Lois McMaster Bujold on War, Peace, and Status

From an interview which can be found here:

Ah, that may be the most interesting question of this interview. At the time, I thought my hosts were crazy to be seriously asking a housewife from Ohio, who’d never even been in the military, her opinions on war, but I got up some kind of speech anyhow because I wanted the free trip to Russia. But there was a kernel of original thought in my speech that still niggles at me. I got to wondering, if we could eradicate a disease like smallpox, why couldn’t we use the same medical and scientific methods to eradicate war?

Now, the scourge of smallpox was easy even as diseases go — among other things, it had a single, identifiable cause. And nobody liked smallpox — it didn’t boost anyone’s bio-social status to have a plague the way people still imagine it does to have a war. It wasn’t exciting, it didn’t involve guys hitting each other or any of the fun stuff. Ugly death without glory. (Which is actually how real death in war also is, particularly for the non-combatants who get overrun, but the young male soldiers, hopped up on their own propaganda, often don’t realize that till it’s too late.)

Nobody seemed to be thinking about war in the general bio-evolutionary terms it would take to get to the real root causes, and therefore cures. They get all caught up in mere proximate causes and stop thinking altogether.

Group violence of course goes all the way back to our chimpanzee-like ancestors. I do think that, in the end, the chimpanzee studies are going to teach us more about our humanity than all the philosophers who ever wrote. The problem with philosophers is that really smart people are also good at fooling themselves. They have to be really clever to do so, and often are. With our simian cousins, all the camouflage of language is stripped away; what is laid bare may well be the truth.

Anyway, chimps have both hunting and war parties, and up through most of the hunter-gatherer stages of our evolution, that’s what “war” was — family- and clan-based raiding parties. It seems to me that armies, which first put together larger-than-clan-based war groups, are to raiding what the invention of agriculture was to eating. They are a cultural invention that, once in place, gave the groups who took it up an unstoppable advantage over those who didn’t. And so, like agriculture, the idea of armies spread.

You can actually see the echo of clan-based raiding in the training of platoons and such, which seeks to artificially mimic the bonds of kinship among the disparate men gathered. Armies work, to a degree, because they hijack human biological predilections that are already in place.

An anthropologist who studied primitive clan-based raiding in New Guinea came up with the fascinating statistic that such endemic raids actually killed more people over time, proportionally, than all the mechanized wars of the 20th Century. If true, it makes a certain mathematical sense — the more little polities there are, the more little local wars. So the invention of armies actually reduced warfare, from a demographic point of view, from once a summer to once a generation, perhaps another secret of their success.

This is about as far as my thinking has gone so far, although it also connects up with my notions about perceived status-emergencies as the root of much irrational human behavior. But it seems to me that if folks really started thinking about war as a biological phenomenon, they might get to a recipe for peace much faster than by thinking about particular wars as if they were really about what they pretended to be about.

Another interesting excerpt from here:

1. The main characters in your books are often aristocrats of some sort. What is the reason for that and why do you reckon people like such protagonists even in a SF setting?

LMB: It is a source of some bemusement to me that my stories with aristocratic protagonists do seem to sell better than my stories with middle-class protagonists. (I’ve written both; the fact that you are more keenly aware of the first tells its own tale.) My theory is that high bio-social status is an in-built attractor, like sugar to the human palate, and for some of the same reasons.

Unlike the need for food and water and sex, status really hasn’t been studied much directly in the terms of evolutionary biology, which is the conceptual space in which I think it really belongs. But a person’s status, in a group — and humans evolved in groups — can have a profound impact on that person’s ability to access every other survival need. People in the throes of a perceived status emergency are at their most dangerous, just as if they’d been denied water or food.

But yes. Almost all people everywhere are partial to stories where the protagonists have or gain bio-social status. Most readers seem to want to identify upward, not downward. There is also, on the fairy or folk tale level, a deal of not-so-covert family psychology playing out, with kings as story-stand-ins for fathers, queens for mothers, princes as sons, princesses as daughters, and so on, which, quite literally, hits audiences where they live.

The other thing about upper-class protagonists is that they often have or seem to have more political agency, more room to move and drive the plot; more ability to act effectively. This, too, is attractive in a book’s characters. Genre readers want to read about people who are doing things.


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