Monday, June 09, 2008

The Violence of Communes

The New Guinea highlands were long thought to be an inaccessible and uninhabitable wilderness. Then, in the 1940s and 1950s, over-flying planes revealed that the highlands contained a patchwork of valleys full of farms and villages. Anthropologists learnt that the native people were Neolithic farmers who may have been one of the few peoples to have independently invented agriculture. each valley contained a tribe, ruled by its elders and engaged in some trade with the neighbours. It sounds quite idyllic, the noble savages of imagination, but this would be an illusion. The civilisation was blighted by endemic warfare. Because it was impossible to keep an army in the field for long, wars of conquest were out of the question. Nobody could annex the next-door valley, let alone found an Empire. Thus violence was restricted to low-level raiding and minor skirmishes year in and year out. These conflicts burnt up resources, not least human capital, and helped ensure that New Guinea highland society had not developed in the millennia since it was founded.

The pattern is repeated all over the world. The Mayans used to be the poster boys for peace-loving mezzo-Americans. Sadly, as Jared Diamond documents at many point in his book Collapse, it turns out they were constantly engaged in attacking the neighbours and making off with enemies for execution and sacrifice. In short, Thomas Hobbes was right. It is a romantic but false notion that human beings can live in small communes living in peaceful association with other small communes. Thousands of years of bitter experience show that we can’t.

I have previously suggested that religion is one of the major reasons that humans have been willing to gather themselves into larger groups, with the commensurate reduction in the level of everyday violence they encounter. This could be one of the reasons that natural selection has favoured religious behaviour in humans. It is, as atheists still can't quite accept, unlikely to be a by-product of another trait.

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