War is, of course, one of the most destructive of human activities. In the past century alone, it has been the cause of enormous human suffering and perhaps 100 million premature deaths. Nor is it a recent phenomenon. In one of my books (Nature’s Magic, 2003), I develop a “plausibility argument” for the thesis that various forms of collective violence very likely can be traced back to our earliest hominid ancestors, perhaps five million years ago. Indeed, collective violence is also a common behavioral pattern in the natural world, as I discuss in detail in a full length article (“Synergy Goes to War: A Bioeconomic Theory of Collective Violence,” Journal of Bioeconomics, 2007). To borrow a line from a Cole Porter song, birds do it, bees do it, even educated chimpanzees do it.
The underlying cause of this distinctive form of behavioral cooperation, I assert, is the synergies that are produced – synergies that enable various animals collectively to achieve ends that would not otherwise be possible by acting alone. As I put it: Synergy is the cause of cooperation in nature, not the other way around.
Among the many forms of synergy that are found in collective violence are synergies of scale (often more is better), as well as the synergies achieved by a “division of labor” (though I prefer to call it a “combination of labor” – the subject for a future blog entry), and, not least, the symbiotic relationship between animals and their “weapons” (humans are not alone in using “technology” to augment their fighting abilities).
The sad conclusion of my article is that the potential for achieving synergies of various kinds serves as a major incentive for engaging in collective violence. If the perceived benefits outweigh the perceived costs/risks, the resort to collective violence (and war) is much more likely.
But perceptions can also be disastrously wrong. Thus, America invaded Iraq with the implicit goal (to tell the truth) of securing its vital oil reserves and, in the bargain, removing a political thorn and creating a friendly regime that could help in deterring other regional threats (read Iran). The American war planners believed that Iraq War Two would be brief and that the cost in lives and treasure would be low. The Americans would be greeted as liberators and would soon install a democratically-elected government that would be partial to U.S. interests. The actual result is the unforeseen reality – one of the great blunders of military history. One of Jane Austen’s most famous novels plays on the all-too-human tendency toward “pride and prejudice” – unfounded assumptions that lead to unintended and self-destructive consequences. (What could be called the “mind-trap” — making false assumptions and leaping to conclusions — will also be discussed in a future blog entry.)