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A Few Questions For Douglas P. Fry

Robert Sapolsky writes, in the foreword for Beyond War: The Human Potential For Peace, “…this book should be read. It is important.” Indeed, Sapolsky was correct. Douglas P. Fry’s Beyond War looks at the essential nature of humans and suggests that there may be a way out of our current cycle of violence. What could be more important? Below Fry answers some questions about his new book for OUP. Be sure to come back tomorrow to read Fry’s original essay.

OUP: You argue in Beyond War that human nature is not essentially warlike. Beyond_warWhat first inspired this hypothesis?

Douglas P. Fry: Well, my interest in this topic ultimately stems from a concern for the future of humanity. Although I was a small boy at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, this event made a huge impression on me. My parents, like many people in the early 1960s, considered digging a fallout shelter in our yard. This got my young mind contemplating what a world filled with poisonous radiation would be like, as my family and I huddled in a cement pit underground, eating canned tamales, for months, maybe years. My initial flash of romanticized pioneer spirit faded fast. Where would we get water? What if the food ran out? What would happen to my friends that didn’t have fallout shelters? What if the shelter leaked radiation? What kind of world would we find when we went outside? How would we know if it was safe to come outside? I personalized this horror, asked a lot of difficult questions of my parents, and was very upset with the answers. Having a nuclear war was the scariest and stupidest idea I’d ever heard of.

Much later, when I discovered anthropology, I began looking at warfare from a macroscopic perspective that makes comparisons across cultures and over time. Anthropology widens our view beyond our own culture and beyond current day events. This broader perspective, I suggest in the book, can be very useful for understanding warfare and our potential for peace. One important anthropological observation is that nonwarring societies really do exist. If war were part and parcel of human nature, we would not expect to find nonwarring societies. They do exist, so this dents the “essentially warlike” presumption about human nature.

For a long time, I simply took for granted a war-plagued evolutionary past. I guess I got this idea by seeing how war ravages the planet today. Why would prehistory have been any different? Then about 10 years ago, I read an article by anthropologist Les Sponsel in which he concluded that warfare had been rare or absent for most of human prehistory, the nomadic hunter-gatherer stage of human evolution. I thought Sponsel had gone off the deep end! I’ve now reviewed the evidence myself and have arrived at two conclusions. First, Sponsel got it right. Archaeology provides another important line of evidence that humanity is not essentially warlike. Second, it can take a while to change one’s mind! We sometimes hold assumptions that we never consider questioning. Beyond War explores both these topics.

OUP: So are you arguing that humans aren’t violent? How do murder and individual violence differ from war?

Fry: Humans have the potential to be violent, but also the potential to be peaceful. Potentially, any of us might commit murder, but in reality, most of us never do. Beyond War makes the point that we tend to take our human potential for peace–our ability to deal with most conflict without violence–for granted. It has come as a surprise to some people that Beyond War” acknowledges the role of evolution in human aggression. I guess they are accustomed to hearing an anthropological mantra about the importance of learning and culture. Learning and culture do have huge impacts on human behavior, of course. What I attempt to do in Beyond War is to develop an evolutionary perspective on human aggression that is consistent with the evidence–and avoid an ostrich head-in-the-sand approach to the facts, in other words. The new angle is to focus on what nomadic hunter-gatherer societies can teach us, by analogy, about conflict management in the human past. The key finding is that this simplest and oldest form of human society tends not to be warlike. This is yet another line of evidence against the presumption of a warlike human nature. The disputes that do arise in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies tend to be personal and rarely resemble anything akin to warfare.

OUP: If there are so many nonwarring cultures, over seventy as you claim, why is it that economic leaders are all countries that regularly wage war?

Fry: Anthropologist Johan van der Dennen makes an observation that is apropos: “Peaceable preindustrial people constitute a nuisance to most theories of warfare and they are thus either ‘explained away,’ denied, or negated.” Van der Dennen is calling attention to the ostrich approach to contradictory information. In Beyond War, I advocate, modifying one’s theory to be consistent with the evidence rather than denying the evidence. I carefully document the existence of over 70 nonwarring societies because, unfortunately, I think van der Dennen is right about the eagerness, in some quarters, to deny that living without war is even possible. But the existence of nonwarring societies demonstrates that living without war is in fact possible.

If we look at warfare cross-culturally, we can see certain patterns. For instance, the chance of war increases along with social complexity. I discuss this pattern in the book. In today’s world, we are used to an international system composed of states, or countries. Obviously, some states go to war with regularity and others get sucked into trouble. States, though, are only one type of society, and they are a rather recent development in the story of humanity. In essence, it is a fallacy to look around the planet today at our nation-state system and then draw conclusions about the warlike nature of all societal forms, or about human nature for that matter.

OUP: What in your findings surprised you the most?

Fry: In fact there were several surprises, big and small. I’ve already mentioned that the worldwide archaeological evidence shattered my assumption that warfare was prevalent over humanity’s evolutionary past. In fact, the earliest evidence for war is within the last 10,000 years or so.

Another surprise involves the creativity through which hunter-gatherers (and other cultures) manage to resolve their differences without violence. I describe in Beyond War how two Netsilik Eskimo men will engage in a “battle of the bands.” I don’t mean that two hunting bands fight-it-out! Rather, the two rivals, with the help of their wives, try to best each other in a song contest.

