Putin and the Chimpanzees

24 Sep

Humans are not natural born killers. They are born to do what works.There has been some news report recently regarding how Chimpanzees go to war and hints that why this is a proof that the warlike nature of humanity is somehow pre-determined (typical title: Natural born killers: Chimpanzees are inherently violent and wage war like their human ‘cousins’, study claims). But the news reports only emphasized one side of the study. Yes, it is likely that Chimpanzees wage something like war (or more like gang violence), and this is not just the effect of human intrusion into their territories as some people claim. But it is very doubtful that war and violence is somehow “encoded” and we cannot escape it. It is more precise to say that there is war when war works. The original Nature study also mentions bonobos (another ape), and the fact that they are a lot less violent – but that hardly makes headlines.

If you read Ian Morris’ excellent “War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots”, you know that Chimpanzees wage war, so the recent research published is just reinforcing earlier results. But more interestingly, Morris also talks about the Bonobos, which look like small Chimpanzees, share 99% of their DNA with them (the same percentage as humans do) and are at the opposite end of the violence scale. They are the Hippy Chimps, having orgies instead of war, living in a different area of Africa than chimpanzees.

Picture compositSources: whogivesamonkey.com, dailyjade.com

He argues that warlike behavior is not genetically determined, but by circumstances. Bonobos do not compete for food with gorillas, and can maintain larger groups. These offer protection against potential raids (chimpanzees usually gang up on lonely foragers of a different tribe). Whatever the reason, war does not pay in the same way as the other side of the river Congo, and therefore different behaviors and individuals emerged from natural selection.

The book is worth reading for much more than this (you probably saw the reviews, or see one here). It argues that war is horrible, but contributes to more organized societies with more control over violence and eventually a lower level of violence. When war does not pay – because for example there is an overwhelming hegemon interested in global order and trade – there is not going to be much conflict. Morris argues for such a “globocop” that maintains global order (and at the moment the US is the only credible candidate).

The chimpanzee story has after all (very contemporary) relevance for us, but not the way many headline-writers imagine. If we crate or allow an environment where war pays, we will get more wars. There is always going to be a hidden Putin (full of testosterone) in every country (or to some extent even every individual). Whether he will resort to war depends on the expected payoffs both within that country and outside. And everybody is constantly updating their expected payoffs.

This can lead to a quick unraveling to the previous order. Every act of successful use of violence incentivizes others to imitate, and we are at the beginning of that slippery slope to chaotic international relations and war – similar to what happened in the 1930s. Desperately wishing it was not so and doing nothing will only hasten this process. Or, as the classics put it: Si vis pacem, para bellum…If you wish for peace, prepare for war…

If you liked the post, follow Barrelperday on Facebook!

Or subscribe to our Twitter feed or Newsletter

No comments yet

Leave a Reply