The Biological Sciences and War

“The Biological Sciences and War”

Carolina Inn, Chapel Hill, N.C.

22 April 1994

About the Speakers. Ronald J. Barfield, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is with the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. He has authored or co-authored numerous publications on sexual and aggressive behavior. Professor-emeritus George W. Barlow, whose doctorate is from UCLA, retired recently from the Department of Zoology and Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written numerous articles and two books, including Sociology, Beyond Nature/Nurture? (1980). Benson E. Ginsburg is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut and chairs the Behavioral Genetics Laboratory. The author of many publications, including a forthcoming study of aggressive behavior in mice, he earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago. Duke University’s Peter H. Klopfer has been with the Department of Zoology since 1958. Among his many studies is a recent work, with J. Polemics, on aggression in children. He earned his Ph.D. at Yale University.

Conference Proceedings. George W. Barlow led off the conference, attended by fifty scholars, with a presentation entitled AWar as an Adaptation Gone Wrong. ” He introduced his comments by observing that one of the most important characteristics of human society is cooperation for both constructive purposes (such as saving lives in a hospital) and for destructive purposes (such as war). Barlow noted that while he would approach his talk from an evolutionary biologist’s perspective, he cautioned conference attendees that he was not attempting to draw strict homologies between animal and human behavior. As a basis for his observations of human behavior, he referred to cooperation among animals in their struggles to reproduce and raise their young, which ranges from relatively simple one-parent cases (where all parental duties are taken care of by one parent) to more complex situations (where the biological parents are assisted in raising the young by Ahelpers such as the older siblings of the latest arrivals). In all examples of animal cooperation, the perception of kinship provides the Aglue that holds relationships together. Barlow contended that all relationships are based on a cost/benefit calculus. This framework implies that as genetic relationships become more distant, greater benefits must accrue for an individual to help another individual.

In Barlow’s view, conflict can be explained in evolutionary biological terms by the Aeconomics of aggression in that the benefits must outweigh the costs for a conflict to occur. The benefits of these battles always center around competition for limited resources such as food and water and for reproductive rights. Barlow observed that coalitions of animals sometimes act in tandem to achieve access to important resources, such as small groups of roving male lions violently taking over another group of lions, killing the other males and cubs. This situation raised a central question: Are these instances of aggression between animals equivalent to wars between humans? Answering in the affirmative, Barlow argued that war should be conceived of as a continuum from the relatively simple aggressions in animals to the more complex warfare in humans. Defining war as existing whenever groups of animals have conflicts with other groups of animals over limited resources, he identified several parallels between biological wars and human wars concerning territoriality, clan warfare, and ethnicity. The commonality between biological and human warfare is that all of these conflicts are based upon the perception of both kinship and limited resources.

Barlow then turned to an assessment of the possibilities for overcoming man’s propensity for warfare. While war once served a useful purpose for humans, the high costs associated with modern, industrialized warfare make war generally maladaptive. Although the costs associated with modern war are now much greater than in the past, he conceded that some are still using warfare successfully to achieve their aims; examples are the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia and the dominant Somali clans. Professor Barlow remains pessimistic about the possibilities for achieving an end to warfare, but he concluded that two avenues might hold promise. First, even in ethnic conflicts such as the one in the former Yugoslavia, a minority of individuals still rise above their kinship ties and refuse to participate in the conflict. An examination of the motivations and perceptions of these individuals, Barlow suggested, may shed light on a possible solution. Second, mass communication might be used to stem the division of society into the sub-groups (such as ethnic groups) necessary for warfare.

In the lively panel discussion that followed, Peter Klopfer held that animals relate differently to their siblings than they do to non-siblings, even though no visible markings of kinship exist. Klopfer asserted that this dynamic implies that the sense of kinship is genetically based in animals. On the other hand, kinship for humans is a social construct that may or may not be coincidental with actual genetic relationships. Barlow granted that the mechanism behind kinship recognition may differ between humans and animals, but argued that this point did not really matter. Because Barlow was merely using animals as an analogy, his key point was that a great deal of human behavior is based on the perception of kinship. Klopfer asked: If the underlying mechanism is different, what do biologists have to contribute to the matters involving human warfare? Barlow then reiterated his opinion that teaching merely reinforces the genetic relationship and that the principles and conclusions derived from kinship dynamics would remain the same. Benson Ginsburg related the experience of Israel in its attempt to address the issue of who should be counted as a Jew. The central conflict was between biological kinship and cultural kinship; the question arose as to whether the Jewish people entering Israel were closer to each other as Jews or to their former nations. In order to allay this tension, Israel substituted a universal language, Hebrew, as the national language in place of the separate national languages of new immigrants to build kinship ties within the country.

