Égalité après la guerre: how war affects in-group fairness

Over the last few evenings, I inhaled Robert Harris‘ novelisation of France’s infamous Dreyfus affair. Told from the point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart, the intelligence officer whose scrupulous honesty finally established Dreyfus’ innocence, An Officer and a Spy breathes life into historic events. Events I last encountered in a claustrophobic mid-80’s high school class, from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) to J’Accuse, the impassioned open letter to the French President by which Émile Zola brought Picquart’s arguments to public light.

Georges Picquart (1854-1914), protagonist of Robert Harris' book, An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair. Wikimedia commons
Georges Picquart (1854-1914), protagonist of Robert Harris’ book, An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair. Wikimedia commons

More than a history, though, the novelist in Harris evokes the prevailing social milieu and the psychology of his characters. The loss of Alsace (where both Picquart and Dreyfus spent their early years) and Lorraine to the Prussians in 1870-1 hangs palpably on the ageing French generals. As a result they choose to protect their own in the army at the expense of truth and justice. That same loss also propels the rampant anti-semitism that makes Dreyfus such a convenient scape-goat.

War profoundly shapes the attitudes of those who survive it. Particularly the attitudes to one’s own people and to members of other groups. This might seem an empty truism; the horrors and privations of war can hardly be expected not to reshape attitudes. But to what extent could these reshaped attitudes be functional? And can we understand them in light of evolution and our species’ long history of warfare?

A paper published this week in Psychological Science shows that people affected by war take on different attitudes toward in-group members as a result. And they do so in a manner predicted by evolutionary biology.

Michal Bauer, Alessandra Cassar, Julie Chytiolová and Joe Henrich studied 543 school children in Georgia, 6 months after the brief conflict with Russia over South Ossetia. They also studied 586 adults (18-84 years) living in northwestern Sierra Leone, a region wracked by civil war between 1991 and 2002. In both places they recruited individuals who had not been directly affected, others who had been somewhat affected, and another group who had been profoundly affected, losing family members or being displaced by the fighting.

The investigators administered two economic games commonly used to distinguish selfish, egalitarian and altruistic tendencies. In the Sharing Game, participants choose whether to share a number of tokens (20 in Sierra Leone) evenly (10 each) with another, unseen, participant, or to take a larger share (15) for themselves, leaving fewer (5) for the other player. Self-interested players should always choose the larger share, but those inclined to egalitarianism often divide the tokens evenly.

The Envy Game asks the player to decide between an even split (10-10 again) or an uneven one in which both players get more than in the even split, but the player gets less (13 in the Sierra Leone study) than the other participant (16). The rational player should choose the unequal split, but players motivated to redress inequalities that disadvantage them often do plump for the even split.

In each game, players divided their tokens with someone from their own in-group (an unnamed member of their own class in Georgia, or of the same village in Sierra Leone) or an unrelated, but not hostile out-group (a class at another school, or an unspecified distant village). And the tokens had value. The Georgian schoolchildren could exchange their tokens for prizes. The Sierra Leonian villagers earned as much as or more than the national average per capita daily income.

In both experiments, individuals least affected by war treated in-group and out-group members no differently in the two games. But the more profoundly a subject had been touched by war, the more egalitarian they were in dealing with in-group members. Yet they were less likely, or at least no more likely, to treat outgroup members in an egalitarian fashion than the group least affected by war.

Numbers and cohesion

Why does war lead to stronger egalitarian impulses toward one’s in-group but not toward strangers? Bauer and his collaborators argue that the answer lies in group size and cohesion.

Evolutionary biologists tend to get nervous when adaptive explanations focus on what works best for a group. Group benefits, so beloved of pre 1970’s adaptive storytellers, tend to be undermined by individual self-interest. But war is one of those arenas in which the good of the individual and the good of the group often fall smartly into line.

For most of history, war has been a game of numbers and cohesion. In foraging and horticultural societies, larger groups win far more fights with smaller groups than they lose. And as societies have grown, numbers remained an important element of military success. Throughout Harris’ An Officer and a Spy, to briefly return there, the French generals fret over Germany’s three-to-two numeric supremacy.

So important are numbers that historians fast-track the immortalisation of dramatic victories for the outnumbered side. Hannibal’s victory over Rome at Cannae (216 BCE) is still studied by military tacticians. And Henry V’s thumping of the French at Agincourt shall be remembered, thanks to Shakespeare, from that St Crispin’s Day in 1415 ‘forward unto the ending of the world’.

The Battle of Agincourt, from Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V

Outnumbered sides that triumphed usually made up for their numeric weakness with some combination of technological advantage, superb tactical innovation and, especially, cohesion. Cohesion makes a difference not only among the troops but in the society as a whole. When people prioritise egalitarianism over personal gain, they are able to build greater in-group cohesion. And this means bigger group sizes, as fewer individuals or splinter groups feel they can do better by going it alone.

The Psychological Science study suggests that war changes the way individuals function in groups, making them more inclined to subvert their own interests in favour of equal outcomes for their in-group mates. The authors argue that this is an adaptive shift from more individualistic ways of behaving to more collective ones as a direct response to cues that the individual’s fate and evolutionary fitness will be tied to that of the collective group.

It remains to be tested whether other tribulations, like being affected by a natural disaster or a disease epidemic, have similar effects. Disasters certainly beget heart-warming tales of personal sacrifice, and occasional accounts of great selfishness. It would be interesting to know if people affected by disasters show the same biases toward in-group egalitarianism, or if any changes are directed more generally at other affected people.

Experiencing war profoundly changes individuals and, as a result, societies. Much attention has rightly been devoted to the profound psychological trauma and ongoing ramifications for mental health that war inflicts on soldiers and civilians. But the new study shows that war also has subtler – possibly adaptive – effects on in-group fairness and attitudes to out-group members.

