those who have not yet transcended their one-sided fascination with the subject”. Clearly, de Waal considers himself to be among the happy and enlightened few who have “abandoned the obsession with aggression” (de Waal, 2001: 260).

In my The Origin of War: The Evolution of a Male-Coalitional Reproductive Strategy (1995: 497) I pointed out that “Most people seem to prefer peace when they can afford it, i.e., when they can solve the internal problem of the ‘male fierce warrior syndrome’ and the external problem of being left ‘in peace’ by other peoples”.

Most contemporary ‘peaceful’ foragers (band- and tribe-level societies, hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists) have solved the perennial problem of being left in peace by ‘splendid’ isolation, by severing all contacts with other peoples, by fleeing and hiding, or else by being beaten into submission, by being tamed by defeat, by being pacified by force (manu militare). Of course, I was not the first to make this observation; Bigelow, among many others, did it long before me, and Keeley, among others, did it after me, but in my 1995 work I carefully and systematically checked all claims of peacefulness or nonviolence of all documented societies (in fact, the chapter and appendices on peace politics constitute more than 100 pages in my book). De Waal could have known this literature: I shipped a copy of my book to him, but during the Association for Politics and Life Sciences conference in Atlanta some years ago Frans (whom I know since he was studying the Arnhem Zoo chimpanzees who made him famous) told me personally, with some triumph in his voice, that he had not read my book and had given it away to someone else. He repeated this statement several times during the conference – I still do not understand why. If he meant to humiliate me or show his contempt for my work he certainly succeeded.

Just like darkness is the absence of light, and health is the absence of disease, peace is the absence of (offensive or defensive) war. Societies live in peace if they do not wage war. That’s all there is to it. This peace, as absence of war, has nothing to do with internal harmony (or absence of internal conflicts), pusillanimity, tranquility, equality or gender egalitarianism, or nonviolence, or non-aggressive acculturation (socialization of non-anger), or reconciliation and adjudication, or gentleness, or kind manners, or mild dispositions, or good vibrations, and similar nonsense. In brief, this is an idyllic, starry-eyed caricature of real human configurations. But don’t underestimate the anthropologists. Sponsel, Bonta, and others imply that I, and researchers like me, are rather stupid, or bad, guys, or both, because – pay attention, folks! – we advocate ‘negative peace’, while they, the advocates of ‘positive peace’, of course, are the good guys, who have seen the ethereal light. The absolute culmination and zenith of absurdity of this elysian caricature is Bonta’s work in which the Balinese (who fought incessant wars of succession at the time the Dutch colonized the island), the Tahitians (who waged fierce chiefdom-type warfare) and the Toraja (also spelled Toradja) (formerly fierce headhunters) are categorized as ‘peaceful peoples’, just because they are mildly mannered and gentle social interactors – according to Bonta’s awkward predilection. Here the idyll has been distorted into absurdity. It is like claiming that an exocannibalistic ethnie eating its slain enemies is peaceful because it has such pleasing table manners. Frans de Waal, in his recent publications, seems to endorse this false view of ‘peaceful peoples’ as well as the Knauftian/Boehmian paradisiac view that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived like that for millions of years. De Waal writes:


In place of this [killer ape] myth we need a scenario that acknowledges and explains the virtual absence of organized warfare among today’s human foragers, their egalitarian tendencies, and generosity with information and resources across groups. If our ancestors lived for perhaps millions of years in these kinds of societies, the hierarchical and territorial behavior said to typify our species may well be a relatively recent phenomenon instead of a ‘5-million-year-habit.’ Similarly, it has been pointed out that today’s hunter-gatherers depend more on the gathering activity of women than the hunting activity of men. In other words, the importance of hunting in our heritage may well have been overrated (De Waal, 2001: 47).


The only thing in this statement I can agree with is that indeed the importance of hunting in our hominid/human heritage may have been exaggerated, the rest is sheer nonsense. De Waal gives no references but I think I can do a calculated guess which ‘today’s human foragers’ (the !Kung San, the Semai) and which authors (see above)  he has in mind.

