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Science / Medicine : Whys of War : Anthropology: Human beings have fought one another for thousands of years, but there are many theories as to the causes.

February 18, 1991|BRUCE BOWER | Bower is behavioral sciences editor for Science News Magazine, from which this story is adapted.

In a 1971 Motown hit single, Edwin Starr posed the musical question, "War--what is it good for?" His gruff response: "Absolutely nothin'."

Despite the grimly predictable tragedies of armed conflict, almost all ancient and modern societies studied by anthropologists have engaged in at least periodic bouts of warfare. The ubiquity of organized fighting between human groups--currently brought home by the war in the Middle East--has fired up the scientific study of warfare over the last 30 years and has sparked some bruising academic skirmishes.

A handful of warfare researchers are examining the cultural and anthropological causes of war. These investigators do not praise fighting, but they assume that anything so common in human experience serves some purpose. They search for the "absolutely somethin' " that lights the fuse of violence in bands of foragers, tribes of hunter-gatherers, rudimentary political states and modern nations alike.

In the 1960s, as U.S. involvement in Vietnam deepened, anthropological theories of war's causes and consequences flourished, numbering at least 16 by 1973, says Keith F. Otterbein of the State University of New York at Buffalo. However, he says, only about half of those theories still receive strong scientific support, and no persuasive new theories have emerged.

Although some anthropologists and sociobiologists contend that a genetic tendency toward physical violence greases the human war machine, theories of innate aggression attract few advocates today, Otterbein says. Nevertheless, disputes over the alleged biological roots of combat continue to erupt, ignited in many cases by the work of Napoleon A. Chagnon of UC Santa Barbara, whose studies of warfare have become the most widely publicized research in this field.

Since 1964, Chagnon has conducted fieldwork among the 15,000 Yanomamo Indians who inhabit about 200 villages in the Amazonian jungle of Brazil and Venezuela. He has long stressed the ferocity and frequency of combat between Yanomamo villages.

Chagnon's latest report concludes that revenge fuels the protracted, bloody battles between groups of men from different Yanomamo villages. Competition for food, water, territory or women creates the initial friction, he says. Minor bow-and-arrow confrontations ensue, escalating rapidly when a death results and the victim's male relatives exact revenge through raids on the offending village.

Blood vengeance apparently raises the social status and reproductive success of Yanomamo warriors, who represent nearly half of the men in the tribe, Chagnon says. On the average, killers have more than twice as many wives and three times as many children as their peaceable counterparts.

Chagnon contends that reproductive success and fighting prowess probably go hand-in-hand in many human groups, and that this may help explain the great prestige attached to military conquest in both modern and ancient states.

Even if Chagnon's Yanomamo data holds up, says anthropologist John H. Moore, successful warriors in similar tribal societies sometimes contribute few genes to subsequent generations. Moore, of the University of Oklahoma, cites the 19th-Century Cheyenne Indians of the North American plains as a case in point. The Cheyenne, with a population of about 3,000 divided into bands of 150 to 400 individuals, engaged in fierce warfare with other Indian tribes as well as with U.S. military forces, achieving historical fame with their defeat of Gen. George A. Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. In addition to seven warrior bands led by numerous war chiefs, Cheyenne society included 44 peace chiefs, sometimes more than one to a band, who led polygynous extended families.

U.S. Census data collected in 1880 and 1892 revealed that men in the Cheyenne peace bands had a striking reproductive advantage over warriors, Moore reported in the June, 1990, issue of Current Anthropology. The war chiefs stressed celibacy and ritual suicide, while the peace chiefs had numerous wives and children, he says.

Another critic of Chagnon's research, Marvin Harris of the University of Florida in Gainesville, suggested that war occurs among hunter-gatherers and other "band-and-village" peoples when population growth creates increasingly intense competition for food, especially protein-rich game. He maintains that warfare, for all its brutality, effectively prunes these populations, preventing malnutrition and hunger among survivors--whether the combatants belong to Yanomamo villages or horticultural groups in Papua New Guinea.

The origins of war probably stretch back to Stone Age times, says Robert L. Carneiro of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Stone Age battles--fought to avenge murders, wife-stealing or other trespasses often observed among modern hunter-gatherers--served to push small bands of humans apart and keep them separate.

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