Humans and war; American manners
- By Smithsonian magazine
- Smithsonian magazine, May 2003, Subscribe
(Page 4 of 4)
Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage
Steven A. LeBlanc, with Katherine E. Register
Ours is a world immersed in war: Afghanistan, the Balkans, Kashmir, central Africa—and, of course, Iraq. The outbreak of so much global hostility may lead us to think this is the most violent era in human history. "For a variety of reasons," says Harvard archaeologist Steven A. LeBlanc, "almost everybody seems to be preoccupied with the idea that all was peaceful in the hundreds of millennia of the human past."
But consider the artifacts of the ancient Near East—the many surviving bas-reliefs and stelae incised with images of Assyrian warriors raiding and plundering and Egyptian pharaohs smiting their captives. The sweeping histories of Herodotus and Thucydides chronicle one brutal battle after another. Even among such "pacific" societies as Native Americans, the Aborigines of Australia, the Eskimos of the Arctic and the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, LeBlanc says, archaeological, anthropological and ecological evidence suggests that "warfare in the past was pervasive and deadly. Humans and war have always gone hand in hand."
And, he adds, modern states confront the age-old problems: "Who are our allies? What are our true long-term interests? And just how good is our assessment of our enemy’s ability to fight? Every type of society must regularly make these judgments, and they often get them wrong."
The primary cause of war, as LeBlanc sees it, is ecological imbalance; humans compete for finite amounts of food when population outstrips supply or when the land becomes overgrazed and deforested. Conflict flash points—the Middle East and the Balkans, for instance—have a "long history of ecological stress and degradation."
LeBlanc argues that ecological balance was rarely the norm, even in pockets of paradise. One might expect, for example, that the inhabitants of Tikopia, a remote island in the South Pacific, would make fine stewards of their natural environs. But even they repeated the historical theme: "A few people occupy the...land, they exterminate many species, they heavily modify the landscape, and their numbers grow. They never remain in anything approaching ecological balance."
And the impulse to conduct warfare goes all the way back to our primate precursors. "Our closest ape relatives," he says, have always engaged in ferocious acts of warfare, chillingly reminiscent of human conflict (as Jane Goodall observed among chimpanzees in the jungles of Tanzania in the 1960s).
As humans evolved, violence was the norm; the "fantasy," as LeBlanc characterizes it, of the noble savage, is a distinctly modern invention (first advanced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his followers in the 18th century). Skeletal remains of humans from sites all over the world reflect horrific violence. At burial locations of the ancient Aborigines of Australia—hunter-gatherers with no permanent settlements—we find "evidence of violent deaths and even massacres, and specialized weapons useful only for warfare."
The replacement of foraging by farming, a development that occurred sometime around 10,000 B.C. in what is now, ironically enough, Iraq, placed a great many stresses on the environment. As populations began to rise, natural resources were increasingly exploited. Thus warfare, in the age of emergent agriculture, "became more common and deadly than forager warfare."
Though LeBlanc’s arguments are inevitably grounded in pessimism, he does not believe that humans are genetically precluded from peaceful coexistence. "As long as resource scarcities continue in many parts of the world," he writes, "I expect conflict based on competition over resources to continue, even if it is sometimes disguised as ideological. This does not doom us to a future of war any more than our past dooms us to a future of heart attacks." But "if we do not strive to understand what we have done in the past and why," he says, "it will only make it harder to get it right in the future."
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I’m not sure that Judith Martin admires the take-him-down-a-peg strain in the American character as much as I do, but she sure understands it. For me this attitude was best exemplified by a waitress in a Nevada truck stop. I told her I wanted a cheeseburger. "Do you always get what you want?" she replied.
There is something refreshingly egalitarian about such salty churlishness, and what Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, does here is explain that American manners (and yes, there is such a phenomenon) stem from a belief in equality that began with the founders.
Star-Spangled Manners is not a collection of Martin’s columns, which are syndicated in 200-plus newspapers, but rather a well-argued essay that identifies and describes a specifically American etiquette. It may be inflated to about twice its necessary length, but it’s relieved by her humor, which leans more to the clever mot than the down-home har-de-har-har.
Her subject is the American character, particularly our abiding optimism. "Dewy-eyed third marriages," she writes, "and fortunes garnered after bankruptcy keep the general optimistic blaze rekindled." There is also our work ethic. "In the American story, virtue was expected to remain actively striving, thus quashing the chief attraction of belonging to the upper classes, elsewhere known as the leisure classes." We’re uneasy, she says, with too much leisure (though I know of a couple of exceptions). And we’re uneasy with servants. We don’t quite know what to make of them, beyond knowing that we don’t want to be one.
Martin is obviously having a good time. Here she is on weddings: "As bridal couples will often say, they expect this to be the happiest day of their lives. Alas, this could be only too true."
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