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On the Origin of War

If one reads the newspaper or watches the news what would they see or hear? Without a doubt, they would probably see something about a war. If one goes to a library what will they find? Hundreds of books on the various wars throughout history. A quick Google search on the term “War” brings up two billion and eighty million search results. I would argue that war is among one of the most talked about subjects in the existence of our species.

Human conflict, in one way or another, has been a staple of our history since the dawn of our creation. Talk to any historical scholar or cultural anthropologist and they’ll unanimously agree that peace on earth is a rare occurrence. In “The Lessons of History,” historians Will and Ariel Durant claimed that if you define war as an active conflict that has claimed more than 1000 lives then, “of the past 3,421 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” This projection doesn’t even account for small skirmishes and conflicts between smaller groups of people. If we were to consider any act of organized aggression that involves two groups of people, we might as well say that there has never been a time of peace in recorded history.

For something that we partake in so often and have invested so much energy and resource into, we very rarely delve into the nature of war. Maybe this is due to a lack of will to put in the effort. After all, the origins of war are among the things that cannot easily be quantified or explained.

Nomads and Horticulture

The course of history has shown us that war is an ever evolving entity; reacting to the advancements of technology and political agenda. This characteristic is important to consider when one analyzes the origin of war.

Evidence of warfare can be traced back to our earliest nomadic ancestors. In 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Cambridge found the fossilized evidence of twenty-seven individuals -- including at least eight women and six children -- thirty kilometers west of Lake Turkana, in Kenya. Of the twenty-seven skeletons, ten showed indications of extreme blunt-force trauma to the skull, as well as broken hands, broken ribs, and arrow lesions to the neck. Two skeletons had stone projectile tips lodged in their skulls.

The skeletal remains -- which have been dated to around 10,000 years ago -- hadn’t been buried, but fell into a lagoon that had since dried up. Cambridge researchers believe that the remains could have came from an extended family that was attacked by a rival group of people. This discovery, which has been dubbed the “Nataruk Massacre,” has largely been considered the earliest recorded incident of warfare among mostly-nomadic groups. An article published by the University of Cambridge goes on to state that:

“The Nataruk massacre may have resulted from an attempt to seize resources – territory, women, children, food stored in pots – whose value was similar to those of later food-producing agricultural societies, among whom violent attacks on settlements became part of life… This would extend the history of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterise other instances of early warfare: a more settled, materially richer way of life. However, Nataruk may simply be evidence of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups at that time.”

Evidence and historical record have shown that warfare was common among groups of people in horticultural-based societies, which were characterized by cities and fixed buildings. However, there was little evidence to suggest that earlier nomadic groups engaged in warfare until the discovery of the Nataruk massacre. With this stated, however, it’s hard to fully explain how prevalent this type of warfare was among ancient nomad tribes as there’s little evidence to go off of.

The first glimpses of organized, modern warfare can be seen among groups of settled tribes and communities that came after nomadic tribes.

The development of agriculture and animal domestication are widely regarded as the primary force that paved the way for the first large-scale complex societies. The first of these settlements started to show up at about 4,000 B.C, around Egypt and Mesopotamia. Initially, these groups used stone weapons. However, because humans were no longer scavenging for food most of the day, they were able to invest their energy into exploring the world around them. Over time, this led to the discovery of bronze which led the way to the beginning of the Bronze Age.

In a 1992 book entitled “The Origins of War,” Richard Gabriel, a Professor of Political Science at the U. S. Army War College, observed that:

“This period saw the development of many new weapons -- the penetrating axe, armor, helmet, composite bow, the wheel and chariot -- and gave birth to a number of tactical innovations -- phalanx formations, increased mobility, pursuit, emergent staffs and rank structures. It would be incorrect to conclude, however, that new weapons were responsible for the great increase in the scale of warfare that characterized this period of human history. Improved weaponry, by itself, would have produced only a limited increase in the scale of warfare unless accompanied by new types of social structures capable of sustaining large armies and providing them with the impetus and means to fight on a heretofore unknown scale. The military revolution of the Bronze Age was rooted more in the development of truly complex societies than in weapons and technology.”

The development of complex societies gave rise to social structures and the idea of social roles and behavior. There was an increased emphasis for people in these communities to perform certain roles for the betterment of the group as a whole. This led to more efficient agricultural practices which enabled societies to grow larger and produce more resources than ever before.

With time these communities formed governing structures. The earliest forms of these kinds of structures were chiefdoms -- which later evolved into monarchies and other forms of governing. Organized governing systems gave these communities stability and allowed for resources to be more efficiently directed into public works projects like dikes, irrigations systems, and the pyramids. Not only did these projects allow these nation-states to grow larger, but the same methods of assembling and directing resources were later implemented towards the cause of developing armies and conducting warfare.

As state institutions and supporting administrative functions became more stable, so did armies. Small bands of warriors and fighters were organized together and the functions and roles of these warriors were legitimized. Early nation-states in Mesopotamia like Sumer had a modern sized and organized army by 2,700 B.C. It was during this development that armies gained legitimate social standing and a distinct role.

There was also a psychological shift in this early time. Large-scale societies removed the need to focus on your family or a small scale tribe or clan. People’s focus and allegiance were directed towards the state. The creation of organized religion in these early civilizations was also a pivotal factor in the creation of widespread warfare.These religions gave meaning to the common person’s life and helped point people towards a greater purpose. In his book, Gabriel explains that religion was worked into the social order and provided a means of linking religious worship to government and military conquests. Gabriel concluded his explanation by stating that:

“As a mechanism of cultural development, the conduct of war became a legitimate social function supported by an extensive institutional infrastructure, and it became an indispensable characteristic of the social order if people were to survive the predatory behavior of others. This period saw the emergence of the whole range of social, political, economic, psychological, and military technologies that made the conduct of war a relatively normal part of social existence… In this period, warfare assumed modern proportions in terms of size of the armies involved, the administrative mechanisms needed to sustain them, the development of weapons, the frequency of occurrence, and the scope of destruction achievable by military force.”

It is from these early origins that warfare and society as a whole grew and progressed. As the centuries passed, nations became more complex and wars grew bigger. Land became scarce and resources grew more valuable. Warfare became a necessary function for the survival of a state. If a nation wanted to survive they had to fight wars.

The Nature of Aggression

It is one thing to discuss the historical context of war and violence among humans, but it is another thing to discuss what drives man to commit violence. Warfare, I believe, is a reaction to the desire to commit violence. For if man had no urge to act violently against another man, then there would be no basis in which war could’ve developed. In other words, if there was no act of violence, then early man wouldn’t have needed to create institutions to protect and respond to them.

To draw on the use of a metaphor: If buildings never caught on fire, we wouldn’t need a fire department.

So, by reason, if we can uncover what drives man to commit acts of violence, we can truly find the origins of war. Much like war, finding the basis of human violence requires us to look back to the beginnings of our creation.

Many researchers have pointed to genetics and evolution for an answer to this question. David Carrier, a biology professor at the University of Utah, said that, “aggressive behavior has evolved in species in which it increases an individual's survival or reproduction and this depends on the specific environmental, social, reproductive, and historical circumstances of a species. Humans certainly rank among the most violent of species.”

Carrier added that although humans have a degree of violence pre-programed into them from evolution, the environment plays a major role in the expression this violence. He explains that violence is a patterned response to environmental circumstances. This is known as “norms of reaction.”

This kind of response is a common mechanism in biology and is found all throughout nature. For example, male insects are more likely to guard their mate if there are fewer females available. This ensures that there is a greater chance that he will reproduce successfully.

Relating this mechanism back to humans, when food is scarce or our livelihood is at risk, we can exhibit greater levels of aggression. This aggression, in return, could affect the livelihood of other humans, which would trigger their aggressive responses. One thing leads to another and soon enough you have yourself a violent altercation. If this kind of response was to happen on a larger scale -- say, for example, an entire tribe or community -- you would quickly have yourself something that looked like a war.

If you want to look at this concept from a philosophical viewpoint: In his 1755 book entitled “Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men,” philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

“I see nothing in any animal but an ingenious machine, to which nature hath given senses to wind itself up, and to guard itself, to a certain degree, against anything that might tend to disorder or destroy it. I perceive exactly the same things in the human machine.”

In this declaration, Rousseau suggests that humans, just like the other animals of the world, hold a certain natural tendency to react to things that seek to harm it. This is the same principle that is described with Norms of Reaction.

But the nature of our aggression is different from animals in that we are infinitely more complex. We have complex emotions that drive our violence. Carrier explains that, “aggression in few animals goes beyond protecting one's territory, mates, offspring and food… human violence has evolved to stem from less typical sources.”

These sources include things like governmental social institutions. This is partly why the advancement of complex societies led to an increase in war-- we simply had more reasons to fight. No longer were our fights based solely on the availability of land or food. After the rise of complex societies, we fought to please the gods, capture commodities, and to gain strategic footholds for future diplomatic missions.

Carrier expresses concern over the ever-evolving nature and prevalence of aggression in this advancing world.

"My personal opinion is that Western society, as a whole, is in mass denial about the magnitude of the problem that violence represents for the future. We are peace-loving and want to believe that the violence and transgressions of the past will not return, but recent history and current events illustrate how easy it is for humans to respond with interpersonal and intergroup violence
This will be especially important in places where key natural resources are becoming scarce. If basic resources such as food and clean water become more limiting, as many scientists believe is likely to happen as a result of climate change and energy shortages, then the environmental and social drivers of violence may become more difficult to control."

The Future of War

As intensive agriculture took hold and villages grew into cities and eventually empires, we developed better tools and weapons. Resources became more common and humans became more specialized and skilled. Humans’ thirst for knowledge and order led to an increase of scientific and engineering progress. As mankind developed better weapons, created inter-empire relationships, and human behavior evolved, the dynamics of war changed forever.

