Is war in our Genes?

Please read this article.

This weekend, the New York Times released an article (link above) posing the argument that  war is encoded within our biological make-up. Mankind has plagued itself with war since the beginning of functioning societies and will continue to in the future. Violence within humans can be thought of as somewhat instinctive, just like many other animals. Natural selection has separated the weak from the fit, affecting evolution in all species. Natural selection is considered “survival of the fittest”, and what better way to find the strongest of a group without violence. 

In the 1960’s and 70’s, an anthropologist named Napolean Chagnon studied the Yanomamo people of South America. Chagnon believed that these people were in a constant state of war, causing extreme aggression. Though Chagnon did record sufficient data, we still can not make an assumption as to whether or not humans have a genetic coding for warfare. Chagnon’s sample size was too small, not taking into account cultural differences with the Yanomamo.

If humans look to their closest animal relatives, we can learn that violent tendencies hit both extremes. Chimpanzees are known to having a type of warfare, where as bonobos who are just as closely related to humans as chimps are have a high tendency for love making instead.

No scientific conclusions can be made about warfare being encoded in human genes. Violence has definitely evolved with our specie, but many other factors come into play when tendencies for war are being discussed. Cultural factors make warfare much more prevalent in some societies than others. Humans are all born with violence written somewhere in their genetic makeup, as shown with the classic fight or flight response. The extent to which humans take their violence sometimes does lead to war, but not all humans are the same in the way the would handle situations.

Recently, war has been a huge topic in current events. Violent outbursts like shooting sprees in large cities and genocide in Africa have shown the savage capabilities that we as humans have. Science will continue to try to understand why tragic events happen. But to some extent, not all things can be explained with science, and warfare is one of those things.

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16 Responses to Is war in our Genes?

  1. freddie1994 says:

    I agree with benjaminc2013 that science, and human genes, cannot explain why humans go to war. War and violence are essentially personal decisions, and while it is possible that there may be genes that give humans a short or long temper, everyone still has the ability to choose to not be violent in a given situation. Saying that war is encoded into us seems to me to be an excuse as to why there is horrible violence in the world. It might be hard but it is certainly not impossible for all humans to choose to not react to something violently.
    In relation to violence acting as an evolutionary factor for humans, there’s no reason that I can think of that this wouldn’t be true, but just because our human ancestors evolved with the aid of violence, it doesn’t mean that we have to. It’s interesting to think if modern humans would have been completely different if peace, or bonobo style lovemaking, had been a bigger evolutionary factor than violence. That being said, violence occurred, humans evolved to what they are today, but that doesn’t mean that we are genetically geared towards war.

    • shoutoutjfk says:

      I totally agree with your idea that we, as humans, are capable of determining our own behavior. However, benjaminc2013’s claim that science can never understand human tendency towards war is entirely unwarranted. The nature of science is that observations are made to lead to the drawing of conclusions. Observations are endless as long as humanity exists. Of course, this means that new observations can always be made and refute a claim. However, that is the beautiful nature of science. Regardless of what claims we make, we can never say anything with a one hundred percent degree of probability except for the fact that this is the case. Some may argue then that science is futile. Though, the mere fact that we are able to grow our knowledge and expand and change is really what gives meaning to life. It is true that war riddled our past. But as civilizations, we learned from our mistakes, and are currently in a society primarily opposed to murder and the likes. Though mistakes still happen, it is among individuals. If natural selection may be extrapolated to apply to any other aspect of life, it is that we grow as populations, not individuals.

  2. roberly2 says:

    There is an interesting article published in The Economist in July of this year (the link to which is above) which makes a paralleling argument about humans and, with even more evidence to supports that, well, there is not evidence confirming humans are predisposed to war specifically.

    While I agree with the basics of what Benjaminc2013 and Freddie1994 said, I think I distinction must be made between war and violence. Humans may very well be predisposed to violence without having to be predisposed to war. The author of the above article suggest that tribes which have remained largely unaffected by large scale technological or cultural changes “are far from peaceful,” but also “far from warlike.” He says “most who die violent deaths in their societies do so at the hands of fellow tribesmen, not foreigners; murderer, this research suggests, humans may often be. But they are not the died-in-the-wool warriors of anthropological legend.” What the author is saying here is that, while we could be genetically predisposed to be violent, it may have nothing at all to do with war. We can be violent without having the urge to specifically engage in conflict with other groups or “foreigners.”

    Additionally, the Economist article suggests that chimps, which have been used to try and prove humans- as their genetic cousins- are warlike in nature, in fact only engage in violent warlike practices when they have experienced close quarters with another group due to deforestation.

    I believe this is also true in humans; we do not (and did not as hunter- gatherers) go looking for violence but instead engaged in warlike practices when specifically threatened by a lack of resources or a need to compete for limited resources.

