Public Release: 

Revenge motivates tribal warfare

Penn State

Probably the single most common motive mentioned by tribal warriors when asked why they go to war, is revenge, according to a Penn State anthropologist. "The impulse for revenge is far from being uniquely human," says Dr. Stephen Beckerman, associate professor of anthropology.

"Clutton-Brock and Parker show how widespread in the animal kingdom is the behavior of returning injury for injury. Animals as varied and as far from us as blue-footed boobies, elephant seals, side-striped jackals and European moorhens are called punishers; they regularly respond to injuries by attacking the culprit who has injured them."

Beckerman notes that among some primates, injured individuals may punish one of his or her attacker's relatives rather than punish the attacker or, in other primates, the punishment may be meted out not to a relative, but to a friend or ally of the victim. Presumably, they intend this behavior to be negative reinforcement; training others to act so they do not damage the fitness of the punisher.

"When we come to blood revenge among human beings, it is helpful to remember that we seem to be dealing with something that is not so different from behaviors we already see in primates," Beckerman told attendees today (Feb. 14) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.

Human revenge is concerned with dominance and status as is that of other primates, and often revenge is taken on a relative or ally. Perhaps one difference is that animal punishment as defined by Clutton-Brock and Parker disavows "a conscious decision or a moral sense on the part of the punisher."

Humans add to the widespread, angry animal impulse to punish, a conscious sense of what the reception of punishment will be and achieve, and that consciousness moves the act from animal punishment to human revenge.

"Revenge is a desire to not just punish the culprit, but to change his mind, to make him see, if only in his death throws, that he was wrong," said Beckerman.

This idea of revenge colors the methods and approaches of tribal warfare. After the psychological basis for revenge in providing negative reinforcement there are the social rules developed to carry out this revenge. The idea of blood revenge - a life for a life, an eye for an eye - is of concern to social groups because the injured party is usually already dead.

"The general rule is that you are prohibited from taking blood revenge on those who would be obliged to avenge you, if you were killed," said Beckerman.

So, among the inner circle, or within the social group, revenge is forbidden. However, at a further distance, with those groups a tribe has close contact with, reciprocal exchange and trade, revenge is acceptable, but constrained by rules. At this intermediate social distance, the groups share enough values and beliefs on what injuries need revenge and how that revenge is carried out to have rules as to who is an acceptable target of revenge. These rules, which include who can carry out revenge against whom, where it can occur and for what reason, are attempts to achieve an equal balance of injuries.

"Sometimes feud goes on for centuries, but reciprocal violence at this middle social distance can also be self-limiting," said the Penn State anthropologist.

At the greatest social distance, the people are essentially strangers and evoke the bloodiest revenge without an attempt at balance. Revenge against foreigners is often disproportionate to the initial injury and often deliberately full of atrocities. The aim is not to achieve balance, but to attain total submission or extermination.

While within group revenge episodes are unusual, tribal members cannot always prevent someone who is so angry they inflict revenge on an in-law, brother or cousin, but taking that revenge is outside the rules. On the intermediate level, the value of ritualized revenge, seems to be that any group that is not willing to retaliate blood for blood finds its resources, land and homes plundered, women carried off and men bullied.

Revenge is not always an immediate act. Sometimes a group must wait for adequate manpower, resources and opportunity. During the recent fighting in the former Yugoslavia, some leaders rallied their forces by evoking the defeat at the hands of the Moslems that occurred 900 years before they were born. Revenge has a long memory.

Beckerman notes, however, that currently we do not operate on the tribal level and that a watershed in human history occurred when the decision to go to war was no longer made by those who fight the wars.


Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.