Indoctrination, Nationalism and War

So far in this chapter we have discussed evolved predispositions which may create maladaptive tendencies in the modern world and ultimately compromise the physical and mental health of individual humans. Unfortunately, our evolutionary legacy has shaped other predispositions that put not only individual lives at risk but also the lives of millions of individuals and possibly our entire species. The lives of countless non-human organisms are also in jeopardy. We live in a world bristling with weapons of mass destruction. An enormous amount of time, energy, and intelligence has gone into the construction of these weapons, which in objective analysis appears to be completely irrational. Given the state of things as they are, it could be argued that non-participation in the arms race opens the door to conquest or annihilation. This is true when the situation is viewed from the limited perspective taken by most world leaders. It would require an inordinate degree of dedication, discipline and sacrifice to extricate ourselves from the current mess. However, when viewed from a perspective that transcends the current generation and encompasses all the generations of humanity, such tremendous investment into the art of destruction appears very foolish. Why would so much intelligence be devoted to such a stupid undertaking? What is the origin of the human capacity to wage war?

One of the first gender differences that emerges in humans as well as non-human primates, is the tendency for young males to engage in bouts of rough and tumble play much more so that females (Maccoby, 1999). Rough and tumble play quickly develops into play fighting which appears to be an important socialization tool for males. Experimental studies of non-human primates in which subjects are either allowed to play fight or denied the opportunity indicate that play fighting is a critical developmental experience necessary for the development of the social intelligence and skills required for existing in a hierarchical group. Play fighting allows young males to learn the give and take of dominance relationships, the proper communication signals involved in those relationships, and when to fight and with whom to fight. Not only does it allow them to learn to control of their aggressive tendencies but it is critical to their ability to learn cooperation and collaboration.

On January 7th, 1994, in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, one of Jane Goodall’s field assistants observed a group of eight chimpanzees consisting of seven males and one adult female walking towards the border of their territory (Goodall, 1986). When the group reached the boundary of their normal range, they did not stop but stealthily crossed over to the territory of a neighboring chimpanzee group. Just inside the neighboring territory a young male chimpanzee from the neighboring group was encountered. By the time this young male detected the presence of the ape interlopers, it was too late. Although he fled, his pursuers chased after him, grabbed him and held him captive. While one male held him face down on the ground the others rushed in pummeling his body and biting and tearing bits of flesh from him. Of the ape intruders, the only two who did not participate in the attack were the female and an adolescent male. After a few minutes of this vicious assault, the attack ended and the intruders left their victim to die. This is undoubtedly what happened since the animal was never seen again following this encounter.

This observation was the first of many that would completely turn around the prevailing view of great apes as passive, peace-loving creatures consistent with Jean Jacques Rousseau's ideal of the novel savage. Subsequently, numerous field observations have shown that chimpanzees actively defend their territories, often going in gangs of six to ten individuals into neighboring territories and ambushing lone animals from neighboring groups. When such "raiding parties" encounter larger odds, usually more than one animal, they generally retreat immediately.

The basic chimpanzee pattern of territorial defense, gang raids and ambush, bear striking resemblance to some of the core warfare tactics employed by the Yonomamo people of the Venezuelan Amazon basin. Studies of the Yonomamo are of particular interest because unlike the majority of the hunter-gatherer people still in existence in today's world, the Yonomomo are culturally autonomous. In other words, they do not fall directly under the political sway or influence of outside cultures, particularly modern western industrial cultures.

The Yonomamo war technique that most closely resembles the chimpanzee pattern is called Wayu Huu or raid (Chagnon, 1988, 1992). A Yonomamo raid begins after a party of 10 to 20 men agrees to kill selected enemies. After going through ceremonial rituals to prepare them for the raid, they set out for the enemy village, which is often a distance of four or five days on foot. Upon reaching the outskirts of the enemy village the raiding party scouts out the situation waiting quietly in ambush for a lone victim. If the raiders cannot find an isolated individual, they simply fire a volley of arrows into the village and run away. However, should an unfortunate individual cross their path, they immediately shoot him with lethal curare tipped arrows and then immediately flee back to their own village.

The second Yonomamo war technique is even more appalling by Western ethical standards than the Wayu Huu. It is called Nomohori, the dastardly trick (Chagnon, 1988, 1992). In this scenario, the men pretend that the enemy villagers are actually their allies and invite them to a feast, once their supposed guests have completely relaxed their guard and are lying in repose, the hosts turn and slaughter them, cleaving their skulls with axes, beating them with clubs, and shooting them with arrows. All the males are killed outright and the females are taken captive. This tactic strongly resembles a similar deceptive strategy employed by some Scottish Highlanders over the centuries and examples of dastardly tricks in a general sense can be found in the histories of virtually all existing cultures.

