evolving violence

evolving technology

Implanted in our genes are the basic components of human behavior. In order to classify these fundamental features, scientists look to our nearest genetic kin, the ape. Chimpanzees in groups demonstrate many behaviors that similarly appear in human cultures, but not all manifest congruently. The most tangible connecting characteristic between man and monkey is violence, or hostile and potentially destructive interaction. Illustratively, ethnologist Frans de Waal of the Arnhem Zoo of the Netherlands observed a violent power struggle enacted between three male chimpanzees. The feebly-balanced triangle was disrupted due to competition over a female. Though one male was physically stronger and dominant over the other two, he was brutally maimed and killed when the others banded together to defeat him (Dominance). Strong male-to-male bonds are commonplace in chimp society, even between rivals, as well as complex alliances among both sexes; the function of these coalitions is to arbitrate disagreements such that the most dominant individual does not necessarily wield overwhelming influence. As demonstrated by the above example, which is also indicative of chimp behavior in the wild, ascendancy relies not only on sheer strength, but on associations and recognition by those submitting to the dominion. The primary form of settling such dominance hierarchies among chimps is through violent interactions, a trend that appears universally in and among human cultures. Warfare technology arises from this primal urge, influenced deeply by our hostile pursuits.

The primate tendency toward violence to solve dispute occurs in parallel in modern hunter-gatherer cultures. Mid-twentieth century Netsilik Inuit had murder rates higher than the United States. Men kill each other in fights over females; subsequently, the family members of the slain conduct revenge raids on their relative’s murderers. Every adult male in a Copper Eskimo tribe of fifteen families had been instrumental in a homicide. Correspondingly, the murder rates of the !Kung Bushmen from 1920 to 1955 were twenty to eighty times more than current rates in industrialized countries, and the murder rates of the Yahgan nomads of Tierra del Fuego were ten times that of the United States in the 20 th century (Dominance). Thus, we can derive an essential aspect of human nature, violence, from the chimpanzee.

As an additional analogous behavior, weaker humans in hunter-gatherer societies often band together to overthrow and even rule those naturally dominant. This action, also known as “reverse dominance hierarchy”, furthers a more equal, non-stratified community. This was the prevailing trend until agriculture developed, and for the first time, there was a food surplus. At that juncture, those dominant exerted their control and collected the extra resources, heralding the appearance of city-states as they conducted the “process of stratification and specialization (Dominance 209)”. Essentially, however, human beings have a well-defined history of congregating to engage in fighting, a behavior reflected in chimpanzees.

Violence is a staple of human nature that manifests itself in culture. Behaviors engendered by society, however, have taken this common human compulsion to the next level of complexity through cultural evolution. Unlike conflict created by the power struggles of chimps, human agon is channeled through the pathways of culture, and it is either socially sanctioned or disapproved. For example, group-approved homicide of exceptionally hostile or controlling members is routine among many hunter-gatherer cultures. Behavior spans from “ridicule to assassination (Dominance 209)”, ultimately quashing those thought to hold too much power.

Not only apparent in intra-group situations, violence is also conducted on an intercommunity scale; warfare is a nearly-universal property of cultural interaction. It also can be traced back to primates such as chimps and bonobos, who have been known to engage in brutal territorial warfare. There exists a great degree of behavioral complexity with regard to large-scale violence, however. Bonded male youth apes seem to fight in one another’s interests, a pattern reflected by men in combat who risk their lives to save their comrades. In humans as well emerges an urge toward pacifism, an additional degree of behavioral complexity that compels some to risk their lives in order to avoid conflict. There is no “genetic urge (Dominance 212)” to be violent, just as there is no opposite urge to be peaceful. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that aggression is a fundamental aspect of human nature that emerges through culture; though its surrounding circumstances are extremely complex, war is a major human undertaking throughout history (Dominance).

