In his book, “The Human Zoo,” author Desmond Morris explores the impact that urbanization has had on the human animal. Evolved to deal with a much less complex tribal setting, the ‘super-tribe’ places new pressures upon the human being, with which our evolutionary inheritance was not designed to deal. In particular I’d like to present some of Morris’ sociological insights regarding violence and war and how they play out and impact our lives in the modern urban condition.
We are part of the diversity of life on this planet and as such are the product of thousands of years of evolution. We know that the evolutionary process of natural selection hones out qualities that best suite the species for survival and the passing on of good genetic material that will favour that survival.
Given this, it is tempting to interpret, in harsh evolutionary terms, that if 2 human groups clash and one exterminates the other, the winner is biologically more successful than the loser. But if we view the human species as a whole this argument no longer applies. It is a small view. The bigger view is that if we had contrived to live competitively but peacefully alongside each other, the species as a whole would be that much more successful.
From the evolutionary point of view it seems grotesquely inefficient that after devoting nearly 2 decades of parenting energy to the few offspring we have, a longer period than any other animal, that we send them off to be knifed, shot, and bombed by the offspring of other human beings. Yet, in the period between 1820 to 1945, no less than 59 million human beings were killed in inter-group clashes of one sort or another.
Biologically speaking, human beings have the inborn task of defending three things: themselves, their family and their tribe. As a pair-forming, territorial, group-living primate we are driven to this, and driven hard. If we or our family or our tribe are threatened with violence, it will be all too natural for us to respond with counter-violence. It is our biological duty to attempt to repel the attack by any means at our disposal, just as it is for many other animal species. But under natural conditions the amount of actual physical violence that occurs is limited. It is usually little more than a threat of violence answered by a counter-threat or counter-violence.
But the last thousand years of human history have over-burdened our evolutionary inheritance. We now live in what Desmond Morris calls the ‘super tribe,’ and this has changed condition is not what our evolutionary inheritance was designed to deal with.
With the development of agriculture and domestication of livestock, we first settled into permanent dwellings. Now, rather than living a nomadic lifestyle, we had a definite object to defend – we became more strictly territorial. In the early days of societal development, however, there was so much land and so few people, that there was plenty of room for all. The weapons we used were crude and primitive, and the tribal leaders were themselves much more personally involved in the conflicts.
When we became urban, another vital step was taken towards more savage conflict. Here we could pool our resources so that each person no longer had to expend large amounts of energy in growing their own crops or hunting for food for personal survival. There could be a division of labour, and the specialization that developed meant that one category of the population could be spared for full-time defence of the tribe, and so the military was born.
With the growth of the urban super-tribes, civilizations flourished and could afford to expand. With this they frequently found themselves faced with weaker, more backward groups that could be invaded and assaulted with ease. The advantages of these exchanges brought about a pooling of knowledge and a spread of new ideas and better weapons.
As the super-tribes became bigger, the task of ruling the teeming populations became greater. Administration of the super-tribe became a full-time occupation, and the leader became removed from inter-tribal conflict. Also the tensions of overcrowding grew, and the frustrations that ensued led to more pent up aggression, looking for an outlet and threatening the peace and cohesion of the super-tribe.
For the modern leader, then, going to war had many advantages. The men he sends to their deaths are not personal acquaintances of his: they are specialists, and the rest of society can go about its daily life. the pent up aggression, built up due to the pressures of the super-tribal conditions, can have their outlet without directing it at the super-tribe itself. Having an outside enemy, or villain, can make a leader into a hero, unite his people and make them forget the internal squabbles.
While this is going on, the leaders of other powerful, advanced super-tribes will be watching anxiously to make sure that these expansions are not too successful. If they are, then their inter-group status will begin to slip. Their instincts for dominance will be threatened and with that the cohesiveness of their super-tribe. Historically, then, what appears to be ideological argumentation defending one culture and demonising another is a cloak for what is really at stake – the pride and status of the leaders.
The reason it is so easy for the leader to send their soldier, the tribe’s specialists, to their deaths is not simply because we are a potentially aggressive animal, but also because we are an intensely cooperative one. The talk of defending the super-tribe gets through to us because it becomes a question of helping our friends and defending our tribe. The ancient tribal loyalties are so strong that, when the final moment comes, we have no choice.
Human history shows that we continue to behave under the influence of these biologically inherited forces. But in the super-tribal situation, and given the technological advancement in weaponry, the checks and balances that would normally limit the level of violence done are over-ridden with apocalyptic consequences.
Desmond Morris’ thesis, in short, is that our biological equipment is not strong enough to cope with the un-biological environment we have created. What is more is that we are a resilient species that always seem to be bale to absorb the shocks, to make up for the waste, so that we are not even forced to learn from our brutal lessons.