Are war and violence natural

Are war and violence natural?

Animal behavior and how it relates to humans

Kathryn Stutzman


I. Introduction

Thesis: The implication that human warfare is a result of natural tendencies toward violence has a significant impact on pacifist philosophy, yet conflict transformation theory offers some solutions for the future of pacifism.

II. Past research and beliefs

A. Animals are gentle creatures

B. Animals only kill what they intend to eat

C. Sources of past beliefs

  1. Margaret Mead
  2. Konrad Lorenz

D. Some thoughts in recent years

III. Evidence for intra-specific violence and warfare

A. Animals showing signs of warfare

  1. Jane Goodall: Chimpanzees
  2. Cheetahs, lions, wolves, ants
  3. evolutionary advantages

B. Infanticide

  1. Langur monkeys and evolutionary advantages
  2. Other species

C. Humans and violence

IV. Natural violence and the peace position

A. Understanding violent roots-pseudospeciation

B. Balances

  1. Morals and broader society: Mennonites
  2. Compassion and violence from the same roots?

C. Conflict Transformation

D. Peaceful Primates

  1. Baboons
  2. Bonobos

E. Historic Peace

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography


Throughout history humans have fought wars, committed murders, and perpetuated violence. There have been few times of real peace. These wars have been fought over resources, religious beliefs, and land. With a look at history, anger, aggression, and violence seem to be something naturally human. Still, before the 1970's, some scientists maintained that organized conflict and intra-specific killing was something not intrinsic to human nature, or nature as a whole. Instead, human wars were the result of a coincidence of aggression and tool making (Lorenz 1966). Those individuals who maintain this viewpoint today are not taking into account some fairly recent animal behavioral research. There is support for arguments of an evolutionary advantage to these violent behaviors. The fact remains though, that intra-species violence and killing are natural phenomenon in many social animals including human's closest relative, the chimpanzee (Goodall 1999). The implication that human warfare is a result of natural tendencies toward violence has a significant impact on pacifist philosophy, yet conflict transformation theory offers some solutions for the future of pacifism.

Past research and beliefs

Before the 1970's, animals were commonly perceived as non-malevolent creatures. Predators killed prey but did so only to eat. The top males of a community fought for dominance but the loser was not killed, he merely lost hierarchical status and maintained a few injuries. Creatures involved in territorial struggles between species sometimes had the intentions of killing, such as the mongoose and the cobra, but there was no record of one animal killing its fellow species. This kind of violence, intentional intra-specific killing, was reserved for humans (Barash 2005).

The perception that only humans used violence in this way arose from two different sources, Margaret Mead and Konrad Lorenz. Mead (1901-1978), a well-known anthropologist, thought that war was an invention of human society (Wolfskill 2002). Lorenz was an animal behavior researcher who worked with aggression in animals in the 1950s and 60s. He was a Nobel Prize winner and produced an impressive amount of research on aggression. Although he encountered plenty of animal aggression, he never encountered malicious intra-specific killings and concluded that this only occurred in humans. He theorized that perhaps human murder and war were the coincidence of the right tools or weapons being created (something thought to be reserved for humans) and the aggression that we gained through our evolution. (Lorenz 1966, Barash 2005).

Even today people are under the impression that violence is not a natural phenomenon. In a 1998 Christian Living article by David Grossman, "Trained to kill," he wrote

Within the midbrain there is a powerful, God-given resistance to killing your own kind. Every species, with a few exceptions, has a hardwired resistance to killing its own kind in territorial and mating battles. When animals with antlers and horns fight one another, they head butt in a harmless fashion. But when they fight any other species they go to the side to gut and gore. Piranhas will turn their fangs on anything, but they fight one another with flicks of the tail. Rattlesnakes will bite anything, but they wrestle one another. Almost every species has this hardwired resistance to killing its own kind (qt. in Grossman 1998, 32).

Grossman uses this as one of his main arguments to show why humans are not natural killers. The article then details how the military uses certain brainwashing tactics in boot camp training to make people kill. He implies that humans are so innately nonviolent that, other than by accident, only by teaching these tactics, will we kill each other. Grossman defined the boot camp tactics as this instead of a way that would take into account animal behavioral research: devices the military uses to grossly intensify a violent nature humans already have. The article disregarded animal behavior research of humans nearest relatives, social creatures such as the great apes and monkeys. The work of animal behaviorists such as Jane Goodall, Sarah Hrdy, and Richard Wrangham has been illuminating on this issue (Barash 2005).

