Pro-war bias (crossposted at CT)

The fact that people are so willing to support war is a puzzle that requires an explanation. After all, war is a negative-sum activity, so war between rational parties doesn’t make sense – there’s always a potential settlement that would leave both sides better off*. And empirically, it’s usually the case that both sides end up worse off relative to both the status quo ante or to a possible peace settlement they could have secured at a point well before the end of the war. Even the observation that rulers start wars and ordinary people bear the costs doesn’t help much – leaders who start losing wars usually lose their jobs and sometimes more, while winning a war is by no means a guarantee of continued political success (ask Bush I) All of this suggests that looking for rational explanations of war, as in the ‘realist’ tradition (scare quotes indicate that this self-ascribed title has little to with a reality-based focus on the real world) is not a good starting point.

So it makes sense to look at irrational sources of support for war. In this pice in Foreign Policy Daniel Kahneman (winner of the economics Nobel a couple of years back) and Jonathan Renshon start looking at some well-known cognitive biases and find that they tend systematically to favor hawkish rather than dovish behavior. The most important, in the context of today’s news is “double or nothing” bias, which is well-known in studies of choice under uncertainty as risk-seeking in the domain of losses (something first observed by Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their classic paper on prospect theory).

The basic point is that people tend to cast problems like whether to continue a war that is going badly in win-lose terms and to be prepared to accept a high probability of greater losses in return for a small probability of winning or breaking even. So we get the Big Push, the Surge, the last throw of the dice and so on.

There are other biases that are based more in the way we manage things as a society than in individual psychology. The most important is the failure to treat decisions about war in terms of opportunity cost, by contrast with the way in which the budgeting process of governments (admittedly imperfectly) brings home the cost of other government activities. More on this soon, I hope.

* This is not necessarily the case if your opponent is irrationally bent on your destruction, but one of the problems noted by Kahneman and Renshon is that people are overly willing to impute such motives to others, while perceiving themselves as peaceful and reasonable.

113 thoughts on “Pro-war bias (crossposted at CT)

  1. When looking at the interests of the countries it is to my mind quite clear that Argentina as a country acted irrationally. Britain as a country may or may not have acted rationally. I think they probably did as my thinking, derived from game theory, is that it is almost always correct to respond to an attack and impose a cost on the attacker. Conversely its almost always irrational to initiate an attack as modern history bears out.

    Whether the leaders of these countries acted rationally, or whether the countries as a whole acted rationally is not to me an interesting question or one which will illuminate the issue of pro-war bias.

    The illuminating question is “Why did the leaders of Argentina think invading the Falklands was a good idea?”. The Argentinian leaders were in trouble. Their economy was tanking. The Argentian leader’s basic problem was that they were losing support within their own country.

    Their solution was to start a war.

    Think about that carefully for a few moments while imagining every Argentinian as a rational actor looking out for their own self interest. It should be a complety insane solution. Why would an Argentian increase support for an unpopular government that is doing something very risky which may get lots of Argentinians killed for the possession of a few relatively unimportant islands that are of almost no practical value to the average Argentinan? It should make absolutely no sense at all. But the leaders of Argentina thought that the average Argentinian would respond in this very irrational way. They had very good reason to believe this would happen.

    Populations again and again increase support for leaders that start wars. At the start of a war, before things turn bad, leaders almost always experience increases in domestic support. This is absolutely crazy. It makes no sense at all. It is clearly irrational for populations to increase support for leaders that are going to get lots of their own population killed for benefits that often do not materialise and usually don’t go to to the general population anyway but it happens again and again and again. This is irrational thinking on a mass scale repeated across almost all cultures and periods of history.

    It is my contention that we are genetically hard wired to behave like this. When faced with mass conflict, regardless of the cause, we revert to very tribal behaviour and thinking. We support our leaders unquestioningly, become jingoistic, exhibit hyper-patriotism and de-humanise those that are different. On some level successful leaders are aware of this and initiate conflicts with outsiders to bring out this kind of behaviour when their own domestic support is weak.

  2. “Until (and if ever) the intelligence data is released the question of whether it was self delusion, simple error, wrong assements, deliberate misinformation or a combination of all of these or more will have to (IMHO) remain open”


    I didn’t think that the debate on this point was too much in doubt.

