The controversial nature of this topic seems patently obvious. After all, the killing of our own species seems morally repugnant to most people. Nonetheless, deeply imbedded in human acts of war there exist primal responses that at times characterize the competitive behavior found throughout the animal world. To say that warfare is our evolutionary heritage probably is not truly appropriate, since cooperation must have been at least as important as competition over the long haul of human history. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that more recent wars among humans do have a long history of engaged groups as they competed for space, resources, and ideologies. From an evolutionary perspective, inter-group selection is a model that has been applied to human population genetics (Cavalli-Sforza & Bodmer, 1999). The question posed here is: Has warfare served to check population growth among humans?
In an earlier appraisal of this matter, Bates (1968) stated that while it was difficult to accurately document by numbers, recurring wars between 1650 and 1950 did not effectively slow the rate of worldwide human growth. He reasoned that there was indeed a decline in birth rate due to disruption of families, and of course there were wartime casualties and attendant mortality due to famine and disease. But postwar "baby booms" seem to have allowed populations to rapidly recover their wartime losses. On the other hand, Bates (1968) also argued, based on research done by Alfred Kroeber, that some Eastern Native American tribes may have had their population growth limited due to sustained war. But once again this kind of conjecture is unencumbered with clear numerical documentation.
While this very brief discussion does not delve very thoroughly into the matter, it does seem probable that warfare per se has not systematically resulted in checking human population growth, at least in terms of worldwide trends. This does not mean that in more localized areas, and perhaps in much earlier times, war and warlike activities were not limiting the rate of population growth, and in some cases could well have precipitated massive depopulation and even extinction of some groups. As pointed out by Harris and Ross (1987), it is important to distinguish between warfare as carried out at the village and band level, which likely did restrain population growth, from war and conquests in imperial contexts which were carried out for territorial expansion. And then, in either case, it is important to note that numbers do not tell the whole story of the misery and suffering connected with warfare.
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