I can only add that our prospects for peace are bleak indeed if we have to transform our society and model it after the average ‘peaceful society’ with its small scale, its non-surplus economy, its isolation, its avoidance of internal confrontations, its paranoia, and its xenophobia and fear of other societies (see Appendix).

In the past, everybody who has propagated the notion that health is something more than just the absence of disease has turned out to be a quack. I am reasonably sure that those scholars who now claim that peace is something more than the absence of war, let me call them the ‘peace and harmony mafia’ for short, will similarly turn out to be the intellectual equivalent of quacks.

When Frans de Waal published his book on peacemaking among primates, he accused the social scientists (particularly the social psychologists) of ignoring these peacemaking mechanisms such as reconciliation. This came as quite a surprise to me, being at that moment a researcher, with a background of psychology and ethology, at the Peace Research (Polemological) Institute of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, with a library of hundreds of meters of book shelves on war and its termination, and heaps of volumes of journals like Journal of Peace Research and Journal of Conflict Resolution. What de Waal systematically – and, I suspect, intentionally – forgets to mention is that his precious reconciliation does NOT apply to intergroup conflict. After a chimpanzee raid or similar type of intergroup violence, there is NO reconciliation. NEVER. In contrast to de Waal, Otto Adang (De Waal’s successor at the Arnhem Zoo) mentions this fact explicitly and honestly in his book De machtigste chimpansee van Nederland (The mightiest chimpanzee of the Netherlands) (1999). And that is why peace researchers, who focus on violent conflicts between groups and nations, and the resolutions of these international wars, found reconciliation a rather irrelevant behavioral mechanism for their purposes.

While individual selection suggests the circumstances in which warfare would assist fitness it also suggests conditions in which more peaceful relations between groups may be expected. First, if resources are abundant or alternatives can be acquired at an acceptable cost then groups need not compete for them. Second, if the demand for resources is held in check by other factors, such as a high mortality rate due to disease, parasitism, or predators, and if a resource is widely distributed spatially or temporally it may require either the reciprocal sharing of resources, or migration, in which case competing groups are unlikely to come into contact (Durham, 1976: 391). For example, the absence of war reported among the Netsilik Inuit in the Arctic may be due to the low population densities and great regional variation in food supply that requires migration, as well as the sharing of food resources which is common to this culture, and the relative ease of food storage in arctic conditions (Balikci, 1968).


In his insightful analyses of peaceful societies, van der Dennen (1998: 170) finds that peaceful societies are “essentially small, local, face-to-face communities” and “do not maintain an exclusive monopoly over an area of land.” Unfortunately, these circumstances are rare. Only infrequently are resources so abundant or adequate alternatives so available that tensions do not arise, population densities so low for generation after generation, or geographic conditions so propitious that groups can cooperate over resources consistently (Thayer, i.p.).


Alexander (1979: 229) writes of those who “interpret as relatively nonaggressive behavior on the parts of the hunting and gathering societies that remain today in a few places like the Australian desert and the Arctic;” they argue that for “99 percent of their history our ancestors lived as these people do.” But, he submits, this argument fails to recognize that “such people survive today only in marginal impoverished habitats that support only the lowest of all densities of human population and also represent physical extremes that by themselves require cooperation among families for mere survival;” in addition, “hunter-gatherers survive today only because even the most advanced technological societies have found no way to use their homelands that would make it profitable to overrun or seize them by force.” Alexander suggests we do not believe that humans have spent 99% of their existence living as Eskimos and Bushmen do today. Instead, he says, the ancestors of Eskimos and Bushmen “more likely spent most of their existence in richer habitats where higher densities of population,” as well as more complex social structure, and less harsh physical environments led to both more complex and extensive cooperativeness and more complex and social competition than now exists.


