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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: The Daily Telegraph (London), Pg. 28, September 27, 2001, Thursday
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Tribal, xenophobic and bellicose: we're just born that way

By Terence Kealey

Within hours of the aeroplanes slamming into the towers of the World Trade Centre, the world had divided into two war camps, us and them. We were good, they were evil, and we had to take them out. Both sides use the same language.

Tribal militarism comes so naturally that psychologists can study it scientifically. In one experiment, the psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues from the University of Oklahoma collected 22 11-year-old local boys. The boys attended different schools, so they didn't know each other, but were of similar backgrounds. Sherif arbitrarily divided the boys into two groups of 11, and placed the groups far apart from each other, on separate camp sites in the Robbers Cave State Park. What, over the next few days, would the two groups do?

Since the two groups were effectively indistinguishable, would they not intermingle? Or would they distance themselves even further, to explore separately the near-endless wooded valleys of the park? Or would they name themselves the Rattlers and the Eagles, declare war and meet for the sole purpose of beating each other up? Yup, you guessed it.

So deeply rooted is war, biologically, that other species engage in it. Consider the Kasakela band of chimpanzees in Tanzania, chronicled by the naturalist Jane Goodall. The Kasakelas were a group of chimpanzees but, growing too large, the group split into a smaller Kasakela group and a new, Kahama, group. Initially, the two groups lived happily alongside each other and, when their members met in the rainforest, they would greet each other pleasantly. They were old friends.

But after about a year, once the new collective loyalties had firmed, the two groups grew mutually hostile, eventually falling into genocidal war.

Bands of males from one would descend on bands of the other, killing the males and abducting the females. Eventually, after appalling scenes of multiple mutilation and murder, the Kasakelas drove the Kahamas to extinction. Jane Goodall has concluded that, in their group living, territoriality, hunting, xenophobia and love of fighting, chimpanzees, like humans, are instinctive warriors.

And humans are indeed instinctive warriors. As Charles Darwin reported after five years of studying the peoples of the southern hemisphere: "The tribes inhabiting adjacent districts are almost always at war with each other."

What do tribes fight over? Scientists used to assume that they fought over material possessions such as territory or food, but evolutionary psychologists believe that, like the chimps that kill males but abduct females, predatory sex is an important motive.

The Yanomamo of the Amazonian rainforest fight their neighbours incessantly, and the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon has shown that 30 per cent of Yanomamo men are killed by other men and 44 per cent of them have killed another.

But a Yanomamo man who has killed an enemy is a sexual magnet: he has three times as many wives, and he fathers three times as many children, as a man who has not. For male genes, therefore, trading a 30 per cent risk of death against a 300 per cent increase in offspring simply provides no contest.

And when Napoleon Chagnon suggested to the Yanomamos that they fought over material possessions, they laughed him off. As one tribesman said: "We like meat, but we like women a whole lot more."

Regardless of motive, we humans are instinctively tribal, xenophobic and bellicose. "We" can always be roused to give "them" a good hiding.

Some cultures such as America's will, being diverse, actively embrace the melting pot at home. Militant Islam is, contrarily, aggressively homogeneous. But because both America and militant Islam invest so much in their domestic ideologies, they will equally demonise a foreign enemy.

The author is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham