semikolon27_thumbCultivating Conflict

By Kevin Crowley

In human relations the pinnacle of conflict is violence and war. But what is the source of this bloody human conflict? Is mankind’s contentious nature innate or is it the result of certain environments? Thomas Hobbes famously said that lawless man’s life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, and to this day such sentiments are widely accepted. On the other end of the spectrum, pre-state man is viewed by some as a ”noble savage” living in harmony with fellow man and nature while the agricultural revolution which occurred circa 10,000 B.C. deemed the fault-bearer of corruption, conflict, and suffering. In this explorative essay, we will examine these competing theories and evidences supporting both the possibility of Rousseauian prehistoric egalitarian societies and views that align with Hobbseian harshness of stateless man. As we delve into the nature of man, I will take you into the fray of the debate as we will glance at some notable historical views on the matter, look at modern studies and statistics, and review some anthropological evidence that points to some very interesting conclusions rooted in humanity’s prehistoric past.

Intro: The goodness or badness of man

A classic question in philosophy that continues to stir up debate, concerns the nature of mankind. There are two famous Confucian philosophers that epitomize the debate, Mencius and Xunzi, and they are known for their conflicting views concerning the inborn ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of humans. Mencius believed that human nature is innately good with a capacity for bad. Using an allegory of a child falling into a well, he claims it is not possible to not feel for the child even though there may be resistance to help (i.e. don’t want to injure oneself). He claims this innate tendency to empathize with the child, despite whether the person actually attempts to save the child, is enough proof that humans are naturally good. Bad behavior, he reasons, comes from bad environments which encourage our innate selfishness (The Mencius 1963).

Xunzi, on the other hand, claims the converse, with human nature intrinsically bad with the potential for good through right upbringing. Xunzi sees the nature of man as despondently selfish, and when hungry, seeking immediate satisfaction. All desire to do what one wants, he says, is checked by an authority system of which an individual belongs. Even among family where there is an extant hierarchical system, man’s natural selfish desires are suppressed, though still present. Xunzi


For a son to yield to his father or a younger brother to relieve his elder brother — acts such as these are all contrary to man’s nature and run counter to his proper forms enjoined by ritual principles

(Watson 2003: 163–164)


Thus in both theories environment plays a crucial role, yet have contrary effects, one as a corrupter and the other a savior. How can such diametrically opposing views be reconciled? While it is probable to assume that both Xunzi and Mencius are both right in the sense that human nature has the innate capacity for both good and evil, what is unclear is the extent that environment has on bringing out the best or worst in us. That is, what we will explore in this essay as we strive to understand the conspecifics of human conflict.


Revolution in Eden

Possibly the most famous and oldest written account of man’s relationship with nature and society is from the Book of Genesis in the story of the Garden of Eden. As I suspect most know already, Adam and Eve lived an easy life where all food was available for easy picking. After the sin of disobeying God and eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were cast from paradise and forced to work the land for their sustenance. This biblical account has been viewed by some scholars as a mythological story to explain mankind’s traverse from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies. Many scholars agree that around the year 10,000 B.C. a severe climate change forced the people of the Fertile Crescent, the believed location of the Garden and the setting of many biblical stories, to abruptly change their foraging lifestyle and adopt agriculture (Ryan, C. & Jethá, C. 2010). One particular scholar, Daniel Quinn, see themes throughout the Old Testament of this conflict between the new agricultural living and the old Neolithic hunter-gatherer societies. He illustrates explicitly how the Genesis story is an allegory of that rapid change in the Fertile Crescent. In his fictional novel and cult classic among Neo-tribalism supporters, Ishmael, Quinn explains that the Garden of Eden is story that represents the tension between people whom he calls Leavers (hunter-gatherers) and Takers (agriculturalists) and the tragic consequences of when the Leavers made the fatal mistake of becoming Takers. His reprimand of Taker society, told through the perspective of a lamenting gorilla, is harsh:


The story the Takers have been enacting here for the past ten thousand years is not only disastrous for mankind and for the world, it’s fundamentally unhealthy and unsatisfying. It’s a megalomaniac’s fantasy, and enacting it has given the Takers a culture riddled with greed, cruelty, mental illness, crime and drug addiction.

