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Faulty Intelligence

Illustration by Michael Mardosa

Faulty Intelligence
UMaine anthropologist studies the disconnect between humans' innate aversion to killing and penchant for waging war

Paul Roscoe
Paul Roscoe

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If war is hell, as Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman so famously observed, then why is it that human beings continue to engage in such large-scale murderous pursuits that could threaten the very survival of the species in our thermonuclear age?

Some leading scientists who have studied warfare through the ages have long suggested that humans — the males of the species, at least — have little choice when it comes to slaughtering one another in great numbers. Such warlike behavior, the scholars contend, is hardwired into the human brain.

We are, in other words, born to kill our own, an evolutionary trait that sets us apart from nearly all other species on the planet.

Paul "Jim" Roscoe, a University of Maine professor of anthropology and cooperating professor of Quaternary and climate studies, subscribes instead to an equally long-held theory that suggests just the opposite: humans actually have an innate aversion to killing. However, Roscoe believes that this natural aversion can be disabled when warfare is thought to be advantageous to a clan, a tribe or a nation.

"It certainly raises big questions, though," Roscoe concedes of his theory. "If we do have an aversion to killing, how is it that we manage to kill pretty efficiently? And since we are a species that kills, how could that aversion to it have evolved and persisted through time?"

Roscoe thinks he may have found the answer to this seeming paradox in his exhaustive study of warfare among tribes in New Guinea, where he lived for a year and a half in the early 1980s and has revisited three times since.

"I argue that the uniquely developed intelligence of humans is the faculty that resolves those questions," says Roscoe, whose article on the subject will appear in an upcoming issue of American Anthropologist, considered the country's preeminent journal in the field.

Recent Darwinian explanations for why some species kill their own members, and why some don't, would lead us to expect that humans have an aversion to killing, Roscoe says. "I suspect we do," he continues. "But our highly developed intelligence actually finds effective ways to 'disconnect' that disposition from our actions, thereby allowing the innate aversion to persist.

"Given the great advances in warfare technology," he says, "it becomes less and less smart to do what we do. It's really a terrible dilemma that we're locked into."

Born in East Anglia, England, Roscoe began his professional life as a physicist, a field that he quickly decided "did not sit with me very well." He then spent three years trying to find a better fit, including part-time work as a stringer for the BBC, following in the footsteps of his father, a freelance journalist. When he later discovered anthropology, however, he knew immediately it was the career he'd been looking for.

"I felt that it could allow me to make a difference," says Roscoe, who got his master's degree in anthropology at Manchester University in England before heading to America to earn a doctorate at the University of Rochester in 1983. He arrived at UMaine a year later.

In New Guinea, Roscoe first studied the need for family planning and did ethnographic research among the Yangoru Boiken people living in the foothills of a northern coastal mountain range.

In 1993, he began to steep himself in the study of the root causes of war among the tribes of New Guinea, where myriad groups had been fighting one another until well into the 20th century.

Roscoe believed that if he were to realize his hope of making a difference to life on the planet, there was probably no better place to start than by exploring the reasons humans wage war on one another and are one of a small minority of species that kill to avenge the death of kin.

For answers, he has spent the last 14 years rummaging in archives around the world for information about New Guinea warfare, and scouring the early accounts of German, Dutch and Australian missionaries who once lived among the tribes of the South Pacific island.

Collating all that material, he admits with a grin, "was a little like herding cats on LSD."

Roscoe has concluded that the highly developed human neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for the creativity and intellectual thought that enables us to achieve great things, also allows us to envision when killing appears to be in our self-interest and then to overcome our genetic predisposition against such behavior.

"This ability," he writes in his most recent article, "is self-evident in the material technologies that allow humanity to overcome so many of its physical limitations — for example, projectile weapons and armory designed to circumvent the physical limitations of bare hands and bared teeth for killing and the mortal jeopardy of soft underbellies under fire."