    The article by Ron Susskind sticks in my mind, when he quoted a Bush aide –
    “The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    Perhpas there is another way to intrepret this other than a contempt for inconvenient reality, but I have trouble seeing it.

  3. SWIO – sometimes but your outline is simplistic.

    The Germans supported their leaders long after things turned bad – right to the end. I think there are other cases where support was “to the death”.

    Opposed to them, the feeling in the UK, the US and here was not characterised by jingoism. Not claiming that was absent, of course, but it was more of a backs to the wall, job to be done, attitude.

    Whatever the side, if the ship is danger, you stand with your crew, you stand by your captain. No doubt leaders are indeed aware of this. But before that, before it has become a fait accompli, feelings might be different.

    Has any country voted, at referendum, to go to war? I do not think any would unless there was perceived to be really no option. Germany 1939 would not have, nor Argentina on the eve of Falklands. I cannot imagine that at any time the Americans would have voted, at referendum, to go to war in Vietnam. Here the Liberals won the 1966 election on Vietnam participation but if there had been a referendum on the issue we would have talked about it and saved all that later demonstrating.

    Democracy, as Kant said long ago, is the solution to war.

  4. Mike Pepperday, True, I haven’t read The Selfish Gene. The title smacks of anthropomorphism – but I’m very much enjoying The God Delusion.

    My understanding of Darwinian selection is that it is random. This means that things we like doing (such as going to war, knitting sweaters, etc) have a random probability of ‘promoting’ our genes (your word not mine). This in turn can mean that war has survived because it does not prevent the reproduction of the species, or that the species has survived despite its propensity to war. It does not imply that war is an inevitable attribute of species survival. (Needless to say, I was not talking about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at all – only what it is possible to say about the role of war in genetic selection).

    I do not find SWIO’s original to be orthodox Darwinism, because he discounts the possibility that a superior survival mechanism might be obtained in the absence of war.

    “war didn’t promote brawn”. I was not comparing humanity with other species, I was comparing brawny humanity with – let’s call it – “effeminate” humanity. In what sense do men take 2 years longer to mature than women? In intelligence? I’m not aware that there is any difference in intelligence between men and women or girls and boys.

  5. Melanie
    The God Delusion is a diatribe; The Selfish Gene is a scientific exposition. Your “understanding of Darwinian selection” is deficient. Many books would rectify this but SG is very well written. Many people have commented on its title; yours was passe 20 years ago.

    No! Sexual maturity! Girls about 14, boys about 16.

    Your “brawn” is what is referred to as sexual dimorphism: here the larger size of the male. Humans are moderately dimorphic. This is not from war; this is from competition for females. War requires lots of brains for planning and communicating strategy and tactics – and little blokes are just as deadly as big blokes.

  6. The Selfish Gene is a controversial work among evolutionary biologists. I gather from some scientific mates that Dawkins has since admitted a rather loose equation of ‘gene’ with phenotype traits and even learned behaviours.

    Wtf does the age of sexual maturity have to do with cleverness? Just to remind you what you said: “cleverness requires a long slow childhood”.

    Agreed, human warfare requires the application of a certain type of intelligence (more than chimp warfare anyway). So what?

  7. Dawkins had an argument with Gould (“punk eek”) but I think D won and it died with G. The SG was controversial when it came out but hardly with biologists. D made mincemeat out of all comers – partly because he is a good arguer but at bottom because it is orthodox Darwinism. I am not aware of any admissions by Dawkins. I think your mates are full of wind but if you can get a reference I would like to see it.

    Cleverness. A mammal our size could mature in 3 years – like a cow. Why are we held back? Presumably because we need 15 years to wire our brains. Chimps mature in about 7 years – smarter than cows, dumber than us. Men are held back a further two years compared with women. Men are warriors and war has shaped us probably since we were still swinging from the trees (male chimps make war) so presumably males need another two years to get the wiring together to cope with the extra aggro.

    So what? So we should face up to reality. We are wired for war. War is one strategy our genes steer us toward in their competition with each other.

    We can’t change the genes but we can outsmart them by a tried and proven remedy: democracy. It is lack of democracy that allowed Bush to go to war. The American people would never have voted for Iraq if there had been a referendum on it. Never. But you mention referendums to most people and they recoil. Our genes hate democracy.

    An outrage like Iraq would never even be considered if there was a referendum system. For a few egos millions of people must suffer and die. It was ever thus.