(Quinn 1992:147)


As Quinn sees it, the Book of Genesis represents this conflict between hunter-gatherer and agriculturalists on many levels. First “The Fall” which was already mentioned, secondly God giving dominion of every animal on earth to humans (Gen 1:26), and also the story of Cain and Abel who are also seen to mythologically represent a Taker (Cain) murdering a Leaver (Abel) (Gen 4). One of Quinn’s essential themes in the book is that the story of Genesis has given people (and perhaps especially Western civilization) a carte blanche on control over the environment and fellow human beings.

Whether you buy Quinn’s Biblical interpretation or not, does his Taker/Leaver idea have any credence? Did hunter-gatherers make a mistake of turning in their spear for the scythe?


Two competing theories

Of course a danger we must be aware of is idealizing the past. Neo-tribalism, or also sometimes romantic primitivism, is known wearing rosy-lense glasses when looking back at prehistoric humans and tribal people today. This can be seen in its caricaturized form in hit movies such as Dances with Wolves, Disney’s Pocahontas, or more recently, Avatar. Essentially, the narrative paints the picture of a noble savage who lives in harmony and accordance with nature. The antithesis to the noble savage is the greedy colonial culture in which it is in conflict with, usually because it is trying to take over its land and kill its people. Often in such stories, a person from the so-called ‘cultured society’ happens to befriend the people of the tribe and join them in fighting against the aggressors that they once belonged. While such a view of tribal cultures is comforting, easy, and perhaps aesthetically pleasing to have, we need to be careful we don’t overlook tribal communities’ bloody histories nor underestimate their proclivity to violence or aggressive behavior. So it behooves us to take an objective eye when looking at tribal cultures and artifacts that suggest how prehistoric people may have lived.

In fact, this debate on the effects of civilized society versus “noble savage” society on mankind is often positioned in two opposing philosophical camps. They are known as the Hobbesian and Rousseuian views, each deriving its name from their creators, Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, respectively. In theLeviathan, Hobbes supports a strong central government and developed a social contract theory reliant on the exchange of personal freedoms for protection of rights. Without the state, Hobbes claims, there is a “war of all against all” and where his famous “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” description of pre-state humans was expounded (Hobbes 1651: XIII.9, Ch.14). Rousseau, on the other hand, criticizes his view, unable to believe that man in the state of nature does not know goodness. He even slanders Hobbes, claiming he must be “naturally wicked” himself to have such notions (Rousseau 1754: 19). In his Discourse on Inequality (1754), Rousseau explains the mistake humans made from going from a state of nature to civil society and the repercussions that followed:


The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

(Rousseau 1754: 23)


This is the camp that romantic primitivists fall into and often use his name although Rousseau himself did not use the term “noble savage”. Instead he actually saw humans as innately neutral; in the same way animals are considered neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ even when there are violent outbursts due to protecting its own interests, rather such a value system can only be applied to humans bound by laws (Rousseau 1754:8).  Rousseau did, however, qualify stateless man in nature as being more ‘gentle’ than civil man (Rousseau 1754:26). But is this truly the case? What evidences are there that point to prehistoric humans being more conflict-free?


Prehistoric paradise or Neolithic nastiness?

Of course knowing anything about the prehistoric past involves a lot of conjecture. After all, it is impossible to know exactly how prehistoric man lived when there were no written accounts. However, some evidences are drawn from tribal cultures that exist today, which are seen by many scholars as fossilized remnants of prehistoric humans and are persuasive in many aspects.

The poster child for prehistoric paradise could perhaps be none other than the !Kung Bushmen.  This Southern African tribe is often described as exemplifying hunter-gathering societies as their women forage for nuts, roots, and berries and are in charge of child rearing, while the men’s role consists of tool making and hunting game. It might seem at first glance from a “civilized” perspective that their way of life is harsh or poor, however the Bushmen people actually seem to have a rather laid-back lifestyle. Both sexes in this society are able to nap and relax all day and enjoy the intimate social interactions that a small society (approx. 20 people) can afford.

