File It Under Duh: People Will Fight for a Society in Which They Feel Invested

It should be self obvious, but people are more likely to work for or fight for a community in which they feel invested. Yet too many high-status people seem to forget this basic point of human nature. Societies and institutions that forget this point risk paying a hefty price.

Humans, like their chimpanzee cousins, commit war and genocide.  Warfare and raiding are often done to gain resources in both humans and our cousins. (NB: To date, we have seen violence, but not open warfare among bonobos. However, we have studied them far less in the wild, and it took a long time to see warfare in chimps.)

For much of human history, to lose at war meant severe consequences.  If lucky, you could lose your territory and your access to resources or simply be taxed heavily with tribute demands. You also could become enslaved by the victors or be murdered in a genocide.  Indeed, for much of “civilizations” history, slavery was seen as a good thing because it brought energy (in the form of the enslaved) to the land of the victors.

Most of human history and the origins of our warfare come from smaller communities, often ones in which most people knew each other within a group and ones in which the men were often related. (NB: Both bonobos and chimps live in patrilocal groups of related males and unrelated females.  About 70% of traditional human societies also practice this pattern, with women leaving their home villages to live with their husband’s people.)

Commemorative issue (year 71 BC) on the suppression of the slave revolt Sicily, legionnaire helps personify Sicilia,
Enslavement of a conquered people celebrated on a Roman coin. Commemorative issue (year 71 BC) on the suppression of the slave revolt Sicily, legionnaire helps personify Sicilia, Image and translated text from Wikimedia Commons

When war broke out, we have primarily assumed that it’s in everyone’s best interest not to be conquered, so fighting in the war would be largely voluntary in smaller, vulnerable societies.  From the perspective of kin selection, not getting killed or enslaved by the enemy is a good thing, and having your genes survive—in yourself or in your kin—is wonderful.  So, if you are part of a coalition of related males, you should fight like mad to keep you and your brothers alive.

In modern genocides, we have seen some of this same core behavior at work.  Many genocides start with a gendercide—the murder of the males and claiming the females for rape and impregnation.  Full genocides may then follow.

Reverse of a Roman coin dated (270-275 a.d.) showing Sol holding a globe in his right hand and two captives bound at his feet. Sol is pointedly resting his foot on the bound hands of one of the captives. Then as now, fuel (energy) was a resource worth fighting for. In the modern world, it is often oil. Then, the energy sources were wood and slaves. The book, Silent Consent, envisions a world that has returned to the use of slave labor as a primary source of energy. (Photo by Portable Antiques Scheme

To prevent death, coalitions form within and among groups.  Status and the control of resources often reflect their ability to fight and to win.  Many factors can complicate who aligns with whom.  However, according to a 2017 study in PLoS, when other factors are held constant, egalitarian societies tend to defeat the more despotic, resource-monopolizing ones. Amazingly, populations that feel vested in a community and its resources tend to fight harder and defeat groups that retain control over resources within a tiny fraction of the group. A model by Tverskoi (et al., 2021) showed that solid democratic institutions reduced the variation in the power between societal members and promoted group cohesion in times of stress, including conflicts with other societies.

Even in the face of a despotic enemy, most people will retain within-group loyalty. Treason and open support of the enemy is unlikely.  UNLESS (and yes, it deserves all caps), they perceive their home group as more despotic than the attackers.  Then, defection may improve access to resources and the ability to procreate.

But what about genocide?  Well, according to the PLOS study summarized here, genocidal warfare seems most common when a despotic group attacks a more egalitarian group. 

Pandit, S.; Pradhan, G., van Schaik, C. (2017). A model for warfare in stratified small-scale societies: The effect of within-group inequality.

Tverskoi, D., Senthilnathan, A., & Gavrilets, S. (2021). The dynamics of cooperation, power, and inequality in a group-structured society.  file:///C:/Users/circa24/AppData/Local/Temp/Cooperation_power_inequality.pdf

Silent Consent is a dystopian novel that asks how we might behave if our world lost its reserves of fossil fuels. It envisions a world with a brutal caste system. The leaders, the Patrician and Geneol castes dominate the Plebeians that do much of the skilled labor. The energy source for the society comes mainly from the Nameless that serve, as the Romans phrased it, nothing but machines that can talk and walk. They can be used for any purpose without fear of reprisal. Like other enslaved people, they receive no recognition of their person-hood. Portrayed as nothing but a criminal element deserving of punishment, they are beaten, physically and sexually abused, and publicly humiliated.

In light of the above findings, how much loyalty could Patricians and Geneols expect from the Plebeians and the Nameless? It would depend on how despotic the surrounding states were and their relative sense of security and welfare within the Founder’s States. The Plebeians would also be likely to consider if their status, relative to the Nameless, would at least remain undiminished in a conflict.

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