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Leslie Sponsel opens a recent essay on the futility of violence and war with two profound questions: Is a nonkilling society possible, and what are the possibilities of a nonkilling anthropology? He adapts these two questions from Glenn D. Paige’s pathbreaking 2002 work Nonkilling Global Political Science (available on the website of the Center for Global Nonviolence). Sponsel addresses the questions from the perspective of an anthropologist rather than from that of a political scientist, which is Paige’s field.

Sponsel’s current work significantly updates an article on the natural history of peace that he published in 1996, a PDF of which is in the Archive of this website. His latest article provides an up-to-date, effective review of the literature that demonstrates the importance of peaceful societies. He describes the very real possibility that modern societies can derive profound benefits from acknowledging that peacefulness is truly possible, and that societies can re-make themselves by promoting nonkilling cultures. His current work, due for publication in a book later in 2009, is already available on the Web.

He accepts Paige’s definition of a nonkilling society as one “characterized by no killing of humans and no threats to kill; no weapons designed to kill humans and no justification for using them; and no conditions of society dependent upon threat or use of killing for maintenance or change.” Rather than just discussing nonkilling societies as a theoretical construct, however, Sponsel demonstrates that they really do exist.

He cites perhaps the most famous peaceful society of all, at least among anthropologists—the Semai of Malaysia—as well as several other nonviolent peoples. The author points out that the major difference between the highly peaceful Semai and the Waorani of Ecuador, who often used to be violent, is the fact that the former have a worldview that compels them to try to always be peaceful, while the latter readily accepted violence.

Professor Sponsel is quite decisive in his arguments about the importance of the literature. He has little patience for the Hobbesian view, held by many scholars, that humanity is, by nature, violent and warlike. “Given this extensive documentation of nonviolent and peaceful socio-cultural systems, the only way that any author, scholar, or scientist can possibly assert that human nature is inherently murderous and warlike is by ignoring the ample evidence to the contrary from a multitude of diverse sources,” he writes. Authors who defend the idea of innate human aggressiveness are either willfully ignorant, their scholarship is deficient, or, for whatever reason, they won’t deal with information that undercuts their preconceptions, he argues.

He goes much further. He points out that that the “era of lethality,” the recent few thousand year period in human history when people have been fighting wars, corresponds to the development in humanity of social inequality and complex civilizations. There is very little if any evidence of warfare before the Neolithic period—it appears to have originated with the state form of social organization. Sponsel admits, of course, that humanity cannot return to a hunter-gatherer past, but many of the more peaceful societies portrayed in the anthropological literature can provide, he maintains, heuristic models of a nonkilling society.

The author marshals arguments from other fields to demonstrate that it is certainly possible for a killing society to change into a nonkilling one. Germany and Japan, for instance, have modified themselves since the end of the Second World War into more peaceable societies. Costa Rica also demonstrates that a modern nation state can transform itself into a society that focuses, as he puts it, on “life-enhancing activities.”

Tibet is another example of a relatively peaceful state. The Tibetans choose to follow a leader, the Dalai Lama, who refuses to allow his followers to fight for their freedom from China. Sponsel suggests that, under the Dalai Lama’s leadership, “Tibetans appear to present the most outstanding case of a nonviolent response to violent invasion, occupation, and suppression.” He has hope that, given enough time, the Tibetans may be able to follow the example of the Indians when they overthrew the British Raj, the South Africans when they defeated apartheid, and the Filipinos when they got rid of the Marcos dictatorship. Some day, Tibetans may achieve a comparable victory, peacefully, in their country.

Sponsel describes in detail the landmark studies by Douglas Fry (2006 and 2007) about the importance of recognizing the human potential for peacefulness. He counsels that a large, collaborative project is needed to develop the theory and practice of peace and nonviolence, something on the scope of the Manhattan Project during World War II that developed the first atomic bomb. Not only is war too expensive in terms of human lives, it is too hard on the environment, he argues, and “indeed, war is rapidly becoming an unaffordable anachronism in the 21st century.”

The second half of the essay seeks to answer the second question that the author adapted from Paige: what are the possibilities of a nonkilling anthropology? He reviews the work of prominent anthropologists from the past who have been pacifists, such as Franz Boas, and more recent anthropologists who have promoted the study of peacefulness in human societies, such as Ashley Montagu.

Sponsel analyzes the relative lack of interest by anthropologists on nonkilling in human societies, but to judge by the forcefulness of his essay he does not appear to be discouraged that most of his colleagues still prefer to study violence and warfare rather than peacefulness and prosocial cultures. He suggests how nonkilling academic anthropology curricula could be prepared, but he recognizes that there are impediments to the further development of a more peace-focused academic agenda—such as the need to update the fundamental criteria and emphases in his profession.

Ultimately, though, Sponsel mixes realism with his hopes for a greater focus on nonkilling societies. “It is most sad to say that peace is likely to emerge and prevail globally only when it becomes more profitable than war,” he writes. It is a sad but probably valid conclusion to a profound analysis by an outstanding peace scholar.

Sponsel, Leslie E. No Date. “Reflections on the Possibilities of a Nonkilling Society and a Nonkilling Anthropology.” To Be Published in the book Towards a Nonkilling Paradigm, edited by Joam Evans. Publication expected in 2009. Available on the Web in PDF form.