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Natural Selection and Warfare

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The Yanomamo of the Amazon areas of Venezuela and Brazil, sometimes called “the fierce people” are well known for their high level of personal violence and frequent tribal warfare. Different anthropologists such as Napoleon Chagnon and Brain Ferguson view Yanomamo violence from different perspectives and as central to the Yanomamo culture.

Role of the Theory of Evolution in the Tribal Warfare of the Yanomamo

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution emphasized variability in behavior within the population and contingency in the environments. Even if aggression and warfare bring benefits to individual Yanomami men, this does not justify the conclusion that warfare is in any universal sense adaptive.  Layton (2006) says that not all Yanomami men are killers and those who seek for such a reputation take advantage of a particular instability of Yanomami alliances that stems from the difficulty of sustaining trust between villages.

The Yanomamo tribal warfare illustrates the fragility of social institutions. It has also become a test case for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution primarily because of the difficulty of explaining their peculiar form of warfare (Johnson, 2000). The Yanomamo warfare has matured and it has tended to coincide with theories focusing on reproduction and natural selection. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution plays an important role in the tribal warfare of the Yanomamo because it presents the problem of group selection in an acute form (Layton, 2006). The Yanomamo tribal warfare means that the process of natural selection works so that to encourage such behavior and promote the fitness of individual people for survival and reproduction. This is supported by the fact that men who participate in Yanomamo warfare raids and ambushes have more wives and children than others, and men who avoid warfare suffer reproductively (Thayer, 2004).

Arguments of Napoleon Chagnon in Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest in Yanomamo Warfare

In his original descriptions of the Yanomamo tribal warfare, Chagnon emphasized that they fought for many reasons which include women who they say are scarce; for revenge of suspected sorcery and for real past injury. The political system is too weak to prevent such warfare. Johnson (2000) noted that Chagnon has espoused the bio-evolutionary concept of inclusive fitness marshalling evidence to show that success in war, intimidation, and political maneuvering correlates with success in reproduction. Chagnon therefore says that Yanomamo men do not fight just over women but over the means of reproduction.

Chagnon explains ongoing Yanomamo warfare and violence as a way of preserving autonomy. Nanda &Warms (2009) indicated that the high degree of violent conflicts between men within villages leads to the division of villages into hostile camps. Chagnon, further, argues that in order to survive as an independent unit in an environment of constant warfare, a village adopts a hostile and aggressive stance toward other villages, perpetuating inter-village and tribal warfare in an endless cycle. Chagnon also says that the gender inequity perpetuates fighting and raiding to acquire women from other villages which in turn escalate further warfare evens.

In addition, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon argues that natural selection for human aggression is demonstrated by his finding that some Yanomamo headmen who gained reputation for aggressiveness had more children than less prominent men did. According to Chagnon, aggressive men, within limits, succeed in leaving more offsprings than men who are intimidated and dominated. Johnson (2000) noted that the debate of Chagnon over causes of Yanomamo warfare has evolved to focus on theories of reproduction and natural selection and those focusing on production and adaptation. Chagnon favors a bio-materialist interpretation of band and tribal warfare, arguing that the Yanomamo fight over women and that they have a natural tendency toward violence that, in the absence of a state, cannot be suppressed resulting in survival of the fittest.

Counter-Arguments by Ferguson Against this Idea

Anthropologist Brian Ferguson (1992) argues that the extreme Yanomamo tribal warfare documented by Napoleon Chagnon in the 1960s was precipitated in the 1940s as a result of severe depopulation due to European disease epidemics, fatal malnutrition and intensified competition over European goods (Nanda & Warms, 2009). Ferguson says that the high death rate led to disruption of Yanomamo family life, and negotiating marriages became particularly difficult due to the deaths of adult males. In addition, Ferguson refutes Chagnon’s view by saying that the Yanomamo’s desire for European manufactured goods especially metal machetes, axes, and knives, which are very useful for horticulturalists increased competition among Yanomamo males, and firearms substantially increased the number of fatalities in warfare (Nanda &Warms, 2009).   

Ferguson also established that while previously such goods were traded into even remote Yanomamo villages, by the 1960s, the desire to acquire these goods led to the increasing settlement of Yanomamo around European outposts such as missionary stations. This led to the depletion of game, a highly desired food for Yanomamo cultivators who were also hunters. Nanda &Warms (2009) say that with the depletion of game, cultural norms of reciprocity broke down, meat was less likely to be shared and conflict within villages increased. Ferguson further contests Chagnon’s sentiments saying that the increased inter-village warfare reinforced the low status of Yanomamo women and helped further male violence against them, perpetuating the cycle of female infanticide, shortage of women, and the raids of women described by Chagnon.

Ferguson’s study of the Yanomamo confirms Chagnon’s argument that the Yanomamo wage war for resources, to destroy competitors for valuable resources and to gain Western goods. Thayer (2004) says that the Yanomamo often covet metal tools such as machetes and cooking pots, and the control over access to them through contact with business or miners becomes an important source of power in relationship between clans who have an access and those who are more isolated. Ferguson thus reveals that Yanomami who monopolize sources of Western manufacturers are able to use their position as middlemen to obtain local products, women, and labor from more isolated villages (Thayer, 2004).


In conclusion, it can be noted that most tribal and primitive warfares in societies such as the Yanomamo should be considered as just one kind of conflict of interest between individuals and groups of individuals. These larger conflicts grow out of a sequence of previous conflicts of interests among smaller groups, often can be traced back to single conflicts between specific individuals. The most common cause of tribal warfare among the Yanomamo results from male-male competition for females, resources and certain types of goods as highlighted by Ferguson and Chagnon.

An evolutionary perspective is important and valuable in Yanomamo tribal warfare as it results in higher fitness for individuals bearing traits such as warriors who for this reason have been favored by natural selection and survival of the fittest over the past millennia. However, the view that war has evolved as an adaptation to enhance male reproductive success raises a pile of theoretical problems. The basis of evolutionary theory is based on the fact that while foraging civilizations characteristically have no idea of structured warfare, the Yanomamo have institutionalized warfare and violence over the past century.

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