Is war a uniquely human phenomenon? I think not. Chimpanzees also wage war.
In saying that, I differ from the great primatologist Frans de Waal, who holds not just that war is uniquely human, but also a product of the agricultural revolution. But de Waal thereby confuses the essence of war with its cultural manifestations. He’s not the first to see nature as more peaceful than civilisation either.
First, my definition of war: politically motivated group violence against other groups (of the same species, though I wouldn’t rule out inter-species war) .
‘Politics’ just means that it reflects some sort of collective arrangement and the the violence is in some respect instrumental – it serves someone’s purpose. War is collective in the sense that it’s coordinated and communal, involving multiple individuals; but not necessarily that it serves the interests of the whole community. What is its purpose? Material, certainly – territory, access to food, sex. In humans, it is also an expression of hierarchy; honour and esteem are involved – either of the group, or of its leaders. In chimps; perhaps, but perhaps not.
Primitive and primate war look a lot different from industrial war, or even agricultural war. Rather than pitched battle, both are marked by raid and ambush. The most effective tactics are surprise and overwhelming odds. The numbers involved are small, weapons are limited, and tactics are basic, reflecting smaller social groups and less role specialisation, but, as Lawrence Keeley and Steven Pinker argue, the violence involved in primitive human warfare is proportionately severe.
What about some evidence? Here’s a spectacular sequence from the BBC of a chimpanzee ambush, killing a colobus monkey for food.
Extraordinary. That’s hunting – what about war? Here’s another episode, I think I posted it before. This time, the chimps are attacking rival chimps.
Being (partly) purposive, war demands strategy to meet those goals. Strategy involves complex sequencing of tasks building towards a goal. In war, strategy is a collective activity – which may require communication. Are these chimps strategic? I say yes – even though theirs may be instinctive strategy rather than arrived at via a conscious sense of self and agency.
I wouldn’t bet against some degree of consciousness though. As de Waal handsomely demonstrates, chimps have evolved cooperation and empathy to enable them to manage larger social groups. The groups provide physical safety from predation and enhance the capacity to gain resources through coordinated action. To do so, the chimps have to be sophisticated in tracking social relations – remembering who owes what to whom, and who to trust. That may require a sense of self and other – and chimps at the very least are self aware – passing mirror self recognition tests.
Seen from the other side, perhaps we humans who pride ourselves on our rationalism and sense of agency are not as self-aware as we think. I see consciousness is the icing on the cognitive cake – enabling greater social complexity and reflection on how we fit within groups. But we know that much of our own decision making is shaped outside of our conscious minds. Introspection does not allow faithful access to the real reasons we do things. We are Strangers to Ourselves. In that sense, our conscious selves are rationalisers, not rationalists. So the chimps can have a sense of the future and the capacity to undertake complex steps towards it without us needing to suppose they are sentient in the way that we are. We don’t even need to suppose that we ourselves are sentient that way.
How much fighting of the sort captured by the BBC do chimps do against other groups of chimps? I don’t know – but I want to find out!