The Natural Cause of War 

War has plagued humanity since the beginning of history. Nobody enjoys war, but people have fought others for centuries to defend and hold onto their beliefs. What this shows is that human nature is naturally conducive to war and conflict. As humans are prone to the wills of their environment, they have consistently been forced to fight for the little that they may have – often leading to war. One of the many types of war is civil war. Civil wars are often fought due to inequality or unfairness between social classes. It is often through a civil war that societal norms are changed, and that people are freed – for example, from bondage or from cycles of poverty. In both the Chinese Civil War in A.D 174 and the United States´ Civil War in 1861 this fundamental characteristic held true. Both the Chinese Civil War and the United States Civil War caused by fighting to free themselves from poverty, social inequality, and unfairness, are excellent examples of the root cause of war.

In China beginning in A.D. 174, an increasingly corrupt government began to sell official positions to wealthy elites in order to effectively fund the ruling governor´s lavish lifestyle. The more that subjects were willing to pay, the better and more prestigious the position they were offered. Unfortunately, and not uncommonly, the wealthy elites who received their positions began to abuse their power and military force to rob and seize private property from lower economic classes. People who labored the land for their entire lives, and barely had enough food for their families were robbed and began to starve.

To make matters worse, the only way less wealthy farmers had access to official government positions was through examinations that were extremely difficult to pass. Wealthier families were awarded most of the offices and passed these positions to their children. This left few spots for poorer families to advance through government examinations. In China Between Empires, Mark Edward Lewis confirms, “Over time, as the prestige of scholarly attainments increased, and as more and more would-be scholars competed with one another for a fixed number of positions, the chance for any given individual – especially one without family influence – fell even further” (344).

An individual’s fate was dependent upon the economic class in which they were born, thus perpetuating cycles of poverty. Those in the lower class often did not have the financial capabilities to buy the basic necessities of life, leading to great looting and robbery among lower income groups for basic staples such as food. This economic strife eventually turned into a full civil war, where many were fighting for a better future against wealthy elites. In “The Roots of War” author, Thomas Hayden, appropriately summarizes that “as resources are exhausted, he says, competition – for food, land, oil, whatever – intensifies, eventually leading to war”. In the case of the Chinese, the elites owned the majority of the land on which crops were cultivated. While lower classes may have been those who labored these lands, they were not landowners themselves and thus suffered. This lead to looting, rioting, and violence, a response we can see in our animal ancestors as well.

Strife caused by inequality is a fundamental part of being human and can be witnessed in our animal ancestors—monkeys. In a popular TED Talk titled “Moral Behavior in Animals”, Dutch scientist and researcher Frans de Waal tests how capuchin monkeys interpret or judge fairness. In the experiment, two familiar capuchins are placed side by side and a presented with a task. Each monkey must receive a rock from the investigator and return it in exchange for a reward in the form of a cucumber or grape. At first, when both monkeys receive cucumber as the reward from the experimenter, they were willing to perform the action 25 times in a row.

The test is changed when one of the monkeys receives a cucumber and the other a more desirable and delicious grape even though they have both completed an equal amount of work. The monkey who receives an inferior reward, the cucumber, noticeably turns upset and even proceeds to throw the cucumber back at the experimenter and slaps the lab table. It is this same ideology that applied in the Chinese Civil War. Wealthy families were unfairly granted the majority of official positions.

These positions often stood in the family and were passed to future generations, regardless of their skill or ability. This left little opportunity for advancement in the laborer class and led to a growing inequality and sense of unfairness in the poor majority. Like in the case of the capuchin monkey, the unfair treatment caused strife and eventually caused war. The capuchin monkey who did not receive the preferred award was quick to be distraught and showed early signs of conflict-prone behavior. Before the Chinese Civil War, a system of inequality existed where the rewards of society were consistently going to a select few. In both cases inequity lead to unrest and later full conflict.

