Examined Lives: War (Session 32)

May 25th, 12-1 PM ET

This View of Life Magazine

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Steven P. Gilbert
Each month in Examined Lives we have lively discussions about cutting-edge developments in—and applications of—evolutionary thinking.

“Warfare is a central topic for evolutionary anthropology in part because in many respects it is a uniquely human trait, yet one with intriguing similarities to intergroup aggression in other species, particularly our close relatives, chimpanzees. Warfare thus presents a puzzle: why did warlike behavior arise in humans but few other species? Warfare requires intensive levels of cooperation while risking death, raising questions about how such behaviors could have evolved in a world of self-interested actors. As a major cause of mortality in many societies, warfare has likely been an important source of selection pressure for both biological and cultural evolution.  If, as many evolutionary anthropologists suppose, the roots of warfare extend deeper than the origin of our species … warfare is likely to have shaped the evolution of human psychology, including traits such as courage, risk-taking, parochial altruism, patriarchy and xenophobia. Warfare indisputably has had a profound effect on the evolution of material culture, including technology for weapons and defenses, and social institutions, including the formation of cities, states and empires.  Warfare itself has evolved rapidly in historical times, growing exponentially in its destructive power, so that thermonuclear warfare now threatens the existence of contemporary civilizations, and perhaps our species. At the same time, declining rates of death from warfare raise the tantalizing hope that warfare may one day follow institutions such as feudalism and slavery into extinction.”  ~  Glowacki, Wilson, & Wrangham (2020) pp. 963-964.

Zoom Link

Primary Resources:

1. Kissel, M. & Kim, N. (2019) The emergence of human warfare: Current perspectives. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 168, S67, 141–163. [16 pages of text]

2. Leidner, B., Tropp, L. &  Licke, B. (2013) Bringing science to bear — on peace, not war: Elaborating on psychology’s potential to promote peace. American Psychologist, 68 (7), 514-526. [8 pages of text].

Secondary Resources (Videos)

1. Faces of the Enemy. 58-minute PBS Documentary. $2.99 rental fee on Vimeo. In this now classic 1987 film, psychologist Sam Keen asks “How do individuals and nations dehumanize their enemy?” Using documentary footage, interviews, political cartoons and examples of propaganda, this powerful documentary examines the universal images used in mass persuasion and analyzes the psychological roots of enmity.

Note: When you go to Vimeo it looks like the documentary is 2 hours 20 minutes long; it’s not — it is 58 minutes, but there is also optional additional material (slide shows).

Watch Faces of the Enemy trailer and the documentary here.

2.  Understanding Warfare: An Evolutionary Approach. 48-minute talk by Michael Wilson, Ph.D, Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota.

Watch here

For the ambitious:

1. Glowacki, L., Wilson, L. & Wrangham, R. (2020) The evolutionary anthropology of war.  Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 178, 963-982. (15 pages of text)