Teaching the biology of war in

a human sociobiology course:

can it be done and should it be done?*

(Summary version)

Peter Nicholls

Department of Biological Sciences,

University of Essex, Central Campus,

Wivenhoe Park, Colchester,

Essex CO4 3SQ, England.





The revolution in evolutionary thinking over the last 30 years demands, on strictly scientific grounds, inclusion of material on sociobiology in any rounded biology programme at university level. In 1997 I taught such a course, 'Human Sociobiology', as a complement to courses on evolution and animal behaviour at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. The texts were Alexander (1) and Midgley (2) but much subsidiary reading was recommended. I deliberately included material on violence and war.


The first theme was E. O. Wilson's 'central problem of sociobiology' (3) - how altruism (in both its metaphorical biological sense and its moral sense) can have evolved. The second theme was 'inclusive fitness', an idea invented by the late William Hamilton (4) and used by Robert Trivers in creating his concept of 'reciprocity' (5). Hamilton simultaneously extended the concept of natural selection on the one hand from level of the individual to that of the gene, but on the other hand to kin selection. Thirdly, we discussed game theory - an elementary grasp of which is essential to understanding reciprocity. Anatol Rapoport (6), Honorary President of Science for Peace and guest lecturer in the course, discussed the Prisoners' Dilemma example - a theoretical area to which he has made major contributions. Game theory can be applied to both human and animal behaviour and both instinctual 'game' playing (the dung fly's search for a mate) and conscious game playing (chimpanzee social behaviour) are possible.

Does conscious game playing call for a large brain and did sexual selection play a significant role in this (7)? The powerful selective pressure for increase in brain size still lacks an adequate explanation; indeed this was the area where Wallace (8) deviated from his adherence to strict Darwinian natural selection. Why are our cousins the great apes so much less thoughtful than we are, if indeed they are? How does this relate to the evolution of morality discussed by Huxley (9) and Alexander (1)? The development of moral ideas in the individual, in societies, and in the species (the ontogeny and phylogeny of morality) are analysed by Kohlberg (10). Alexander used his ideas to create a fully sociobiological (evolutionary) model of moral development.

The final topic was violence - the "Sögennante Bose" (so-called evil) of Konrad Lorenz (11). Both homicide and war were analysed in terms of multiple causal dimensions (pace Hans Eysenck) using examples provided by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson (12), who also lectured in the course, and by Lewis Fry Richardson (13). A dimensional analysis of homicide (12) permits a distinction between the factors that determine murder rates in various societies (16), which can be very different, as when Detroit is compared with all of Canada. Nevertheless the overall patterns of homicides as functions of gender and age in such cases are almost identical. The "social" dimension of murder rates depends upon the societal differences in education, gun ownership and history, but the "biological" dimension is determined by sex, age, and family and group membership patterns. The former we can change by sociopolitical means, the latter less easily. In the case of war (13) there both political dimensions - borders and boundaries, armies and armaments, history - and also other more biological dimensions. Violence, both individual and societal, has some components that can be modulated and others which perhaps cannot be.


The covert agenda was of course "peace education" - if there be any such thing. This had to be kept alive by sustaining an atmosphere oriented towards peace rather than by introducing any particular subject matter. There are inevitable paradoxes involved in treating human beings as animals and also as moral entities. I tried to overcome the image of sociobiology as a reactionary science in which anything human is either morally acceptable or psychologically inevitable or both.

An important aim was first to make "naturalism" comfortable to the students - so that they were able to 'see' human beings as animals, difficult even for prospective biologists (2). A second aim was to show how a kind of group selection favourable to morality can be rescued by emphasizing the gene and deemphasizing the individual. A third aim was to explore the world of metaphor - the biological vs. the social uses of terms like "altruism" and "selfishness". I asked the class to think about some fictional cases - Dick Dudgeon in Shaw's Devil's Disciple and the nuns in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (both playing nearby at the time) as well as real world examples like Che Guevara (it was the 30th. anniversary of his death) - but few recognised the latter name.