    Ultimately, I believe there are just too many complications to say with certainty humans are predisposed to war.

    That isn’t to say, though, that we aren’t capable.

    • drc1995 says:

      I think of everyone in this post, I would have to agree with roberly2’s comment most of all. Reading through the Economist article you posted, I remembered a article posted by Wired that matched almost point for point the article from the Economist.

      (See link:

      Like the Economist article, this Wired article brings up the point that, according to researchers, the only violence that was really present in our pasts, “results from flared tempers and personal feuds rather than group conflicts.” It is not until recently in human history, when humans began to settle into “hierarchical” societies, that group violence is seemingly profound among human cultures.

      When we look at human culture now, we can’t just directly compare it blindly to what human society might have been like tens of thousands of years ago. Coinciding with that, I don’t think you can really compare the societies of chimps to humans, just as bonobos can’t be compared to neither humans nor chimpanzees. Numerous researchers featured in the Wired article suggested that there is a scarcity of evidence of wartime before 10000 years ago, and that suggest humans were more peaceful in foraging societies.

      So with all of this counter-evidence, I would have to say that humans don’t exactly have war entwined in our genes as suggested by the original post. I think it all comes down to our society as humans and how it has evolved over time, especially as we entered more hierarchical societies as suggested in the Wired article. It seems obvious to me, but it is even noted in the article that most peaceful societies lived in large areas that weren’t that highly densely populated. So maybe one questions we have to think about is, will humans continue on a trend of war as the planet becomes more densely populated, or will we have the chance to become peaceful once more?

      With a future society where our population gets even larger and resources more scarce, the answer might seem obvious. In contrast though, I think we need to consider the ever increasing sustainability of humans and the improvement of technology that might save our species from war. I don’t know which one it will be, but we should think about it.

  3. sm1414 says:

    I would agree with the article, benjaminc2013 and freddie1994 in that humans are not genetically predisposed to war, but I would disagree on whether humans are predisposed to the causes of war. War is not an inherited trait, but I think that the violent side of human beings is a natural aspect of our character. After all, humans are in fact predators that hunt and kill other animals in order to survive. In this sense, our aggressive nature could have evolved since those who were more aggressive would be favored and would receive a larger amount of food than those who were more docile. We must also remember that at our core, we as humans are in essence animals. We have basic needs in order to survive and when those needs are threatened, we react in ways that usually include violence. In this way, we are predisposed to violence because violence is one of the most effect ways to ensure that our means of survival are secure.
    However, many wars are fought, as previous posters said, because of cultural differences or for religious reasons. Neither of these two things are genetically inherited nor are many of the causes of war. In this sense, I think it is likely that the means for warfare (aggressive behavior and higher-level thinking), evolved in humans, but the act of war its self is something that we as rational animals choose to engage in because of differences in the ideas that we as communities consider valid.

  4. phishmonkees says:

    If nothing else this week’s blog is extremely thought provoking. Violence is culturally looked down upon especially in the United States. For example, if an individual attacks another person, he is charged with assault, and if someone murders someone else he is sentenced to life in prison. However, war is not looked down upon in the cases of WWII or the U.S.’s involvement in Afghanistan following 9-11 when the war is “justified.” Regardless, the question proposed by benjaminc2013 is whether “war is in our genes;” this question does not only pose a scientific inquiry but also conjures up a moral dilemma. Scientifically the answer to this question is not decipherable as there is no “war” gene that has been extracted from a human’s DNA. Regardless if we take the historical approach, I believe that there are certain assumptions regarding the “war” gene that are justifiable. The first conclusion is that evolutionary law states that species will compete for resources. Throughout history, different countries, tribes, and ethnic groups have gone to war over the control of resources. It is unquestionable that victory in war and control over resources gives a society a greater chance of survival. Ethically the question of whether war is inherent is a conundrum. It seems hopeless to believe that humans are predisposed to war. Nonetheless a major competing theory as to why Neanderthals became extinct is competition with Homo sapiens; therefore one could conclude that war is as old as modern man. ( The article above discusses possible reasons as to why Homo sapiens were victorious in the battle with Neanderthals. In my opinion war will persist as long as Homo sapiens walk the earth.

  5. lnzgirl says:

    I agree with sm1414 that humans have ancestral traits that lead them to be more aggressive. Evolution has favored animals, males in particular, who are not only good competitors, but also aggressive enough to hold down territories. These traits, which are biologically brought about by testosterone levels in the body, have allowed males to attract mates, the key in evolutionary “fitness.” While humans are predisposed for aggression and competition, humans are unique in their war-making over cultural practices. Countries fought against each other over the issue of communism. Countries become involved in other countries over human rights issues. I think that humans have taken the concept of warfare amongst animals, whose main concerns are territory, mates, and resources and have made it about controlling the way other countries run internal affairs. I think that when this transition occurred, warfare became a social construct as opposed to a biological predisposition.

