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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Evolutionary Psychology Watch: Another just-so story about the advent of warfare

According to a recent article in National Geographic News, the development of the spear led to an era of peace among early humans. So thinks University of Michigan anthropologist Raymond Kelly, who argues, in "Spear Led to Era of Human Peace, Expert Says" (September 6, 2005),

The ability to kill from a distance and the use of ambush tactics significantly affected border interactions.

The size of a group was no longer a guarantee of success, and the potential of being seriously wounded or killed increased.

Kelly believes the change in circumstances forced early humans to come up with new ways to resolve conflicts and to maintain friendly relations.

But Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham disagrees, saying,

"Maybe it did, but it seems to me unlikely to have done so," said Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It is easier to make surprise attacks with weapons than without, and hard to defend against them."
I like folk tales as much as the next person, but don't think that these "just-so" stories of evolutionary psychology should be represented as science. Indeed, this article is a classic for demonstrating how appealing to "human evolution" allows people to talk complete nonsense without either themselves or their readers being aware of it.

For example, here's a gem from the same article, where Kelly holds out a "ray of hope" for peace, allegedly based on human evolution:

"The U.S. was at war with Canada in 1812 and with Mexico in 1848 but has managed to live in peace with its neighbors for the past 150 years," he said. "So we clearly have the capacity to maintain peaceful relations with neighbors over extended periods."

"These capacities are as much a product of [human] evolution as the capacity to engage in lethal intergroup violence."
As a Canadian, I find the sheer naivete breathtaking, and, in a man of learning, bordering on offensive. The main reason there are no wars between Canada and the United States is the overwhelming military superiority of the United States! The United States is the most powerful military force in human history.

Canada has almost no military power. Therefore, even though we do have some serious issues with the United States, war is out of the question for us, never mind what direction "evolution" supposedly points Canadians in.

Also, there's the fact that Canada's economy depends almost entirely on trade with the United States, AND our economy is now mostly American-owned. So if the Americans attacked Canada, they would, for the most part, be killing their own employees and service providers and destroying their own property.

And if we Canadians attacked the United States, we would be violating a fundamental rule around here, formulated in the days when the Hudson's Bay Company traded with the First Nations (Indians): Never shoot the customer, no matter how much of a pain in the neck he is.

Of course, an evolutionary psychologist would undoubtedly say that relations between Canada and the United States are the inevitable outcome of "human evolution." Sure. Just tell him about your complex historical circumstances, and he will explain them based on something chimpanzees do or early humans supposedly did.

Why does the Darwinist think this way: The Darwinist does not believe that human intelligence is a human version of the intelligence behind the universe. He believes that it is the evolutionary outcome of accidentally overdeveloped brains, possibly but not certainly selected by natural selection.

As a result, he cannot accept that humans actually have consciousness or free will, or that our current circumstances largely result from the exercise of these functions. Rather, he needs to find the answers in the unthinking behavior of non-humans and pre-humans. Otherwise, he thinks we have not found an answer. And, here's the kicker, any explanation of that sort, no matter how ridiculous, will always make more sense to him than any explanation based on the effects of intelligence, as a creative force in its own right.

As I say, entertain yourself with this stuff if you like, but don't call it science.

(Note: The only finding for which we have hard evidence from history is that superiority in weaponry can go either way. Europeans destroyed many native American civilizations because they had guns. Arguably, the diseases they brought destroyed more people than the guns, but it was the spread of guns, not disease, that drove colonial policy. On the other hand, a huge empire typically suppresses local warfare because it is overwhelmingly more powerful than petty warlords. So it can be a force for peace - until it gets into a war with another empire.)
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