Why Waging War May Not Be in Our Genes

A new review of 21 hunter-gather societies indicates that competition for territory may drive conflict, and that when territory is not up for grabs, widespread aggression generally does not occur.

What's the Latest Development?


A cursory look at history might seem to confirm that war and aggression are part of humanity's genetic code. Added to that, anthropologists have observed that primitive tribes and primate communities also engage in warfare. But a new review of 21 hunter-gather societies indicates that competition for territory may drive conflict, and that when territory is not up for grabs, widespread aggression generally does not occur. "Murderers, this research suggests, humans may often be. But they are not the died-in-the-wool warriors of anthropological legend."

What's the Big Idea?

Perhaps the most famous study suggesting that our genetic ancestors are conflict prone was Jane Goodall's observations of Tanzanian chimpanzees, who were often aggressive, sometimes engaged in cannibalism, and even stole and killed others’ infants. "A second study, though, conducted in Congo-Brazzaville...came to contrary conclusions. It found chimps to be peaceful creatures. For a while, that confused primatologists." A review of the studies has found that Tanzanian chimps were crowded together as a result of deforestation, so land became scarce, while those in the Congo did not suffer in that way.

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