[evolutionary-psychology] Bluster and battle: it's in the genes
- The Telegraph - Connected2
Bluster and battle: it's in the genes
Do the recent Nato bombing raids serve to show how primitive we really are,
asks Raj Persaud
THE mistakes made by Nato politicians and generals could be the inevitable
result of evolutionary biology, suggests a new paper published in America.
Professor Richard Wrangham, Chair of Biological Anthropology at Harvard
University, has just published his paper, "Is Military Incompetence Adaptive?"
in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.
In it he notes that we seem to be the only species which battles with its own
kind, with the possible exception of ants.
However, Prof Wrangham believes the Nato bombing campaign is not so much
battling as raiding, which is also rare in nature, but less so than battles.
A study of 21 primitive human societies suggested raids account for 0.5 per
cent of deaths in such societies each year - equivalent to more than one
billion war deaths if raiding occurred at similar rates worldwide in the 20th
century. This high level of mortality in our primitive past means raiding must
have played a vital role in determining who passed on their genes to the next
Interestingly, the only other mammals besides ourselves which raid are our
closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees.
Prof Wrangham argues that our brains are evolved to raid. But battles have no
known analogy in chimpanzees or other primates. This suggests an evolutionary
reason, linked to a particular inclination of human brains to believe they are
going to win - no matter how unlikely victory might be.
This leads us to the prevalence of deception in war, an association which dates
back to the Trojan horse legend and beyond. Churchill is reported to have said
"in time of war, the truth is so precious it must be attended by a bodyguard of
lies". The point seems to be that victory in human fights, unlike nature in
general, is often linked not to simply superior resources, but to ingenuity in
fooling the enemy.
Based on observations of great apes and bushmen, who seem to spend much more
time using their brain power to manipulate each other rather than the
environment, evolutionary biologists argue that intelligence evolved in humans
more to assist in deceiving each other and detecting deception, rather than
solving physical problems.
Prof Wrangham argues that a tendency towards self-deception has been wired into
our brains by evolution. We tend to overestimate our own abilities, while we
underestimate and belittle the strengths and capacities of our opponents.
This offers an evolutionary advantage. Self-belief enhances cohesiveness and
co-operation in your group, while experiments have shown that believing you are
going to win, no matter the odds, diverts attention from anxiety, pain and
fatigue when in competition.
As well as enhancing performance, positive self-illusions may also be good for
your mental health: the clinically depressed are more accurate in their
assessment of their abilities than the non-depressed, who suffer from an
Another benefit of deceiving yourself is that you might also mislead the enemy,
weakening their resolve to fight.
Bluffing can be found in nature, where many animals raise their hair or spread
their feathers in an effort to appear bigger. However, unlike humans, they do
not have the capacity to recognise deceit and consider a counter-deception in
Once this capacity to ponder the possibility of deception in your enemy
evolved, as it did in humans, an arms race of bluff and counter bluff emerged.
Prof Wrangham argues that Nato might believe it has weighed up the costs of
raiding so well that it can conclude it is good at military assessment. But if
Nato starts a battle, according to his theory, we can expect repeated
mis-calculation on both sides, based on self-delusion about the costs and
benefits of the war.
The Serbian military might will be assessed with increasing cynicism by Nato,
giving undue credit to Nato abilities, and reports of Serbian unity will be
discounted. Prof Wrangham believes that such miscalculation - and the risk of
disaster that it carries - can best be avoided by the decision makers
consulting people who are not psychologically committed to the outcome of the
The writer is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London
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