Peace is the exact opposite of the forces of natural selection.

For centuries, men and women have passed around ideas.  Some ideas such as the New England axiom "plant corn when the oak leaves are the size of mouse ears" or Cato's "Carthage must be destroyed" have stood the test of time while other ideas like "the world is flat" have faded into obscurity or ridicule.

Ideas, like fairies, survive only as long as enough people believe in them.  An idea doesn't have to be true, or even nearly true, to stick around for a long time if it's sufficiently attractive to enough people.

One of the longest-lived, but utterly false, ideas is the concept of the "noble savage."  This meme was coined by Michel de Montaigne in 1580 after he heard about New World tribes who were supposedly untouched by the jealousies, greed, and conflict that characterized European civilization.

Nearly 200 years later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published four books which proclaimed that men are born full of innocent wonder and are inherently consumed by love and generosity.  Unfortunately, he wrote, modern civilization ensnares innocent children so that they grow up to be greedy and full of conflict.

One wonders if either of these men or any of their disciples has ever had any experience raising children.  In my experience, babies are utterly selfish - a baby doesn't care if its convenient for someone to change a soiled diaper, the baby wants its needs met now!  Young children have to be carefully taught to share and to refrain from violence when another child snatches a favorite toy.  Noble savages indeed!

Regardless of its obvious defects, the idea of the "noble savage" has been re-worked by 20th century writers such as Richard Leakey and Susan Sontag to condemn modern industrial civilization.  A variety of environmental activists, feminists, and various minority rights enthusiasts have disregarded all evidence of savagery in primitive societies and published the "Seville manifesto," which claims "violence is neither in our evolutionary legacy nor in our genes."

We're told daily that Western civilization, with its capitalistic competition, its militarism, its violent TV, is at fault for pouring violence into otherwise peaceful minds.

This wrong-headed idea persists partly because it's worth a great deal of money.  Social activists tell us that the "noble savages" of our inner cities would refrain from crime and behave well if only their neighborhoods were cleaned up.  If only the rest of society weren't so selfish, we're told, crime would melt away and the millennium would arrive.  Their funding levels continue to increase in spite of all the evidence that most of the billions spent cleaning up slums have been wasted - crime rises even as more and more money is spent.

Nothing noble about this savage!

Savages Aren't Noble

There is enough evidence of violence among non-industrial societies to kill the "noble savage" idea for good if people were willing to look.  The Yanomamo tribe in the Amazon jungle practices systematic war against neighboring tribes.  After they kill or chase away the men, they kill all the children and take the women back to their village.

With the infants dead, the mothers stop nursing and become fertile again.  Extra reproductive success rewards Yanomano men for better-than-average fighting abilities - one especially skilled fighter sired 11 children by 4 different women.  Effective, yes, and definitely savage - but noble?

Proponents of the "noble savage" idea not only overlook modern studies of the Yanomano, they also ignore the legends of the Trojan wars.  According to Homer, when the Greeks sacked Troy, they killed all the men and children and kept the women - just like the Yanomano.  Sacagawea, a woman whose accomplishments assisting the Lewis and Clark exploration of the American west earned her a place on a $1 coin, was kidnapped and sold to a French fur trapper.

If the Homeric epics combined with modern scholarship aren't enough to lay this wrong-headed idea to rest, there are even older accounts of reproduction-driven warfare:

And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods. And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire. And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts. And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by Jordan near Jericho. And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp. And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle. And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves[emphasis added]

- Numbers 31:9-18

There are some who say that this was one of the earliest documented incidents of ethnic cleansing.  Although the losers were wiped out as a distinct tribe, the women lived on.  Ethnicity mattered less than future reproductive potential.

Moses was leading the Children of Israel to the Promised Land where they'd be welcomed about as avidly as Palestinians welcome Jewish settlements today.  They'd need as many fighters as they could produce so the situation demanded the most reproductively-expedient action possible.