I also should mention one more big surprise that involves a widely disseminated finding about the Yanomamö people of South America. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon has emphasized that Yanomamö men who have participated in a killing, called unokais, have three times as many children as non-killers of the same age. There is a hurricane of controversy swirling around Chagnon, but my discovery is specific: This unokai finding is just plain wrong.

The killers-have-more-kids finding has achieved “celebrity status,” being cited, quoted, and reiterated over and over again. For me, the puzzle revealed itself when I read an article by Brian Ferguson, who asked whether the killers and non-killers were really of comparable ages. I observed, with interest, that in his response to Ferguson, Chagnon dodged the age question. Age is one of several critical issues, because older Yanomamö men are known to average more children than younger men, whether or not they have participated in a killing. I thought: Can we check this mathematically? Any one who wants a great brainteaser should look at how data is presented in Chagnon’s original unokai article. Many pencils and a few calculator batteries later, it became clear that, mathematically, there is an average age difference of at least 10 years between killers and non-killers that simply was not controlled for in the original analysis.

My overall conclusion is that this famous “result” is, at a minimum, greatly exaggerated and in actuality may not exist at all. Meanwhile, this finding has become gospel. Steven Pinker, for example, cites it in his best sellers. When the beliefs of a culture hold that humans are naturally warlike, people socialized in such settings tend to accept such views without much question. Cultural traditions influence the thinking and perceptions of scientists and scholars as well. I suspect that one reason that retelling this erroneous finding is so common is that it supposedly provides “scientific confirmation” of the warlike human nature view.

OUP: What else should readers know about Beyond War?

Fry: The war in Iraq is very much on our minds these days. I was just reading a Time magazine article that attempted to spell out each presidential-hopeful’s view on escalation, de-escalation, troop increases, troop decreases, and so forth, all focused on Iraq. These are immediate important questions, but they also are too limited. Frankly, I became frustrated at the short-term focus voiced by the potential candidates. The broader question of critical importance, which no candidate is discussing, is how to provide genuine security for Americans and other people on this planet into the 21st century and beyond. Beyond War strives to take the discussion to a higher level.

I argue that in a nuclear age war is obsolete. A powerful arsenal no longer assures safety and security. War is risky and extremely costly. Military might does little or nothing to protect our families and country from the very real threats of environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, or terrorism. In fact, accepting and waging of war can contribute to these problems. How many future terrorists have we created by attacking Iraq? How many millions of dollars do we continue to squander on nuclear weapons that, assuming safety and security are the goals, could instead be used to tackle the urgent challenge of global warming? Our security responses are way out of synch with today’s realities.

I argue that war and a reliance on military muscle-flexing provide only a shallow illusion of safety and security. War is obsolete and alternative ways of handling conflict internationally must be implemented. A macroscopic anthropological view offers hope that we can abolish the institution of war and replace it with more viable ways of dealing with conflicts.

Recent Comments

  1. Josef Carel

    I would like to ask Dr. Douglas P. Fry concerning his article about the two communities of the Zapotec in Oaxaca, Mexico. One of the differencies between San Andres and La Paz is that the man of S.A were workers in the mining of lead and other metals “which as been ongoing for many generations” but as said “ceased about 20 years ago”. In your opinion “relations generally were amiable between company employers and community members..”
    But let me ask you: If those mining works exists for many generation, why can’t be expected that man’s who worked in very hard conditions and probably under inhuman treat, as better known in other parts of Latin America like Bolivia, will be learned for violent behavior? Are sure there is not an important issue that can explain the violent behavior in San Andres?
    Im a student of anthropology and I will very glade to receive your answer.
    Thank youvery much
    Josef Carel

  2. Douglas Fry

    Dear Josef,

    Thanks for your comment. Sure, I would agree that the type of “structural violence” based on an exploitative economic system can contribute to aggressive behavior. In the article from which you quote (called “Respect for the Rights of Others Is Peace”: Learning Aggression versus Nonaggression among the Zapotec—“American Anthropologist,” 94:621-639), I strongly advocate a multi-causal approach to understanding aggression and peacefulness wherein “various conditions (i.e., social learning, economics, history, and social structure, etc.) are seen as existing and operating in combination.”

    Likewise, I would not propose that there is any single cause of warfare. In “Beyond War,” I discuss studies that demonstrate that the likelihood of a society going to war increases with the complexity of its social organization. The simplest and oldest kind of society, the nomadic hunter-gatherer band, tends to be unwarlike, whereas states tend to engage in periodic wars. However, this does not mean than all states are warlike. And certainly other factors come into play in determining the likelihood of war besides social organization alone. Again it pays to think in terms of multiple causes for war and peace rather than to advocate a unicausal outlook. I agree with you that social and economic inequalities must be considered, along with other factors, if we wish to understand the roots of violence and war.

  3. Edward Haines

    Assuming that the major difference between the communities of San Andres and La Paz was the mining in San Andres, I suspect much of the violent conduct difference might be attributable to chronic lead exposure. We know clearly that chronic lead intoxication leads to a number of health issues and mental problems. Violent behavior is one of those.
    Sorry for the ten year interval, I just encountered Dr Fry’s book and this site.

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