During the question period, one audience member asked whether any of the animals pursued what could be considered strategy in their combat. Barlow responded that chimpanzees often used cooperative behavior with effective tactics to achieve their ends, especially in food acquisition. Extended battles often break out among these animals over resources. Professor Klopfer, however, previewing his later presentation, took exception to the entire notion of Aanimal warfare and argued that animal behavior is distinct from the sorts of conflicts that humans undertake. In specific regard to chimps, he observed that a significant question exists in the literature over the extent to which chimpanzees fight, noting that a recent study argues that Awar-like chimpanzee behavior has more to do with human perceptions than actual chimpanzee actions. One other questioner suggested that evolutionary biology might be used in two competing ways, either to establish a general rule to be applied across all species or to reconstruct the adaptive history of a single species, holding that the latter showed more potential. Barlow agreed that the focus should be on the role of adaptation in single species; even so, modern warfare would be difficult to explain in a strictly biological manner.

Peter Klopfer began his presentation on AEvolutionary Processes in the Development of Sociality with the statement that extrapolation from one species to another most often is based upon fallacies. In order to improve future efforts at such extrapolation, the speaker examined four common misconceptions. Klopfer described the first as the belief that one can speak of Agenes for a trait.” Implicit in most of the literature on the subject is the assumption that it makes sense to speak of genes for aggression. Instead, Klopfer argued that traits are the consequences of genes, the environment, and the interaction between genes and the environment. Because of the interaction variable, a one-to-one relationship could never exist between any trait and the genetic or environmental components. He suggested that a second fallacy occurs when researchers assume that assigning identical names to disparate phenomena renders the phenomena operationally similar. The speaker referred to a fish species that defended a territory of varying size and shape depending on the type of intruder. On the other hand, humans react to aggression in a complex behavioral pattern including cognitive, emotional, and motor aspects. Klopfer contended that while one can refer to both Aaggressive fish and Aaggressive humans, these two phenomena should not be treated as if they were the same, observing that aggression is not an attribute of a subject such as having five digits on a hand. Third, he identified the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, defined as the assumption that functional similarity is synonymous with ontogenetic similarity. The speaker explained this aspect with reference to the concept of territoriality (the prevention of encroachment into an animal’s space). Researchers in this field often assume that territoriality refers to a single form of behavior. However, Klopfer asserted that most species do not exhibit territoriality and that enormous variations exist in behavior and purpose among species that are territorial; territoriality is often used as a single word implying a single trait, yet it applies to numerous forms of behavior. A fourth fallacy is the assumption that the behavior of other animals serves better than human behavior to explain human actions. Klopfer observed that the animal kingdom contains such great diversity that any possible human evolutionary pattern could find a compatible analogy from some animal. He concluded with the statement that warfare is a response to specific conditions and that a reliance upon genes to explain behavior will not advance the understanding of war.

In the panel discussion, Barlow challenged some of Klopfer’s claims. Barlow stated that concepts such as aggression must be defined operationally or the project will fail because researchers cannot include notions of intentions and cognition in their models of animal behavior. He also took exception to the notion that biologists pick animal behavior to fit their preconceptions; evolutionary biologists attempt to extract principles that can be applied to humans from animal behavior and these insights should be used as fresh ways of viewing human behavior rather than exact analogies. Klopfer responded that attention should not focus on whether an action such as infanticide in humans and other primates is evidence of a common principal, but whether human infanticide is similar to that seen in other animals. Barlow reiterated his view that the value of citing other animals is to pose meaningful questions about humans, not to pose an exact analogy. Joining the exchange, Professor Ginsburg referred to the dynamics of funding to explain part of the attention recently applied to the search for specific genes to control particular behavior. While most researchers assume that behavior is a heterogeneous phenomenon, granting agencies tend to give money only for genetically-based studies. Ginsburg argued that this Amythology of the genetic basis for all behavior has entered the granting agency philosophy and has shut off discussion of some points.

One member of the audience noted that the emphasis on the search for a genetic cause of war may exist because of a desire to have a clear-cut solution to warfare and to provide something easy to manipulate. If environmental factors play a large role, then a solution may be more difficult to discover. Barlow observed that the answer to the question of whether war is caused by the environment or genes is a complicated one. Humans change in response to many different stimuli and the environment itself is complex and changing. The best that can be hoped for is to try to extract simple principles to see what can be discovered. Ronald Barfield noted that part of the problem is that the questions asked of biologists regarding warfare are too broad. The primary question asked, in Barfield’s view, is equivalent to Awhat about this war thing?” He continued that political scientists and historians need to provide better questions to guide biological research regarding warfare. Another conference attendee commented on the fact that humans can be motivated to fight by philosophy while fish, for example, cannot, thus making animals a poor analogy for human behavior. Barlow responded by relating that Che Guevara said that revolution only occurs when a scarcity of resources exists and philosophy is only a mechanism to motivate action in response to disputes over resources. Because the scarcity of resources remains the basis of the conflict, the use of philosophy to motivate war would not deny the biological underpinnings. Ginsburg noted that in addition to the scarcity of resources, a mentality pitting “us against them and a charismatic leader were needed to pull a society together for war. Leaders often use patriotism to establish the kinship relationship to motivate a state’s people for war.

