Reading about past times or current events can lead us to think that conflicts are inherent to humans. But others may argue that war does not come naturally to us, i.e. it is not an inevitable product of the human condition.
What is clear is that we are not the only species that starts wars and commits atrocities against other groups. By studying other species, we can learn how our conflicts relate to those of other animals. Aggressive confrontations between groups are a constant in species that form cooperative societies: be it the aggressive incursions of ants and termites, or human warfare. Indeed, a species of mongoose in Africa exhibits such brutal and organized violence that it has drawn the attention of scientists.
This species is the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo), an animal the size of a cat that looks like a weasel: it has an elongated snout that allows it to feed on insects, rodents and lizards that inhabit the African savannas. Unlike most mongoose species, which are solitary, the banded mongoose lives in groups of between eight and 70 individuals.
The group lives in a matriarchal organization, led by multiple dominant females and two or three dominant males. These males are the only ones that mate with all the females in the course of a week. All the cubs are born the same night. It is synchronized, with some females even giving birth prematurely to coincide with the rest. Giving birth on a different day has disastrous consequences: the cubs are killed by the dominant females.
It is important for all the cubs to be born at the same time. In this way, they are mixed up together. It doesn’t matter who they belong to, they are all collectively nursed by all the females in the group. At four weeks they will begin to come out of the burrows accompanied by an adult escort or helper, who is not their mother either. This escort will take care of them and teach them how to find and handle food.
As the social structure of the banded mongoose is so peculiar, it’s a good model to study the evolution of altruism and other cooperative behaviors, as well as our propensity for violence. It is believed that confrontations are a fundamental force that, on the one hand, foster the evolution of altruism within the group, and on the other, hostility towards those outside it. Fights between groups of mongooses are not very different from those between humans in their motivations and forms.
Fighting usually begins when one group invades the territory of another, in search of resources they don’t have. When this happens, the two groups face each other in an organized manner, as if they were two Roman legions in testudo formation or two rugby teams in a scrub. The fighting is chaotic. Amid a cloud of dust and deafening screams, one group tries to break through the other’s defenses. The fighting can last up to an hour or more, until one finally backs down and withdraws.
These fights are not rare, a group can be involved in up to four scuffles a month. There are various reasons for the fighting, such as protecting territory, conserving or appropriating resources and even genocide — reasons humans are also familiar with.
Many of the confrontations led by males target the pups of the rival group. An estimated 20% of pup deaths take place during fights, with female pups being the most likely to die. Killing future mothers is another strategy aimed at destroying the rival group. Over time, the group will become extinct or so weakened that other groups will be able to expand over its territory without any problem.
On other occasions, it is the dominant females who lead the attacks, taking advantage of the chaos of the battle to mate with a male from the rival group. It is estimated that one in five offspring is conceived in this way, a fact that reduces the levels of inbreeding in the group by incorporating outside genes — albeit at a high cost for the individuals involved in the fighting.
Researchers who study the banded mongoose hope that the species can reveal something about the evolution of our own warlike tendencies. Although debate continues, some theoretical models suggest that the costs of intergroup conflicts may drive the evolution of cooperative behavior.
Human history itself demonstrates that external threats can lead to greater cohesion within a society. Studying the conflicts of mongooses, chimpanzees and lions sheds light on what is key to our own conflicts and helps us understand that a species does not need superior cognition or complex language to engage in human-like fighting.
Our intelligence and cultural evolution may make our actions very different from those of other species, which must always be taken into account. But studying collective violence in other animal societies allows us to appreciate that human societies are not the only ones that start wars under the leadership of individuals who reap the awards of the conflict, but suffer none of its consequences. In the banded mongoose, the destructive nature of conflicts is amplified when exploitative leaders incite intergroup warfare. In this, at least, we do not seem to be so different.
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