Evidence for intraspecific violence and warfare

Jane Goodall's research project was one of the first to record intra-specific killing. She began studying chimpanzees at Gombe National Park in the late 1960's. She made many significant discoveries about human's closest relative, the chimpanzee. Many of these discoveries decreased the gap between humans and animals. Goodall and her researchers observed chimpanzees making and using tools and fighting small wars. It had been thought that these behaviors were reserved for humans (Goodall 1999).

In Gombe, Goodall observed a specific social group of chimps that stayed within a certain territorial boundary, which she termed the Kasakela community. As demand for resources in the Kasakela community increased between the years of 1971 and 1973, she noticed a group of seven adult males, three females and their offspring, separate from the larger group and move into the south of the territory. By 1973, all contact between the two groups had been cut off. At this point the researchers began referring to the southern group as the Kahama community. During the next months, the two groups patrolled their new boarders regularly (Goodall 1999).

In 1974, hostility between the groups increased (Goodall 1999). The Kasakela males began by making "raids." These raid parties would often form with a group rousing of the males by the alpha male. When all hyped up, the group would set out to the border and deviously scout the area, sometimes penetrating the southern border. These raids were not to find food, that was reserved for a different time of day. It was clear that the object was to seek out the other community (Wrangham & Peterson 1996). The first attack came on a lone Kahama male feeding on his side of the border. A group of six Kasakela males attacked him beating him brutally for ten minutes with their fists, teeth, and feet. The male was left mortally wounded (Goodall 1999).

Over the next four years there were eyewitness accounts of similar attacks on four of the males and one of the females. Another of the males was found dead with obvious beating injuries and the remaining two males and females disappeared (Goodall 1999). The most grievous attack was on an elderly, harmless male who, to mark his age, had for many years ceased to involve himself in dominance competitions. He had been a well-incorporated member of the Kasakela community all his life until the recent Kahama break-off. This male was defenseless to his multiple attackers. During the 18-minute attack he never fought back, even after he had given up trying to protect his body from their blows, his Kasakela attackers continued to beat him. They left him in a pool of blood from is head with a gapping wound on his back (Wrangham & Peterson 1996). In the end, the Kahama group was annihilated. The only known survivors were three adolescent female offspring of the, now missing, Kahama adults. These young females were assimilated into the Kasakela community (Goodall 1999).

After Goodall's research hit the world of science, and it did so with much uproar (Goodall 1999), similar intra-specific killings were witnessed in other social animals and in other groups of chimpanzees and apes. Wolves for instance are now well known for being vicious to their own kind. Fellow wolves cause almost half of wolf mortality not caused by humans. Cheetahs, lions, and hyenas also show traits of extreme violence and killing of their own species. It seems that ants are the worst by far. Ants are renowned for their conquest and genocide of neighboring ant colonies (Barash 2005). D.P. Barash made a particularly thought provoking statement in his article about animal violence, "If ants had nuclear weapons they would probably end the world in a week" (qt. in Barash 2005, B19).

Intra-specific violence has evolutionary advantages. It guarantees territory and resources to the most dominant factions of the species' society (Goodall 1999). It can also serve as a kind of population control since it is most often brought on in times of decreased resources (Hayden 2004). The evolutionary advantages for intra-specific violence are not, however, as blatant as they are for another disturbing yet quite real form of violence, infanticide.

Sarah Hrdy traveled to India in the early 1970's to study the effects of overpopulation in Hanuman's langur monkeys with hopes of applying this to humans. In langur society, one male controls a group of several females and their offspring. All the males that do not have females form separate, all male, communities. Hrdy was disturbed by her observations of repeated cases of infanticide from these outside males. When the intruding male approached a community he first killed all the infant langurs. She speculated that he did this for two reasons: 1) the females would realize the incompetence of their male as a protector of their children and 2) it shortened the time period until the mother was ready to mate again. Thus, the male intruder had a distinct evolutionary advantage for passing along his genes (Zimmer 1996).

