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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

War Boys Response

Air Date: Week of

We asked Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to respond to Professor Weiner's theory. Catherine Lutz is a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She comes to us via member station WUNC.


CURWOOD: We asked Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to respond to Professor Weiner's theory. Here's what she had to say.

LUTZ: Professor Weiner's ideas about the causes of warfare are dangerously simplistic, And, well, just plain wrong. First, his approach is based on the idea that genes compete to be passed to the next generation. He implies that warfare is caused by this biological imperative, but the data he presents are based on economy and population, not biology. Second, he claims men go to war to get resources to support a family. This just doesn't jibe with what we know about warfare. War is a complex social phenomenon, And the motivation of combatants is not the most relevant factor to explaining when and where it occurs.

Look at the conscripted armies of the modern state. They take young men to fight, often against their will or only with the help of media propaganda. In addition, warfare doesn't often have the benefits Professor Weiner claims it does. Research in New Guinea in the 1960s, for example, shows that war's victors rarely took land permanently from the vanquished, even in areas with high population density.

In other words, young men don't often acquire new resources through war. In many cases, living conditions radically deteriorate for young men and women in a society as the result of wars lost and even of wars seemingly won. The severely disabled survivor of war in Cambodia, for example, finds farming on land mine-infested fields much more difficult. To take another example, this one from the last millennium, Mayan rulers went to war and the result was societal collapse, as farmers crowded onto fragile rainforest land close to city centers to avoid being victimized by war.

Why do all of these men's genes seem not to know that war is not a safe marriage-enhancing game? And even if it were true that warfare occurs more often in societies with high population growth rates, there's a better explanation for this correlation. For example, warfare from 1945 until 1991 was fundamentally shaped by the existence of nuclear weapons, which pushed superpower conflict into proxy wars in those areas with high population growth. The severity of those wars was a function of the pursuit of power, profit, or principle, by societies with low population growth rates. But, of course, high rates of consumption. This is a widely-accepted view of why wars have occurred in the pattern that they have for the last 60 years. But Professor Weiner ignores it with his single-cause, single-outcome model of human behavior.

The evidence acquired by the world's scholars over decades of painstaking work is that human warfare has many causes and many potential solutions besides controlling the amount of young gene material floating around. Land reform and other kinds of resource redistribution, for example, have been a more direct and successful solution to the roots of war in some cases. This evidence will not go away because of a catchy slogan and simplistic thinking masquerading as research.

CURWOOD: Catherine Lutz is a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She comes to us via member station WUNC.



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