This wasn't an isolated incident.  This massacre some 400 years earlier was partly revenge because Shechem had kidnapped Dinah and raped her in pursuing his reproductive success, but while they were at it, Jacob's sons collected extra women as well as booty:

And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brethren, took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males. And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem's house, and went out. The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister. They took their sheep, and their oxen, and their asses, and that which was in the city, and that which was in the field, And all their wealth, and all their little ones, and their wives took they captive, and spoiled even all that was in the house.  [emphasis added]

- Genesis 34:25-29

The practice of taking women captive for reproductive purposes was so common, so expected, so normal, so ordinary, that there were rules about it:

When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.  [emphasis added]

- Deuteronomy 21:10-14

These memes about how to handle a female after the battle contributed to reproductive success:

  • She had to get rid of her clothes, shave her head, and clean her nails.  This was a health measure - lice spread in hair and clothing, getting rid of her hair and her clothes before he got intimate with her was a good idea.

  • He had to wait a month.  He'd be less overcome with the blood lust, heat of battle, and adrenalin of victory; she was less likely to get hurt and more likely to reproduce.  Good all 'round.  Even in Boston, the Athens of America, Red Sox fans got violent when their team won the Series, any female Yankee fans they'd captured would be better off with a month's cooling off period.

  • Once he took her, she was no longer property.  He could not sell her.  This gave him incentive to forecast his cash flow and sell her if he didn't want to support her.  This made it more likely that she'd end up with someone who could afford to keep her, which was good for her reproductive success.

One can argue that these rules about how to treat a woman after battle are somewhat nobler than the unrestricted slaughter that went before, but these customs indicate that only girl children would be preserved.  Note that the rules give the woman time to weep for her father and her mother.  The assumption is that her mother would have been killed along with her father.

Natural Selection Rules!

Humans aren't the only perpetrators of reproductive deception and violence.  Science News reports that male antelopes give the danger signal for lions when females seem to be about to wander off, even if there are no lions around.  Lions, gorillas, chimpanzees, horses, deer, seals, langurs, and many other mammals live in groups of females which are monopolized by one male.  This male stands ready to drive away any other males who seek access to his harem.

If he loses a battle, he's driven out to die and another male takes over the females.  Lions and apes have been observed killing all the nursing babies so that the females become fertile again as soon as possible.

The only way for a male to achieve reproductive success is by defeating other males; wimps exit the gene pool.  The Economist reports that many masculine traits serve essentially the same purpose in humans:

When two drunken men fight over a woman, alcohol and stupidity may not be the only things at work. Sadly, evolution may have shaped men to behave this way. Almost all of the traits considered to be masculine - big muscles, facial hair, square jaws, deep voices and a propensity to violence - evolved, it now seems, specifically for their usefulness in fighting off or intimidating other men, allowing the winner to get the girl.

Noble savages indeed!  Males who wouldn't or couldn't fight for women got bred out of the gene pool.  The men who survived were both willing and able to fight for the privilege of reproduction.  Far from corrupting "noble savages," modern civilization provides legal and financial systems which make women less dependent on men and less vulnerable to male violence.  Modern technology such as guns provide even more protection for weaker members of society.

H. Rap Brown said, "Violence is as American as cherry pie," but that was an understatement.  Violence is an inherently human trait, and it's driven by reproduction, the most fundamental force of all.  Anyone who doesn't reproduce is dealt out of the game and leaves no footprints on the sands of time.

Now we know why massacres occur - they're driven by reproductive imperatives without operate the same way in humans, lions, and the great apes.  At least human beings are able to dream of peace.

It will be interesting to see how the "noble savage" misconception fares going forward, with all the powerful forces of natural selection pulling in a somewhat different direction.

Lee Tydings is a guest writer for Scragged.com.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Lee Tydings or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
The NYT admits that chimps make war, but don't expect them to deny the noble savage fallacy.

Chimps, Too, Wage War and Annex Rival Territory
Researchers have observed a community of chimps that wage attacks on outsiders, gaining power and territory.
June 22, 2010 4:47 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...