  8. I think things like ‘double or nothing’ bias and the different incentives of rulers and ruled often explain how long wars continue (I’ve just finished reading a history of WW1 in which it was clear that both were instrumental in the failure of Wilson’s efforts to secure a compromise peace in 1916 at a time when the objective facts on the ground favoured such a peace). They’re relevant to the recent ‘surge strategy’, but less so to the original decision for unprovoked aggression against Iraq.

    But SWIO is absolutely correct – hardwired, testosterone-mediated militarism rather than exotic calculation explains the irrational militarism and jingoism that leads to outbreaks of war across virtually all human societies. Making an unprovoked surprise attack to eliminate the next clan was highly adaptive on the East African plains, and modern day Western leaders are rarely immune from these urges, no matter how much they tell themselves otherwise. And they are generally happy to exploit them in the populations they supposedly serve. The trouble with Bushian ‘gut instinct’ is that we don’t have very nice guts.

    On Melanie’s comment:
    – Its true that some individual examples from the Selfish Gene are controversial. Its even true that some biologists say that Dawkins oversimplified the relations between genotype and phenotype, especially in the light of developments since its publication in 1976. But only a handful – eg the late Stephen Jay Gould, the Roses, Levrontin – deny the basic thesis of individual gene selection rather than group phenotype selection, and their opposition is very clearly based on ideological priors.

    – And yes, cleverness requires a long childhood. For engineering reasons animals can’t be born with really big brains so they have to develop (and there are anyway advantages to having plasticity in response to environment). The more there is to develop, the longer it takes.

  9. Hmm. Elephants reach sexual maturity at 9-12 years (F) and 10 (M) (for females this is pretty much the same as humans these days – btw, what explains the earlier maturity of modern humans?), green sea turtles at around 50. These long maturation times are presumably not related to the wiring of the brain.

    Anyway girls require 2 years less than boys to reach the same level of cleverness. Maybe the boys take a bit longer to develop the brawn (or the not very nice guts – as DD put it)?

  10. Would it be rational for America to attack Iran in 2007? At least, would it be rational for George Bush and his team? Would an attack on Iran improve Bush’s polls? Would it help him divert attention from the messiness of his Iraq play? Assuming in each case that there was an immediate causus belli. A suitable provocation.

    The only thing I know is that it would not be rational for Iran to strike American naval shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.

  11. “Maybe the boys take a bit longer to develop the brawn”

    No. As I pointed out before, as with a cow, the brawn could be done by age 3. Men’s brains must have some complication that takes an extra two years. I suggest war making and associated male cooperation.

    In western countries average onset of menarche is said to be 5 years younger now than a century ago. Presumably it’s through better nutrition: the body is rigged to detect good seasons and to reproduce at the earliest viable date. The only use of a body is to pass on genes. The genes have figured out that their optimum for a human body is three score and ten years (or so) and then they discard the husk.

  12. Mike P., the genes don’t “figure” anything out (but I’ll let it pass as a rhetorical flourish). As Dawkins himself points out, evolution can be wasteful. Genes can be copied even if they are not optimal for survival, the only condition is that they are not actually dysfunctional for survival.

    Although male elephants are sexually mature at age 10, they take another 20 years to develop sufficient brawn to be able to conduct the elephant “wars” that are required for successful mating. If boys can play football at age 10, they can do the cooperation at 10. You are just wishfully speculating there.

  13. Further Mike, if 70 years is what the genes have ‘figured out’, why doesn’t menopause kill women off?

  14. Discussing the “surge strategy” in Iraq, US economist Paul Krugman seems to be adopting the view that yes, it’s rational – for some people: “The Hail Mary aspect — … that somehow, things really will turn out all right — is the least of their motivations. The real intent is a form of looting. I’m not talking mainly about old-fashioned war profiteering… No, I’m saying that the hawks want to keep this war going because it’s to their personal and political benefit. …

    [E]scalation buys [Mr. Bush] another year or two to claim that we’re making progress — and it gives him another chance to prove that he’s the Decider, beyond accountability. And as for pundits who promoted the war and are now trying to sell the surge: for a little while longer they can be Very Important People who have the president’s ear.

    Meanwhile, the nation pays the price”.

