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N.M. Scientist Offers Look at Origins of War

By John Fleck
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    War— humanity's great curse— seems to have developed hand-in-hand with the better angels of our nature, new research suggests.
    The strange combination of sharing with our neighbors while we engage in organized group killing of outsiders— two relatively unusual and puzzling human traits— could in fact go together, according to new research by a New Mexico scientist.
    Groups of brutish warriors— fierce toward neighbors while nobly sharing among themselves— could have swept aside groups that otherwise would have prospered in peace, Santa Fe Institute researcher Samuel Bowles has found.
    Bowles said in an interview this week that he finds the results of his research "unsettling."
    But whether this aspect of human nature is genetic or cultural, Bowles said the fact that war is part of our nature does not mean we can't overcome it.
    "Our legacy need not be our destiny," Bowles said.
    Bowles, an economist whose career defies academic labels, has spent time in the field studying hunter-gatherer cultures in Africa and Latin America, trying to understand the basis of human cultural behaviors.
    For his most recent work, he teamed with Jung-Kyoo Choi of Kyungpook National University in South Korea to try to explain two of the great puzzles of human evolution: altruism and war.
    The results of their research are being published today in the journal Science.
    In evolutionary terms, war has always been a bit of a mystery.
    Evolution favors those who live long enough to have lots of offspring and who acquire the resources so those offspring can prosper and have offspring of their own.
    Going on the attack against your neighbors costs resources and risks death, two behaviors that are generally bad evolutionary bargains. It would seem that those who manage to live in peace with the folks living in the next valley over would have an evolutionary edge.
    And yet here we are, a species that seems to have prospered over the millenniums on the backs of group killing sprees against others of our own species.
    Other species kill one another. Fire ants are the most famous example. But none, Bowles said, kill one another at the rate humans do.
    "We're extraordinarily adept at killing members of our own species from other groups," he said.
    In fact, while we view the devastating wars of the 20th century as the worst humanity has to offer, archaeologists say our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors thousands of years ago were far more violent, with deaths from war far more prevalent than in recent history, according to Bowles.
    Similarly, sharing your food with your own genetic kin makes evolutionary sense. That helps them prosper along with you, helping the genes you share get passed along to future generations.
    But we humans do far more.
    We often share with people with whom we have no direct relationship. In evolutionary terms, that has the effect of helping their genes prosper at the expense of our own.
    Bowles and Choi tackled those two mysteries with a simplified computer simulation, a common tool for the study of evolutionary theory. Bowles called it an "artificial history," running and rerunning human history thousands of times, looking for patterns in how the artificial communities evolve.
    They created a computer community with "genes" for either altruism or selfishness among members of their own group, and "genes" for either warlike or peaceful behavior with neighboring groups.
    In the complex intergroup interactions that followed, groups that were peaceful and willing to trade with their neighbors often prospered. Absent war, they tended to do the best.
    But in the long run, the peaceniks got shoved out by people who were altruistic within their own group but willing to wage war against outsiders. The warriors would provoke wars and then win them, giving them dominance despite the evolutionary costs of battle, Bowles and Choi found.
    Importantly, warrior cultures that were altruistic within their own group tended to do better in those battles, they found.
    The resulting pattern of human behavior will be familiar— loyalty to, and sacrifice for, members of one's own group combined with hostility toward outsiders. Voters in rich countries, for example, are willing to spend a third of their income via taxes to be redistributed to other members of the group. But "they're willing to spend at most 1 percent of their income sending their income to the much poorer people of Africa, Asia and Latin America," Bowles said.
    He called it "altruism with borders."
    Scientists have found no genes that control human behavior, and Bowles was careful to note that he and Choi are not arguing for a "warfare gene." The patterns they see could be cultural rather than genetic, passed by the teaching of parents to their children, he said.
    Despite the stark vision of human nature implied by his work, Bowles is not pessimistic. Whether the basis of our warlike behavior is genetic or cultural, he noted that we have also shown the ability to overcome its darker implications.
    "We're a cultural animal," he said. "We don't have to go along with whatever got us here."