ON CONFLICT: Why People Fight

                                                                                                                                                                                    (Published September 26, 2014)











Chapter 1

Background On Conflict

In prehistoric times, mankind often had only two choices in

crisis situations: fight or flee. In modern times, humor

offers us a third alternative; fight, flee, — or laugh.

—Robert Orben

A saying quoted by many people, especially those

who are pessimistic about the human condition, is this:

“Humans are the only species that kills their own kind.”

While this is not correct, it is not too far from the mark.

Intraspecies violence is quite uncommon. Certain types

of ants, for example, are the only species, other than

humans, that engage in full all-out warfare against each

other. Other than that, intraspecies violence occurs

almost exclusively in mammals, primarily lions, dolphins,

chimpanzees, and humans. While other mammals

may display aggression and violence in order

to compete for food, territory, and mates, it is the

primates, primarily chimpanzees (who share

95% of their genes with humans) and humans, who are most

likely to kill each other. Humans appear to qualify as the

most violent of all the species. They have been responsible

for the extinction of thousands of other species,

and have been quite effective in exterminating other

humans — witness, for example, the deaths of some

16 million people in World War I, and some 60 million

people in World War II.

~ ~ ~

As recently as the 1960s, there existed a delightful

myth to the effect that humans, in pre-history and

early historical ages, were peaceable and non-violent.

That was a political position espoused primarily

by new-agers, but it was adopted by scientists who

wished to be politically correct, despite significant

archaeological evidence to the contrary. By the middle of the

1980s, however, it became quite clear that this prevailing

view was incorrect. Lawrence Keeley in his 1996

book, War Before Civilization, asserts that throughout

history, approximately 90–95% of known societies engaged

in at least occasional warfare, and many of them

fought constantly.

Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of

Our Nature, reminds us that it is the rate of violent

deaths, that is the percentage of the population killed,

rather than the absolute numbers, that is relevant in

making comparisons across the ages. His detailed study

of the data involved resulted in some very interesting


• In prehistoric hunter-gatherer and hunterhorticultural

societies, the rate of violent deaths

ranged from 0 to 60 percent with an average of

15 percent.

• In contemporary/recent hunter-gatherer societies,

the rate of violent deaths ranges from 4 to

30 percent with an average of 14 percent.

• In all prestate societies that engage in some

mixture of hunting, gathering, and horticulture,

the rate of violent deaths averages 24.5 percent.

• In the earliest state societies, the rate of violent

deaths averaged 5 percent.

• In state societies during the wars of the 17th

century, the rate of violent deaths was 2 percent.

• In the first half of the 20th century, the rate of

violent deaths from wars was 3 percent.

• In all of the 20th century, when the last four

decades are included, the rate of violent deaths

was less than 1 percent.

Despite the solid evidence proffered by these

numbers, the 20th century is commonly thought of as

being the most violent century in history. While it is true

that it had more violent deaths than earlier centuries, it

also had more people. In 1950, the population of the

world was 2.5 billion. This is about two and a half

times the population in 1800, four and a half times that

in 1600, seven times that in 1300, and fifteen times that

in 1 C.E. In looking at rates of violent deaths rather

than absolute numbers, then, the death count of a war

in 1600, for instance, would have to be multiplied by

4.5 to compare its destructiveness to wars in the middle

of the 20th century. Perception of rates of violence in

the 20th century is also magnified by historical myopia:

that is, the closer an era is to our vantage point in the

present, the more details we can make out, and the

more significant events appear to be.