  6. nicolina1215 says:

    I agree with sm1414 that “humans are in fact predators that hunt and kill other animals in order to survive.” It’s true that there may not be enough evidence to prove that humans are genetically prone to war, but there are certainly attitudes and characteristics of humans that allow us to be exposed to similar feelings as those that influence wars. The desire to acquire and conquer, whether it’s land, food, people, power, or governments, is a characteristic that has motivated humans for as long as we have lived. I completely agree with Barash that, “The problem with envisioning Homo sapiens as inherently and irrevocably warlike isn’t simply that it is wrong, but also that it threatens to constrain our sense of whether peacemaking is possible and, accordingly, worth trying.” That being said, publicizing the fact that humans have inherent warlike tendencies (i.e. aggression, jealousy, and self-interest) is not going to suddenly result in a breakout of violence, nor is it false. Violence is promoted and discussed every day by the media, yet the national crime rate has continually dropped over the past four decades. The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice reported, “crime rates in 2010 were 1/3 of the rates in 1994.” (

    While scientists may not have been making a direct connection between declared wars and everyday warlike activity, the mentality of positive change in humans is not being destroyed by the idea that humans are inherently violent. As many of the previous comments stated, war itself is not inherent to human behavior, but caused by differences between communities or nations. Personally, I believe that having more discussions about how humans can be inherently violent might be beneficial. Instead of sweeping it under the rug or celebrating it through the media and TV, partnering the acknowledgement of our aggressive behaviors with suggestions for how to contain and better understand the feelings that cause it could be life-altering for many. Part of the reason humans are so quick to combat or begin wars is because there isn’t enough “conflict avoidance and reconciliation” being taught to children at a time when they are beginning to understand how to foster their aggression and turn it into a conversation or communication instead. Perhaps there is a way to reconcile the idea that we have violent tendencies with the positive outlook that “peacemaking is possible.”

  7. theotherhemingway says:

    Building on nicolina1215’s point, I think we all need to acknowledge when looking at the original article that war is an institution and is built upon other institutions. Warfare in itself is an organized act that requires individuals assemble and form leadership roles. There is governance and oversight and regulation; independent of the form of government. Even violence itself is a social concept and not necessarily an individual one. We regard motives as being social constructs; like needing food to live justifying stealing or ethnic hatred justifying murder. All in all, we must realize that war requires organization in some manner.

    However, there could be another argument, continuing off of that of the article. Maybe organization is in our genes, or more relevant to previous discussions, is an evolutionary advantage and war is a manifestation of that advantage (not guaranteeing that war is good or bad of course). To the first end, I would argue that organization is definitely an evolutionary construct, and our civilization is only the latest installment. Before us, earlier hominids gathered in tribes, fish (still) gather in schools (of fish), and wolves formed packs. Organization with hierarchy is not a strictly human concept, but because it is seen within many other branches of the tree of life, we should assume it traces back to a common ancestor and furthermore provides some evolutionary advantage (hence why our species and those that organized before it are still here).

    On the second point, I would argue that war, a natural progression from earlier forms of violence between individuals for personal and not social reasons, is a manifestation of our capability to organize. While no gene or set of genes programs war into our being, our ability to organize inevitably leads to conflict between organized groups and rather than using this basic tool of violence between individuals, organizations (be it tribes, empires or nations) now have a new tool at their disposal: warfare. In a sense, as evolution progressed, violence progressed. Evolution in animals on the planet led to organization, and simultaneously, concepts like warfare came to be organizations’ most effective tool for many situations such as territorial disputes, ideological concerns or questions of a leader’s legitimacy.

  8. running95 says:

    I think that this article offers a very interesting point. While I have given thought to the idea of an inherent predisposition to favor war as opposed to peace, I believe that humans have the choice whether to war or have peace. However, I at the same time, I also believe that we are a product of our environment. Therefore, it is no surprise that many societies who have glorified the image of warriors and soldiers tend to have regular conflicts. This is only proof that as humans we follow our parents who followed their parents who followed their parents. Basically, people living in states that embrace war are more likely to be involved in war themselves.

    Furthermore, when looking at the most developed and industrialized societies, all of them openly embrace war. The societies that do not embrace war are small, underdeveloped societies. And while a society does not necessarily need to be developed to be happy, a willingness to go to war is necessary to be a developed country. And that is extremely telling of whether or not war is “in our blood.”

    • Sl1017 says:

      I completely agree with you, running95 when you say that we have a “predisposition to favor war instead of peace” but while we might have the choice to choose it is simply unrealistic to avoid war. Like the article suggests, war and violence is in our nature. If we were expert negotiators (like we discussed in a previous blog post) war and violence wouldn’t be needed. It’s impossible in this era to have a fully functioning country without arguments or war, whether on the battle field or in court in a civilized way.
      The strongest nations embracing war is the best evidence for its effectiveness.