The United States during the mid-19th century witnessed a growing separation between the economies of northern and southern states. Northern State economies relied primarily on small-scale agriculture and factory-dominated industries while in contrast southern states relied on the cultivation and farming of certain “cash” crops such as, tobacco and cotton labored by the hands of a massive number of black slaves. Southern populations treated black slaves as an item of property. The majority of slaves worked for their entire lives to make their owners wealthier but received nothing in exchange – very few gained their freedom.

Many slaves were brutally beaten or killed. Solidarity among slaves, in that families may have lived together, was some of the only psychological support that they received. However, families were not guaranteed to stay together as children and parents alike were at risk of being sold or traded to other slave owners. The fates of people were dependent upon the color of their skin and if one was black their life was most often dictated by their landowner.

Anti-slavery novels recount such histories. Harriet Beecher Stowe´s famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin (also known as Life Among the Lowly) writes “The most dreadful part of slavery, to my mind, is its outrages on the feelings and affections, — the separating of families” (126). Through virtue of human nature, witnessing the hardships and damage done to slave children was particularly important in gaining sympathy and abolition supporters. The elites of southern society relied on slaves for their wealth and for western exploration which would serve to expand southern plantation culture and economy. Not before long, the tensions between northern and southern states over slavery erupted, causing a civil war beginning in 1861. The people from the South believed that slavery was an acceptable way to earn a profit while many from the North believed it to be cruel and inhumane.

Hayden once wrote, “elite classes often stoke ideology, hatred, or a desire for revenge for their own reasons, most of which have to do with staying elite”. Slave owners may have had the option to hire people from other countries to replace slaves and still make a profit – a move which perhaps could have avoided civil war. Nonetheless this option and a similar compromise were not taken, and war was inevitable. The United States Congress passed laws to deprive the slave owners’ ability to produce crops that heavily relied on slaves. And it did not replace the slave system with other systems. This led to dissatisfaction, discontent, and unrest that ultimately started the civil war.

Once again, an analysis of humanity’s genetic relatives can provide insight into how our animal nature was a principal cause of the American Civil War. Jane Goodall´s famous observation of chimpanzee populations from 1974 to 1978 in Tanzania and the corresponding “Gombe Chimpanzee War” is such an example. In the war, the original leader of the Gombe chimpanzee group died and was in the process of electing the new leader. During the election of next leader of chimpanzees, they ended up followed two different leaders and caused the division into two groups, the north and the south.

Because of the different beliefs in the leaders of the two groups, they treated each other as strangers and with growing hostility. Conflict because of these differences began to grow and became more common and eventually triggered a total civil war between the two chimpanzee clans. With time, one group completely eliminated the other. This conflict was not caused because of a lack of food, but rather because of varying beliefs. Identical to human nature when there exists a difference in religions, ideologies, etc. humans divide with those who follow and equally identify. In the American Civil War, the country was divided based on belief systems regarding slavery and physically the North from the South. This pattern of the division exists in chimpanzees as well.

The natural growth of humans from different environments causes a gap between wealthy and poor families. In order to escalate their lavish lifestyle and as a consequence of their greed, the wealthy become richer at the expense of the poor, who slip further into an insurmountable poverty. Thankfully, humans can feel sympathy for one another and have the courage to confront others to free them from their harsh environment, even if there is a great risk to their life. Although the history of civil war, and war in general, is filled with blood, it often creates a better future for the new generations.

The violence of the Chinese civil war led to a greater equality in the dispersal of resources, greater opportunity for people of different classes, an opportunity for a person to have a say in their economic status and fate through their own choices. The destruction and aggression of the American civil war helped lead to the abolition of slavery and began a battle for Civil Rights that we continue to fight to this day. While the brutality of war is a hideous price to pay, it is worth fighting for equality, freedom, and access to resources—the root causes of both of these civil wars and arguably any war in history.


Works Cited

  1. Goodall, Jane. Jane. National Geographic, 2017. Film.
  2. Hayden, Thomas. ‘The Roots of War.’ US News & World Report. April 26, 2004 (Vol. 126, No. 4) Pp. 44-50.
  3. Lewis, Mark Edward. China between Empires: the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.
  4. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
  5. Waal, Frans de, director. Moral Behavior in Animals. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, Nov. 2011,