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Waging war: The curse of human intelligence

ORONO With America and its allies poised to attack Iraq and the U.S. and North Korea locked in a showdown over nuclear weapons, diplomats and politicians would do well to remember that humans may have nuclear technology but still only possess stone-age brains. This is often a lethal combination, says University of Maine anthropologist Paul Roscoe who will present a paper on tribal warfare in New Guinea today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.

Roscoe has extensively studied revenge as a motive for war among tribes in New Guinea and concludes that killing enemies to avenge the death of kin something only humans do is probably not a useful evolutionary adaptation. This is because lethal revenge most frequently fuels more killing rather than deterring it, says the professor of anthropology and cooperating professor of Quaternary and Climate Studies at UMaine.

"I argue that revenge is probably not an adaptive feature because revenge is not good for you," Roscoe says. Evolutionarily speaking, it does not make sense to engage in behavior that may not only kill yourself but also other members of your clan or tribe. Writ large in a thermonuclear exchange, revenge killing could theoretically wipe out your entire species. "It makes evolutionary sense to fight and then back off."

Humans have, in a sense, deviated from the evolutionary path by engaging in revenge killings and warfare. They do so because their technical ability to harm one another has outpaced their social and cultural abilities to deal with behavior that might not be so wise, Roscoe surmises. Only in the last 10,000 years of human existence have people evolved from hunters and gatherers with spears to glorified hunters and gatherers with thermo-nuclear weapons.

"We may have nuclear technology, but we still have stone-age brains," Roscoe says. "Our social and political systems are slow to adapt in comparison to the pac
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Contact: Susan Young
susan.young@umit.maine.edu
207-581-3756
University of Maine
14-Feb-2003


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