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Book Review
Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace

Beyond War
Fry, Douglas P. 2007.
Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. NY:Oxford University Press
352 pp. ISBN13: 9780195309485 ISBN10: 0195309480 [Hdbk $24.00 US].

Review by Judith L. Hand - AFWW, June 2008
Published by the International Society for Human Ethology (ISHE)

In The Human Potential for Peace (2006), anthropologist Douglas Fry began debunking the belief that war is inescapable. In Beyond War he continues his exploration in an accessible, finely-researched, occasionally humorous manner.

His definition of war is critical to his thesis (p. 16): "A group activity, carried on by members of one community against members of another community, in which it is the primary purpose to inflict serious injury or death on multiple nonspecified members of that other community, or in which the primary purpose makes it highly likely that serious injury or death will be inflicted on multiple nonspecified members of the community…. This definition highlights that war is a group activity, occurs between communities, and is not focused against a particular individual or that person’s kin group (as occurs in feuding), but rather is directed against nonspecified members of another community….relatively impersonal lethal aggression between communities."

This definition excludes behavior often mistakenly categorized, Fry argues, as a form of war, e.g., homicides (usually triggered by disputes over women), and self-redress (revenge killings against specific individuals from other groups). Using his definition, Fry posits that war isn’t an evolved trait or inescapable: numerous societies live without it (see list in Appendix 2). He also critiques studies used to argue that humans have been warlike since our deep past: e.g., studies by Blanc, Dart, Chagnon, Ember, Keeley, Wrangham and Peterson, Wright, and others.

In the chapter "War and Social Organization," he makes a crucial differentiation between simple, nomadic hunter-gatherers (NHGs) and complex hunter-gatherers (CHGs). In the former, war is rare; in the latter, common. A critical difference is that abundant food resources allow CHGs to live in settled communities. This suggests a causative link between settled living and war. CHGs also exhibit social and sexual inequality. Fry suggests that NHGs model conditions under which virtually all human ancestors evolved, the point being that the majority of ancestors in our deep past likely did not make war.

Focusing on NHGs, Fry describes conflict resolution in six societies: Siriono, Paliyan, Australian Aboriginal culture, Montagnais-Naskapi, Netsilik, and "Kung San (Ju/’hoansi). Examples from other NHGs are also compared with CHGs and tribal cultures. In some cultures, people may simply avoid conflicts by walking away, or if attacked by outsiders, by fleeing.

Fry examines his views using well-known biological theories: sexual selection and parental investment (Chapter 12) and inclusive fitness and game theory (hawks, doves, retaliators) (Chapter 13). A striking parallel emerges from animal studies in which males of various species determine dominance and access to females and other resources using ritual displays, not killing; the behavior NHG men use to settle disputes show fascinating parallels to these ritual displays. Fry also cites rare cases where murderers were killed by their own kin (pp. 149, 151, 155) or after group discussion and agreement (p. 163); Fry suggests (p. 109) that overly-aggressive individuals were possibly selected against.

The myth of "man the warrior" is thoroughly critiqued. Fry details (Chapter 14) psychological reasons that draw so many people to this myth despite the fact that many societies live without war, and that the likely condition of early NHGs was one of cooperation among disbursed bands of small, egalitarian groups. Acceptance of this myth, Fry argues, has biased studies and conclusions. He discusses (Chapter 15) how public acceptance of this myth also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, undercutting efforts to find ways to end war.

The last chapter summarizes how an anthropologically-derived view of the human potential for peace can guide us beyond war. Throughout the book, it’s clear that much fighting and warfare itself arises out of self-redress for grievances, and that the means for resolving these conflicts in NHGs often involve third party negotiators, mediators, even adherence to law (e.g., Australian aborigines). To extricate ourselves from war, Fry stresses several things, among them that we develop international courts and other mechanisms of conflict resolution, that we foster "cross-cutting ties"—a global sense of community and interdependence, and expand new levels of democratic governance.

Beyond War has notable strengths. A reader gains profound appreciation for the importance of cooperation to the survival of small human bands. In a theoretical article entitled "Five rules for the evolution of cooperation" (2007), Martin Nowak explores the power of natural selection to produce cooperation even in a brutally competitive world, and Fry makes a strong case that NHGs are good cooperators. They seem to be likely products of these principles.

Another strong point is honest reporting of the nature and frequency of male aggression in even NHG bands, enabling readers to make reasonably informed assessments of rates and kinds of aggression.

Like all good books, Beyond War provokes questions. For example, if war and social complexity go hand-in-hand (p. 63), isn’t it hopeless to think we can get beyond war? We’re not likely to revert to living in small NHG bands. Herculean attempts along the lines Fry recommends have thus far failed to end war (League of Nations, United Nations, International Court of Justice). Legions of advocates work to foster cross-cultural ties, so far with little obvious success in ending war.
Assuming a fixed link between war and social complexity, as many experts and lay people do, however, may be prematurely in error simply because contrary examples have not yet been discovered. The Minoans (circa 600-1450 BCE), were a state-level culture that no one has proved had warfare. Discussing them, I described biological, cultural, ecological, religious, and social conditions that might allow the emergence of a state-level, nonwarring culture (2003). Two other ancient, sophisticated cultures, the Harappa and Caral, have also, to date, shown no signs of warfare. Perhaps social complexity per se doesn’t equate with war; perhaps the form the complexity takes is the problem (Hand, 2003, 2006).