In fact when a Bushman was asked about why he hadn’t adopted agriculture he famously replied, “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Lee, Richard B..1968: 33) And that question has become a sort of maxim for neo-tribalists in pointing out that the world has more than enough resources to sustain mankind, that is, if humans can curb its selfish inclinations. The !Kung people also represent an ideal tribal society in the sense of its peacefulness. The !Kung are not known for waging any kind of war, which one could suppose would be rather fruitless as it would be a wasteful expenditure of calories, tools, and human lives for little gain. In other words, what advantage would there be to take another tribe’s resources when they already have enough resources to fully sustain an existence they are entirely content with living?

However, are the !Kung the best representative of tribal societies? What of the more violent tribes we hear about? One of the most infamous tribes is the Yanomami. Actually consisting of hundreds of tribes that share a similar culture and linguistic history, these indigenous Amazonian people are described by Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon who, lived among the Yanomami for years, to be “living in a state of chronic warfare” and it is said that half of its male population die violent deaths. (Chagnon 1997). And of course this is just one of many examples of violent tribes that pervade the globe.

Some experts in prehistoric science like to use these violent modern tribes as an example of how people must have lived before the boon of agriculture was discovered. Steven Pinker may be the most well-known modern advocate for society’s pivotal role in mitigating violence. In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he provides a bevy of data and shows statistics illustrating an overall decrease in violence over the millennia. He argues that while certainly modern wars and murders have an overall higher casualty rate in absolute numbers, that the fairer analysis would be to compare deaths per capita. After all, since there is a much larger human population in modern times, we should proportionately calculate the percentages of violent death data when comparing modern rates to history’s war and murder statistics. He also gives possible reasons which may all contribute in some way as to why the trend in violence has declined. All of the reasons he names stem from the first he listed— Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. He claims the state’s security is what allowed citizens to have steadily achieved human progress in such domains as commercialism, technology, communication, feminization, and perhaps most importantly, empathy for fellow man (Pinker 2011).

It must be recognized that Pinker believes that all these domains in human progress are a direct or indirect result of civilizing society; none that would have come to pass were it not for the agricultural revolution some 12,000 years ago. So is Pinker right about civilization’s role in bringing man out of the primordial chaos that plagued our prehistoric ancestors?

Criticism to Pinker’s arguments claim he cherry-picked tribes that do not really match the criteria of hunter-gatherer societies. The violent tribes he chose, taken from Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization,including the Yanomami, are argued to not be true hunter-gatherer societies. These tribes are actually horticulturalists, relying on agriculturally produced food as their main staple food with only the added supplement of the occasional hunt. So rather than these groups of modern tribes representing prehistoric hunter-gatherers, they actually better represent paleo-agriculturalists. Keeley himself even recognizes the distinction between what he calls “sedentary hunter-gatherers” and “nomadic hunter-gatherers”, the former belonging to the violent tribes listed, and the latter thought to more accurately describe how prehistoric peoples probably lived (Keeley 1996). Further, some claim that the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon presence, while living among the Yamanomi and observing them for years, disrupted their normal lives and inadvertently caused strife and violence (Ryan, C. & Jethá, C. 2010). Also, while Pinker provided modern data of homicide rates and convincingly showed the downward trend, this is impossible to do with the same level of accuracy when looking back at historic murder or casualty rates in wars of the past, let alone prehistoric times. Thus Pinker instead relied most heavily on evidence from those violent modern and adulterated tribes to draw his conclusions.

Overall, the greatest and most glaringly obvious criticism to the “brute savage” theory is projecting modern tribal societies on to prehistoric societies. To imagine that tribal societies were the way they are today more than 10,000 years ago does seem like a ludicrous projection to make. After all, organisms are continuing to evolve both on the macro and micro scale and so prehistoric humans were no less evolving during that time, though perhaps at a slower (or more natural) rate before agriculture. Furthermore, conditions concerning space were a lot different. Until the agricultural revolution, humans had no need for utilizing; much less claiming large tracts of land, therefore a lack of space was never an issue. Even when a particular area provided more food than another area, they could always move to that location to forage or hunt there and likely met with little to no human interference. And with no agriculture, the populations of these prehistoric communities never had the capability to boom, thus overcrowding never occurred. On the other hand, tribes today have no luxury of moving wherever they please and are instead pushed into much smaller living quarters within the larger nation-states where they reside.