I do not claim to be the first to acknowledge the silly pretentiousness of the ‘peace and harmony mafia’; many others have done that before – and more eloquently than I ever could. For example, John Mueller (1991: 25), an American peace researcher, stated:


Some of the conceptual problem in this area has come from peace advocates over the centuries who have very often argued that peace cannot be secured unless the world first achieves harmony, inner tranquillity, cooperation, goodwill, love, brotherhood, equality, and/or justice. It is a reasonable counter to that position to argue that, given human nature and the depth of the difficulties, none of these rather vaporous qualities is ever likely to overwhelm the human race, and therefore that peace is impossible.

But peace does not require that there first be a state of universal love or perpetual harmony or broad justice. Peace is not opposed in principle to any of these qualities, and in some cases it may very well facilitate their wider establishment. But peace is quite compatible as well with conflict, contentiousness, hostility, racism, inequality, hatred, avarice, calumny, injustice, petulance, greed, vice, slander, squalor, lechery, xenophobia, malice, and oppression. To achieve peace, people do not necessarily have to become admirable, nor do they need to stifle all their unpleasant instincts and proclivities; they merely need to abandon the rather absurd institution of war as a method for dealing with one another. The abolition of slavery may have made the world better, but it certainly did not make it perfect. Similarly, peace is not an utopian condition; it is merely better than the alternative. If we stop envisioning it as heaven on earth, it will be easier to achieve and to maintain (Mueller, 1991: 25).


Otterbein (2000) recently complained that the ‘doves’ (i.e., the peace and harmony mafia) have been overpowering and ‘outshouting’ the ‘hawks’ (presumably the more ‘realistic’ but ‘benighted’ peace researchers) in the anthropological literature. May this open letter be an invitation to the hawks to let themselves be heard.


Appendix: The Characteristics of Peaceful Peoples


‘Simple’ human societies, according to Knauft (1991, 1994) place great emphasis on generalized reciprocity and far less on balanced competition or negative reciprocity. Concomitantly, collective military action or warfare tends to be rudimentary or absent. This contrasts in aggregate terms with more complex, sedentary, horti- and agricultural societies, among which subsistence and demographic intensification are associated with increasing property ownership and status inequality, and increasingly competitive politicoeconomic and military rivalry (e.g., Fried, 1967).

Accordingly, we should be able to find a number of such ‘simple’ societies without war, or with only rudimentary war, in the literature. Swanton (1943) surveyed the anthropological literature and found that there were about as many societies that were peaceable as warlike. Leavitt (1977) found war absent or rare in 73% of hunting and gathering societies (n=22), 41% of simple horticultural (n=22), and 17% of advanced horticultural societies (n=29). Otterbein (1970), in a sample of 50 societies, found only 4 or 5 to have engaged “infrequently or never” in any type of offensive or defensive war. Jorgensen (1980) found that 7 societies (4.5%) of the 157 Amerindian societies surveyed had no record of conflict. In Ross’s (1983) coding of 90 societies in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, 12 (or 13.3%) were classified as warfare rare or nonexistent. Ember (1978) likewise found that warfare was rare or absent among 3 (or 9.7%) of a worldwide sample or 31 hunter-gatherer societies (with zero reliance on agriculture and herding). Holsti (1913), Hobhouse, Wheeler & Ginsberg (1915), van der Bij (1929), Numelin (1950), Textor (1967), Bonta (1993), Van der Dennen (1995), and Kelly (2000), among others, present inventories of a (great) number of peaceful peoples. Van der Dennen (1995: Ch. 7 and Appendices) also dedicates some 100 pages to the “politics of peace” in foraging societies.

Among the peaceful societies (or rather ‘unwarlike’ societies) critically investigated by Van der Dennen are the Monache, Panamint, Battle Montain and Hukundika Shoshone, Gosiute, Kaibab Paiute, Wenatchi, Columbia Salish, Copper Eskimo, Cayapa, Siriono, Xinguanos, Lapps, Lepchas, Gonds, Tikopia, Buid, Mangyan, Semang/Semai, Dorobo, Toda, Zuñi, !Kung, and Mbuti.

