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Chapter Five


If we think how many things besides frontiers of states the wars of history have decided, we must feel some respectful awe, in spite of all the horrors. Our actual civilization, good and bad alike, has had past wars for its determining condition.      --William James


Ah, Tahiti. The lush island whose carefree natives the painter Paul Gauguin used as icons of primitive bliss. The serene culture which Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered evidence that humans had been "noble savages," peaceful and benign, before their corruption by civilization. Unfortunately, as the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley has noted, Rousseau relied for this conclusion on reports of Tahiti that omitted relevant parts of its history. For example: the custom in which a victorious warrior would "pound his vanquished foe's corpse flat with his heavy war club, cut a slit through the well-crushed victim, and don him as a trophy poncho."

Time and again there have been reports of a truly peaceful primitive people. Almost always, the reports have not worn well. Remember the "gentle Tasaday," the isolated band of hunter-gatherers discovered in the Philippines in the early 1970s--the people who had no word for "war"? Their authenticity fell into doubt along with the credibility of their discoverer, Manuel Elizalde. As the New York Times would later note, "It did not help when members of a neighboring tribe said Mr. Elizalde had paid them to take off their clothes and pose as Tasadays for visiting journalists."

To be sure, there are hunter-gatherer societies that don't exhibit the elaborately organized violence denoted by the term "war." But often what turns out to be lacking is the organization, not the violence. The warless !Kung San were billed in the title of one book as The Harmless People, yet during the 1950s and 1960s, their homicide rate was between 20 and 80 times as high as that found in industrialized nations. Eskimos, to judge by popular accounts, are all cuddliness and generosity. Yet early this century, after westerners first made contact with a fifteen-family Eskimo village, they found that every adult male had been involved in a homicide.

One reason the !Kung and most Eskimo haven't waged war is their habitat. With population sparse, friction is low. But when densely settled along fertile ground, hunter-gatherers have warred lavishly. The Ainu of Japan built hilltop fortresses and, when raiding a neighboring village, wore leather armor and carried hardwood clubs. The main purpose of the raids—to kill men, steal women, and settle grievances, real or imagined—is a time-honored goal of primitive warfare. Even today it is part of life among the Yanomamo of South America.

The behavior of observed Stone Age peoples is hardly the only evidence that the Stone Age was a bloody time. In a cave in Germany, clusters of skulls more than 5,000 years old were found arrayed, as one observer put it, "like eggs in a basket." Most of the thirty-four victims had been knocked in the head with stone axes before decapitation.

Anyone hoping that cultural evolution always translates into moral improvement will be disappointed to hear that such evidence of violent death is especially common among remains of the more complex hunter-gatherer societies. And in the yet-more-complex agrarian societies on the ethnographic record, things are similarly grim. In south Asia, a young Naga warrior was not considered marriageable until he had brought home a scalp or a skull. In Borneo, a Dayak hero returning from war would be seated in a place of honor and surrounded by singing women, with the head of one his victims placed nearby on a decorative brass tray. The, warriors of Fiji gave their favorite weapons terms of endearment; one war club was called "Damaging beyond hope," and a spear was dubbed "The priest is too late."

All of this forces us to confront the fact that, as Keeley has put it, "what transpired before the evolution of civilized states was often unpleasantly bellicose." Human violence has been around a long time, and often it has been not man against man, but group against group. Ever since the early stages of cultural evolution—the era of hunter-gatherer societies—that evolution has been shaped by armed conflict.

This would seem to throw a wrench into the analytical works. So far this book has mainly stressed the forces of human cooperation, the win-win situations. The thesis has been that the direction of history results largely from the playing of non-zero-sum games. But, presumably, once someone has decided that he wants to use your corpse as a poncho, the two of you are playing a zero-sum-game; his gain is your loss. So too with warring villages. When men from one village raid the other, kill the men and abduct the women, the air is rife with zero-sumness. And so on, up the ladder of cultural evolution: whether the contestants are villages, city-states, whatever—war is hardly nonzero-sumness incarnate.

Still, war isn't nonstop zero-sumness, either. One big reason is that, even as war is inserting zero-sum dynamics between two groups, within the groups things are quite different. If your village is beset by axe-wielding men bent on slaughter, your relations with fellow villagers can pivot quickly toward the non-zero-sum; acting in concert you may fend off the assault, but divided you will likely fall.

Much the same interdependence exists among the axe-wielding slaughterers; in unison lies their best hope for victory. So, whatever side you're on, you and your fellow villagers are to some extent in the same boat; your fate is partly shared. That, actually, is a good rough-and-ready index of non-zero-sumness: the extent to which fates are shared. War, by making fates more shared, by manufacturing nonzero-sumness, accelerates the evolution of culture toward deeper and vaster social complexity."

This was a constant refrain of one early cultural evolutionist, the sociologist Herbert Spencer. He overdid it ("Only by imperative need for combination in war were primitive men led into cooperation"), but he was on to something.

Consider again the Northwest Coast Indians. We've already seen how their evolving technology of sustenance raised social complexity. Division of labor and capital investment grew, and leadership emerged in the form of the "Big Man," who handled the logistics and helped keep social life in harmony. But all of this heartwarming cooperation to harvest nature's bounty was not the only social cement, nor the only cause for the Big Man's authority…


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright.