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IA Forum Interview: Prof. Douglas P. Fry

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IA-Forum: In your book, Beyond War, you present a common concept of ‘man the warrior’ and dispute that idea as it applies to war. What is your reaction to the question Thomas Hobbes presented in the 1600s?: Is modern war inherent and inevitable in the modern form of state organization?

Professor Douglas P. Fry: The cross-cultural data that I’ve looked at show that warfare is not inevitable. One strong anthropological finding, which has been replicated over different studies, is that there is a correlation between increasing social complexity and the likelihood of war. What this means is the simplest type of society, nomadic hunter gatherer bands, tend to be relatively unwarlike and as social complexity increases into kingdoms and chiefdoms, the chance of warfare definitely increases.

In the more complicated types of social organization, there is fighting over economic and political resources much more than in societies that are not quite as complex in structure. In a state, a standard feature is a standing army and situations where vast amounts of goods are conquered, tribute exacted from captured provinces, and so forth. Whereas if you go down to simpler societies, it’s usually a matter of relatively few people being killed and a limited amount of plunder. And if you go to the simplest type of social organization, the type of society we humans have lived most of our existence in – nomadic hunter-gatherer bands – most of the disputes are very personal and this type of society tends not to be warlike at all.

When I started doing my research for Beyond War, I didn’t think I’d find as much bias in the anthropological studies and archeological findings as what I discovered. The idea behind dubbing this recurrent bias ‘the man the warrior’ view of humanity is to reflect something that’s out there in society – US society certainly and that could be generalized to Western society – that scientists and scholars who like everybody else are reared in a setting where they see war on TV and read about war constantly simply pick up a view of world that over-emphasizes war and violence. My point is that this shapes how we’re conducting science so many anthropologists, political scientists, and other scientists/scholars growing up in this cultural environment, see war as more prevalent than is actually warranted. If you carefully look at the cross-cultural and archeological evidence, you see a different picture.


IA-Forum: In the course of your research, what did you see as examples of bias in analysis about the state of man and war?

Prof. Fry: A good example is a particular cross-cultural study looking at hunter-gatherers. The author starts out by saying she wants to debunk the myth of the peaceful hunter-gatherer. So she takes a small sample of hunter-gatherer societies and tries to rate them based on how often they make war. But looking at this closer, two major problems become apparent. The first is how war is defined in the study. The definition used is so broad that it categorizes homicides that are committed by more than one person as an act of war. Moreover, the article doesn’t specifically discuss how war is being defined. You actually have to go to another article, a previously published article, and start to research how war is being defined, and then you understand the author’s definition. I don’t think that homicide fits the definition of war that most people use when thinking about wars.

Also, if hunter-gatherers are used to make inferences about the evolutionary past and about human nature, we want to focus on the nomadic hunter-gatherers. What the study does though is to include different types of hunter-gatherers such as equestrian hunters of the North American Plains. The Spanish brought the horse to the New World 350-400 years ago and some of the Plains cultures adopted the horse and built a new system around raiding for horses, trading in horses, and using the horse to hunt. This is a unique and very recent cultural development and therefore not the type of society we would use as an example for reconstructing the past. There’s also another type of hunter-gatherers, complex hunter-gatherers, that don’t fit the model: they’re not nomadic and they tend to store goods.

This author lumps these three types of societies together and treats them as one. This is a major methodological flaw with the article. So when she states that she wants to disprove the myth that hunter-gatherers are peaceful, she’s not by any means disproving the myth by her findings, she’s just playing word games with the definition of war and muddling different types of societies.

What I found was that most of the simple nomadic hunter-gatherers do not make war. Whereas complex hunter-gatherers and horse riding hunter-gatherers do make war.

This is just one example of a study I found but there are many, from archeology and anthropology, that reflect this type of bias that emphasizes warfare.


IA-Forum: Other examples of flawed research you cite include killer apes and one regarding findings of ancient cannibalism…

Prof. Fry: Near Rome, a researcher uncovered a Neanderthal skull in a cave, and he described it in the original report as being in a perfect circle of stones and, looking at where the skull and spinal cord connect, it had been artificially enlarged. So the researcher concluded that cannibalism had been practiced on the skull and that, by the perfect circle of stones, that it was ritualistic cannibalism. That was repeated in textbook after textbook for decades. In the late 1980’s some archaeologists reevaluated the study and the first thing they discovered was that it was a hyena maternity den and there were all types of bones there, not just the skull. There is a definite difference, in terms of physical evidence, when stone tools have been used to enlarge a hole or cut meat off bones rather than just using teeth. On the bottom of this Neanderthal skull it was clear that the marks were from hyena gnawing not any hominids using stone tools to try to extract a brain. It was simply hungry hyenas trying to get the brain out to eat it. Regarding the perfect circle of stone, that also was a misperception. It was due to a rock fall in a cave, which often happens. It was not perfectly circular. Again, this shows a bias where people jump to the assumption that violence or warfare was occurring.