The evidence of a substantial number of peoples without warfare, or with mainly defensive and/or low-level warfare (i.e., seldom exceeding the level of petty feuding or desultory skirmishes) does not support the view of universal human belligerence. It does not support the equally erroneous view of universal peaceability either. Rather, it supports Mühlmann’s (1940), Dentan’s (1992), and Van der Dennen’s (1995, 1999) view that peace as well as war are the results of illuminated and opportunistic self-interest in the political arena.

Fabbro (1978) analyzed five peaceable primitive societies, including the Semai, the Siriono, the Mbuti, the !Kung, and the Copper Eskimo. To these ‘traditional’ groups, Fabbro added two literate peaceful communities for reasons of comparison, the Hutterites and the Islanders of Tristan da Cunha. Contemporary peace groups, such as Hutterites and Amish, living in permanent communities based on a common religion, are also called ‘cenobites’.

A peaceful society, according to him, is one that is not involved in internal (i.e., intracultural) collective violence; one that exhibits relatively little interpersonal violence; one that provides no special role for warriors; and one that has values and sanctions precluding violence as a means for resolving conflict. Peaceability should not be confused with pacifism, which is only one genre of peaceability (Dentan, 1992).

McCauley (1990) presented the results of a study of the Semai and two other peaceful societies, the Buid of the Philippines, and the South American Xingu River conglomeration of tribes (also called Xinguanos). Various combinations of the peaceable communities mentioned above were also present in the analyses of Gregor (1990), Dentan (1992, 1994), and Kelly (2000). From the combined analyses of this rather small sample a number of patterns emerge:


·        All peaceful societies are essentially small (band-level), local, face-to-face communities with very low degree of social stratification, and open and egalitarian decision-making (Fabbro, 1978: 181; Dentan, 1992; Cashman, 1993: 30; Van der Dennen, 1995: Ch. 7). Kelly (2000: 51-52) finds that there is a very strong association between the unsegmented organizational type and low frequency of warfare among foragers.

·        The ‘traditional’ societies do not maintain an exclusive monopoly over an area of land. Other groups may come and go, and in times of shortage an incumbent band may share the food and water resources with another less fortunate group. But conflicts within these groups are also partly responsible for personnel changes, fission being used as a dissociative conflict resolution form (Fabbro, 1978: 181, 199; Cashman, 1993: 30; Van der Dennen, 1995: Ch.7).

·        The traditional societies produce little or no economic surplus. Material inequality between individuals on a long-term basis is, therefore, impossible. As a corollary, leadership remains on the level of personal authority rather than coercive power because there is no surplus to appropriate (Fabbro, 1978: 181; Cashman, 1993: 30; Van der Dennen, 1995: Ch. 7).

·        The differences in child-rearing practices between the traditional and the cenobite societies are open to a number of possible explanations. Cenobites generally are more authoritarian with children than are peaceable ‘refugees’ like Semai, and they approve the spanking and whipping of children as corporal punishment of last resort (Dentan, 1992, 1994). The socialization of nonaggression (e.g., Montagu, 1978; Irwin, 1990) may be a relatively minor factor in the creation of peaceability (e.g., Riches, 1987; Dentan, 1992; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1993), though some cross-cultural studies find a positive correlation between child abuse and neglect or harsh socialization practices and bellicosity (e.g., Levinson & Malone, 1980; Ross, 1992).

·        Many of the peaceful societies develop what Gregor (1990) calls an ‘antiviolent’ value system; cultural norms and ideologies which discourage both intra- and intergroup violence (an important component of which seems to be Gelassenheit at least among cenobites). Nonviolence is supported by stigmatizing quarreling, boasting, stinginess, anger, and violence, and by according prestige for generosity, gentleness, and conflict avoidance. This value system is supported by supernatural beliefs (McCauley, 1990).

