Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

The (biological) spoils of war

Despite the destruction war yields, there’s a biological benefit for engaging in it, a study that observed nomadic herders in South Sudan and southwest Euthopia reveals.

The Harvard study is lead by Luke Glowacki, a doctoral student under the guidance of Richard Wrangham, Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology and Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

The author explains that in herding tribes in East Africa, those who have participated in raids or engaged in violent conflict, had more wives and in turn a greater opportunity to reproduce successfully; in short, those who “took part in more raids, had more children” over the course of their lives, according to Glowacki, who was quoted in Science Daily.

“The currency of evolution is reproductive success,” adds Glowacki. He says that in his paper, published on 29 December in PNAS, he emphases that it’s not just a case of “biology made me do it.”

“It’s very clear what the pathway to greater reproductive success is — it’s access to livestock, which are obtained through raiding and then used for marriage,” he’s quoted as saying. “But the cultural mechanism is mediated by the elders who control virtually all aspects of the society. After a raid young men give any livestock they capture to the elders and the raider cannot use them at that point even if he wants to get married. Later in life, as the raider gets older he can gain access to them, so there’s a lag in receiving benefits from participating in a raid.

“The overriding question I’m interested in is how humans cooperate, and one type of cooperation is participating in intergroup conflict.”

It’s not clear whether Glowacki’s conclusions can be generalized to the rest of the region, specifically North Africa and the Middle East, where civil conflict is rampant, as well as the idea of polygamy among many Muslim fighters, say in countries like Syria or Iraq – and whether or not religious, as well as cultural, forces play a part here. In Syria and Iraq, for instance, notorious Islamist group IS (Islamic State) cover ground, raiding new towns and villages, and taking over valuable resources, leaving destruction in their wake. They’re field combatants too, perhaps not unlike the study’s subjects: armed Nyangatom men between the ages of 20 and 40. Taking female hostages or forcing themselves upon communities, for instance, IS has been asserting its right to “Jihad marriages” and offing those who refuse.

Is this the same? Can the same link between war and reproductive capacity be applied to them?

According to the paper, evolutionary anthropologists have argued that individuals can benefit from participating in warfare despite the risks they face, but field data to confirm this hypothesis were rare, until this paper; considered the first quantitative study on warfare and reproductive success.

“Greater warriorship gives men increased access to bridewealth over the life course.”

The study however makes it clear that its conclusions, so far at least, are restricted to small-scale societies engaged in warfare; Nyangatom men are essentially villagers, small numbers compared to organised groups like IS. The politics of the conflict and the community dynamics may also be a deciding factor.

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