The other case had to do with the australopithecines. Raymond Dart made a big hullabaloo about killer apes. He was asked once how many primate precursors had been murdered, and while his answer may have been tongue-in-cheek, he responded, ‘all of them, of course’. A reanalysis of this shows that over two to three million years, bones tend to get warped, cracked, and smashed and it has nothing to do with the living beings having been smashed on the head or clubbed.


IA-Forum: Did you uncover any commonalities among these non-violent societies? How to they handle conflict resolution and aggression?

Prof Fry: I compiled two different lists of non-violent societies and there is overlap across them. One is a list of societies that don’t make war. There are over seventy societies on that list and that’s not a completed project as we keep finding evidence of other societies that are not engaging in warfare. Then there are peaceful societies. These are groups that live with very low levels of aggression. There’s some variation here but if we look at all societies that exist, there’s a cluster towards one end of the continuum that’s extremely peaceful. How do they manage to keep the peace? The short answer is: in many different ways. There’s not one particular thing in common among these non-warring groups. But values and a belief system that favors non-violence tends to be a very important feature of these societies.

For example, there are the Batek people from Malaysia. The anthropologist, Kirk Endicott, who is working with these people, asked them: ‘when you were being slave raided, why didn’t you use your hunting blowguns and poison darts to attack these slave raiders?’ A Batek man looked at him with shock and said, ‘because it would have killed them’. So there are some societies with such a strong non-violent belief system that such a violent response would be unheard of. This group is extremely peaceful, have very few acts of aggression and don’t engage in feuding or warfare. If slave raiders came, they ran, if they could, to escape.

There was a classic study of warfare conducted during World War II by Quincy Wright, of the University of Chicago, and his team of researchers. They looked at war from different fields. In the appendix of their original book, they talked a bit about anthropology. They were looking at 590 different cultures and classified them as to how they made war. They described four types of war: economic, political, social, and defensive war. But there is no category listed for peaceful or non-warring cultures. So the categorization scheme presents a misperception from the start that there’s war everywhere.

But on Wright’s list of warring societies are a number of cultures that are actually non-warring. For those, he said they are cultures that have no history of war, they have no specialized weapons for war, there’s no evidence that they engage in war but if they were attacked, Wright inferred, they would probably use their simple tools to defend themselves. He left out the option that people could simply move away or run away from trouble. That’s exactly what some of these people do if they encounter a hostile group. They simply move away. This is obviously not feasible for all cultures but it does show a bias once again in studies of war that presupposes that people everywhere wage war.


IA-Forum: How do non-warring societies settle disputes?

Prof. Fry: Mediation is extremely common across cultures to settle disputes. This means third parties get involved and help the two sides work out a resolution to the problem. A typical way this happens is someone pays another party compensation for damage done.

In India, the Garo people practice ‘arbitration-compensation-reconciliation’. For example, one woman has sex with another woman’s husband, and the wife finds out. She goes to the center of the village where there are some elders and makes the accusation. In the course of discussing this, the relatives of both parties join in, as well as anyone else, and this becomes a public discussion for the whole village. At this point, it’s deemed the seductress did wrong - and it’s known as the formula to be followed – the woman is supposed to go to the wife and say ‘I’m sorry for stealing your husband.’ She pays a small amount in goods or money as compensation for the crime she committed to the woman and then there is an official reconciliation. This dispute is considered settled and will not be raised again.

At an individual level in simple societies such as nomadic hunter-gatherers, there are contests sometimes. For example, two men who are having a dispute can fight it out but in a way that no one is killed or seriously injured. These events are very public and others get involved as peacemakers or referees. It allows someone who believes themselves to be wronged, to wound the other person yet not kill them.

The concept of justice is very important because every society has some way for people to achieve justice. The need for justice seems to be universal. This brings implications at the world level.


IA-Forum: In the last 50 years international war has declined yet internecine war and genocidal acts stay prevalent. What do you think can be applied from your research to these areas?

Prof. Fry: To answer that, let’s look at the different ways of achieving justice first. Cross-culturally, half of the cultures practice a type of blood revenge. This is something that has been recognized as acceptable. Within that group, half the societies, there are different shades of revenge. For example, some say that it must be done in all cases whereas others look at it as a last resort. But the other half of societies are not vengeful. They can be classified in different ways. For example, there are very peaceful societies that have such non-violent belief systems that they see no reason for violence and don’t accept homicide as a solution. People seek their justice in other ways such as through mediation and hearings.

Then there are the states which ironically squelch justice based on blood revenge and assert the state’s right to administer justice. Then there are middle societies which have developed a system of compensation and these often go hand-in-hand with statehood or some type of non-violent belief. For example, if there is a homicide, it’s inappropriate to kill the killer(s). Instead you go in front of your chief or king and say ‘you killed my brother and I deserve compensation’. The chief or king could agree and then determine compensation.

