How warfare and altruism go hand in hand

Whether one is for war or against it, humans generally agree that warfare is a terrible thing.  Wars happen when people are unable to settle disputes using our higher faculties, the capacity to reason and compromise that differentiates us from animals.  War is, therefore, a degenerative act for humanity.  …right?

Nicholas Wade’s article in the New York Times this week explains that over the course of human history war may have been the strongest factor in promoting the evolution of human altruism, the trait on which human societies have been founded.  It’s the same problem proposed by Rousseau in The Social Contract: “The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.”  Humans are a strangely independent and dependent species.  Evolutionarily speaking altruism is nonsense: why should I sacrifice my own self interest to yours?  How would that help an individual survive?  And yet humans are constantly sacrificing their own interests for those of another–a spouse, a family unit, a community, or in the case of modern warfare, a vast nation of strangers.

The seemingly paradoxical evolutionary development of altruism is easily resolved if you consider natural selection as a group effort.  By banding together, people were more easily able to promote their own survival, and thus the instinct for group preservation developed in conjunction with self preservation.   As Wade notes, “Warfare may not usually be thought of as a form of cooperation, but organized hostilities between chiefdoms require that within each chiefdom people subordinate their individual self-interest to that of the group.”

Wade concludes with the conjecture proposed by A Cooperative Species authors Bowles and Gintes: that warfare “may have contributed to the spread of human altruism.” Communities that are successfully able to organize and raid others gain advantageous resources that increase their potential for survival.

The article is well worth a read.  And pick up a copy of A Cooperative Species–you may be surprised by what you learn about the human race!