The History of the Culture of War
Enemy images: cultural or biological? 5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state

The History of the Culture of War

What is culture and how does it evolve?

Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness

The culture of war in prehistory

Data from prehistory before the Neolithic

Enemy images: culture or biology

War and the culture of war at the dawn of history

--Ancient Mesopotamia

--Ancient Egypt

--Ancient China

--Ancient Greece and Rome

--Ancient Crete

--Ancient Indus civilizations

--Ancient Hebrew civilization

--Ancient Central American civilization

Warfare and the origin of the State

Religion and the origin of the State

A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history

The internal culture of war: a taboo topic

The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: its increasing monopolization by the state

--1.Armies and armaments

--2.External conquest and exploitation: Colonialism and Neocolonialism

--3.The internal culture of war and economies based on exploitation of workers and the environment

--4.Prisons and penal systems

--5.The military-industrial complex

--6.The drugs-for-guns trade

--7.Authoritarian control

--8.Control of information

--9.Identification of an "enemy"

--10.Education for the culture of war

--11.Male domination

--12.Religion and the culture of war

--13.The arts and the culture of war



Summary of the history of the culture of war


Although the Seville Statement on Violence has shown, through the scientific evidence, that warfare is a cultural and not a biological behavior, there remains another persistent and related question: are enemy images cultural or biological in origin.

This is an important question because we have seen that even the most "primitive" warfare known, the feuding of Australian aborigines, is justified in terms of the vengeance necessary against an enemy. To quote again from the description above: "Some few months earlier an Alice Springs native had died, and his death was attributed by the medicine men to the fact that he had been killed by the evil magic of a man living some 130 miles away to the north-west . . It will not be very long before a return atninga will be organized to visit the Alice Springs group, and then probably the old man's death will be avenged. In this way, year after year, an endless vendetta is maintained among these tribes . . "

This question is also important because vengeance remains an essential aspect of the culture of war in the contemporary world. Just to cite two recent examples, President George W. Bush invented the excuse that Iraq was preparing nuclear weapons to be used against the United States in order to justify his 2003 invasion of Iraq, and President Lyndon Johnson invented an attack on U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin in order to justify his 1965 invasion of Vietnam.

Do other mammals have "enemies" and, if so, are they cultural or biological. This is a question that I have dealt with in my reviews of the brain mechanisms of aggressive behavior (Adams 1979, 2006). It turns out that in most mammals the brain mechanism of offense (angry attack) is triggered principally, although not exclusively by olfactory stimuli. One mammal sniffs another and if the odors are of the same sex and unfamiliar, the attack mechanism is triggered. This mechanism is probably still intact in the human brain and may explain some cases of human fighting related to very intimate behaviors, but that is not the subject of the present book, and it certainly has nothing to do with human warfare.

Long ago, humans abandoned sniffing each other as a means of initiating behavior, and thereby abandoned biological motivations for sexual and aggressive behavior, replacing them with cultural customs and behaviors. Perhaps the most colorful description of this cultural evolution is that of Sigmund Freud (1930) in a footnote to his book Civilization and Its Discontents:

"The organic periodicity of the sexual process has persisted, it is true, but its effect on psychical sexual excitation has rather been reversed. This change seems most likely to be connected with the diminution of the olfactory stimuli . . The diminution of the olfactory stimuli seems itself to be a consequence of man's raising himself from the ground, of his assumption of an upright gait . . The fateful process of civilization would thus have set in with man's adoption of an erect posture . ."

Freud based his argument about the process of civilization on the diminished role of olfactory stimuli as a stimulus for sexual behavior, but the argument is equally valid for the diminished role of olfactory stimuli as a stimulus for aggressive behavior.

Non-human primates continue to sniff each other and to engage in sexual and aggressive behavior that is triggered by the perceived odors, but already at a point of evolution millions of years ago, non-human primates began to involve engage cultural as well as biological factors in their aggressive behavior. In particular, non-human primates as well as humans engage in the behavior of punishment, in which the biological behaviors of attack are triggered by cultural phenomena (Adams 1986):

"The best evidence I know was gathered by Japanese investigators (Imanishi 1957; Kawamara, 1959) of macaque cultural behavior back in the 1950's . .

'Among Japanese macaques, the behavior of some monkeys often implies the function of cultural inhibition. Mothers often show such behaviors to keep their infants away from dangerous objects, and the leaders do this also . . At the Minoo Ravine, when I tried to capture monkeys of the B Troop by a trap, the predominant male held back the monkeys from approaching the trap and attacked the individuals that dared to do so. In the Takago-S Troop, we saw some infants trying to get the bait we had prepared for them, and being driven away by the leaders. In such a way, when any danger is likely to be incurred by the youngsters' 'free floating behavior,' some controlling actions were exercised to check them.'"

. . What is the value of punishing behavior? Kawamura points out, in the quotation above, that punishment serves to pass on the social knowledge of dangerous situations from one generation to another. The dominant males and the mothers of infants teach the young animals by punishment to avoid certain kinds of behavior or situations.

Punishing behavior differs in a very important respect from the kind of aggressive behavior that we observe in rats, called offense, which is probably homologous. The motivational stimuli for offense in rats consist of attributes of the opponent such as the odors which indicate whether it is male or female, mature or immature, familiar or unfamiliar. But in the case of punishment, we must deal with a completely new kind of motivating stimuli. It is not the stimulus attributes of the opponent, but the behavior of the opponent that elicits the aggressive response. This is a much more sophisticated kind of stimulus than those which operate in the case of the rat."

Ironically, in the paper cited above, I was trying to explain not warfare but the righteous indignation of peace activists. Hence the title of the paper was The Role of Anger in the Consciousness Development of Peace Activists: Where Physiology and History Intersect. The paper goes on to consider the origin of the superego which is one of the basic mechanisms for the elaboration of cultural behaviors and which, it turns out, originates from the internalization of aggressive behavior.

For those who wish to find the evolutionary precursors of enemy images in our biological ancestors, I recommend that they begin looking at the origins of cultural rather than biological motivational stimuli, and a good place to begin would be the cultural phenomenon of punishment. To this day when political and military leaders call upon their people to "punish the enemy", they are drawing upon cultural behavior that is known by almost every human being from experience in their own family.

To take part in a discussion about this page, click below on the Culture of Peace Dialogues:

discussion board

World Peace through the Town Hall


1) The difference between "peace" and "culture of peace" and a brief history of the culture of war

2) The role of the individual in culture of war and culture of peace

3) Why the state cannot create a culture of peace

4) The important role of civil society in creating a culture of peace

--Peace and disarmament movements

--Ecology movement

--Movements for human rights

--Democracy movements

--Women's movement

--International understanding, tolerance and solidarity

--Movements for free flow of information

--The strengths and weaknesses of civil society

5) The basic and essential role of local government in culture of peace

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality


--Transparency and the free flow of information

--Education for a culture of peace

--Security and public safety

--Some ongoing initiatives

6) Assessing progress toward a culture of peace at the local level

--Culture of peace measurement at the level of the state

7) Going global: networking of city culture of peace commissions

8) The future transition of the United Nations from control by states to popular control through local governmental representatives

9) What would a culture of peace be like?