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Biology of War. Freud.

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“Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion; nevertheless men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method...” (Freud, p. 171)


“To start with, brute force was the factor which, in small communities, decided points of ownership and the question which man’s will was to prevail. Very soon physical force was implemented, then replaced, by the use of various adjuncts; he proved the victor whose weapon was the better, or handled the more skilfully...”


“Now, for the first time, with the coming of weapons, superior brains began to oust brute force, but the object of the conflict remained the same: one party was to be constrained, by the injury done him or impairment of his strength, to retract a claim or a refusal.” (Freud, p. 172)

  • Note the importance of violence then in shaping a key component of human evolution: intelligence
  • But Freud goes on to suggest that violence also helped in the evolution of another key human trait: sociability

“We know that in the course of evolution this state of things was modified, a path was traced that led away from violence to law. But what was this path? Surely it issued from a single verity; that the superiority of one strong man can be overborne by an alliance of many weaklings, that l’union fait la force [strength through unity]”


“Brute force is overcome by union, the allied might of scattered units makes good its right against the isolated giant. Thus we may define ‘right’ (i.e., law) as the might of a community.”

  • But Freud goes on to note that rankings and hierarchy will soon pervade the community based on the unequal power relations, biologically grounded:

“[I]n practice the situation is always complicated by the fact that, from the outset the group includes elements of unequal power, men and women, elders and shildren, and very soon, as a result of war and conquest, victors and the vanquished-- i.e., masters and slaves-- as well” (pp.172-73)

  • Given the emerging gender and age hierachies, individuals need to be aware of their rank within the hierarchy in order to successfully navigate life within that hierarchy
  • Recent studies of primate behavior can help us understand the significance of these developments in terms of human evolution
  • That is, while we can’t “rewind the clock” and view early hominid evolution,

we can look at the behavior of our close

genetic relatives for clues about human evolution.

evolutionnd war
Evolutionnd War
  • The ability to work together -- to make the “strength through unity” -- requires a fairly high level of social awareness
  • The members of the community need to understand reciprocal obligations (how to treat others and what to expect in return)
evolution and war
Evolution and War
  • The model that Freud proposes assumes that lower ranking members of the community will join forces to challenge higher ranking individuals
  • Chimpanzees, like human beings, are social animals
evolution and war1
Evolution and War
  • In studies with other primates, chimpanzees alone showed a willingness to intervene in disputes to challenge the rule of higher ranking individuals, both to aid an ally and thwart an enemy:
evolution and war2
Evolution and War

“The distribution of interventions reveals a democratic tendency in chimpanzee society. That is, individuals of lower status seem to try to influence the configuration at the top of the hierarchy. Middle-ranking individuals direct a disproportionate amount of their interventions at conflicts among individuals positioned above them” -- Franz De Waal

evolution and war3
Evolution and War
  • Note, the need to monitor the matrix of social alliances places a premium on intellectual development
  • And given the rewards for successfully manipulating these alliances -- increased opportunity for reproduction -- individuals who failed to appreciate the structure of their society would meet with limited breeded opportunities
evolution and war4
Evolution and War
  • In other words, intelligence and increased brain size may be one consequence of the struggle for power within early human populations
  • The rapid growth (evolutionarily speaking) of the human brain may be a product of the struggle between lower ranking members to manipulate those at the top, and those at the top to counteract those skills
evolution and war5
Evolution and War
  • Within chimpanzee society, violence directed at other animal species (in particular colobus monkeys) and even other chimps is not uncommon and not always for nutritional purposes
evolution and war6
Evolution and War
  • Coordinating the hunt builds social connections, and sharing the gains helps solidify social bonds
  • In other words, violence is likely an integral part of our psychological disposition
  • Human beings may be prone to resolve disputes violently due to deep evolutionary coding at the genetic level
evolution and war7
Evolution and War
  • Studies of early hominid settlements reveal substantial evidence of violence and armed combat
  • Studies of “primitive” populations show marked dispensation for war
  • Therefore, not surprising that modern societies resort to warfare to solve disputes
evolution and war8
Evolution and War
  • Because “war” conditions prevail in non-state societies and in non-human populations, it is extremely unlikely that war is a result of the prevailing state system
  • In other words, anarchy at the state level does not create war
  • Anarchy may be an enabling condition, but violence exists even in governmental contexts