  15. Yes I’s have to second you on that one Melanie . The idea that genes figure out and respond directly to optimise the organism for certain environmental factors is a form of
    Lamarckianism rather than Darwinism. Darwinism is the hypothesis that evolution is a random walk through gene space (the set of all possible genes from the previous generation) constrained by the survival value of those genes. To imagine that a complex phenomena like war could be explained by genes is ludicrous. The survival value of increased brain size or evaluation of resources ( to think or emote )might be.

  16. melanie,
    Some research I saw a little while ago may show why women do not (tend to) die at menopause – the longer lived a woman is the more descendents she tends to have at grandchildren and great-grandchildren level. The conjecture of the researchers was that the role of the grandmother was important in deciding the success of the grandchildren and perhaps in helping the decision to have more children on the part of her children.
    The same effect was not noted on the part of a grandfather. If you want, I will dig it up for you.

  17. why doesn’t menopause kill women off?

    One theory says that grandmothers play a critical role in nurturing children; teaching and assisting mothers; and as a repository of information for the entire clan. Clans that retain grandmothers beyond the fertile years outperform groups with a more nuclear family structure.

  18. To imagine that a complex phenomena like war could be explained by genes is ludicrous.

    No doubt. Nobody here would ever suggest such a thing. The proposition is that the capacity for violent aggression is genetic not that sequencing the genome will allow us to predict whether Bush will strike at Iran this year. The only thing we can know from human genetics is that one part of Bush will certainly be itching to do so.

  19. The proposition that the capacity for violent aggression is gemetic is also a lot of hogwash.Aggressive behaviours are some of the most complex and calculated of human behaviour ; to think that a low dimensional system like the genetic code can code for them is an article of a bizarre faith. The null hypothesis must be that culture explains war you have to demonstrate in a micro logical manner ( and not could bes , might bes and just so stories and a whole lot of malarkey about testosterone) that genes bias the human perceptual system to war.

  20. Genes code for the four humours, Bill. It’s the humours which more directly account for our aggression. Aggression is not in a different class from co-operation or nurturing. Genes do more than dictate your hair colour. And of course, we are not slaves to all our genes all the time.

    We can live perfectly peacefully if conditions are propitious. The ability to wage war is there – for when the occasion demands. Culture is the art of avoiding those occasions.

  21. Now we are down to humourous theory. I think hoever we can agree on something : the emotions do play a vital role in the path to war. But to say that this is genetic is drawing a long bow. Culture explains war adequately and to use Occam’s razor you don’t need genetic explanations. The idea that women are incapable of war or are the spoils of war is misogynistic. Usually those most prone to use physical force are those who have most of it.

  22. So, BO’S, you reckon that male aggression is not biological? Male chimps learn it culturally? It’s just a funny coincidence that, round the world, human males fight? The male kangaroo spends its whole growing-up time practising, at play, how to kick other male kangaroos. And when they are grown those big hind feet will rip into the belly of another male who has the attention of a female. Did he learn this from his mother? No. He inherited from her (and his father). The purpose of that genetically steered behaviour is to get those genes into the next generation.

    Yours is the “argument from personal incredulity” as Dawkins calls it. Incredulity is what we all feel when we contemplate what genes do. But argument from that has no merit.

    You don’t think the genes have figured out that 70 is their optimum period for holding onto a human body before discarding it? You reckon it is just some weird mystery, that we get 70, dogs get 10, butterflies a month, an olive tree a 1000 years? There are plenty of mysteries but one aspect is not: it is the product of natural selection.

    “As Dawkins himself points out, evolution can be wasteful. Genes can be copied even if they are not optimal for survival…�

    Melanie, I doubt he did. Another airy assertion on your part. Genes WILL be copied. They are made to do it without fail, without omission, without flaw. I doubt anyone knows how many millions of times they copy until a flaw occurs in the gametes. Then if that flaw somehow happens to let the vehicle it builds (ie the plant or animal) be more reproductive the “flaw� will prosper. Tautologically true. As for “optimal� – there is no such thing: if one phenotype is better at promoting its genes than another, the genes of the first will come to dominate the gene pool. That is all – and another tautology.