So then how can we avoid this false projection on the past? What other evidence is there? After all, the most and largest collection of fossils that are left behind are from civilized communities, as they have ruins and elaborate burial sites that provide the most discernible artifacts as opposed to wandering groups of nomads. However, some prehistoric bones are in fact discovered and can provide tantalizing evidence to their health. Through analysis of bone and teeth density and teeth called Harris lines, we are able to determine how healthy an individual was throughout his lifetime. What appears to be the case is that prehistoric human bones showed no signs of malnutrition (Diamond 1987). In one study of a more recent convergence from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society around the year 1150 A.D., 800 skeletons from the Dickson Mounds of Lower Illinois Valley were analyzed and found that those people who died before their transition into agriculture had less enamel defects that indicate malnutrition, four times less iron-deficiency, less bone lesions which are signs of general health and less bone degenerative conditions likely due to there being no hard physical labor (Diamond 1987). Although hunter-gatherers do go through periods of fasting and feasting we can conclude from this analysis that starvation was not an issue and that these foragers had no difficulty in accessing a wide variety of nutritious food and had healthier lives. Anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending claim that human evolution took a sharp turn when they adopted into and adapted to agrarian society.  It appears livestock was not the only thing to be domesticated. It could be argued that we also domesticated ourselves in turn.


In both humans and domesticated animals, we see a reduction in brain size, broader skulls, changes in hair color or coat color, and smaller teeth.

(Cochran and Harpending 2009: 112)


In their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, they claim that human evolution accelerated rapidly during the onset of adopting agricultural practices because it allowed humans to pass on mutated traits that would have otherwise not been fit to survive. One of these adaptations was to the new diet which emerged from agriculture. We can see today how groups such as Indigenous Australians and Native Americans have a harder time adjusting to modern Western diets, and other indigenous groups were known to be wiped out from Western disease due to lack of genetic resistance. So while the initial transition from hunter-gatherer society to agricultural society may have resulted in poorer health and overall more work, humans successfully adapted to this new condition, both biologically and socially.


From prehistoric egalitarianism to homo economicus

As discussed, romantic primitivists not only believe prehistoric people were healthier but also lived in a more harmonic society, in alignment with “Mother Nature” and human nature. Anthropologist Jared Diamond writes in an article titled The Worst Mistake In the History of The Human Race:


Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting lifestyle in human history…In contrast we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.

(Diamond 1987)


But this then begs the question, if prehistoric people were healthier and happier than early agrarian cultures then why did most of humanity get taken in by the agricultural revolution? Surely not all prehistoric hunter-gatherers were pushed by climatic change in their environments. And of course genocide or forced assimilation may account for some of the conversion but doubtfully all of it. Then the promise of agriculture must have had some benefit that outweighed the lifestyles associated with alleged prehistoric paradise.

Perhaps this transition which occurred could be attributed to a natural impulse in human beings, and in all living things in fact. In Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1976), he points to living organisms’ end goal, via their “selfish” gene, which is ultimately self-propagation. He also coins the term meme (no, not the internet kind, but related), which are similar to genes except rather than biological they are a “unit of culture” that self-replicates. At the time of the agricultural revolution, this selfish meme to protect one’s own interests and genes via the fruits of agrarian culture (i.e. excess food expanded number of children one could raise) enabled this too-good-to-be-true technology to spread rapidly. Although unknowing of the detriments that this new way of living would bring, early mankind fell victim to the temptation of abundant food and security for himself and his kin. Pandora’s box was opened. This innate selfishness, as Xunzi and Hobbes points to, does appear to formidably control our actions and was likely the driving force behind the revolution. As the agricultural revolution eliminated certain constraints that kept our selfish proclivities in check, homo economicus (or Economic Man), a person who works for himself rather than the community, was thus born.