  9. greenDC says:

    I think running95 stated the point most accurately when he suggested that people, or humans more specifically, that live in states that embrace war are more likely to be involved in war themselves. I believe it is this culture that predisposes the human race to violence of the scale the article is discussing. If genetics were primarily responsible, it would be reflected more in early humans, through the process of natural selection, demonstrating violence as a means of survival and reproduction. Political disputes causing violent conflict escalade to a level of complexity that is too grand and learned from experience to be biologically relevant.

  10. findwhatwind says:

    I think roberly2 brings up a very interesting point in pointing out that hunter-gatherers, although predisposed to violence, do not go looking for violence but rather use violence as a defense when being attacked. I think this point supports theotherhemingway’s assertion that war is an institution and not a predisposition, as the evolutionary background the original article is basing its argument off of illustrates not a predisposition to the institution of war, but rather merely to war-like behavior, in other words, violence. Because of this, I would personally argue that war is no more a genetic inheritance than democracy is a genetic evolution of the leadership seen in groups of chimpanzees and other human ancestors, but rather an example of cultural evolution, which has very little, if anything, to do with genetics.

    That being said I am very much curious in the fact that, understanding evolution as the survival of individuals to reproduce and keep their offspring alive, wouldn’t races or even individuals who do not participate in warfare be more evolutionarily fit? If warfare in its very nature guarantees death, assuming what the article suggests as a possibility that war-like behavior is a genetic trait, it would seem that the species that should have survived would have been the peaceful ones. Because of this, even though this article makes a very sound appeal to pathos, talking about how humans have a choice and should not prolong wars because of this belief in war as a genetic inheritance, I believe this appeal to logos, suggesting that even if the assumption that war-like behavior is in fact a genetic trait, would have made for a stronger argument.

  11. I agreed with freddie1994’s post, and the position taken in the article where Was shouldn’t be seen as pre-disposed, like war is inevitable and and that we shouldn’t care about peace. The article itself mentioned several aboriginal people that rarely engage in war, if at all. The same mentality that fosters the thinking of predispositions to war as a reason for conflict became the prominent logic during the neo-colonial age where people subscribed to the ideas of Social Darwinism. For a brief synopsis, Social Darwinism is the idea that certain races of man are more fit and superior than others. This led to the proliferation of establishments of racism and slavery, and colonialism. During the 19th Century, Great Britain and other world powers took over foreign people’s for the benefit of the country and at the loss of the original people living in the area. This mentality is present in the foreign policy of many modern countries. We can see in the United Nations how the policy of one country usually leans toward violence.

    I completely agree with the author of the original author on his claim that stating we are biologically pre-disposed to violence limits our human potential to being peaceful. Humans are a divine creature within themselves and whatever was the cause of such high intelligence, it should be used. If humans were able to not resort to violence, it would be a better world and society to live in. It would be a major accomplishment, both biologically and impressive as a society.

  12. thomgc says:

    War isn’t so much a gene as it is a word. Conflict is universal and necessary for natural selection to actually work. For a species to avoid stagnation it has to experience natural selection and to constantly adapt, war isn’t so much a genetic need for conflict but a geopolitical need for conflict that in turn aids natural selection. Its ironic that the exchange of ideas and ideologies that has occurred since the 1900s combined with the global exchange of resources has led to fuel for conflict, as people the world over desire resources otherwise unavailable to them and are inspired by warlike ideologies that, coupled with natural desire for greater wealth and resources, causes humanity to wage war; the same way it would if we were canines, chimpanzees or space aliens. Ultimately our need for more causes conflict and said conflict allows us to adapt and survive and will until all humanity wants for nothing. But once humanity wants for nothing we will lose our ability to adapt and eventually die out. So its not a question of whether war is in our genes but how to adapt without war, which of course would require different forms of conflict.

  13. mykkros says:

    To begin, I think that most developed animals have conflicts in their own way. Either for potential mates or for control of resources, conflict between species is common place for an organism’s survival. I agree with lnzgirl when she stated that organisms that were able to physically able to compete with organisms and get what they wanted were evolutionary favored. Over centuries, such organisms were favored to reproduce and such genes we installed with humans. Today, we humans still compete in a similar way, we fight for resources and for things that we consider important to our survival. While no other animals will ever fight for their “motherland”, we still have our primeval instincts to fight for what we consider is necessary to our family and our “tribe”. Most conflicts that humans have today all have primeval roots in their nature and it is possible to observe that perhaps, in fact, humans do have a genetic tendency to violence. Yet, while humans to have this genetic tendency, humans also have the intellectual ability to understand the consequences of their actions.

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