Benson Ginsburg referred to scholar Quincy Wright in his presentation on AGenes, Experience, and Social Aggression.” Ginsburg recalled that Wright came into contact extensively with biologists at the University of Chicago during his examination of war. This contact seemed to have influenced Wright to infer that warfare is not outside of human nature and led him to include a chapter on animals in his famous treatise on war. Ginsburg pointed out that nature is conservative in the manner in which genes are used in both humans and animals — ninety-six per cent of the DNA in humans is also in chimpanzees. However, the genes in humans are organized differently than even in chimpanzees. The speaker contended that animal research can be useful in understanding humans; it can give specific information that can be used to learn about the similarities between humans and animals. Ginsburg referred to animal social groups that are organized in hierarchies. These organized social groups allow the collective, although not necessarily the individual, to be better off than if the members of the group were left to fend for themselves. Based on his research, the speaker found that wolves raised apart from other wolves were still able to behave in species-specific patterns. Ginsburg concluded that social behavior is genetically based. In the animal kingdom, these genetically based behavior patterns provide the social cement for communication and group organization. In the modem nation-state, patriotism serves as the bonding glue between individuals. Ginsburg observed that while aggression might be based on genes, violence as well as war are culturally derived phenomena that use aggression as the basis for this behavior. In essence, humans are a hierarchical-structural species with xenophobic tendencies, and these predispositions are molded and manipulated in the service of warfare.

In the panel discussion, Klopfer held that genes do not make up an organism’s behavior, in the same sense that a dictionary cannot write a sentence. Ginsburg agreed with this conclusion, noting that there are genes for certain things, but just because an individual has a gene does not mean that the behavior will arise in the same manner between individuals. Barfield queried whether Ginsburg could substantiate his differentiation between human aggression and violence. Ginsburg responded that aggression (such as pushing) can be observed occurring naturally in children, but violence is learned from environmental sources such as the media and culture. Studies have also shown that children will imitate the violent behavior they observe. He continued that animals have such a tremendous selection against violence that wolves will drive out an overly aggressive member.

A commentator from the conference audience observed that Ginsburg’s presentation would seem to apply to the growth of violent crime in the United States. Ginsburg responded that a characteristic of human nature is to form hierarchical, social organizations. At present, many of the social structures that have characterized society such as the family, extended family, and community are breaking down and being replaced by organizations such as gangs. The solution to these problems might be attempts to form alternative peer groups to instill different social values. Ginsburg concluded that defective social organizations need to be replaced with other proactive and preemptive hierarchical organizations.

Ronald Barfield based his presentation, AAnimal Models for the Understanding of Human Aggression,” on his research concerning the effect of testosterone on animal behavior. Although rats become less aggressive when castrated, the relationship between hormones and behavior is more complicated in humans because of developmental experiences. Barfield cautioned that if both human and animal behavior of a specific type are not understood, researchers may reach erroneous conclusions when attempting to compare them and make generalizations. He remarked that it is comrnonly thought that when a threat exists to a subsystem (such as mating, nesting, or territoriality behavior) aggression is regulated by the hormone testosterone. Barfield suggested, however, an alternate model in which aggressive behavior is not directly affected by testosterone, but rather in which aggression can be called into play with or without testosterone. In addition, it has not yet been possible to identify the site of the hormonal control of aggression. This result, he contended, forces researchers to consider other determinants of aggression such as context and experience and to move away from hormonal determinants. In sum, Barfield concluded that aggression is not a unitary drive system and that attention needs to be paid to the entire system.

One member of the audience expressed the idea that human nature as a cause of war seems indeterminate. Klopfer responded that human nature is the outcome of a developmental process affected by a multitude of factors. He contended that there is no operational way to say that humans have hierarchical or xenophobic tendencies because there is no basis for a comparison. The only possible comparison is intra-species (cross-cultural) due to the fact that there is no other human species with which to compare. Ginsburg remarked that it does make sense to speak of a predisposition for humans to have certain characteristics. Another questioner raised the possibility that decisions to make war and individual aggressive behavior could now be two separate phenomena because the actual fighters may not be the ones who choose to go to war. Ginsburg noted that the dehumanizing nature of war needed to be examined. Using the example of a pilot during the Gulf War, Ginsburg argued that individuals no longer have to engage their own feelings in battle, but can just react to blips on the radar. Barlow differed from this view and claimed that going to war in modern nations still requires some degree of emotion that has to be mobilized through mass communications. On the individual level, he observed that pilots still get a “rush” when in planes during combat, and modern warfare is not as free from emotion as assumed. Another conference attendee held that most human activity is focused on cooperation, rather than aggression, and cautioned that too much emphasis should not be placed on war. Ginsburg replied that a biological tendency for cooperation existed in all species and has been exploited and manipulated q in humans for the purposes of warfare.

One final questioner asked if, given a social science model of Awar-like-ness” and two hypothetical communities, one that was and one that was not war-like, biology could help disaggregate the explanatory factors accounting for the two communities’ characteristics? Klopfer expressed a pessimistic view, noting that biology certainly is part of the explanation for a society’s behavior, but researchers will not likely be capable of parceling out specific determinants of outcomes. Barlow expressed a more optimistic viewpoint; he contended that biology may be able to address a number of variables of which genes might be one of the important ones. Ginsburg, in a last comment, expressed doubt that genes could be deterministic in this regard because of interaction with the Environment.