The same weapons, he continues, also create the psychological distance necessary for modern combatants to kill without having to look one another in the eyes.

Our intelligence conveniently allows us to dehumanize our enemies and perceive them instead as a lesser, undesirable, threatening species that must be eradicated. In the Vietnam War, for example, enemy soldiers were not human beings but "gooks." In the Rwandan genocide, the Hutus called the Tutsis "cockroaches." In New Guinea, enemies viewed each other as wild pigs and war as merely a communal hunt for a porcine prey.

To the Soviets, Germany was a menacing tiger, Roscoe writes, while Allied propagandists portrayed that nation as a "deranged, drooling gorilla." The Nazis, on the other hand, sought to dehumanize their enemies and the Jews by reducing them to "bacilli" or disease-carrying vermin.

"During military training in nation states and initiation in New Guinea," Roscoe writes, "young men are secluded from society, stripped of personal identifiers, subjected to verbal abuse and physical ordeals that inflict anxiety, fear, pain, exhaustion, hunger and dehydration, and then indoctrinated into the meaning and value of masculinity and warriorhood."

All of which sounds a lot like what happens at modern military boot camps, of course, and for good reason. If humans truly are born with an innate aversion to killing, as Roscoe suggests, disconnecting it is as critical to the making of a fearless young Marine today as it was for the creation of a New Guinea warrior a century ago.

"The New Guinea village is the modern nation state writ small," he says. "Or conversely, the modern nation state is the New Guinea village writ large."

For many anthropologists, Roscoe says, the most vexing question has been how humans, by their penchant for waging war and killing for revenge, strayed so far off the evolutionary track.

"Most of the other species have a much more logical way of going about it," he says. "They fight, but not in a very dangerous way."

Among other animal species, the outcomes of battle are usually decided not by lethal combat but by ritualistic, threatening displays.

Red deer stags, to use a classic example, begin their territorial confrontations in the wild by roaring at one another as a signal of strength. Such bellowing bluster will often decide the matter, Roscoe says, as one of the stags realizes it is clearly overmatched and decides to throw in the towel. But if neither submits, the pair will engage in "parallel walking," a side-by-side pacing display used to intimidate and size one another up.

If that still doesn't do the trick, and neither stag backs off from the showdown, the animals engage in fierce head butting that rarely results in death.

"These ‘dumb' animals have actually worked out a sensible way to go about it," Roscoe says, "and one that works to their mutual advantage. They've devised a reliable way of figuring out who would win a fight to the death without either of them having to fight one. The question that anthropologists have wrestled with is why humans don't do the same."

About four years ago at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver, Colo., the media took notice when Roscoe first floated the theory that a highly developed intelligence was the root of warfare and vengeful killing.

"I had briefly mentioned that we war because we're an intelligent species, and that got quite a bit of attention," he recalls. "It was kind of counterintuitive. We always speak of the great benefits of intelligence, and now I was saying hold the phone, maybe intelligence could be our downfall, given our thermonuclear technology. And the revenge stuff caught their attention for all the wrong reasons. Journalists were trying to get me to say George Bush attacked Iraq out of revenge."

Roscoe expects his article in American Anthropologist to generate similar interest, largely because his theory runs counter to the argument by a leading anthropologist at Harvard, Richard Wrangham, that human males are genetically predisposed to kill.

Roscoe admits that his opposing argument is speculative, and extremely difficult to test in real-world situations. But if it were to be proved sound one day, he says, it could offer valuable insight about the nature of human warfare and why we insist on putting our own species in peril.

"The more humans understand that they have this capacity," he says, "the more cautious they might be about marching to war. The sheer recognition that these are the kinds of creatures we are, and these are the techniques we use to get ourselves to kill, might help us to learn to behave differently."

Roscoe says it would be naïve to think that war could ever be eradicated entirely, since there will always be Hitlers around to contend with.

"I suppose the most important thing is to try to limit the damage that we do to ourselves," he says.

by Tom Weber
September-October, 2007

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