Since Hrdy's observations were revealed, there have been countless more observations of infanticide in the wild (Barash 2005). Male lions are some of the biggest culprits. The death rate of nursing cubs skyrockets upon the entrance of a new male into a pride. Often within six months all the cubs are dead (Zimmer 1996). Lions are by no means alone in there continual infanticide, they are joined by jacana birds, howler monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, lemurs, fish, bears, wasps, ground squirrels, and the list goes on (Barash 2005).

The list of creatures that commit infanticide continues and includes humans. There are societies such as the Ache of Paraguay, a communal hunter/gather society, in which killing orphans has become a cultural tradition. It is common for a child to be buried along with his or her deceased father. When the people were asked why they do this, they responded with "That's our custom". they don't have parents and we have to take care of them, and that makes us mad" (qt. in Zimmer 1996, 76). There is another even more alarming statistic for the American pre-school age child. If the child is a stepchild, they are sixty times more likely to be the victim of infanticide than if they are a biological child (Zimmer 1996).

For humans and animals alike, war and violence seem to be prompted by severe competition for resources (Hayden 2004). This sort of behavior has the potential to wreak havoc upon the society but also to produce beneficial results. According to Darwin the selective pressures caused by wars in ancient societies likely increased communication skills, enhanced cooperation, courage, and intelligence. Darwin proposed that war was the cause of the great gap between humans and animals. This hypothesis suggested that entire groups of mentally inferior, yet still competitive, hominids were eliminated during war and genocide leaving humans as the ultimate winners with no close competition (Goodall 1999).

Natural violence and the peace position

How do we, as humans, handle this apparent violent nature of ours? Do we write off violence as something inescapable, and decide that world peace is the ultimate unattainable, idealistic goal? As a pacifist how does one deal with this kind of evidence? There still might be some hope. This hope can be found in human history, theory, and in scientific evidence from other animal behavior studies. By understanding how we developed this way, why it was necessary, and our gains and losses from this as a species we may have the potential to create a world without war. One of the key points involved is our tendency to do something called pseudospeciation. Pseudospeciation occurs when we fail to recognize all of humanity as one species but instead think of a religious, national, or cultural group as solely our species. On a small scale, this can lead to stereotyping and lack of recognition for people not belonging to the "in group." On a broader scale it leads to prejudice, racism, slavery, and war. The chimpanzees of Gombe displayed behaviors not unlike this pseudospeciation in the war between the two segments of their community. It is likely that the same tendencies that humans have were gained through evolution. These tendencies make members of the "out group" seem like they are subspecies. When viewed as strangers and aliens, their life is no longer worthy because it has been separated and labeled as "non-human" to the "in group" (Goodall 1999).

Mennonites and other Anabaptists believe that violence and any kind of killing is wrong. This view comes from an interpretation of Christian biblical teachings (Confession of faith 1995). Perhaps morals and ethics such as those of Anabaptists developed in human society as a way to counteract any negative effects of our violent nature. It is often theorized that altruism and love developed and evolved out of the same sort of evolutionary drives that caused war, violence and hatred. Altruism developed as a way of supporting the "in group" during times of war. The same creatures that are intra-specifically violent are often just as loving and caring on different occasions. Chimpanzees have been known to take in orphans and develop long lasting, friendship type bonds with their own species. The two extremes, violence and compassion, do not seem to occur without the other, in any species (Goodall 1999). Perhaps love and hate evolved both as beneficial human traits but also to counteract each other. The human tendency to lead a moral and ethical life could be a control for the tendency to perpetuate violence. If we learn to show the loving and compassionate side there may never be a need for violence.

