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The Nature of Man: Fry and Tomasello reviewed by Casey Dorman

Fry, Douglas, Ed. (2013). War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, Michael (2016). A Natural History of Human Morality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 


Those of us who favor nonviolence and espouse cooperation over conquest in both everyday interpersonal relations and politics, including relations between nations, cultures and religions, are often accused of having our heads in the clouds.  Human nature, we are told, is naturally aggressive, based on dominance of one person over another, and follows the Darwinian rule of “survival of the fittest.” The strongest will always win in the end and those who can display the most aggressiveness toward their more weak-willed neighbors will reap the largest rewards. To argue otherwise is to deny our basic nature as human beings. Athletic contests, political elections, economic and military competition between nations, and even conversations on talk radio, TV panels, and on social media are all based on this premise.

But is human nature inherently  aggressive? Is interpersonal dominance the rule that governs human social interactions? Are we doomed to solve international conflicts on the basis of whose weapons are most powerful? Two recent books suggest otherwise.

War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views is a 2013 collection of essays and studies, edited by Douglas P. Fry, Chairperson of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. In addition to an introduction and conclusion by Fry, it contains sections on Ecological and Evolutionary Models, Lessons from Prehistory, Nomadic Foragers, The Primatological Context of Human Nature, and Taking Restraint Against Killing Seriously. A common theme is to examine and refute the view of man as a “killer ape.” The volume includes 27 chapters contributed by 32 scholars.

One of the main themes of War, Peace and Human Nature is that our most  immediate genetic relatives in the animal kingdom, Chimpanzees and Bonobos are not as vicious toward one another as some accounts have portrayed them. Bonobos, which form into matriarchal troops, are particularly nonviolent toward others of their species, and in fact there is no record of them having deliberately killed one another. Chimps are less so, but actual killings are rare and although there is some cooperative behavior involved in some attacks, actual wars between troops are nearly unheard of. Most aggressive encounters result in one or the other Chimp backing down. Another theme is that archaeological records from the hunter-gatherer period of human history, which comprises 99% of the history of genus homo, and is generally accepted as the period in which most of our uniquely human genetically based behaviors evolved, shows almost no evidence of inter-group wars (with one exception), although there is evidence of death by probably intra-species violence (i.e. murder). An increase in intra-species violence, and the advent of inter-group warfare occurred in coincidence with the agricultural revolution about 10,000-12,000 years ago. Studies of  modern “primitive” groups include true foraging hunter gatherers, equestrian (horse-dependent) hunter-gatherers and sedentary hunter-gatherers –who remain in one place and often do slight farming. Some of these groups, for instance some Native American equestrian tribes, were quite warlike. But as several authors point out, Native American use of horses was a consequence of the presence of Europeans on American soil and their behavior represented a reaction to European-American incursions into their land as well as their relations to other Native American tribes. Most of the sedentary hunter gatherers likewise represent an existence within the context of a larger developed community around them. The few true foraging hunter-gatherer groups studied are not warlike, but they do sometimes kill each other, usually as a result of wife-stealing, revenge behavior, or insults to honor.

In both primates and humans the rarity of actual killing of other members of the species is moderated by the development of a number of behaviors aimed at restraint. Such behaviors, which are also seen in other mammalian species, include the use of aggressive and submissive displays, mock fighting (often involving no actual physical contact), avoidance behaviors, and advantages in conflict that accrue to whichever animal is on its home territory or holds a position of dominance within a group. Chimpanzees are known to show “reconciliation” behaviors to reestablish harmony within a group after an aggressive encounter.

Humans, in particular, have evolved a number of signals involving gestures and expressions, which signal a reluctance to fight. The reluctance of modern humans to take another human being’s life is illustrated by studies of men in war in which it is revealed that the majority of soldiers in battle either don’t fire their weapons or don’t fire them at another person. This reluctance to kill may be diminished as we proceed to a greater use of missiles, airstrikes and drone killings, in which the actual presence of the person to be killed is not experienced.

A common theme in War, Peace and Human Nature is that our cultural biases have promoted assumptions and research biases that have led to erroneous conclusions about the degree to which a “killer instinct” and a “tendency toward war” are embedded in our evolutionary history and, as a consequence, in our DNA. The data, this book insists, do not show it. War is seen as an “atypical” type of behavior of humans, one that developed late in our evolutionary history and is much more a cultural adaptation than a genetic one, although these influences are never just one or the other. Even killing of another human being in isolation is not a typical behavior, although it has been seen throughout human history. Cooperative behaviors involving restraint on our aggression are much more the pattern seen over eons of human development.

Michael Tomasello’s  A Natural History of Human Morality (2016) is concerned with the same issues as War, Peace, and Human Nature, but comes at it from a different angle. Tomasello’s goal is broader; it is “to provide an evolutionary account of the emergence of human morality…” which he says arose through the dual pathways of “sympathy and fairness,” both of which were part of the evolution of cooperation as an interpersonal and then intra-group adaptation. His analysis focuses primarily upon both primate behavior and that of human toddlers.