  23. “Yours is the “argument from personal incredulityâ€? as Dawkins calls it. Incredulity is what we all feel when we contemplate what genes do. But argument from that has no merit.”
    This is nonsense whether you or Dawkins say it. Dawkins for all his virtues is not the ultimate authority on Darwinism .We are always looking for the most likely explanation for some phenomena. War , in my opinion , is emergent behaviour. In other words given our large brain it becomes a possibility. The necessary and sufficient condition for war is a large brain. You neglect to mention aggression amongst female animals and also the rate of mutation is not a mystery and the bounds on it well known
    Your two claimed tautologies are not tautologies. Darwinism is not a tautology. The phenotype genotype link is very complex except for very simple cases. The theory of why you drop dead at age 70 is quite simple ( although the details are not) you accumulate genetic errors in cellular systems until a large scale system ( an organ) fails. Other species have different ways of coping with oxidative and other stresses which result in different rates of genetic damage. Now is 70 the optimal age ? No its just the way the engineering pans out.

  24. Yes Bill, the engineering conks out at 70. But that this particular engineering has been selected for is still true. 70 is only optimal in the sense that it is the lifespan that is most abundantly achieved amongst our species. The word optimal is distracting.

    The engineering is certainly mappable one to one with our genes. No chance of culture there.

  25. wbb the point you make is a good one. Is life span a trait that is selected for ?. It is a phenotype as you implicitly mention. Is it an isomorphism ( one to one mapping)with our genes ? probably not , but that is not unusual for complex phenotypes. This doesn’t shed much light on what is and is not a phenotype e.g. culture.
    If you claim aggression is mainly associated with the male then you have given the Y chromosome a lot of work to do.
    “For example, the kangaroo Y chromosome contains only the SRY gene.”
    So the kangaroos Y chromosome consists of one gene ( the sex determining region), and the human y chromosome consists of 83 genes ( compared to 1000 on the X chromosome).

  26. Since I happen to be reading The God Delusion at the moment:
    “the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for one, which betrays its evolutionary history in a massive and wasteful detour on its way to its destination. Many of our human ailments, from lower back pain to hernias, prolapsed uteruses and our susceptibility to sinus infections…” p. 134. (he is referring to things he has discussed at length in other works)

    “we are dealing with a generalized process for optimizing biological species” (p. 139, emphasis in original).

    Btw, optimizing is always subject to constraints.

    70 has historically not been the age when the engineering conked out. 3 score years and ten is biblical I believe (and therefore literary rather than scientific), but average life expectancy for most of the human species is in the 50s or 60s. In the developed world we have learned how to slow what we now understand to be the rate of genetic damage and our average is now about 80. So we have not been selected for a 70 year lifespan.

    Aggression is not the same as war. While all of us presumably have genetic coding for aggression, rather few of us volunteer for war if we are given the choice (which may or may not be linked to democratization). Whether we go to war or not is a rationally calculated decision based on the information available to each decision-maker.

  27. If you watch some army training vidoes, Melanie, aggression is part of the kit that soldiers are encouraged to develop though. You couldn’t run a good war without some agressive soldiers.

  28. wbb, Of course you are right. Aggression is a necessary part of the soldier’s kit. But they’re also supposed to be able to control it – so, for example, they don’t end up raping their own women or fragging the officers, as some of them have been known to do. It doesn’t mean we are genetically wired for war. That’s all.

  29. wbb “70 is only optimal in the sense that it is the lifespan that is most abundantly achieved amongst our species. The word optimal is distracting.�

    No, “optimal�, referring to the genes’ point of view, is right and crucial. The age a body’s genes throw the body away is the age which maximally propagates those genes. If you wish to say “allow it to break down� that would change nothing though it is simpler just to posit deadly genes. Genes that are deadly cut in at age 70 on humans. Those that cut in earlier got weeded out of the gene pool. Those that cut in later: ditto. In a dog optimal is 12 years. Natural selection sets optimal (potential) lifespan.

    Bill, you gave me that reference, saying mutation rates are well known. Did you read it? The final words of that Wikipedia entry are “This means the mutation rate is still not clear to scholars,” which is pretty much what I’d said. Before that the entry had said 1 in 10000 to 1 in a million. I presume that is individuals. How may copies of every gene have been made for every individual? The human male ejaculates a million copies each orgasm. But all this is more or less by-the-by. The point is everything is copied and the whole mechanism is structured to make copying fidelity very good.