Furthermore, wars are fought for a number of reasons, mostly relatable to the very function of conflict. First, war operates to reorganize power standings in a society; a struggling chief can use war to garner support, or resources can be redistributed. It can function to commandeer another state’s precious commodities, or strategic location. Conflict also serves to impress one’s religious, political, or various other ideas onto other groups (Gods). Also, historical theorists such as Donald Kagan argue that war is the natural state of man due to his persistent competition over resources; peace is antagonistic to our societal relations. Through its variety of usages, war is an instrumental and readily-wielded tool that functions to further the aims of a society.

As human society grows more complex and technologically progressive, a study of 132 cultures has shown that warfare becomes more frequent (Dominance 212); this phenomenon is mirrored in the increasingly diverse warfare technologies that humans create. The Hittites of the Mesopotamian region were the first to smelt iron, using this technology in their conquest of the Tigris-Euphrates around 1600 B.C. They also mined silver and copper for trade around the Fertile Crescent region. The Hittites were the first to use the wheel in a war context. They were dominated in 1100 B.C. by the Assyrians, who quickly assimilated their smelting process, supplying entire armies for the first time with iron weaponry. The war-hungry Assyrians developed many siege technologies, such as the battering ram and movable towers. They also pioneered early chariots in battle. Babylon fell under their mighty armies in 700 B.C., and they built roads and instituted a postal service for improved military transportation and communication (Teresi 329).Other regions furthered martial knowledge and equipment as well. In Mesoamerica, multiple civilizations made use of the prismatic volcanic glass obsidian, chipping at the hard stone to craft knives, lances, and darts, a process that defied archaeologists for years (Teresi 339-40). On the African continent, the Cushite civilization brought metalworking to the Upper Nile valley area. Gold, copper, and iron mining, along with its processing, has played a vital role in African trade. Steel mined in Africa was used in the blades of the Saracens, who fought the Crusaders. African iron ore was sent to Indian, where it was fashioned into the high-quality wootz steel was forged into Damascus swords (Teresi 349).

The Chinese were famed for the instrumental creation of a most influential military technology, gunpowder. The mixture of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur arose out of a culture fascinated with “preparations of perfumes, gases, noxious bombs, explosions, and flaming eruptions (Teresi 356). It is a culture enamored with fireworks, brilliant flashy displays. For the Chinese, siege warfare has consisted of smoke screens, and they found incense burning closely linked to health. “Smoke, detonations, and loud explosions (Teresi 356)” were properties fundamental to the spirit realm. In 1040 A.D. Tseng Kung-Lang produced a formula for gunpowder that was employed in combustible arrows and bullets, hand grenades, and bombs. The fire lance was used in 1100 A.D. battles between the Sung and the Juchen Tatars. Through the conquests of the Mongols, cannons and guns evolved; and by 1288 guns used by the Chinese under Mongol rule enjoyed widespread use. Gunpowder weaponry employed by the Chinese also included mortars, trebuchets, land and sea mines, and hundreds of bombs (Teresi 356-8).

From that point onward, military technology has continued to progress. From hand grenades to missiles to the atomic bomb, humankind has witnessed an endless transformation of war machinery. Through the development of science, today we face smart bombs that pinpoint their targets exactly and biological warfare through the snaring and refinement of disease. Though peace is undeniably desirable, violence is an underlying aspect of human nature that will never be defeated. There will always be competition over resources, and thusly, aggression will always exist. This human impulse is channeled into culture, which concentrates much effort into the expansion of technology, or science and tools to aid human endeavor. As society whirls into new degrees of intricacy, warfare technology develops in tandem to unleash that violence which permanently underscores culture.




Chant, Colin. "Chapter 2: Greece.” Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. Routledge Press, 1999, pp. 48-80.

Ehrlich, Paul R. Ch. 9,“The Dominance of Culture” and Ch. 10, “From Seeds to Civilization.” Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000, pp. 203-252.

Ehrlich, Paul R. Ch.11, “Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy." Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000, pp. 253-279.

Ponting, Clive. Ch. 13, “Deforestation and intensive energy use.” A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991. ISBN 0-312-06989-1, McCabe GF75.P66 1992 pp. 267-294.

Teresi, Dick. "Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science.” Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-83718-8, pp. 325-367.

... . Susan Eberhard


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