The Origins of War

Philosophy professor David Livingstone Smith on the origins of war.

Posted on January 14, 2013 at 6:54 AM • 15 Comments


ChrisJanuary 14, 2013 1:13 PM

"Fates of Nations" by Colinvaux the best read I have found on this subject.
War IS an extension of politics. Game of football (soccer) at Christmas in no man's land anyone ?

John CampbellJanuary 14, 2013 1:28 PM

Humans have not completely thrown off pack/herd "instincts".

When on the offensive we prefer to be in a pack.

When on the defensive we form herds (consider groups of speeders on a highway, for instance).

We are territorial at times.

We are competitive.

We are cooperative.

If anyone does ever publish a unified theory of human behaviour it will consist, in its entirety, of exceptions to every proposed rule.

Bob TJanuary 14, 2013 3:44 PM

Unified theory - Human beings act in self interest. Sometimes for physical gain, sometimes for spiritual gain. This may manifest as competitiveness or cooperation depending on what suits the individual or group at the time.

Lawrence D'OliveiroJanuary 14, 2013 5:09 PM

I like Jacob Bronowski's comments on this: war is theft. It originated from the old hunter-gatherers' greed for the agricultural surpluses being accumulated by the new farming cultures, but being too lazy and impatient to put in the investment needed to earn them.

But any such theft can only be successful in the short term. In the long term, the conquerors become assimilated by the conquered, because trying to live off war is unsustainable.

John David GaltJanuary 14, 2013 9:58 PM

War is as much a part of man's nature as of any other animals. Culture changes nothing; it merely (1) provides convenient rationalizations for this fact, and (2) camouflages it with euphemisms. If there's anything more (non-shallow) to be said on this subject, I haven't heard it, and this pompous prof sure hasn't said it.

Not to "thread-jack", but I believe it would be a lot more productive to teach people to think twice before trusting anybody, especially with government-level power. Clearly the kind of fools who will buy and install these gadgets are going to learn that lesson the hard way, and soon.

CuriousJanuary 15, 2013 4:49 AM

I thought the very end of the video (7 min 55 sec onward) is a load of bullocks so to speak; as the professor switch from having expressed a more more sincere interest in the topic of violence in culture, to suddenly speculate in the publics interest for such a topic, by making the scandal that is war and violence into some kind of teleological argument or proposition whereof violence or war as a proposed apsect of culture itself would then be expected to be ethical and moral. An act of whitewashing, insofar as "culture" as a general idea is concerned.

As for the two points made at the start of the video, with the so called dynamics of how "culture" influence arguably for better and for worse, I expected nothing more from someone being a professor in Evolutionary Studies, however in my experience I tend to be somewhat outraged by the lack of tact by having avoided taking any concrete stand at all towards violence or warfare.

If one simply were to make the rather inane point of how one 'dislike' both war or violence, imo it cuts short offering a genuine interest in such a topic and I see a problem of how such a trivializing of the topic of warfare opens up for matters of purely a pragmatic concern (anything political); and this way being clueless/uninformed might come to mean that apologetics is all that one could both hope for and to expect when trying to relate to the horrible things what is happening around the world.

CuriousJanuary 15, 2013 5:03 AM

Oppsie, I have made a glaring mistake.

I ended up describing David Livingstone Smith as being a professor of Evolutionary Studies, this was ofc entirely wrong.

I have not checked to see if he really is aprofessor of philosophy, but the description for that youtube video makes a point of how he is the 'director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies'.

I all too quickly misread him for being a professor in anthropology. My bad.

renoXJanuary 15, 2013 5:43 AM

@Danijel Kecman Why we don't see it in the nature

That's debatable: group of monkeys have been observed to attack other group of monkeys..

bobJanuary 15, 2013 8:09 AM

@Danijel Kecman

We are the only animal that commits murder. Murder requires a sense of morality. Morality requires advanced communication rules.

War, on the other hand, just refers to a group attacking another group. This is often observed in the animal kingdom.

BenJanuary 15, 2013 9:18 AM

@bob, studies of for example the ultimatum game have demonstrated that chimpanzees have social rules which will be enforced even at significant cost.

Studies of macaques, which live in larger groups than chimps, have shown they have a rudimentary theory of mind as well as advanced social organisation including caste systems with an aristocracy. Junior monkeys of high caste can take food from larger monkeys of low caste because they are of the aristocracy, and if their robbery is resisted the resister is punished violently. It's not theft, you see -- it's taxation! All the troop know what the rules are: They aren't our rules, but... or are they?

To say that monkey-on-monkey violence is not murder because monkeys don't have a sense of morality is to beg the question as to what morality is. If they don't have morality, they certainly have something like it.

Danijel KecmanJanuary 15, 2013 10:32 AM

@bob - morality is social, not genetic construct though it has it's roots in the pattern gene pool in certain time and region establishes to ensure its propagation. that pattern is called culture.

gangzofthestreetsJanuary 19, 2013 4:30 PM

Agree with trying to life off war is unsustainable. On a micro scale, look at gang wars. Where I live a new crew starts up, muscles it's way into everything by jacking/stealing, taxing, murdering and threatening it's competition. They eventually tax so many other blackmarket actors their competitors naturally collect together to fend off this new violent crew and start a war, the police heat intensifies and everybody loses.

That whole violent crew ends up in jail or dead because they tried to take over everything, live off violent taxing and pillaging, and it was unsustainable. Where I live this just happened and a whole upstart crew that started a war shooting people in coffee shops and parking lots ended up dead and in jail in less than 2 years.

Somehow this doesn't stop new thugs from trying their war strategy again and again. Even though every single one ends up dead or in jail some guy comes along who believes he can actually pull it off. Wars between countries are the same thing. A regime thinks they can actually pull it off being the violent aggressor and it usually ends the same way: country broke, empire collapsed, leaders arrested or killed. Nobody seems to learn from history.

AutolykosJanuary 28, 2013 9:44 AM

@gangz: True, but otoh pretty much any empire is built on the planned and controlled use of violence. The difference is just that some know when to stop, while others don't. They get overconfident from their past successes, draw more heat than they can handle and get dogpiled by everybody else. In retrospect it's often quite easy to tell when it would've been the right moment to stop, but few can pull it off while they're in it.

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