Mzansi Afrika

From Johannesburg South Africa, a window on the world

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Can humanity ever escape its age-old legacy of battle?

A glance at a history book is all it takes to know that war has been humanity's persistent companion for many millenniums. The 20th century, with its grisly conflicts over ideology, religion, and colonialism, may be behind us, but as events in Iraq show all too clearly, war is with us still. In 2002, according to Worldwatch Institute, a total of 45 wars and violent conflicts were raging around the globe, with a cumulative cost of more than 7 million lives.

Yet ever since Margaret Mead, most anthropologists have considered warfare to be a fairly recent innovation of a previously peaceful species. Isolated groups--the Copper Eskimo in Arctic Canada, the !Kung Bushmen in southern Africa--appeared to live without war, and archaeological digs suggested to most that war was "invented" only when hunter-gatherers settled into towns and developed complex political structures. It's a comforting thought--cultural inventions can be discarded or replaced, as Mead suggested in her 1940 essay Warfare Is Only an Invention--Not a Biological Necessity. But controversial reassessments of ancient archaeological sites, of the warless cultures, and of our closest animal relatives are leading some scientists to propose a view of humanity that is decidedly more grim. Could it be that fighting wars is an inherent part of what it means to be human, rooted in biology and as central to our collective identity as language and culture? (More)