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Monday, August 20, 2007

Reading List: Constant Battles

LeBlanc, Steven A. with Katherine E. Register. Constant Battles. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003. ISBN 0-312-31090-0.
Steven LeBlanc is the Director of Collections at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. When he began his fieldwork career in the early 1970s, he shared the opinion of most of the archaeologists and anthropologists of his generation and present-day laymen that most traditional societies in the hunter-gatherer and tribal farming eras were mostly peaceful and lived in balance with their environments. It was, according to this view, only with the emergence of large chiefdoms and state-level societies that environmental degradation began to appear and mass conflict emerge, culminating in the industrialised slaughter of the 20th century.

But, to the author, as a dispassionate scientist, looking at the evidence on the ground or dug up from beneath it in expeditions in the American Southwest, Turkey, and Peru, and in the published literature, there were many discrepancies from this consensus narrative. In particular, why would “peaceful” farming people build hilltop walled citadels far from their fields and sources of water if not for defensibility? And why would hard-working farmers obsess upon defence were there not an active threat from their neighbours?

Further investigations argue convincingly that the human experience, inherited directly from our simian ancestors, has been one of relentless population growth beyond the carrying capacity of our local environment, degradation of the ecosystem, and the inevitable conflict with neighbouring bands over scarce resources. Ironically, many of the reports of early ethnographers which appeared to confirm perennially-wrong philosopher Rousseau's vision of the “noble savage” were based upon observations of traditional societies which had recently been impacted by contact with European civilisation: population collapse due to exposure to European diseases to which they had no immunity, and increases in carrying capacity of the land thanks to introduction of European technologies such as horses, steel tools, and domestic animals, which had temporarily eased the Malthusian pressure upon these populations and suspended resource wars. But the archaeological evidence is that such wars are the norm, not an aberration.

In fact, notwithstanding the horrific death toll of twentieth century warfare, the rate of violent death among the human population has fallen to an all-time low in the nation-state era. Hunter-gatherer (or, as the authors prefer to call them, “forager”) and tribal farming societies typically lose about 25% of their male population and 5% of the females to warfare with neighbouring bands. Even the worst violence of the nation-state era, averaged over a generation, has a death toll only one eighth this level.

Are present-day humans (or, more specifically, industrialised Western humans) unprecedented despoilers of our environment and aggressors against inherently peaceful native people? Nonsense argues this extensively documented book. Unsustainable population growth, resource exhaustion, environmental degradation, and lethal conflict with neighbours are as human as bipedalism and speech. Conflict is not inevitable, and civilisation, sustainable environmental policy, and yield-improving and resource-conserving technology are the best course to reducing the causes of conflict. Dreaming of a nonexistent past of peaceful people living in harmony with their environment isn't.

You can read any number of books about military history, from antiquity to the present, without ever encountering a discussion of “Why we fight”—that's the subtitle of this book, and I've never encountered a better source to begin to understand the answer to this question than you'll find here.

Posted at August 20, 2007 14:49