War Is Not Inevitable—A More Peaceful Future Is Possible
Anthropologists' research on the origins of war, going back to the beginning of human history and our closest ape relatives, suggests war is not part of our evolution. They also find systems of peace work, and many already exist.
War and all of its brutality is attention-grabbing and memorable. Recollections of war and conquests tend to stick around and take up the spotlight in historical records. However, a war-centered narrative paints an incomplete picture of human history—and human nature. While there is a popular opinion in the anthropological community that war is an evolutionary, inborn tendency of humans, there is also pushback to that theory. There is a growing argument for a human history that predates war altogether and further points out that war is not innate to human nature, but instead, is a social and cultural development that begins at certain points around the globe.
However, once war takes place, it tends to spread, explains historical anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson, who has spent more than 40 years researching the origins of war. Ferguson, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, notes that war is not the same thing as interpersonal violence or homicide. War implies organized, armed conflict and killing sanctioned by society and carried out by members of one group against members of another group. Ferguson argues that current evidence suggests that war was not always present but began as a result of societal changes—with evidence of war’s origins appearing at widely varying timestamps in different locations around the world. He estimates that the earliest signs of war appear between 10,000 B.C., or 12,000 years ago.
“But in some areas of the world you don’t see any signs of war develop until much more recently,” he says, noting that in both the U.S. Southwest and Great Plains there is no evidence of war until around 2,000 years ago.
Ferguson wrote an article in the Scientific American in 2018 titled, “War Is Not Part of Human Nature,” in which he details his take on war. In the article, he summarizes the viewpoints of two anthropological camps, dubbed hawks and doves by late anthropologist Keith Otterbein. The hawks argue that war is an evolved predisposition in humans dating back to when they had a common ancestor with chimpanzees. Doves, meanwhile, argue that war has only emerged in recent millennia, motivated by changing social conditions. In the article Ferguson writes:
“Humans, they argue [doves], have an obvious capacity to engage in warfare, but their brains are not hardwired to identify and kill outsiders involved in collective conflicts. Lethal group attacks, according to these arguments, emerged only when hunter-gatherer societies grew in size and complexity and later with the birth of agriculture. Archaeology, supplemented by observations of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, allows us to identify the times and, to some degree, the social circumstances that led to the origins and intensification of warfare.”
Ferguson has studied the anthropological and archeological records throughout ancient, and sometimes into more modern, human history. He says there is a lack of evidence of war or large-scale violence, in many places around the world throughout various periods of history. He has spent four decades researching and historically contextualizing the various origin points of war around the world. He has also contextualized incidents of group violence in humanity’s closest ape cousins, chimpanzees. He argues that war is not innate, evolutionary nor inevitable behavior for humans.
Ferguson spoke with Local Peace Economy correspondent April M. Short for an in-depth interview in 2021 about his findings and theories surrounding war and human history.
Peace Systems: How Humanity Can Realistically Prevent War
Humanity’s future existence hinges on cooperation on a global scale. The greatest existential threats we face are worldwide problems that stem from the man-made climate disaster—and the massive decline in biodiversity, pollution, worsening storms, fires and sea level rise that come with it. Even the COVID-19 pandemic potentially resulted from deforestation (1) and dwindling biodiversity on the planet, and the lack of action to slow down such destruction will only increase the likelihood of pandemics in the future.
The inevitable worldwide impacts of the climate crisis make the idea of war—for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressions in Ukraine—feel particularly irrational and anachronistic. At a time when scientists around the globe agree that the future of life for our species will require (2) immediate worldwide actions to restore the planet, an aggressive invasion of a smaller nation by a large world power like Russia (and whispers of the unthinkable, like a third world war or nuclear violence) is recklessly out of context with the realistic priorities of our times. Large-scale war stands in stark contrast with the one thing the world should be giving critical consideration to presently: cooperation.
Research by peace and conflict studies professors at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, anthropologists Geneviève Souillac and Douglas P. Fry (who are married), has the potential to support the sort of large-scale cooperation and peace our world so desperately needs. The two coauthored a study published in the journal Nature (3) in 2021 that theorizes how humanity can realistically stop war: develop peace systems. Peace systems, defined as existing clusters of neighboring societies that do not make war with each other, already exist around the world, on both small and large scales.
The study (4), “Societies Within Peace Systems Avoid War and Build Positive Intergroup Relationships,” assessed real-world examples of how war is stopped and future war is prevented when societies shift their cultures and values and adopt intentional systems of peace. Fry spoke with the Independent Media Institute in detail about the study in a 2021 article, “How Humanity Can Realistically Prevent New Wars From Ever Happening Again.” (5)
Thus far, the researchers have found approximately 16 examples of peace systems and are further working to determine whether or not other societies in the world can be classified as peace systems.
“Our overall definition of a peace system is clusters of neighboring societies that don’t make war with each other, and sometimes these societies don’t make war at all, but sometimes they do make war outside the system,” Fry says. “They [the neighboring societies] have a history of not warring with each other.”
The peace systems that already exist today are found both in smaller Indigenous groups like Brazil’s Upper Xingu River Basin tribes and the Aboriginal Australians of the Great Western Desert, as well as in larger societies—the most obvious modern example being the European Union (EU). The EU is an example of a peace system that would have seemed impossible, even ridiculous, just decades prior to its adoption (since Europeans had historically warred with each other for hundreds of years), and it faces a critical moment of reckoning given the current events in Ukraine.
Researchers Souillac and Fry recently collaborated on the eight-minute short film “A Path Away From War,” (6) which explains how peace systems work around the world—from how and why they are created to how they are upheld. They teamed up with Chris and Dawn Agnos of the storytelling nonprofit Sustainable Human (7) to create the film, which was released in February 2022.
The film discusses the shared characteristics that are found across peace systems, which include:
- An overarching common social identity
- Positive social interconnectedness
- Non-warring values and norms
- Non-warring myths, rituals and symbols
- Peace leadership
“Most citizens of the European Union, which was created to prevent wars, now hold an overarching identity as Europeans in addition to local and national identities,” the film’s narration states. Another example woven throughout the film is that of a historic peace system created by the Indigenous peoples of North America, in which the long-warring cultures of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida and Onondaga all came together “into a union (8) of cooperating neighbors” known as the Haudenosaunee. They intentionally formed a cooperative and peaceful society, which lasted for 300 years, until it was disrupted by the arrival of European colonial settlers.
“Many people think there has always been war and there always will be war,” the film’s narration, done by Fry, states, before pointing out that this is not the case. The film suggests that alternatives to war are necessary to tackle the existential threats all people face. It discusses the potential of peace systems to “help usher in an era of unsurpassed global cooperation” and explores the ways in which “our destinies are intertwined” around the world due to the global realities of climate change, the potential for continued outbreaks of global pandemics and nuclear proliferation.
Souillac and Fry spoke with April M. Short of the Independent Media Institute for an interview about the film and the imperative of peace systems, especially given the rising global tensions due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.