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Pathfinders: Drinking from the Skulls

On the centenary of the War that didn’t end all wars it was always inevitable that patriotic pundits would be parading across the small screen to explain why the Great War was necessary and why carping critics who say otherwise are plain wrong.

Historian Ian Morris went one better recently by arguing that war has in fact been good for us. Why? Because ‘war made states, and states made peace’ (New Scientist, 23 April).

Setting aside current ungentlemanly excesses in Ukraine, Gaza, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and other hotspots, Morris describes a historic trend away from war which, by a twist of circular reasoning, he attributes to war itself. So upbeat is he on the theme that he claims ‘war may be so good at delivering peace and wealth in the long run that it finally seems to be putting itself out of business.’

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s based on the Steven Pinker argument about the historic decline in violence (see the Socialist Standard special issue, November 2013), with the difference that it takes the neo-Hobbesian ‘ignoble savage’ thesis that humans must be ruled by strong states and adds a kind of teleological Pangloss to it.  It’s a bit like saying that rape and wife-beating forced societies to make laws protecting women, therefore rape and wife-beating were ultimately good for women.

There is never a shortage of right-wing loonies who, regarding any anti-war statement as pinko propaganda, will argue that war is good because it drives technology, as if we would never have invented the plough, the fridge or the space satellite if it weren’t for an inbuilt urge to murder each other. Morris isn’t that kind of loon, so in his own words, ‘what sort of person goes around saying that thousands of years of mass murder have had positive consequences?’ His answer is, somebody who looks at the evidence. Our answer is, somebody who needs to look a bit harder at the evidence.

For a historian, Morris is surprisingly vague about dates. Consider the statement that ‘the Stone Age, we now know, was a rough place’. The source this statement links to is a study of 350 skulls in Britain, of which a surprising number had been bashed in. He goes on to describe how, ten thousand years ago, with few behavioural restraints, homicides were therefore a regular fact of life. But which Stone Age is he talking about? Ten thousand years ago was the end of the Paleolithic period of hunting and gathering (HG), followed by the development of farming in the Neolithic. The skulls, however, date from between 4,000 and 3,200BC, meaning that whatever skull-bashing was going on, it was certainly going on in the post-HG Neolithic period, a fact made very obvious even in the title of the original article (‘Muggings were rife in New Stone Age’, New Scientist, 11 May 2006).

Why talk about violence in the HG period using evidence from the much later farming period? In order, surely, to support the Pinker argument that HG violence was at epidemic rates. Indeed, he goes on to claim that ‘by many estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all the people who lived in Stone Age societies died at the hands of other humans’.

This ‘appalling toll’ simply doesn’t make sense. Imagine a group of 30 HG individuals of whom half are male, and follow the common assumption that violence was almost exclusively between males. 10 to 20 percent means a death rate of between 3 and 6 males out of 15, year on year. What group could withstand this rate of loss? In 5 years at most the supply of males would be exhausted. Assuming female mortality is included, the situation gets even worse, because of the loss of breeding potential. Had we really behaved like this in the Paleolithic, we would have died out like the Neanderthals and the lately-discovered Denisovans.

But Morris presses on with his conviction that the life of hunters and gatherers was nasty, brutish and short, and states that ‘Ten thousand years ago, there were only about 6 million people on Earth. On average they lived about 30 years and supported themselves by hunting and gathering, on the equivalent of less than $2 per day in today's terms’. Leaving aside the silliness of giving HGs a dollar allowance as if they were in the same squalid situation of poverty as today’s ‘bottom billion’, the life-span estimate involves the ploy of using a mean instead of a modal average, thus taking no account of high rates of child mortality. On other estimates, Paleolithic humans who made it to age 15 had an average modal lifespan of 72 years (

Why is it so important to blacken the name of the Paleolithic in this way? Because if the longest period of human existence on the planet was in truth relatively peaceful and lacking in organised violence or warfare, as Marx and Engels thought and many anthropologists still think, then the Panglossian theme of Morris and Pinker is utterly undone. If there was no war in the Paleolithic, as the evidence in fact suggests, then there has not been a steady decline in violence from the dawn of humanity. Instead what happened is that farming and the invention of property society unleashed a holocaust upon a species which had known a million years of peace. If today this same property society has developed to the point where, as Morris hopes, it might be able to contain the problem of war, then it is only solving a problem it created in the first place.

But can it even do that? What’s stopping the next world war is that, given nuclear arsenals, the costs for any aggressor currently outweigh the gains. But that assumes all leaders are rational, which clearly some are not, and it also assumes the gains won’t increase, which clearly they will as states become ever more desperate in their competition over resources.

Ever since the fall of Soviet ‘communism’ there has been a Western feel-good factor among populations who grew up under the shadow of the bomb. Morris has tapped into this feeling that ‘the worst is over’ and is attempting to find a positive spin on a dark past. But the assumption of a continuing trend towards total peace is the same probability fallacy as the boom-time argument that there will never be another slump. In reality, there are wars all over the place, all of the time, and there’s no saying when a black swan event might crop up to send the world into a new abyss.

Marx, looking at the same history, didn’t simply cross his fingers and hope for the best, nor did he try to put a positive spin on the indefensible and obscene. Instead he said this: ‘When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production … then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.’

Competition over property caused war in the Neolithic, and still does today. We are now in a historic position to abolish war by abolishing property and sharing the world. Meanwhile to give the state, built on mountains of skulls, the credit for abating the worst excesses of its own evil nature is like giving the psychopathic bully a peace prize for not beating us up more often.