The Origin of War: A Précis

by Johan M.G. van der Dennen

The main thesis of my book The origin of War: The Evolution of a Male-Coalitional Reproductive Strategy (Groningen: Origin Press, 1995) is that warfare (violent intergroup interaction) was not, as the standard opinion is, a cultural invention concomitant with the agricultural revolution and pristine state formation in Mesopotamia some 5 thousand years ago, but an evolved high-risk/high-gain male-coalitional parental-investment strategy of a hypersocial, large-brained, highly cooperative, and slightly ethnocentric, primate.
Warring behavior is confined to typically higly social and 'brainy' species, cognitively capable of establishing relatively long-term polyadic coalitions, mainly Hominidae and Panidae. This, at least partially, explains why males are universally the warriors, why warfare emerged so (relatively) late in evolution, and why it is so conspicuously absent in mammals generally.
In evolutionary perspective, the main problems I addressed in this study were (a) to explain why war or its nonhuman equivalent (violent and more or less organized intergroup conflict) is confined in the animal kingdom to the hominids/humans, at least one species of chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes),
and, though in much lesser and milder degree and less orchestrated, in some dolphins, social carnivores (such as hyenas), and a (small) number of primates, such as colobines, baboons and macaques; and (b) to simultaneously explain the conspicuous absence of the nonhuman equivalent of warfare in mammals generally, and primates in particular. This absence of violent intergroup competition in these animals is especially puzzling because they all have interindividual agonistic behavior (`aggression') in their behavioral repertoires.
A correlative problem concerns (c) the explanation of why it is universally males who are the warriors in humans and chimpanzees (in contrast to the social carnivores and primates in which females are prominently present in intergroup conflict); in other words, why warfare is such conspicuously sexually-dimorphic behavior. These are all ultimate-level questions. For the corollary proximate-level questions of why human males fight in wars at all, their proximate motives, I have extensively reviewed the pertinent literature.
The general purpose of the study was to provide a solution to the vexing problem why and how violent intergroup conflict in Homo sapiens sapiens
The major points of the study are:
(1) The book does not claim that humanity suffers from an overdose of 'aggression', 'innate belligerence', 'killer instincts' or similar 'evil streaks'. It does neither demonize males nor project evil in nature.
(2) Unlike other books on warfare in preindustrial societies, the book transcends the species boundary and emphasizes phylogenetic continuity - making Man substantially less unique as a species - by examining intergroup agonistic behavior in primates and social carnivores as well as human preindustrial societies.
(3) The book purports to show that an evolutionary perspective on warring behavior does not imply that mankind is 'doomed' to slaughter one another. A large chapter is dedicated to the politics of peace in preindustrial societies.
(4) The book attempts to be truly interdisciplinary, and to integrate theories and data ranging from primatology to ethnography.
(5) It presents a fairly complete review of the literature regarding biological and cultural theories of war in preindustrial societies. It also presents a fairly complete review of the empirical (cross-cultural and macro-quantitative) anthropological research on the causes and correlates of war in preindustrial societies. It is complementary to Keeley's recent monograph on War Before Civilization and Shaw & Wong's work on ethnocentrism and warfare.
(6) It presents an evolutionary scenario ('evolutionario') in which a plausible trajectory of the hominids/humans is reconstrued, and attempts to show how (proto-)ethnocentrism, group territoriality, Machiavellian intelligence synergistically combined to allow male polyadic coalitions and 'lethal male raiding'.
This may sound rather familiar for evolutionary biologists, human behavioral ecologists and Darwinian psychologists, but it might challenge current thinking in the field of cultural anthropology, and is a new perspective in political science, in particular international relations.