Perhaps this research will, in time, lead to a better understanding of how to dismantle old out-group prejudices and hatreds before they lead on to more violence (or to Dreyfusian travesties). And how to kindle in more privileged generations the extraordinary cooperation and civic-mindedness often claimed to characterise generations who have experienced war.

A bonus for Shakespeare lovers. What better illustration of cohesion, of subverting one’s own interests to the cause, exists in art, than Henry’s rousing speech before Agincourt?




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Our foraging ancestors weren’t particularly war-like

Few subjects more predictably animate furious disagreement and cross-purposes discussion than the origins of human warfare. Are people “naturally” belligerent? And what does that even mean?

The question taps a deep old well of ideological intuition. Were the lives of our ancestors, as Thomas Hobbes’ infamously put it in the 17th century, “nasty, brutish and short”? Or, were our ancestors more like the “noble savages” of romantic primitivism? Our beliefs about these issues colour whether we feel our lives are generally better or worse than those of our ancestors.

This dichotomy, in more nuanced forms, has haunted and at times paralysed anthropology since at least the 19th Century. And it reared its head again recently with the divisive reception granted to books such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, and Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, as well as a flurry of renewed interest in controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.

Steven Pinker outlines his case that violence has steadily declined throughout history

From my reading, the evidence stacks pretty solidly in favour of Pinker’s thesis that violence has decreased dramatically throughout human history. As John Armstrong put it in his review of Pinker’s book, The World Has Never Been as Safe and Peaceful as it is Now. But Pinker continues to attract considerable static, particularly from those quarters where pessimism about modern life and paranoia about Western imperialism run hottest.

But the overall battle over the decline of violence is but one theme in the history of violence, a history replete with intriguing sub-plots. The prevalence of warfare among mobile forager band societies occupies a place of particular controversy among anthropologists who actually work in the field.

Until 10,000 years ago, the ancestors of everybody alive today lived in small nomadic bands and foraged what food they could catch or gather. Most of our species’ recent past – hundreds of thousands of years – was spent hunting, gathering and moving about in this way. As a result, accounts of human adaptation often consider in some depth this period, given its importance in determining which genes and traits our ancestors bequeathed to us.

A small number of “mobile forager band” (MFB) societies still exist – or persisted long enough for anthropologists to study them systematically. It is from these peoples that we draw almost everything we know about the way our ancestors lived until the seismic changes wrought by agriculture.

From modern accounts of MFB societies we can infer that our ancestors were certainly violent. Ethnographies document homicidal personal disputes, spousal killings, fights among men over women, executions of outsiders and inter-group killings.

But were our MFB ancestors war-faring? War, here, is a subset of lethal violence that involves members of a group working together to overcome members of other groups. It’s one of those appalling human traits that romantics would like to pretend doesn’t happen elsewhere in the animal world. But ants, by this definition, certainly wage war among colonies. And Jane Goodall’s discovery in the early 1970s that chimpanzees from one group occasionally work together to kill members of other groups suggests our closest living relatives look pretty war-like too.

Harvard Anthropologists Richard Wrangham and Luke Glowacki argued in a recent paper that our ancestors waged chimp-like warfare, launching coordinated surprise attacks on other groups. Raids of this sort, in order to weaken other groups, or capture livestock, property or women, are a feature of every society that has domesticated livestock, horses or agricultural crops. But these societies tend to involve bigger, more complex groups, and forms of wealth more worth fighting over than MFB societies.

Mobile forager bands have more characteristically egalitarian political structures, less coalition-forming behaviour, and few resources or possessions worth defending. These properties don’t make good ingredients for war-mongering. So it’s really worth knowing just how much of MFB violence can be considered warfare. As my post-doc advisor was occasionally heard to say:

Just get the data!

Last week’s edition of Science contained an exhaustive analysis by Douglas P. Fry and Patrik Söderberg, who scrutinised the existing accounts of all lethal violence in 21 MFB societies. They tabulated the causes of 148 cases of lethal aggression, and found that two thirds originated from within-group conflicts. The majority of these deaths were caused by a lone perpetrator.

Only one third of events could possibly be construed as acts of warfare. And most of these events occurred in one society – the Tiwi of northern Australia in which ethnographers documented several intergroup disputes and revenge-seeking cycles. In the other 20 MFB societies only around 15% of deaths by lethal aggression could possibly fit the definition of war.

The authors concluded that:

most incidents of lethal aggression among MFBS may be classified as homicides, a few others as feuds, and a minority as war.

Refreshing as it is to see a calm, data-driven approach to answering a tightly-proscribed research question, the prevailing discussion over the last week has fallen into old ruts.

“War arose recently” proclaimed ScienceNews. Fair enough. I don’t think Fry and Söderberg would contest the argument that agriculture and the rise of complex societies made war a worthwhile – in the economic sense rational – option. And that stoked the body count.

But the Socialist Worker led, as it does, the charge against scientific accounts of human nature. War Not Due to Human Nature it proclaimed, reeling off a link-fest of SW diatribes against scientific accounts of human behaviour, and then linking to a somewhat more considered piece from Slate.

I’m happy to grant that these data show that MFB societies don’t make as much war as agriculturalists and pastoralists, not to mention contemporary weapon-rich societies. But I’m intrigued about the Tiwi, who don’t fit the mould. I’m not familiar with the data, but according to ScienceNews, Samuel Bowles reckons the Tiwi were among the more peaceful hunter-gatherer societies he studied in an earlier Science paper that reached more bleak conclusions about the history of war.

And I’m equally intrigued by how societies can tip so quickly into belligerence as soon as they settle down and accumulate some wealth. The capacity to form coalitions and deploy them for ill may have been there all along.

Where did that come from?

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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