Other questions arise, especially to a behaviorist. Many genetic traits, including behavioral ones, only emerge in an environment that favors their expression. So for example, while the act of making war seems not to be genetically determined, there must be traits that are, say in an environment of settled living, the roots from which war springs. Fry convincingly demonstrates that people can live peacefully, but to get beyond war in the present global context, the proximal motivators and reinforcers behind our behavior must be understood. What emotions trigger war, why has natural selection favored those emotions, and in complex societies, can we effectively control them

Fry argues against the existence of universal psychological mechanisms underlying war, citing examples from Wrangham (1999) such as "the experience of a victory thrill, an enjoyment of the chase, a tendency for dehumanization, and ready coalition formation." Fry disagrees, saying, "rather than being universal human traits, (these) more likely represent attitudes and ideas circulating within the culture of the theorist (p. 143)." He suggests that the idea that a nonfeuding, nonwarring Paliyan man would experience a "victory thrill" is at odds with their behavior and the value they place on nonviolence.

While true, this doesn’t address the possibility that those traits, or others favoring war, are latent in a Paliyan man. Consider an infant Paliyan boy raised in the home of a typical American family, thrown into competitive contexts, and finally into a battle which he survives, which his side wins, and from which he emerges a hero. That Paliyan child might very well experience the thrill of victory. Socialization would, of course, be part of the explanation for his emotional response, but the capacity to be socialized to respond so as to experience that thrill in that context seems to require the existence of some underlying neurological (genetically based) predisposition. Thus I would argue that questions about the existence of universal underlying psychological traits that make us susceptible to war remain open.

My own interests focus on how women fit into the war picture, and I would have liked more specifics. The index doesn’t even list women. A reader interested in gender issues can suspect that "egalitarian" in nonviolent, nonwarring bands also refers to women’s social relationships, not just social and political ones between men, but this isn’t always made explicit. Beyond War seemed to fit the pattern of a "hidden females" phenomenon (2003) in which women are lumped into discussions of humans, humanity, and people without considering that women may have quite different biological priorities and different responses to aggression than men.

Men demonstrate violent aggression in all the cultures Fry examined, even if only rarely. As Fry notes, women use violence much less frequently. Fry draws on sexual selection as an explanation for male aggression, but provides no comparable examination of why women are overwhelmingly not involved in war. One has the impression that being nonviolent is a default female position, and it works fine since women don’t need to compete for men as strenuously as men need to compete for women (the sexual selection hypothesis) (p. 168-169). But women not only characteristically avoid physical violence, women, as a group, are more strongly predisposed than are men, as a group, to using various forms of win-win conflict resolution (e.g., Fisher, 1992; Hand, 2003). Why?

Lack of attention to a female biological imperative to foster social stability because of women’s greater investment in bearing and rearing children (Hand, 2003) is a weak point because the egalitarian position of women in non-warring societies may perhaps be essential as a hedge against war. Fry isn’t alone in neglecting the possibility of ending war by specifically raising the status of women. Consider conclusions of other thinkers from a variety of disciplines who seek to explain why we make war and more importantly, how to be rid of it. An interesting pattern based on discipline emerges.

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama (1992) argues that we should foster the spread of liberal democracies. Journalist and war reporter Chris Hedges (2002) calls on us to embrace and abide by our moral precepts against war. Historian Robert McElvaine (2001) provides an account of how the agricultural revolution transformed relationships between the sexes leading to the rejection by men of anything female. McElvaine’s antidote calls on men to get in touch again with their feminine values and proclivities. In Beyond War, Fry looks with the eyes of the anthropologist and suggests that we set up international bodies to adjudicate our differences and that we foster a sense of oneness among the earth’s people. While all the above are likely necessary to move us beyond war, will they be sufficient? The egalitarian nature of nonwarring NHG societies as suggested in Beyond War invites further exploration of the (possibly necessary) contribution of independent women to social stability.

It’s regrettable that the publisher didn’t provide a better index. After unsuccessfully looking for bonobos, egalitarian, Fry, gender equality, women, and Ax Fight, I gave up on the index. The omission of egalitarian was particularly noticeable since NHGs are described at least fifteen times as being egalitarian. There is also no bibliography: references are lumped under chapter notes, making them difficult to find.

Beyond War is a highly rewarding read and an outstanding contribution to the literature on human behavior and war.

Fisher, Helen. (1992). The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World. NY: Random House.
Fry, Douglas P. (2006). The Human Potential for Peace. NY: Oxford University Press.
Fukuyama, Francis. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.
Hand, Judith L. (2003). Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace. San Diego, CA: Questpath Publishing.
Hand, Judith L. (2006). A Future Without War: The Strategy of a Warfare Transition. San Diego, CA: Questpath Publishing.
Hedges, Chris. (2002). War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. NY: Public Affairs.
McElvaine, Robert S. (2001). Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History. NY: McGraw-Hill.
Nowak, Martin A. (2006). "Five rules for the evolution of cooperation." Science 314:1560-1563.
Wrangham, Richard. (1999). "Evolution of coalitionary killing." Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 42:1.30.

Judith Hand is a published novelist under her name and the nom de plume Judith Leon and the creator of a website on the subject of war. She completed her Ph.D. degree in Animal Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1979, her subfields being ornithology and primatology. After completing a Smithsonian post-doctoral Fellowship in Washington, D.C., she taught briefly at UCLA and published on communication and conflict resolution. Currently, in addition to writing fiction, she writes, speaks, and networks to promote understanding of why and how we can end war.


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