Tomasello cites studies that show that Chimps and Bonobos will share food and other resources and, when they do so, they show an increase in the mammalian “bonding hormone” oxytocin, suggesting that the immediate instigation for sharing is a sense of sympathy for the other primate. On the other hand, they show no sense of fairness in terms of comparison of portions of resources either received or given to their compatriot primates, although humans do. Although chimps will show reciprocity – they help or share with those who help or share with them – Tomasello argues that this is based on sympathy, not a sense of fairness. This leaves the development of a sense of fairness as something that must have evolved through uniquely human pathways.

 A great deal of Tomasello’s argument is conjecture. He notes that Chimps and Bonobos engage in group hunting,  which is not common in non-human animals, although neither species is dependent upon group hunting for survival. But such group behavior, he suggests, is a basis of more sophisticated group interdependence that developed in early humans and was, in his terms, obligate, in their hunting and foraging activities; i.e. they were dependent upon it. In order to collaborate in mutual activities, early humans had to have joint intentionality—a sense of “we” as they both attended to the same task—and some sort of sense of equivalence—if either one didn’t do his or her part, the collaboration would be unsuccessful. In Tomasello’s words, “based on the recognition of self-other equivalence, there arose a mutual respect between partners and a sense of the mutual deservingness of partners, thus creating second-personal agents.” The collaborative aspect of early human behavior, which probably developed as a result of hunting larger game, replaced the primate reliance on dominance to determine relationships and settle disputes. Instead, early humans developed pair bonding among mates, emphasizing also recognizable sibling relationships, which reduced intragroup aggressiveness, and food sharing following collaborative hunting, which produced “social selection against bullies, food hogs, and other dominants, and thus social selection for individuals who had a greater tolerance  for others in cofeeding situations.” Additionally, collaborative childcare developed. These social situations led to greater survival and thus natural selection of “less dominance-based interactions and more gentle personal temperaments,” resulting in “a greater balance of power among individuals.” Studies of modern foraging hunter-gatherers show a remarkably egalitarian social structure in their groups, with a variety of subtle and not so subtle pressures against any one individual asserting dominance.

One result of this greater interdependence  in the context of collaborative foraging was the selection of greater concern and sympathy for conspecifics who were not relatives, but potential collaborators. In fact, human toddlers show evidence of helping others based on sympathy before they develop a sense of altruism based on reciprocity. This sympathy is a “first step on the road to modern human morality” and includes empathy, in which we feel bad for someone, even if they are not feeling bad themselves (e.g. a handicapped person), based on how we think we would feel if we were in the same state. This type of empathy is based on the self-other equivalence that developed out of collaboration.

Collaborative activity also relies on and selects for those who possess a sense of mutual trust. We can count on the other to fulfill his or her role. Research on human children shows that they expect such behavior and try to reengage someone who stops collaborating, while Chimps never do. Not only do human children expect to be able to trust a partner, they engage in behaviors that show others they are trustworthy partners themselves. They adhere to standards of trust (“normative trust”) the violation of which leads to not just sanctions from others, but self-criticism as well. All of these behavioral tendencies are related to what Tomasello calls a sense of “deservingness” in dividing up rewards evenly; something found in young children but never in primates. What is created in young children, and presumably in early human groups, is a social contract, what Tomasello calls “the original ‘ought’.”

Tomasello goes on to describe the development of more complex and sophisticated morality based on these precursors that comes from collaborative activity and the development of a sense of “we” based on equivalence and role changeability in performing collaborative tasks. In hunter-gatherers, social structures develop that sustain and constrain moral behavior based on conformity and imitation and the development of a cultural identity. Eventually this led to a group identity and in-group/outgroup favoritism and in-group equivalence, accompanied by a sense of knowing what others in one’s group are likely to think even if one has never interacted directly with them. From these beginnings, social norms and a sense of the right and wrong ways to do things, based on how one’s in-group does them developed. Although these latter developments are social phenomena, based on observation, interaction and communication, rather than directly on evolved genetic mechanisms, they are ultimately dependent upon the selection of tendencies for sympathy and fairness among our ancestors.

Tomasello’s arguments are a based on a collection of primate observations, research with human children, anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer communities, and historical accounts of codified human morality. What emerges is a picture of human beings whose social structures are built, not on dominance and aggression, as are those of Chimpanzees, but on sympathy, helping, collaboration, a second-personal sense of agency involving putting oneself in the other’s position and viewing an activity as a product of “we” as much as “I,” and finally, a sense of fairness, in which one’s own interests must meet the same standards as others in one’s group.


War, Peace and Human Nature and A Natural History of Human Morality are two very different books, both relying upon evolutionary arguments, but one, the collection by Douglas Fry, with a more limited goal of showing that man is not inherently warlike, based on voluminous pertinent research, and the other, the book by Michael Tomasello, based also on research, but with a more ambitious goal of showing how human morality developed and basing its thesis on a great deal of speculation. Both volumes provide a welcome contrast to current popular views of man as a naturally aggressive and warlike species in which dominance over one’s fellow men is the basis for our evolved social structures and a fact of human nature to which we are inextricably, and perhaps catastrophically, tied.

Casey Dorman, Editor Lost Coast Review

Author of "2020" a new political novel

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