    Personal incredulity is actually what fosters God: species couldn’t possibly be the result of random process! Incredible! Impossible! There has to be an almighty Creator! Incredulity is not a useful emotion. In scientific analysis no emotion is useful.

    “Likely explanation” is quite another matter. That is what you have been seeing from me and SWIO and wbb. If that kangaroo chromosome has a lot of work to do, then so be it. I asked you before (rhetorically because I thought the answer not merely likely but obvious): If the male kangaroo doesn’t get aggression genetically where do you think he gets it from? What is your “likely explanationâ€??

    As for males being more aggressive than females, that holds across a lot of species but not all. In species near us it is usual. Even if there were no human evidence you would have to presume we are similarly wired. Why would you presume otherwise, especially given our dimorphism? In those species males fight to monopolise females, including humans. This is how the females cull the males.

    A large brain allows war. I guess so – and the brain is caused by genes. But women don’t do it. And male chimps do do it but females chimps don’t. Far more “likely� that war put selection pressure on humans (ruthlessly in the case of men). The humans left standing are the ones who are good at war.

    Darwinism is not a tautology? Never said it was. Those two sentences I wrote were, though. Actually, I was never convinced that Dawkins really showed that Darwinian natural selection was not a tautology.

  30. “how the females cull the males”. In Vietnam 106 males are born for every 100 females. The ratio remains roughly the same until the age of 18 when suddenly women are the majority – a majority that increases steadily over time. The largest cause of death is head injury (i.e., motor bike accidents). It’s called stupidity – large brain and all!

  31. Mike Pepperday
    Unfortunately that wikipedia entry (Mutation_rate) has been hacked by Creationists. (
    Instead see : Methods Enzymol. 2006;409:195-213.”Methods for determining spontaneous mutation rates.”
    I don’t know why male kangaroos get aggressive and female kangaroos don’t. Do you know why female hyenas are aggressive and males aren’t ?
    Thorough going psychological studies on aggression in human males and females don’t show much difference. The level of aggression is the same in both sexes but females are less inclined to show or act it out ( Any surprises there ?).
    The sex detemining region in mammals acts as a switch on genes which are common to male and female.
    The most common chimp to wind up dead on a male chimp patrol ( patrolling their border)is a female chimp.

  32. “Thorough going psychological studies on aggression in human males and females don’t show much difference.”


    “The level of aggression is the same in both sexes but females are less inclined to show or act it out”

    And I am kind and generous but I never show it.

  33. While the stags are busy locking horns, they fail to observe what the does are up to! Your ‘drivel’ comment is wrong Pepperday.

    Actually physical manifestations of aggression (i.e. violence) are very rare in humans. Statistically, therefore, it seems highly improbable that war has played any role in the evolution of the species.

  34. The point I am making is a little more subtle than that Melanie. Evolution can no more adapt to war than it can to stock market crashes.

  35. Andrew, we are talking about humans here. We just don’t kill a very large percentage of the species (in reality a very tiny percentage). Even WW2 with all the Russian deaths and atomic bombs didn’t do much to sort out the human genes.

  36. Maybe, then, we are using our humanity to overcome our baser instincts when we make war. Our evolution and intelligence means that we make war in a more civilised (if I can use that term here) way than our distant ancestors would have.

  37. Actually physical manifestations of aggression (i.e. violence) are very rare in humans. Statistically, therefore, it seems highly improbable that war has played any role in the evolution of the species.

    If one person in 20 is seriously affected by violence then you would have to say its going to have an important impact on human evolution. If we assume that our ancestors lived to the age of 30 on average then this would imply one serious violent incident per 600 person years. You can’t be suggesting a person could go 600 years without ever facing serious violence in stone age socities ? Especially with the lack of modern medicine causing most major injuries to lead to death, and many minor injuries to be crippling? Violence may be rare but its impact on genes is so large it only has to occur once a decade in a person’s life to have overwhelming influence on evolution. You die, you don’t reproduce.

    Or put it this way. Even during the more civilised times the death rate due to war is significant. During the 20th century it is estimated that one person in 22 died as a result of violent conflict. One out of 22 is not statistically insignificant.

  38. We just don’t kill a very large percentage of the species (in reality a very tiny percentage). Even WW2 with all the Russian deaths and atomic bombs didn’t do much to sort out the human genes.

