Gwynne Dyer: Are human beings naturally violent?

Of course human beings have always fought wars.

Of course a quarter of the adult males in the typical primitive society died violently, in wars and in fights. (I’m using the banned word “primitive” here because it’s shorter than “hunter-gatherer and horticultural non-state societies,” not because primitive peoples are inferior.

And of course many people don’t want to admit how violent our past was, because they are afraid that our past will also define our future. But it’s hard to believe that we are still having arguments about this long after the evidence is in.

The occasion for these intemperate remarks is the controversy that has broken out once again since American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon published his memoirs, Noble Savages: My life among two dangerous tribesthe Yanomamo and the anthropologists. As the title suggests, Chagnon does not bear fools gladly. But then, he has had to contend with quite a few fools in his career.

In 1968 Chagnon published a book called Yanomamo: The Fierce People. It was about his research among a group of about 20,000 people living in complete isolation in the Amazon forest. They were split up among 250 little villageswhich were perpetually at war with one another.

At the same time other anthropologists were documenting the same state of constant warfare among the few other surviving hunter-gatherer and horticultural groups that had previously avoided contact with “civilised” societies, especially in the highlands of New Guinea. Similar pre-contact behaviour was being confirmed in other groups like the Inuit.

And of course there was ample evidence that bigger “tribal” societies, from North American Indians to the Maori of New Zealand, had also spent much of their time at war with one another. This new perspective was most unwelcome to people (including anthropologists) who still clung to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s comforting myth of the “noble savage”, living at peace with his neighbours and the environment, but the evidence was overwhelming.

Chagnon’s book was an instant best-seller and remains the most widely used anthropological text ever, but it also ignited a firestorm that still flares up occasionally. Because Chagnon did not just say that primitive people were always at war, and that a lot of them died from it. He said that there was a GENETIC component in this behaviour.

Like all good anthropologists, he did genealogies of the people he studiedand he discovered that men who had killed other men in battle had three times as many children as men who had not killed. Human beings are “imperfectly monogamous”, but in groups where force is relatively unconstrained the best warriors get more wives. Therefore, Chagnon said, they are more successful in passing on their genes.

He did not say that culture and environment play no part in moulding human behaviour. He was simply documenting what should have been obvious: that if all human societies fight, then we must, among other things, have some genetic predisposition to do so. We are not necessarily doomed to fight in groups, but we are (unlike cows and pigeons) able to do so.

In saying this, Chagnon outraged two overlapping groups: the large number of anthropologists of that generation whose intellectual roots were in Rousseau and Marx, and people who feared that primitive groups would be more vulnerable to exploitation by the mass societies around them if they lost the protective myth of the peaceful, noble savage.

The tactics of Chagnon’s critics were ruthless and even slanderous: he was accused of giving the Yanomamo weapons and urging them to fight, even of deliberately causing a measles epidemic among them. He’s a combative sort, and his recent book shows the scars of fighting off unjust accusations for more than forty years.

He would have fared better if he had dropped the other shoe. If he had known as much about history as he did about anthropology, he would know that the level of violence in human affairs has dropped drastically since the rise of civilisationprecisely because we do now live in bigger societies.

Even the earliest mass societies lost far fewer people to war than the little societies of the more distant past, because it was no longer the entire male population that went to war. The battles were far worse than those of primitive warfare, but most people never saw a battle.

Even the dreadful 20th century follows the trend line. At least 50 million people were killed in the two world wars, but that was out of a global population that was nearing 2 billion people: a three percent fatal casualty rate for war over a period of 30 years. It’s very unlikely that any pre-contact primitive society ever had a casualty rate that low. And in the six decades since 1945, far less than one percent of the world’s people have died in war.

We are shaped by both our genes and our culture, and our culture no longer accepts war as natural and inevitable. We are not better people than the Yanomamo, and we’re very far from perfect. But our past does not define our future.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.



Matt D

May 1, 2013 at 3:31pm

Violent ? Probably not overly.

Stupid ? Without question. Undoubtedly without question.