Shame, size, and other factor’s role in constraining conflict

But greed is not the only force controlling our actions. Shame, for instance, is as equal of a force and has been witnessed to continue to constrain unbridled selfishness among agricultural and modern societies. This constraint is best observed among small groups. As Xunzi spoke about, among a close-knit family which is the smallest unit possible in human affairs, shame is there to make sure we at least strive to not unnecessarily cause conflict with one another. And it is well known that there is more crime in bigger cities than smaller villagers. Size of community then is pertinent in promoting a culture where shame plays an effective role. As Rousseau said:


I had had to choose my place of birth, I would have chosen a state in which everyone knew everyone else, so that neither the obscure tactics of vice nor the modesty of virtue could have escaped public scrutiny and judgment.

(Rousseau 1754:1)


Among modern nations today one could deduce that population size is a factor for peace.  According to the Global Peace Index, the top ten highest ranking peaceful countries are mostly small countries (all in Europe except New Zealand and Canada). One exception to this is Japan which as of 2013 ranks number 6 but has a very large population of around 129 million. Interestingly, Japan is a well-known shame culture, relying heavily on a group oriented social structure and hierarchy. This may make up for its crowdedness, which otherwise might pose a problem for its peacefulness as similar population-sized nations have to deal with. Beyond just being small or adopting a shame culture, there is also the issue of homogeneity, which appears to be the status quo of the countries at the top of the list. And of course, the richness of the country and whether they are militarily backed by a capable force (i.e. NATO) both are important factors worth analyzing when looking for circumstances that bring forth peaceful societies.

What is most fascinating is that if the conditions are right for peace, then the form of government that allows that peace will naturally follow. This notion is in juxtaposition with Hobbes’ idea of the government being the arbiter of peace. Rather, it is more likely that certain favorable conditions among a group of people are the usher of a peaceful government.

The error of The Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968), which proposes that unregulated land will always be overused to exhaustion due to the natural self-interest of people, is the underestimation of self-regulation of small communities. In large communities where one does not know their neighbor, it is surely likely that a person would not care to use common resources to the detriment of others. However, when you have to face that neighbor on a regular basis, it becomes much harder to cause conflict. It actually serves your selfish interest to not violate their interests.


Concluding remarks

From this investigation I believe it is likely that the agricultural revolution did change human  dynamics considerably by allowing the expansion of our population capacity and exceeding the limit of people one can maintain social relationships with (aka. the Dunbar limit). This thereby took away some social constraints for conflict, although not immediately and at various times throughout history and regions. In this sense, we not only cultivated new crops, technology, and arts, but also cultivated higher degrees of conflict. Perhaps, however, the supplementary new levels of violence and warfare were a necessary trade for the much lauded human progress we have made since the agricultural revolution.




Chagnon, Napoleon (1997): Yanomano: The Fierce People.5th ed. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, New York.

Cochran,G. and Harpending, H. (2009): The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. Basic Books.

Dawkins, Richard (1976): The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.

Diamond, Jared (1987): “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race”. Discover Magazine. pp. 64-66.        %20Worst%20Mistake%20in%20the%20History%20of%20the%20Human%20Race.PDF

Global Peace Index (2013). Vision of Humanity

Hardin, Garrett (1968): “The Tragedy of the Commons”. First Edition. Science.

Hobbes, Thomas (1651): Leviathan. Copyright © 2010–2015 All rights reserved. Jonathan Bennett.     

Keeley, Lawrence H. (1996): War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford University Press

Lee, Richard B (1968): “What Hunters Do for a Living, or, How to Make Out on Scarce Resources” Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine

Mencius (1963): The Mencius. Canadian University Paperbooks Ser.

Pinker, Steven (2011): The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Viking Books.

Quinn, Daniel. (1992): Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. New York: Bantam Books.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1754): Discourse on Inequality. Translated by G. D. H. Cole.

Ryan, C. and Jethá, C. (2010): Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, HarperCollins.

Watson, Burton (2003): Xunzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press.