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June 1979

Aggression vs. Cooperation

“As time passed and the pressure for land became severe, the ‘warfare became more common, better organized, and more institutionalized.’”

“Cooperation and Freedom Among the Fore of New Guinea.” In Learning Non-Aggression: The Experience of Non-Literate Societies. Edited by Ashley Montagu. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, pp. 12–30.

The Fore were hunter-gardeners, having already moved away from the hunting-gathering way of life. They exhibit a high degree of individual freedom and a close cooperation in searching out new garden sites, tilling them while they last, and then searching anew. This kind of proto-agriculture was a way of life which could remain stable as long as its ecological and demographic prerequisites persisted. However, in some regions settled agriculture was developing, “so what also presented itself was a kind of transformation which may have occurred extensively during the emergence of settled agricultural practice on our planet.”

In the proto-agricultural environment, infants were in almost constant bodily contact with the mother while the child was allowed considerable opportunity for exploratory activities and independence with age-mates. “Undoubtedly the lack of frustration during infancy and childhood was a key factor in the development of their cooperative and free proto-agricultural character.” This nonaggressive social system began to breakdown as settled agriculture emerged.

A time of troubles began as the different groups began to converge on the few remaining strands of virgin forest. Initial warfare began as informally organized raids. There were reprisals, usually against individuals or small groups which had violated property such as stealing from a garden or taking a pig. As time passed and the pressure for land became severe, the “warfare became more common, better organized, and more institutionalized.”

Thus three distinct ecological and demographic phases can be observed in the development of the Fore society and the growth of warfare:

  • (1) With abundant land and a structure of proto-agriculture, the society had little fighting and considerable cooperation.
  • (2) The second phase was characterized by the beginnings of competition for land as alien groups began to converge in the remaining forest. “There were increasingly frequent episodes of confusion, anger and fighting. Conflict characteristically involved small raiding bands bent on redressing specific immediate grievances. There was an increase in migration to avoid conflict.”
  • (3) In the final phase, with a rarity of new land there was an increase in sorcery, suspicions, and accusations. More organized groups and attacks began to occur including alliances to drive some groups away. Some of these then undertook migrations of some distance.

This whole process was interrupted by the arrival of officials of the Australian government. The Fore utilized the opportunity to let these officials serve as arbitrators, and “an anti-fighting ethic quickly spread through the region.” This provided an immediate solution to the warfare which might have otherwise taken a long time, if at all, to be resolved. The experience of the Fore suggests “that aggression is a culturally programmed trait which is not necessarily always adaptive or even expressed.”