The Faith Instinct

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Authors: Nicholas Wade
increased cognitive capacity was the invention of weapons such as wooden spears. Weapons are great equalizers, and would have had the effect of flattening out the male hierarchy of a still apelike society, Boehm suggests. Another leveler would have been the cognitive ability of the weak to form coalitions against tyrannical leaders.
    But as egalitarianism slowly evolved in the human lineage, it would have exposed a critical weakness in the social structure: with the power of the alpha males eclipsed, how was order to be kept? If no one were willing to defer to anyone else, who would determine the interests of the group? Who would take the personal risk of punishing deviant and antisocial behavior?
    The threat of freeloading and anarchy would have become increasingly serious as human cognitive abilities increased. Individuals would have figured out new and better ways to take advantage of the group’s protection without contributing anything in return. Nothing is more corrosive to a group’s cohesion than free riders. If they go unpunished, the advantage of social living quickly diminishes; others will contribute less, and the group will disintegrate or crumble under challenge from neighbors. Free riders would have gained new power with the advent of language, a perfect instrument with which to deceive, prevaricate and manipulate. Those who were not pulling their full weight had a new means of cloaking their selfishness.
    Just as the emerging human societies were being undermined by the freeloaders within, they had to confront a pressing external threat, that of warfare. Like the ability to freeload, warfare became more sophisticated and deadly as cognitive capacity increased. People may not like warfare, but the point needs no belaboring that they are very proficient at it. The skill is an ancient one that reaches far back in the primate lineage, a fact that has come to light from close study of chimpanzees. Though at first thought to be peaceful, chimpanzees in fact occupy territories that are patrolled and defended by bands of males. Through raids and ambushes, they try to pick off the males of a neighboring group one by one until they are able to annex the group’s territory and females.
    Early humans seem to have inherited the same instinct for territorial defense and warfare. As with chimpanzees, the aggressiveness of hunter gatherer societies was not at first recognized by anthropologists, partly because colonial administrations had suppressed warfare and partly because the style of primitive warfare differs greatly from that of modern societies. It was conducted not with campaigning armies but through ambushes and raids, in which aggressors would seek to kill a few of the enemy at minimum risk to themselves.
    Anthropologists at first dismissed these skirmishes as hardly serious, until they recorded causes of male death over many years. They then realized that if you go to war every week, even low casualty rates start to mount. In some tribes up to 30 percent of male deaths occurred in warfare.
    War seems to have been the natural state of hunter gatherer societies. “Peaceful pre-state societies were very rare; warfare between them was very frequent, and most adult men in such groups saw combat repeatedly in a lifetime,” writes the anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley in his survey of primitive warfare. 45 He estimates that a typical tribal society lost about 0.5 percent ofits population in combat each year, far more than the toll suffered by most modern states—war deaths in the twentieth century would have amounted to 2 billion people had the tribal death rate persisted. 46
    Pre-state societies fought often. About 75 percent went to war at least once every 2 years, until they were pacified, whereas the modern nation state goes to war about once a generation. Adding to the carnage, primitive peoples were not in the habit of taking prisoners, unless to torture them as the Iroquois did, or to fatten them for eating

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