The End of War is not inevitable

By Razib Khan | April 22, 2013 5:41 am

I read John Horgan’s The End of War a few month ago now, but I haven’t gotten around to saying much about it. Part of the problem is that I don’t know what to think. It’s a small book which manages to wander in many different directions, and the primary focus is Horgan’s mantra that war is not an inevitable fact of the human condition. Since I agree with that proposition much of the argumentation was lost on me.

And yet there is one aspect of the book which was notable: a disputation of the Richard Wrangham’s work in Demonic Males. I’m still quite a fan of Wrangham’s thesis, but over the years I’ve become much more skeptical of one of the primary methods he employs: extrapolation from another ape (in his case, chimpanzees). Similarly, I’m also skeptical of those who claim that we’re more more like bonobos (here’s looking at you Frans de Waal). No, we’re human beings, and our common ancestor with other apes may have been very different from all the descendant lineages. Our cousins are informative and interesting, but we shouldn’t confuse ourselves for our cousins.

Horgan’s book could have benefited from conceptual clarity. It is true that thinkers in the past have believed that slavery or gross poverty were simple facts of the human condition. Today slavery is banned de jure in every locality across the world, and has been predominantly extirpated de facto. Why? Inevitable forces of social and economic history I’d say, which give succor to ideological movements. I think a similar process occurred ~3,000 years ago, as practices like human sacrifice were abandoned across the civilized societies of Eurasia. Similarly, in particular material and historical conditions slavery is inevitable, and a fact of human life. Just as there is not a gene for slavery, or worshiping god-kings, or building pyramidal structures, these cultural features have emerged independently across human societies.

The most plausible explanation for these parallelisms is that the basic evolutionary psychological raw material of humans (which is relatively similar across societies) interacts with specific material conditions (which may also be relatively similar across societies). It turns out, for example, that a god-king is an excellent cultural institution for maintaining political coherency. And, it seems to co-opt and tap into deep human psychological preferences and biases. This does not mean that god-kings are inevitable features of human existence. Rather, they’re highly likely in very specific conditions.

And so it is with war. Horgan concedes that the relative universality of war over thousands of years suggests that its emergence was not coincidental or random. But it also seems that the prevalence of inter-state conflict is declining, and there are broader social and economic forces which scaffold this dynamic. The idea that organized warfare is not a biological imperative is a fine one to tackle, but  The End of War could have benefited from less exhortation and more concrete plan of action.

Addendum: I highly recommend Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization.

MORE ABOUT: The End of War
  • Robert Ford

    Granted, I haven’t read the book, but its seems like one of those theories where I think “You might be right but there’s no way to prove it and even if you are right I’m not certain you should get any points for guessing correctly.” Predictions about the future are kind of boring unless they add something new to the conversation.

  • razibkhan

    horgan wrote to book to rebut the charge that ‘war will always be with us.’ if you already share is skepticism (in a qualified sense i do) then it can be a bit tedious.

  • T. Greer

    I second The Azar Gat mention. He touches on this too – how changing economic and social forces of the industrial age have ensured that war makes less and less sense from the point of profit. (I have blogged about the differences in the dynamics of pre-modern and modern wealth creation here, for those interested.) If there is a better book on war I have not found it. (And not many better books on civilization either.)

    • ohwilleke

      FWIW, my own take is that war is rather more primal than cost-benefit calculations, and instead depends almost entirely upon the legitimacy of the regime engaged in the war, a theory that explains why lots of regimes that are horrible for their people are secure, and why people generally don’t go to war over issues like fiscal policy, while also explaining why seemingly hopeless insurgencies like the U.S. “Indian Wars” could last so long. It also explains the importance of how the leaders of losing sides of powers act post-conflict.

      • T. Greer

        Gat would agree with you, incidentally. I have not seen a more comprehensive or nuanced look at the subject. To that end, he also argues liberal values have fundamentally changed the psychology of those going to war, making it less likely. But I really cannot do justice to his arguments here. Gat’s book is 500+ pages, and he starts all the way back with inter-species violence and hunter gatherer feuds and builds from there. It is worth reading.

  • JonFrum

    Extrapolation from apes has always been a non-starter. As was extrapolation from contemporary ‘primitive’ tribes to our stone age ancestors. Projecting in either direction, within or between species, always inspires nothing but just-so stories.

    As to war, it can be eliminated – until the next one. The success of communism was ‘historically inevitable’ until is wasn’t. Recently, we had the ‘end of history,’ that lasted for one media cycle. No progress is inevitable, history does not end, and nothing found useful in the past cannot be revived in the future. The one thing we should know for sure is that the future will no be as we want or expect it to be A wise man would not bet against war A wiser man would not want to.

    • razibkhan

      make your comments more value add. i’m kind of getting tired of your assertions which i’ve seen in many other places (not by you, they’re just kind of generic).

  • RagnarDanneskjold

    We are probably on the verge of WWIII if this book is out now. This is signaling a top in peace.

  • razibkhan

    i don’t see the micro/behavior genetic research on violence to be very relevant to organized inter-group conflict. more precisely, a propensity toward inter-personal violence might actually diminish the social cohesion which is essential for inter-group conflict. IOW, the correlation between the two when evaluated across scales (individual vs. group) might be negative. i do wish john would leave his ideology axes on the sideline; everyone has them, and it would be better to put facts and theories out there and let people pick.

    from what i can see you are using this thread to put links up to your hobby-horses. i’d tolerate that on an open thread, but this isn’t that. don’t do that again or i’ll ban you. if you respond to this comment i will ban you too.

  • ohwilleke

    “The most plausible explanation for these parallelisms is that the basic evolutionary psychological raw material of humans (which is relatively similar across societies) interacts with specific material conditions (which may also be relatively similar across societies).”
    Somewhat more tersely, surprising many problems facing humanity have very few good solutions and those solutions are quite specific.
    The fact that humans universally look for optimizing solutions greatly narrows the solution space.
    One place this maxim really hit home for me was comparing construction techniques used in Mesa Verde (in the American Southwest) to those used in very early Neolithic Turkey. These civilizations are separated by something like 10,000 miles and were making comparable structures many thousands of years apart, yet very fine details of construction techniques virtually unknown to modern construction professionals outside traditional societies (such as tricks to fit large stone pieces into place with dowel holes) were identical between the two.

    Another way to conceptualize the situation is to recognize that technical and practical knowledge is far more structured than we give it credit for being. Far more ideas have prerequisites to being useful than we realize.

  • John Horgan

    Razib, I wish you liked my book more. War became more complex and paradoxical to me as I delved deeper into it, and the relevant literature is virtually infinite, so I struggled much more than in any previous book over what to focus on and exclude. But I finally arrived at a simple conclusion, similar to Margaret Mead’s, that war’s primary cause is war itself, and militaristic culture, which legitimizes and even exalts war. So I disagree with your analysis, which attributes war to psychological capacities plus specific environmental/materialist conditions, such as resource competition. This is also Gat’s view, which is why you like his book. The problem is, war can arise in any kind of society, under almost any conditions. Moreover, extremely warlike societies–from the Yanomamo to Sweden–can and do renounce war, for moral and rational reasons (which often overlap). That moral component is what is missing from your view of slavery, monarchies (god-kings) and war. We humans actually have the capacity to stop doing some stupid, wrong things because we realize they are wrong and stupid.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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