Again, looking at all these societies where about half are vengeance-oriented and the other half finding justice in other ways, the implication is, if you look at the world today, there’s basically a system of anarchy where every state reserves the right to go to war and seek revenge or justice through their own self redress. This is a system that’s not working well in an interdependent planet. We need to switch this over to a different system, promoting non-violent beliefs for one thing, but also put an international court system in place to adjudicate disputes that arise. This is not a new idea but it is a very important one. The survey of the anthropological systems lends support to this. There is a case from Africa where the culture was switching from individual self redress, where everyone gets to wage their own feud, to a centralized authority where there was a powerful chief consolidating power and feuding was outlawed. While we don’t need a single powerful chief to accomplish this, we need to give up the right to make war and threaten other people or nations. This current war-based system has not really provided security or justice in the long run.

As to the cases of internal warfare, you have to look at international courts that, by common accord, supersede the sovereignty of the individual countries. While this is extremely controversial it seems that this is in the direction we have to go. Imagaine if any individual state in the US could use whatever violently repressive tactics it wanted to against its own citizens. This would be in violation of a higher system of laws and human rights assured at the federal level. Of course that won’t work – the National Guard would be sent in to restore order. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides rights for people around the planet but we don’t have the legal and conflict resolution mechanisms and court systems to back this up. This may be idealistic but ultimately we need to develop these systems of justice to move away from self redress and the abuse of power within countries.


IA-Forum: What do you think should be done to facilitate a more peaceful world in general?

Prof. Fry: Anthropology appeals to me since it presents such a macroscopic view of things. We have a planet that’s armed to the teeth while at the same time many of the basic human needs are lacking for so many around the world. In terms of providing security and justice, this does not work. In a moral sense this is not right. It’s not just a question of not being right though. Attaining true security is also in the best interest of the people who have more wealth and could be sharing better. We all benefit from a safer world.

We have a planet that is suffering ecologically as we have a real fear of global warming and there are other challenges such as loss of biodiversity, loss of habitats, and pollution of the oceans. No individual country or region can address these global issues; we’re all in this together. We have an incentive to cooperate and work together to solve these problems. There are many parables from anthropology to support this but here’s one from Australia: the Mardu people who are a hunter gathering people from the western desert. Of course the desert has little rainfall and moreover the rain is sporadic. One area may get a lot of rainfall one year and a different area may get more the following year. The Mardu know their environment and know that it makes no sense to carve out a territory and try to keep other groups out. Instead, they reciprocally share over time. They do not war or feud. They recognize that such actions would be ridiculous because they need each other--they are interdependent on each other.

It’s a parable for the planet: we need to work together to solve problems such as global warming, terrorism, poverty, and disease. It’s in the selfish interest as well as humanitarian and moral interest of the ‘haves’ to help the ‘have nots’. These things reinforce layers of why we need to look at things differently and adopt not only attitudes but also the practices of cooperating and sharing more than we have done.

If you look cross-culturally, sharing and cooperating is something that humans do all the time. For the nomadic hunter-gatherers, this is the center of their social organization. Every group of nomadic hunter-gatherers share meat. So helping and cooperating at a global level is not something that’s impossible. We humans have this potential and have practiced it for millennia. The key is for a critical mass of people to realize that this concept of “let’s arm to the teeth, let’s build more weapons…” is not giving us the safety and security we desire. So we need to look at a different strategy based on common securities so the whole planet is going to be safe, healthy and secure. Here again, we need a system up courts, with police, and power to enforce justice so if there should arise a Saddam Hussein or Hitler, action can be taken. Structures need to be established to ensure this can happen and assure a common security for all the people of the planet. The reciprocally-sharing, non-warring Mardu provide us with a parable.


Douglas P. Fry is a professor of anthropology, teacher in the Faculty of Social and Caring Sciences at Åbo Akademi University in Finland and adjunct research scientist in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

His book, Beyond War, is published by Oxford University Press.

Comments in Chronological order (1 total comments)

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Fri, July 03, 2009 08:09 AM (about 47960 hours ago)
As a Vietnam vet who "discovered" the work and writings of Dr. Fry several years ago, I am forever indebted to him for his rational approach to thinking through the anthropological research on conflict and conflict resolution in his unique and original way for it supports my own way of thinking. He provides me with data, information, and scientific thinking that enables me to "stand my ground" in discussions with others about such matters as conflict and conflict resolution. His latest book, Beyond War, is remarkable reading and his thinking is so blessedly clear and simple that anyone who reads it can not help but want to tell others "we don't HAVE to go to war; we CAN think it through and find realistic solutions to our differences".
 
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