·        Most, if not all, of these peaceful societies were recently defeated refugees living in isolation, or were forcefully pacified, or both. Peaceability and nonviolence among primitive peoples and cenobites seems to stem from (a psychology of) defeat: “Defeat tamed them... those that survived did so by learning virtues of political accommodation or withdrawal from temporal affairs” (Barkun, 1986; see also Muehlmann, 1936, 1940; Service, 1968; Bigelow, 1969; Otterbein, 1970; Alexander, 1979; Dentan, 1992, 1994; Ember & Ember, 1992; Keeley, 1996; Service calls these “cultures of defeat” and Muehlmann speaks of “Rückzugsvölker”. Or, as Bigelow put it “their ‘peacefulness’ was imposed on them by force”). “Islets of peaceability” can arise as an adaptive response to defeat by neighboring peoples when there are relatively unpopulated areas (called ‘refuges’ or ‘enclaves’) to flee to.

·        Peaceful peoples tend to be not only geographically isolated (Otterbein, 1970; Gregor, 1990; Muehlmann, 1936, 1940), but peaceable ‘refugees’ also tend to be insulationist and xenophobic. Lacking the oppositional frontier processes that create peaceable ‘refugees’, cenobites need specific mechanisms to maintain the boundaries between their people and the ‘others’ by means of physical isolation. Peaceable peoples like Semai contrast themselves with the peoples they fear, creating a counterculture. The antiviolent value system is embodied in a contrast between the peacefulness of the ingroup and the violence of outsiders. Outsiders are bloody, violent, dangerous, ugly, evil, animal-like and, in a real sense, less than human. Children are warned against outsiders and, especially, about behaving like outsiders. Apparently, “hating violence requires violent people to hate” (McCauley, 1990).

·        The gender-equality characteristic of many egalitarian band-level societies is not a necessary correlate of peacefulness among enclaved peoples, although the two phenomena can co-occur.

·        Prescott’s (1975) cross-cultural findings support the thesis that deprivation of body pleasure (somatosensory deprivation) throughout life – but particularly during the formative periods of infancy, childhood, and adolescence – are very closely related to the amount of warfare and interpersonal violence. It has been noted time and again that peaceable communities generally manifest an enormous gusto for concrete physical pleasure – eating, drinking, sex, laughter – and they generally make little distinction between the ideal characters of men and women. Particularly, they seem to lack the ideal of brave, aggressive, macho-type masculinity (e.g., Gorer, 1968; Glad, 1990). Similarly, Fromm (1973) analyzed 30 primitive cultures. His analysis resulted in the distinction of three different and clearly delineated social systems: destructive, nondestructive-aggressive, and life-affirmative societies. In the latter social system (consisting of 8 societies: Aranda, Arapesh, Bathonga, Mbutu, Polar Eskimo, Semang, Toda, and Zuñi), the main emphasis of ideals, customs and institutions is that they serve the preservation and growth of life in all its forms. There is a minimum of hostility, violence, or cruelty among people, no harsh punish­ment, hardly any crime, and the institution of war is absent or plays an exceedingly small role. Children are treated with kindness, there is no severe corporal punishment; women are in general considered equal to men, or at least not exploited or humiliated; there is a generally permissive and affirmative attitude toward sex.

·        None of the peaceful societies would seem to operate on the premise that its members would automatically refrain from violence (even though aggressive models are absent). Even the most peaceful of these societies employ various forms of social conditioning and indoctrination to constrain and deflect the tendencies to resort to violence, as well as community inducements to discourage violence, and instructions in the virtues and arts of nonviolent conflict resolution. Tribal cosmology, rituals, legends, religious and ethical concepts and precepts reinforce the nonviolent norms of the society. And social ostracism is typically inflicted on individuals who violate these norms (S. Brown, 1994: 18-19). The fear of evil ghosts is an important mechanism of social control in the service of non-violence and peaceability. As Helbling (1998) writes about the Alangan Mangyan of the Philippines: “Die Angst (limo) vor den bösen Geistern ist ein wichtiger Mechanismus der sozialen Kontrolle und verstärkt die Motivation zu friedfertigen Verhalten”. The same has been found for the Semai (Dentan, 1968; Robarchek 1979), and the Buid (Pennoyer, 1977; Gibson, 1990).