Conflict transformation studies are a fairly recent approach to dealing with interpersonal conflict. The key word in this is "transformation". Transformation gives the implications that it is something natural, something we cannot eliminate. Instead of trying to forget about it, or accept it as it is, we should learn ways to transform it for the greater good (Schrock-Shenk 1999). In the book Making peace with conflict, Carolyn Schrock-Shenk discusses how conflict is natural. She says, "Conflict is simply part of the territory of life. Rather than trying to eliminate it, we must somehow make peace with its presence" (qt in Schrock-Shenk 1999, 29). If violence is natural, maybe we need to approach it in a similar way. Instead of repressing it as a "cultural development" or a "coincidence," there is a need to realize that it is in our nature as living creatures. At the same time, there is something that can be done. Conflict transformation teachings offer many effective ways to start at the beginning of the struggle that leads to violence, and instead make peace with the situation (Schrock-Shenk 1999). It could be argued that there will always be competition for privilege in society therefore there will always be at war and committing violence (Hayden 2004). However, in conflict transformation the issues of power are confronted, teaching people how their natural tendencies lead to a desire to ostracize a group of people and how to overcome this (Schrock-Shenk 1999). It goes back to the issue of pseudospeciation. With knowledge of how we function we may be able to overcome our violent nature and include all peoples by finding ways to connect to each other. Also by understanding some of the biological factors causing war like resource competition, we can find ways to replace the need for war. (Hayden 2004). Bringing peace is a lofty goal, but not necessarily unattainable. Perhaps the faith-based connection of peace is one of the first steps towards showing the possibilities and benefits of peace to the rest of society.

There is scientific evidence to support peace as well. Observations in animal behavior research lead to the conclusion that peace is not impossible. Baboons are generally fairly violent primates known for intense fighting over food and other resources. Biologists Robert Sapolsky and Lisa Share made an interesting discovery in an olive baboon troop in Kenya. In 1982 the most aggressive males began feeding from a tourist dump and ate infected meat. They eventually all died leaving the less aggressive males in charge. The aggressive nature of the troop declined radically. By 1993 the troop had gained several immigrant males, some of which had obtained high-ranking positions. These males were genetically unrelated to the original (less aggressive) males that accepted power. Remarkably, the troop remained just as peaceful. Observed between 1993 and 1996 as they gained more immigrant males, the troop continued to remain peaceful. The males in this group spent less time fighting for power and were friendlier than other baboon troops in the nearby area (Bower 2004).

It appeared that the females in the troop played a distinctive role in this new behavior. The observations suggested that females guided the males to be more peaceful and cooperative. They noticed that the females in this particular troop were more accepting of outside males. They approached and groomed them in a quarter of the time it took in other communities. The females also spent more time grooming males than in other troops (Bower 2004).

There is another peaceful primate society that seems to be maintained by the females. Bonobos are closely related to chimpanzees and known for their nonviolent societies. They live in environments with an abundance of food and resources. Males do not fight each other for females since they do not know when they ovulate. Bonobos live in larger groups than other primates allowing more females to interact and socialize. In addition, there is markedly more intense female bonding in bonobo culture than in other primate cultures. Females join together to support each other in the case of a male attack. This female bond seems to have played a role in their peaceful lifestyle. (Wheeler 1997).

Similar potential for peace has been observed in humans throughout history. Democratic governments, which give more power to the people, fight fewer wars. In addition, when ecological and cultural causes for violence are taken away, notoriously violent peoples have quickly become peaceful. For example the Vikings began raiding as the result of an increase in population in the 9th century. When the stresses on the culture were removed, the violence ended. Today no one complains of Viking attacks (Hayden 2004). Gandhi was a pioneer in the push for non-violent resistance. His efforts were widely successful showing that peace can be accomplished with everyone's participation (Bilgrami 2002). These examples show that there have been and still are possibilities of peace for humanity.


In conclusion, based on our knowledge of evolution and animal behavior, war and violence are natural human behaviors. War has brought much destruction and pain upon humanity and the environment over time, but it has also brought valuable learning and evolutionary advancements. This does not mean that a hope for peace is out of the question. With knowledge of the development and causes of conflict, humans can effectively find ways to deal with it and transform conflict and violence into peace. Peace might be a difficult goal to attain, but possibly not out of the realm of reality.


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Bower, B. (2004). Get Mellow, Fellow: Male baboons cooperate after cultural prodding. Science News. 165(16): 243.

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Goodall, J. (1999). A Reason for Hope. New York: Warner Books.

Grossman, D. (1998). Trained to kill. Christianity Today. 42, 30-40.

Hayden, T. (2004). The roots of war. U.S. News & World Report. 136.

Lorenz, K. (1966). On Aggression. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

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Wrangham, R. & Peterson, D. (1996). Demonic males: Apes and the origins of human violence. Houghton Mifflin.

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Zimmer, C. (1996). First, kill the babies. Discover. 17, 72-78.