There is a charming myth among idealists that before industrialization and its accoutrements, such as patriarchy and pollution, mankind lived an entirely peaceful existence. That is, there was no war.
Man was a “noble savage” before the military-industrial complex reared its warheads. The mealy philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while not originating the term, promulgated the belief that civilization corrupts. No cities, no swords.
Rousseau was a Christian and he had, had he not?, scriptural support for his view. But he never had history on his side. Nor do his modern contemporaries who claim that humans lived “in harmony” with nature, and were kind and tolerant of one another, and claimed no private property. To idealists, war is a modern invention purely the result of capitalism.
This view has always been nuts because there has never been evidence that mankind was ever peaceful. Idealists never tried refuting arguments against their position. The noble savage was simply true, and so obviously true that history need not be consulted. So history was ignored.
But not by Steven Le Blanc and Katherine Register who wrote Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, and Lawrence Keeley who wrote War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (the subtitle trend says a lot). These authors took on the tedious and depressing job of showing that, yes, mankind has a recalcitrant violent streak and rarely passes an opportunity to bonk a perceived enemy on the head for even the slightest provocation.
The empirical fact of human belligerence, besides destroying communistic idealism, is also seemingly at war with altruism and the science of evolution. Why would a soldier fight and risk losing his selfish genes? Why would another leap onto a grenade? We know Rousseau’s (Christian) answer, but the evolutionist is in a pickle. He wants to say “altruism”, but then he knows altruism is a “problem”.
This is because strict Darwinian interpretations of human behavior dictate that there should be no altruism: no adoptions, no charity, no doctors, no soldiers, no voluntary celibacy (priests, monks, nuns), no pro bono. David Stove, in Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution points out that humans are obviously altruistic and shows why the strict theory of evolution in the case of humans is flawed (NOTE: in no way does Stove argue evolution is false—he accepts, as I do, evolution—he only argues that the theory, like many theories in science, is so far incomplete).
The first theory to attempt to solve the “altruism problem” was Hamilton’s reciprocal altruism, a flawed—which is to say false—theory of the evolution of altruism. It is a mathematical model that mandates that if you have a choice between saving your own child or five first-cousins, you will choose the cousins because there is a larger share of your genes in those five people than in your son (I might have the math wrong: it could be seven second cousins; my summary, however, is correct; the theory says you’d also save a second cousin over a wife or an aged parent).
A somewhat more complicated extension of the reciprocity argument contends that war could never exist (note: not that it should not exist, but that it could not; think of all those enemy genes being destroyed, most of which are shared by you). There are other well known flaws, the most damning is that Hamilton’s theory does not say how altruism could have evolved in the first place (some argue that it can answer this). In any case, there is discontent with the theory.
Samuel Bowles, an evolutionary biologist, has a rival theory (story from the indispensable Arts & Letter Daily). As the human population grew, separate clans began to meet, occasions which were not always jolly and during which bloodshed occurred. Disputes arose over the most common things: access to food, water, and mates.
These battles forced people to coalesce in their groupings which naturally contained more shared genes than the folks on the other side of the river. One way to look at this puts human evolution in part on the social or group level and not entirely at the individual one because altruism is in part an instinctive behavior an not entirely culturally learned. Not everybody agrees with that idea, however.
But it’s not a ridiculous notion, either. For example, thinking along those lines makes explanations of the universal taboo against incest easier to explain (taboos that existed before genetics was known). What better way to propagate your selfish genes than by marrying your sister? The fact that we don’t, and the obvious existence of altruism and bizarre behavior like suicide, means the Darwinian picture is still a little blurred.