My wife and I frequently receive invitations to large gatherings such as fund raisers for charities or celebrations of special events. Generally speaking I have little fondness for such galas. A relatively short time after the onset of such festivities Vern’s law kicked in: Decibels are directly proportional to alcohol consumed. The noise level precludes any meaningful conversation. However, we recently attended an event which seemed to defy my negative expectations. I sat between an historian and a man well versed in anthropology. We dined with wines of fine vintage and horseradish crusted saddle of lamb. The topic of the recent spate of mass killings arose. Our distaff partners suggested that such events are a “guy thing.” Most of us agreed. The conversation broadened to discuss the role of guns and the natural history of violence. Allow me to share some of the ideas discussed as well as some other information gleaned from subsequent reading.
Agreement existed that the mass slaughters occurring in the twentieth century suggest that humans have a propensity for violence. Only a thin veneer of civilization keeps these tendencies in check. The anthropologist offered another explanation. Prior to the onset of agriculture, wars did not exist. With the advent of farming, people were able to store their excess produce. Conflicts arose over struggles for possession of those material resources, especially food. The corollary suggests that pre- agricultural people did not engage in group violence with other tribes. Conflicts between various tribes of the American plains Indians would lead to question that view. Also the ritual battles between groups of New Guinean natives to avenge the death of a tribesman seem unrelated to the acquisition of property. Studies of the war-like Yanomamos in South America indicate that the primary motivation for raids and group conflicts was to abduct, recover or avenge the abduction of women. Two anthropologists, Walker and Bailey, have concluded that primary motives for killing in inter-tribal strife were revenge, capture of women and children and, less often, theft of material goods. Our closest mammalian relatives, the chimpanzees, engage in intergroup violence. Their behavior seems unrelated to shortage of food or other resources. One can raise the question as to whether, like our primate cousins, we are just a higher form of killer apes, that violence resides in our genes. Maybe we would and do, engage in battle over a single beautiful woman. Maybe a thousand ships would be launched to recover her.
Sadly, I don’t think we are the noble savages as postulated by Rousseau.