Fabbro (1978: 181; cf. Cashman, 1993: 31) concludes that peaceful societies are peaceful essentially because they lack some of the most important structural prerequisites for engaging in war: a coercive hierarchy and leadership and an economic surplus to support a nonproductive military organization.

The 52 Peaceful Societies investigated by Melko (1973) are not really societies (in the ethnological sense) but particular historical periods of particular civilizations (such as the Han and T’ang dynasties in China) without major internal physical conflicts. Yet, some of his findings may be summarized for reasons of comparison.


·        No one form of government, no one economic system, no one structure of society, no one system of education seems to be essential to peace.

·        Moderate powers seem to have had the advantage over great powers in maintaining peace. They are strong enough to resist attack, but not strong enough to become overextended. Small powers that have been successful in maintaining peace have refrained from interfering in the affairs of their neighbors. Great powers seem to succeed in attaining peace only if they conquer all other great powers within range.

·        Peace is the normal internal condition for a society. Conflict involving physical fighting is exceptional. When it occurs, most people involved in it are not fighting most of the time. Most people in most places in most periods of history have not been killed or injured in war.


After reviewing the purification rituals of warriors who have killed in wars and feuds in societies all over the world, Turney-High (1949: 207) concluded that “Cold-blooded slaughter has really never been approved by the bulk of mankind. All have understood the amenities of peace to a greater or less degree. Civilized and savage men understand that war requires regulation and that human death is full of ‘mana’, which is a fearsome thing”. “Peace, then, seems to be the normal situation in the minds of even warlike peoples” (Turney-High, 1949: 226).

Knauft (1987, 1990, 1991, 1994) made a distinction between ‘simple’ and ‘middle-range’ societies, and their concomitant patterns of (collective) violence. He proposed that the overall trajectory of violence and sociality (especially male status differentiation) in pongid and hominid/human evolution may be U-shaped instead of linear. He notes that generalizations about human societal evolution are easily biased by HRAF samples weighted heavily with middle-range societies, which are far more numerous in the ethnographic record than simple ones though they have persisted for a much shorter period of evolutionary time.

Rodseth (1991) and Abler (1991) pointed out that Knauft leaves open the question whether his “simple societies” are simply products of the marginal environments they exploit and the resulting low population densities. Simple foraging societies as known from the ethno­graphic record may not be repre­sentative of such societies in the Pleistocene and may in fact be radically different, precisely because they have adapted to marginal areas outside the “main currents of human social evolution”. The U-shape of human social evolution proposed by Knauft would, Rodseth (1991) suggests, be an illusion created by casting an adaptation to extreme conditions as a global evolution­ary stage.

According to Kelly (2000: 43), the origin of war – in the sense of the initiation of warfare in a sociocultural context where it did not previously exist – entails a transition from one form of collective violence to another, rather than a transition from peaceful nonviolence to lethal armed conflict. The main contours of this postulated transition are also indicated by the reappraisal of interpersonal violence in Fabbro’s selected sample of Peaceful Societies. The transition entails a shift from (1) individual homicide followed by the execution of the killer, carried out by the homicide victim’s aggrieved next of kin and the latter’s supporters, to (2) war (including feud) in which an “unsuspecting relative” or coresident of the perpetrator of an initial homicide is killed in blood vengeance by the homicide victim’s aggrieved next of kin and the latter’s supporters or coresidents, triggering a like desire for vengeance and thus underwriting reciprocating episodes of lethal armed conflict between two social groups or collectivities. The critical change from individual to group responsibility overrides the intrinsic self-limiting features of violence in warless societies.

“War is thus neither universal nor pervasive. Moreover, it is most likely to be rare to nonexistent among unsegmented foraging societies (with little or no dependence on agriculture), and that suggests an earlier prehistory characterized by much more extensive zones of warlessness than the period covered by recorded history” (Kelly, 2000: 124). It seems to me that Kelly here is making the same fundamental ‘mistake’ as Knauft.





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