Fix that, which probably isnt possible, and you likely get rid of most violence.


May 1, 2013 at 7:15pm

@MattD....Perhaps a future topic for Dyer. Although, he seems to be saying that in most of his commentaries anyway.


May 1, 2013 at 7:57pm

The topic in question is a long standing debate, back in the late sixties-early seventies, best selling books by Robert Audrey [African Genesis and Territorial Imperative] and Konrad Lorenz [On Aggression] also caused a major furor over the implied innate aggressiveness of humankind. American social scientists just won't accept the idea of innate human depravity or "original sin". I can't imagine why not since their whole culture and history is predicated on militarism and violence. Steven Pinker's idea that deaths caused by human wars has been on a secular decline through out history is hardly reassuring in view of the likely carnage when the future data point of World War 3 is added to his graph.
So Dyer's comment,"We are shaped by both our genes and our culture, and our culture no longer accepts war as natural and inevitable",is begging the question. Regrettably,it is far from clear that Pacifism is the pre-eminent cultural choice amongst the human masses and it's certainly not amongst the ruling elites. In any case, how likely is it that present day humanity is descended from a long line of culturally inclined pacifists in a long standing evolutionary struggle with bloody minded human warmongers?

Dirk M. Sampath.

May 2, 2013 at 7:18am

"HUnter-GAtherer and HORticultural Non-State Societies" = "HUGAHORNSS"

I. Chandler

May 2, 2013 at 8:35am

These fierce people (Yanomamo?) have started killing each other again:

"In 1968 Chagnon published a book called Yanomamo: The Fierce People. "

In 2009 Oliver Stone produced documentary film , South of the Border that describes how these people have stopped killing each other. The film was widely released in American theaters:

"anthropologists who still clung to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s comforting myth of the “noble savage”, living at peace with his neighbours"

Myths come and go. The CIA forced modern art on the proletariat to keep them from killing each other:

Douglas P. Fry

May 2, 2013 at 11:34pm

Dear Gwynne Dyer,

Your story could benefit from more fact checking. For instance, why is it that, after being asked three times, Chagnon still refuses to tell us the actual ages of his killers-with-more-kids compared to the nonkillers-with-less-kids? His whole argument hinges on comparing killers and nonkillers of the same ages, and he knows that, and he knows his two groups are not the same age. It is but one example of very sloppy science and then clinging to his flawed results. What Chagnon himself says on this topic is amusing (if not amazing):

The full thoroughly referenced article pointing out many additional problems with Chagnon’s work and interpretations can be found beginning on page 43 in the link below. Please note that this is NOT a critique of evolutionary thinking, it is a critique of shoddy science. Any journalist or interested person as easy access to such information:

If you are going to write on Chagnon and his work as an investigative journalist, my hope would be that you would investigate a bit more before putting your fingers to the keyboard.

Martin Dunphy

May 3, 2013 at 12:51am


Thanks for the post. Not to attempt to justify what you seem to regard as errors, but this column is not, as you assert, investigative journalism.
It is, as it states up top, a commentary. That puts it more in the neighbourhood of opinion as opposed to hard news.
As a syndicated columnist, Dyer isn't normally in the habit of responding to individual critiques on client websites, so I thought I would throw that out.
Point taken, though, and thanks again.

James Rowsell

May 4, 2013 at 12:47am

Napoleon Chagnon did give tribes weapons. He made weird assumptions on why they were fighting such as an unconscious complicated genetic loyalty, when often it was fighting between those who had been given gifts and those who had not. I think his work was ultimately biased as so many of his time because of a vague understanding of the emerging science of genetics. Of course genes are powerful drivers but to believe they could result in logical patterns of behaviour for preservation of genetic lines through spontaneous massacres is pretty far fetched. There was truth in his work, hunter gatherer society is far more violent, no doubt.


May 4, 2013 at 9:31pm

@Matt D

Speak for yourself....humans have made far greater things of beauty and culture than you could ever imagine with your self-loathing little mind.