NPR logo Worthy Read: Finding A Scientific Explanation For War


Worthy Read: Finding A Scientific Explanation For War

Kajaki, Afghanistan -- Marines patrol near Forward Operating Base Zeebrugge. The Marines of India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment are responsible for securing the area near the Kajaki Dam on the Helmand River. Scott Olson/Getty hide caption

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John Horgan of Scientific American has a great piece about war theory. He gives a short primer on how different anthropologists explain why war exists. From Richard Wrangham, who relies heavily on Darwin, to Steven LeBlanc, who believes war is about a fight for limited resources.

Horgan eventually settles on Magaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist, who called warfare an "invention." If you accept that explanation, the next logical question is how do we end it, which leads us to two of the more interesting paragraphs from Horgan's piece:

Contrary to the claims of her critics, Mead was far from a naive optimist. In "Warfare Is Only an Invention" she asked, "If we know that it is not inevitable, that it is due to historical accident that warfare is one of the ways in which we think of behaving, are we given any hope by that?" Not necessarily, because "once an invention is known and accepted, men do not easily relinquish it." Writing at the dawn of World War II, Mead had good reason to fear that militarism had become too deeply embedded in modern culture to eradicate. "The deeds of our warriors are immortalized in the words of our poets; the toys of our children are modeled upon the weapons of war," she wrote.

For an invention to become obsolete, Mead argued, "people must recognize the defects of the old invention, and someone must make a new one." In this way trial by jury supplanted trial by ordeal or combat, which had come to seem "unfair, capricious, alien." She added that "to invent new forms of behavior which will make war obsolete, it is a first requirement to believe that such an invention is possible."