War became grander and more sophisticated. Where before war may have involved a small community and minuscule amounts of land, wars in this progressed era involved tens of thousands of people and spanned hundreds of thousands of miles.

So the cycle of innovation, war, and expansion continued ceaselessly for centuries.

Now here we are in the modern age. The world’s land has been neatly divided into countries and each country holds fast with its own morals and system of organization. Our wars now are fought with millions of men and cover a global scale. People are more divided than.

Science and technology have brought us closer together.It has improved the life of every person on earth. But these same things have created weapons of unimaginable power. Our weapons can deliver payloads that surpass that of theological deities and impact the natural world in ways that Mother Nature herself couldn’t do in the same amount of time. We’ve grabbed onto the universe and have tried to master its laws and harness its power.

Then something changed. We discovered radioactivity. From there it only took us a few more years to split atoms and birth nuclear weapons.We tested them and refined their damage. We constructed massive facilities larger than cathedrals to manufacture our mightiness.

Then we sat on this harnessed power. Only to unleash it on our own kind for the first time on August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima, Japan. It was the single most powerful thing that mankind had ever created. It leveled the city of Hiroshima and stood testament to the new-found might of the human race. Soon after, we improved and manufactured this power on a mass scale.

For the first time in the entirety of our species, we possessed the means to totally obliterate ourselves. The only thing holding us back being the press of a button. And in the span of a few decades, we’ve come so close to pressing that button on so many different occasions.

As the global diplomatic climate only gets tenser and tenser, it seems that we’re only getting closer to pushing that button. Last year, the Doomsday Clock -- a symbolic representation of how close humanity is to a global catastrophe -- was moved to three minutes to midnight, the closest it's been since 1988. The only time we were closer was a span between 1953-1960 when the clock was moved to two minutes to midnight in response to the United States’ and the Soviet Union’s rapid testing and development of thermonuclear warheads.

In January of 2016, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the group of individuals responding for determining what the Doomsday Clock should be set to, announced that:

“Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity… At the same time, efforts to reduce world nuclear arsenals have stalled. The disarmament process has ground to a halt, with the United States and Russia embarking on massive programs to modernize their nuclear triads—thereby undermining existing nuclear weapons treaties—and other nuclear weapons holders joining in this expensive and extremely dangerous modernization craze.”

So what’s next for us then in this world? In a world where headlines of violence and international hatred seems to make the front covers every day. In a world where our stockpiles of weapons continue to grow. In a world where we can never seem to see eye-to-eye on things.

It’s hard to say.

For years we’ve been able to keep our supreme power in check. The concepts of mutually assured destruction (MAD) have kept the world’s superpowers from unleashing a nuclear holocaust. But it only takes one country to breach this silent contract. Once the first missile is launched, a thousand more are sure to follow. The only thing that we can say for sure is that war will never end.

On May, 27th, President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Hiroshima. In his speech, he explained that, “we may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations – and the alliances that we’ve formed – must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them.”

Obama, however, also wishes to see a world where war no longer exists. If we wish to see a world like this, getting rid of nuclear weapons isn’t enough. Nuclear bombs themselves aren’t the cause of war, nor will destroying them end war. Because war can still be fought with guns and swords. And if those are taken away then we’ll fight with sticks and stones like our earliest ancestors did. Even Obama himself recognized this. His solution to war is rooted in a change of thought.

“We must change our mindset about war itself – to prevent conflict through diplomacy, and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun; to see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition; to define our nations not by our capacity to destroy, but by what we build.

And perhaps above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race. For this, too, is what makes our species unique. We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story – one that describes a common humanity; one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.”

But this road will be long and hard. It’s difficult to suppress and remove something so deeply ingrained in our culture and human identity. Perhaps it’s impossible. Perhaps President Obama is too wishful thinking when it comes to a solution for war.

But philosophers and political scientists are quick to suggest another theory. They point to a concept known as Democratic Peace Theory. According to this theory, democratic countries are more hesitant to engage in armed conflict with other identified democratic nations. In a world where most countries are democracies -- 123 out of the 192 counties -- this theory seems to bring a sense of hope to the situation. However, in “The Flawed Logic of Democratic Peace Theory” by Sebastian Rosato, Rosato explains that, “those who dispute this theory often do so on grounds that it conflates correlation with causation, and that the academic definitions of 'democracy' and 'war' can be manipulated so as to manufacture an artificial trend.” Because of this, it’s wise to use caution when applying Democratic Peace Theory into real-world applications.


War is a constantly changing entity that has been a staple of our species from the very earliest reaches of our pasts. Social advancements in society and technology have allowed warfare to evolve at a staggering rate.

As the threat of global nuclear annihilation looms over our head, and global tensions seem only to rise, it becomes harder to claim that everything will work out. We’re at a critical point in our history -- one that can mean the life or death of our species.

It’s hard to say what the future of war looks like. However, using history as our guideline we can assume that it’s going to be a bumpy ride. It appears that only time will show us the future of war.

Photo by Gladson Xavier from Pexels