A key 'symbolic' element was the discussion of the sociobiology of food and blood. Blood-sucking bats - the vampires of myth and legend - are a classic example of animal world 'altruism', successful hunters sharing their blood meals with the less successful (17). This permitted a comparison with the human case of blood sharing - the 'gift relationship' of Titmuss (18), as well as of food sharing (in the classical accounts of relationships between whites, Indians and Inuit in the exploration of Canada's North).

The Prisoners' Dilemma game theoretic model could be brought alive in two ways: (i) by the account of Rapoport's famous victory in Axelrod's tournament (19) - the 'tit-for-tat' strategy; and, (ii) with corresponding real life examples which included the 'live-and-let-live' strategies adopted by groups of enemies in WWI (19). The uncomfortable relationships between life and work in this area are splendidly recounted by William Hamilton (20) in his accounts of the life and tragic death of his colleague George Price, and of his ambivalent relationship with his father. I and my Brock colleague Jim Mayberry, who discussed game theory with the class, were close together but on opposite sides of the Pentagon gates during the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in 1967. An even darker political-historical dimension is that in Konrad Lorenz's life, perhaps colouring his science and throwing some light on the differences between his 'ethology' and contemporary 'sociobiology', and between the alternative terminologies of 'drives' and of 'interests' (11).

Different views of human evolution - the dark one of Kubrick's 2001, where primitive weapons led directly to modern technology, and the more optimistic one in which mutual grooming leads to language and multilayered cooperation - were discussed in deciding the origins of violence. The sociobiology of some seemingly unexpected human traits could be examined, including the case(s) of the Argentinean secret policemen who adopted the children of the 'disappeared' - those that they or their colleagues had themselves killed - and then went into hiding to avoid losing the kids when the regime fell from power and the real grandparents sought their grandchildren's return.

The status of capital punishment was treated according to Alexander and Kohlberg, as an 'early' stage in the development of the idea of justice in the individual and in society. Then the real examples of the grotesque statements on the subject from the pro-execution Attorney-General of Florida were placed before the class for comparison.

Finally war itself was discussed. It was surprisingly difficult to talk to a class of students about 'evil' and certainly different from teaching biochemistry. We covered the nature of authority and the mechanism of indoctrination, using the example cited by Alexander (1) of Stanley Milgram's experiments on deference even to the preparedness to inflict pain and injury. We discussed the My Lai massacre and the different responses of Lieutenant Calley, of his superior officers, of the helicopter crews and the ground troops - a horrific confrontation that led not only to the deaths of several hundred innocent Vietnamese but also to American guns being levelled at American troops and to American soldiers shooting themselves to escape the moral and physical conflict. We took a Canadian soldier's example of his reluctance to kill from the UN experience in Katanga, even though his life was at risk and he had just witnessed an atrocity carried out by the Katangese gendarmerie whom he was facing (21). But he had to do it all the same. I pointed out that the soldier was younger than most members of the class. Who are the soldiers? Have they changed attitudes as a result of modern training methods ande become less inhibited killers?


The students mostly persisted in the course even when they had an opportunity to drop out. One or two were verbally appreciative. Their attitude towards the overt agenda was healthily critical but their average academic performance was limited and disappointing to me. They were occasionally puzzled by the hints of the covert agenda. Was I, my wife Freda asked, the only one to learn from the course? Hopefully not, but those who did start to learn a different way of thinking were indubitably in a minority.

So my last lecture at Brock was not on the Krebs' cycle but on the 'biology of war' - a perhaps self-indulgent flourish but one I do not regret. The course outline and the full recommended reading list are still on the web site at:


Nothing dies on the web.


1. Richard D. Alexander (1987) The Biology of Moral Systems (Aldine de Gruyter).

3. Edward O. Wilson (1975) Sociobiology: the New Synthesis (Harvard U. Press).

10. Lawrence L. Kohlberg (1981) Essays on moral development (Harper and Row).

12. Martin Daly & Margo Wilson (1987) Homicide (Aldine de Gruyter).

18. Richard M. Titmuss (1971) The Gift Relationship (Penguin Books).

19. Robert Axelrod (1984) The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic Books)

21. Dave Grossman (1995) On Killing (Little, Brown).