    Of course single incidents like this are not going to have any noticable effect. Evolution doesn’t work like that. But the culmulative pressure of 5%, or even a fraction of a percent of a population dying in war is going to have an enormous effect over thousands of generations. To convince yourself look at any computer model of exponential behavour. It quickly becomes obvious that truly tiny effects are overwhelming when applied exponentially.

  39. “…I and the public know
    What all schoolchildren learn,
    Those to whom evil is done
    Do evil in return.”

    W.H. Auden, from “1st September 1939”. I recommend this poem to everybody.

  40. It is best to think of the genetic code as a computing device with very limited storage. Information is stored as genes of which in humans there are approximately 20,000. Most of these are concerned with very routine activity. The idea that this mechanism could store information about complex environmental events is fanciful and the onus is on you to show it. ( For still working it out a thorough going war is a recent invention notwithstanding what chimps do). The incapacity of the genetic code to immediately adapt is being demonstrated before your eyes as millions of species go extinct.

  41. Bill,
    War has been clearly documented throughout human history. Any belief that it did not also occur in prehistory would either have to be proven or just be accepted as a point of faith. You may have such faith – in the absence of evidence I have none. The onus, surely, is on you.
    The only difference now is that the weapons are better (at their designated task), the production methods are faster and medical services make wounds and illness more survivable. There may be more, but you get the point.
    The chimpanzee evidence, to me at least, makes it plain that if this is socialised behavior it has proven remarkably persistent.

  42. I am sorry to lower the tone of the conversation but I can’t resist. So chimps can’t resist fighting each other for the estabilishment of the glorios nation state of Chimpistan and estabilish as their noble leader George Halliburton Chimp ( supreme alpha male ).There may be more, but you get the point. All of this and more can be deduced by simple resource and other conflicts without the deus ex machina of the gnetic code.

  43. Bill,
    But surely, if the chimps all worked together Chimpistan would be a Nirvana of social progress and love and balanced, green, development. So why does the alpha male fight for the resource instead of negotiating for it?
    If the optimal outcome did not involve violence, why is violence resorted to?

  44. Generally, the alpha male does not fight for the resource, but negotiates for it. War is a rare occurrence, even if you can find one going on somewhere at any given point in time, it actually happens to a very small percentage of the population – and historically in the absence of weapons of mass destruction.

    SWIO, if even 5% were killed in a war, 95% were not and their genes are also multiplying exponentially.

    About the 600 person years: My mother has discovered about 100 of her ancestors going back to the 1600s. None them was in a war in 350 years – in fact none of them even left their little village for the first 200 years. Come to think of it, migration has probably had a bigger impact on the human gene pool than war.

  45. melanie,
    There was also historically an absence of good medical practice which makes wars more survivable now. A quick glance at the casualty figures for battles such as Cannae may also be illustrative.
    Your (maternal) ancestors may the exception. On my father’s side, all but one of my uncles (I had 6) went off to WWII. My grandfather went off to WWI. As my mother has done all the lines of our family most have been miners or farmers, but quite a few had gone off to war, with most coming back.
    They were also very seldom in any one place for more than a full generation.

  46. In Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” (which is worth a read but is biased. JQ wrote a review of it – or was that of another Pinker?) there is bar graph of percentage of male deaths through violence for various human tribes. The Yanomamo, of course, scored very high and their bar might have been 5 cm long. Other tribes were 4, 3 cm. Then came Europe in 20C and it was 0.5 cm long.

    All that just from memory so the details will be off but the picture is clear: two world wars were nothing in comparison with the violence in our presumed evolutionary environment.

    I suppose the lengths of those bars prove we are civilized.

  47. “My mother has discovered about 100 of her ancestors going back to the 1600s. None them was in a war in 350 years – in fact none of them even left their little village for the first 200 years. Come to think of it, migration has probably had a bigger impact on the human gene pool than war.”

    Your sample is skewed by survivor bias. Ancestors who did not die violently are

    1) much more likely to actually be someone’s ancestor. Its somewhat of an obstacle to being discovered by your progeny in 300 yours if you’re killed before you have kids.

    2) its easier to track down ancestors who were lucky enough to have had peaceful lives as all records of their existence weren’t wiped out when the local town hall was burnt to the ground.

    You probably have a lot more relatives of ancestors who you will never know about because they did not survive to pass down their genes or any memory of their lives.

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