Saturday, 11 January 2014

New Evolution Story: Lethal Weapons Caused the Evolution of Civilisation

The key to civilisation? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

The one thing that Darwinian stories do not lack is vivid imagination.

Eating meat supposedly gave us big brains. There are intriguing tales on how we lost our fur. But all such stories rely more on imagination than on evidence.

When one story fails, another springs up to take its place.

An article in New Scientist attempts to describe the evolution of civilisations:

From the very first spear to nuclear bombs, deadly weapons have directed the course of our cultural evolution.”

The story introduces a weapon that is assumed to be the mother (or father) of all modern weapons:

“IT'S about 2 metres long, made of tough spruce wood and carved into a sharp point at one end. The widest part, and hence its centre of gravity, is in the front third, suggesting it was thrown like a javelin. At 400,000 years old, this is the world's oldest spear. And, according to a provocative theory, on its carved length rests nothing less than the foundation of human civilisation as we know it, including democracy, class divisions and the modern nation state.”

Yes, it is provocative because it is mostly based on speculation of how society could have developed:

At the heart of this theory is a simple idea: the invention of weapons that could kill at a distance meant that power became uncoupled from physical strength. Even the puniest subordinate could now kill an alpha male, with the right weapon and a reasonable aim. Those who wanted power were forced to obtain it by other means - persuasion, cunning, charm - and so began the drive for the cognitive attributes that make us human. ‘In short, 400,000 years of evolution in the presence of lethal weapons gave rise to Homo sapiens,’ says Herbert Gintis, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who studies the evolution of social complexity and cooperation.”

The article writer discloses her evolutionary bias by stating:

The puzzle of how humans became civilised has received new impetus from studies of the evolution of social organisation in other primates.”


Spinney, Laura. 2012. Lethal weapons and the evolution of civilisation. New Scientist 2886. 46-49.