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The primitive origins of war

The primitive origins of war
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First Published: Wed, Nov 16 2011. 10 35 PM IST

Jayachandran/Mint
Jayachandran/Mint
Updated: Wed, Nov 16 2011. 10 35 PM IST
Despite all the achievements of mankind, as a species we present a paradox to future generations. One could question why humans—unarguably the “smartest” animal to inhabit the planet—would devote so many resources to destroying their own kind. Man is the only animal to have changed the environment to his needs, rather than just adapting to the constraints imposed by it. It is also the only animal to grasp the concept of delayed gratification: the concept of sacrificing now for greater benefit in the future. Then why do we consistently destroy our own environment, pollute the air we breathe or the water we drink? Why does the brain, which can envision projects yielding results after decades, commit actions that lead to disasters in a matter of months? Why is man the only animal that commits atrocities such as genocide on others of its own species or ecocide on his own environment?
The easy answer of course would be self-centred emotions such as greed, selfishness, etc., but these are behaviours at an individual level. And while individual or occasional acts of self-destruction can be put down to personality or circumstances, a series of such acts by an entire species suggest a hardwiring of destructive behaviour that can push us over the abyss, unless we understand and correct it.
Jayachandran/Mint
Conflict is as old as our species itself. Mankind, as we know it, evolved physiologically about four million years ago. However, our species’ cultural evolution happened less than 200,000 years ago. During this comparatively short period, man learnt his most important survival skill—the ability to work in groups. Ironically, anthropologists suggest the development of this core skill that differentiates mankind—our ability to plan and communicate—stemmed from “war”.
Early man foraged for food before evolving into farming and hunting. While farming was fraught with uncertainties such as weather, water supply and the delays between sowing and harvesting, hunting was immediate, and man was able to supplement his food with instant protein in the form of meat. But hunting posed its own challenges. Man quickly learnt that it was better to hunt groups of large animals so that more meat could be obtained from each hunt. Also large animals like the mammoth meant more fat, fur and bones. The first two were essential to survive the cold and the bones helped make tools.
But this action of a communal hunt gave mankind more than just food or clothing. When prehistoric men banded together to track, stalk and bring down a large animal, they needed to accomplish the sophisticated task of planning and organizing a hunt, which is warfare in primitive form. They needed to communicate a complex set of instructions with precision (later to be known as military precision) to individuals who may not even be a part of their band. These individuals would have to work in smaller sub-units under junior leaders. Elements of an organization, leadership under stress, terse unambiguous orders and situational shift in headship were all born out of the need to fight together to take on a larger “enemy”. Hunting became the seed for many powerful frameworks that distinguish our species—such as collaborative strategies, social structures, situational leadership, and communication.
As man evolved, the basic unit of a “family” enlarged to kinsmen, then clans, tribes and eventually nations. It was a matter of survival that the clans and tribes were “right-sized”. They had to be large enough to provide enough manpower for the communities’ needs and yet not have too many mouths to feed. So when the size of the tribe grew beyond what the lay of the land could sustain, clans would move or hive off on adaptation paths of their own.
Mankind’s secret to survival and becoming the most proliferate species on earth was not being the fittest. As anthropologist Jacob Bronwski points out, environment exacts a price from the fittest. It imprisons them within the confines of that environment. For mankind to proliferate, it had to adapt to the freezing cold of the Arctic and to the searing heat of the deserts. Also being an animal that had no integral weapons (such as claws and teeth to hunt) or bodily defence mechanisms (such as fur or armour), humans had to adapt and create survival strategies—the first of which was the act of war.
We often confuse fighting or conflict with war. Fighting is a much baser instinct hardwired in our primordial brain. A dangerous situation produces the same physiological reaction in us today as it did millions of years ago in our ancestors.
So whether faced with a tiger or a mugger—the adrenalin rush, suspension of digestive activities, twitching of muscles, nervous palpitation, etc., are all responses of the body getting ready to fight or flee. Conflict is a mental and physical state where two different instincts are chosen depending on the situation. These are instincts that drive a predator to hunt its quarry or help female mammals protect their young. War, on the other hand, is a planned and coordinated form of theft that originated about 10,000 years ago.
This is the first of a two-part series.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security
Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Nov 16 2011. 10 35 PM IST
More Topics: Cross Hair | Raghu Raman | Food | Farming | Human |