Brittany Collins Kaufman | December 27, 2017
Anthropologists have debated for decades whether humans living in tribal communities thousands of years ago were more or less violent than societies today. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame wonder if the question of more or less violence is the wrong one — what if it’s a matter of scale?
In a new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Rahul Oka, Ford Family Assistant Professor of Anthropology; Mark Golitko, assistant professor of anthropology; Susan Sheridan, associate professor of anthropology; and Agustín Fuentes, the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Endowed Chair in Anthropology, along with co-authors Marc Kissel of Appalachian State University and Nam C. Kim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, present data showing that the size of a society’s population is what drives the size of its “war group,” or number of people of fighting age who defend it. They also show that the size of the war group is what determines the number of casualties in a conflict.
Specifically, the researchers show that the larger the population of a society, the smaller its war group size, proportionally — which means fewer casualties in a conflict.
Instead, the researchers found that societies today are not necessarily more or less violent than past societies. The proportions are driven by a deep scaling law guiding social organization, Oka said.“Small-scale societies have a high proportion of their people involved in war,” Oka said. “Fatalities might actually be 40 to 50 percent of the group, and definitely a higher proportion of those fighting get killed. But as we go from small-scale societies to big states and conflicts between empires or nations, fatalities rarely go above 1 percent of the group populations. So if you have 100 people fighting, you might actually get 50 people dying, combatant and non-combatant. That’s 50 percent. But if you have 3 million people fighting you might get 100,000 dying, which is actually much less, proportionally, than the small-scale society. This is seen by many to suggest that contemporary large societies are less violent than past small scale societies, promoting the idea that before the state, life was nasty, brutish and short.”