, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 109-144
Date: 16 Aug 2007

Synergy Goes to War: A Bioeconomic Theory of Collective Violence

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Synergy – here defined as otherwise unattainable combined effects that are produced by two or more elements, parts or individuals – has played a key causal role in the evolution of complexity, from the very origins of life to the evolution of humankind and complex societies. This theory – known as the ‘Synergism Hypothesis’ – also applies to social behavior, including the use of collective violence for various purposes: predation, defense against predators, the acquisition of needed resources and the defense of these resources against other groups and species. Among other things, there have been (1) synergies of scale, (2) cost and risk sharing, (3) a division of labor (or, better said, a ‘combination of labor’), (4) functional complementarities, (5) information sharing and collective ‘intelligence’, and (6) tool and technology ‘symbioses’. Many examples can be seen in the natural world – from predatory bacteria like Myxococcus xanthus to social insects like the predatory army ants and the colonial raiders Messor pergandei, mobbing birds like the common raven, cooperative pack-hunting mammals like wolves, wild dogs, hyenas and lions, coalitions of mate-seeking and mate-guarding male dolphins, the well-armed troops of savanna baboons, and, closest to humans, the group-hunting, group-raiding and even ‘warring’ communities of chimpanzees. Equally significant, there is reason to believe that various forms of collective violence were of vital importance to our own ancestors’ transition, over several million years, from an arboreal, frugivorous, mostly quadrupedal ape to a world-traveling, omnivorous, large-brained, tool-dependent, loquacious biped. The thesis that warfare is not a recent ‘historical’ invention will be briefly reviewed in this paper. This does not mean that humans are, after all, ‘killer apes’ with a reflexive blood-lust or an aggressive ‘drive’. The biological, psychological and cultural underpinnings of collective violence are far more subtle and complex. Most important, the incidence of collective violence – in nature and human societies alike – is greatly influenced by synergies of various kinds, which shape the ‘bioeconomic’ benefits, costs and risks. Synergy is a necessary (but not sufficient) causal agency. Though there are notable exceptions (and some significant qualifiers), collective violence is, by and large, an evolved, synergy-driven instrumentality in humankind, not a mindless instinct or a reproductive strategy run amok.