Women are also taken captive when they are encountered during Wayu Huu raids. Anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon (1988, 1992), who studied the Yonomamo extensively through the 60's and 70's, has argued that the conflict exhibited by the Yonomomo relates to reproductive fitness. Chagnon discovered in his data analysis that Yonomamo males, who had been honored for killing enemy tribesman, had more than two and a half time the average number of wives as other men, and more than three times the average number of children. Thus successful raiding which is generally related to superior fighting skills and aggressive tendencies enhances reproductive fitness

If human tendencies toward violent behavior were limited to individual actions or even the actions of small groups (gangs) we would still have needless tragedies on a daily basis but there would be no such thing as war. The chimpanzee raids described above are sometimes referred to as “wars” but in reality they are really acts of gang violence. The ape raiding-behavior, does however, give us an important insight into the origin of the human capacity to wage war (Wrangham & Peterson, 1996). The chimp raiding-behavior is predicated on male coalition building and aggressive defense of group territories against outside groups of conspecifics. In humans these patterns of coalition building and in-group versus out-group territorial defense have been tremendously augmented by language and its corollary, enhanced cultural transmission. Consequently, the history of civilized man is a record of wars, both great and small. Of the modern hunter-gatherer societies studied, only ten percent have been found that do not participate in war on a regular basis. Because we share a common ancestry with chimpanzees dating back five to seven million years ago, it is likely that bellicose, territorial male coalitions also existed in the ancestral species. If this is true, it means that inter-group conflict has been an ongoing selective force in our evolution for over five million years. Inter-group conflict has been proposed as one explanation for the rapid encephalization seen in human evolution (see chapter 3).

This raises the question as to why the human lineage would experience a trebling of brain size, whereas relatively little encephalization has occurred in the chimp lineage since the two lines diverged. Inter-group conflict at the level that it occurs in forest dwelling apes is not a particularly strong selective force, at least on time scales measured in millions of years. In the lineage leading to humans, rapid encephalization did not start until millions of years of savannah existence as a biped with a chimp-sized brain had already passed. Evidently, a certain critical level of population density and raiding effectiveness must be reached before inter-group conflict becomes a strong selective force. Once that critical threshold was reached an arms race ensued (figuratively at first and later literally). Brain based skills such as ballistic throwing, language, creativity and planning would have been traits critical to surviving such inter-group encounters. The exponential increase in brain size that has occurred in our lineage over the past 2.5 million years must be due, at least in part, to inter-group conflict and competition (see chapter 3 for other factors). Unfortunately, this thesis suggests that some of the complex cognitive attributes that were selected for may predispose our species to some potentially highly maladaptive behaviors (e.g., world wars, genocide, nuclear arms races).

One such cognitive attribute is our species-specific capacity for indoctrination. The human ethologist, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt has defined indoctrinability as a “special learning disposition allowing acceptance and identification with group characteristics which thus serves bonding and we-group demarcation “(Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1998, p. 51). He argues that this facility for tribal bonding was evolutionarily derived from the primal capacity for forming mother-child dyads. The generally high level of resistance to abandoning cultural beliefs and loyalties inculcated at an early age makes human indoctrination very similar to the phenomenon of avian filial imprinting. In imprinting, avian species such as graylag geese learn to follow the first large moving object they perceive during the first 36 hours after they hatch. Whatever object the gosling imprints on during this critical period, whether it is an adult goose, a human researcher, or a windup toy, is likely to remain permanently etched into the animal’s memory, powerfully influencing its behavior. Similarly, humans form group allegiances during sensitive periods in childhood and are very resistant to forming alternative allegiances in later life.

Frank Salter (1998), also a human ethologist agrees that indoctrination is dependent upon fixed species-typical principles. However, he defines indoctrination as the purposive inculcation of an identity or doctrine requiring repetition, deception and often coercion. This means that it is not like imprinting, which requires only minimal exposure to a releasing stimulus during the sensitive period. Salter argues that kin affiliation forms in an imprinting-like manner but larger non-kin group allegiances require a special concerted effort at indoctrination.

In studying the indoctrination techniques of the !Kung San of Botswana and the Enga of New Guinea, Polly Wiessner (1998) came to a similar conclusion. She believes that indoctrination is a very effort intensive, formal process aimed at counteracting in-group tendencies by opening boundaries to the formation of broad social networks outside the small kinship groups. In traditional societies much of this indoctrination process is often focused into what is generally referred to as a rite of passage or puberty rite. It is during the rite of passage that individuals in traditional societies pass from childhood status to adult status.

Such rites of passage typically involve prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, physical debilitation, physical coercion, threat, verbal inculcation of doctrine and a show of compassion at the point of collapse (Salter, 1998). These same characteristics are common to full brainwashing techniques although brainwashing is generally much harsher, implementing a great deal of degradation and punishment. Both brainwashing and traditional initiation are highly effective in creating affiliative bonds. Salter gives the following summary:

The most successful approaches to indoctrination challenge self-identity and induce a common set of psychological states that sway individuals toward identifying with a leader, group, or doctrine. The process induces intense emotions of fear, depression, guilt and loneliness combined with a state of dependency on the instructor. These combine to drive the subject into an affiliative bond with one or more representatives of the indoctrinating group. It is this bond, combined with the instructor’s authority and the subject’s altered physiological and psychological state that increases the likelihood of a new identity and set of loyalties being embraced. This pathway appears to be a common denominator of highly effective indoctrination. Furthermore, the behaviors, emotions and relationships that it evokes all belong to the species-typical repertoire, that is they are innate universals. The lack of variety of effective paths to indoctrination, especially at the functional level of cognition and emotion in the subject confirms the hypothesis that the means for indoctrinating humans, no matter how technically developed, are constrained by the necessity of keying into the human sensory and behavioral apparatus. This apparatus is a product of hominid and primate phylogeny stretching back over geological epochs. (p. 448)

These techniques have proved equally effective in unifying the populations of tribal groups, agrarian villages and City-States. Remarkably, these same propensities for forming group alliances have created solidarity in nations comprised of hundreds of millions of people. Consequently, we now see the phenomena of young men going off to distant lands, to fight to the death against people they have never seen, for leaders they have never encountered personally and for reasons that are, at best, remote abstractions.