What Our Primate Relatives Say About War

Chimps fight viciously, but bonobos make love, not war. Why are we more like one than the other?

In the early 1930s, with political unrest in Europe and war on the horizon, Albert Einstein wrote to Sigmund Freud asking: “Why war?” Einstein sought an answer to a simple and fundamental question that has been on the minds of scholars and practitioners throughout history. Freud’s response was that war was the result of an impulse, a destructive instinct found in many humans.

For many students of conflict, little has changed in the eighty years since—whatever the political or historical context, war seems to have something to do with human nature. Indeed, this notion has deep and illustrious roots. Most explanations of the causes of war are rooted in two philosophical camps. For followers of Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, war is a tragic result of misunderstandings and the negative influences of our society. For English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, war is likewise tragic, but rooted in a metaphysical spirit that causes people to endlessly attempt to dominate others. With the end of the Cold War, there were high hopes that both of these pessimistic outlooks could be consigned to history and the millennium would bring forth a radically different world—a new world order. Yet, despite signs of many types of violence falling in western societies (a point recently championed by Steven Pinker), war continues unabated in the new century.

The 21st century does, however, promise new hope—at least in our ability to understand it. Terrific advances in the life sciences equip us with novel tools and insights to help us get to the bottom of Einstein’s question. While these insights draw on a range of scientific disciplines including genetics, physiology, psychology and neuroscience, the unifying framework to understand human nature as a whole is evolution. With a clearer picture of where we came from, we may find a better understanding of who we are and where we are going. As a primate, key to this objective is understanding human evolutionary history and the behavior of our closest relatives. The results are surprising and significant for Einstein’s query.

Primatologists who have studied our closest relative of all, chimpanzees, have depressing news. Chimpanzee behavior is “bad.” They form coalitions to wage lethal violence against rival groups, ambushing individuals of other groups to maim and kill them. Jane Goodall, the foremost student of their behavior, wrote in her classic The Chimpanzees of Gombe: “as a result of a unique combination of strong affiliative bonds between adult males on the one hand and an unusually hostile and violently aggressive attitude toward nongroup individuals on the other,” the chimpanzee “has clearly reached a stage where he stands at the very threshold of human achievement in destruction, cruelty, and planned intergroup conflict.” Other primatologists since have verified these conclusions, in different locales and settings, with detailed descriptions of systematic and lethal inter-group violence. Hobbes seems to have described chimpanzee behavior very accurately, reinvigorating the question of how much it applies to humans as well.

The example of the bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees in central Africa) is often raised in contrast to chimpanzee behavior, and by implication, an alternative perspective on human behavior as well. Bonobos are seen as the “good” ape because they seem to be the antithesis of the chimpanzee. Although not as well studied as chimpanzees, enough is known about them to recognize that bonobos are different, including exhibiting less aggression than chimpanzees. They still experience significant conflict, at least within groups, but it is manifested and resolved in different ways. Indeed, sex appears to replace war as their distinguishing characteristic. Their sexual activity, both heterosexual and homosexual, appears to be used for stress reduction, conciliatory purposes and resource competition. Given what seems to be a lifestyle straight out of San Francisco’s bohemian Haight-Ashbury district, people could be forgiven for wishing humans were related to bonobos, inferring that they prove Rousseau right rather than Hobbes, and that they serve as a better model for humans than chimpanzees.

However, there are three very important qualifications in drawing inferences from our primate ancestry. First, the two species of chimpanzee are much more closely related to one another than either is to us. Chimpanzees and bonobos separated perhaps 0.860.89 million years ago (mya) and perhaps as long ago as between 1.52.5 mya. By contrast, we all shared a common ancestor long before, about 56 mya. This common ancestor is likely to have been different from all of us—different from humans, chimps, and bonobos. Understanding this phylogeny is important because it means there is little reason to believe that bonobos are the best model of human behavior. Chimpanzees are not a perfect model either, but they are likely to be a better one because they share more social and ecological similarities with humans than bonobos do.

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