Fry, Douglas P. 2006. The Human Potential for Peace: an Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Agustín Fuentes, Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame

Peace is a substantial part of our history and our present, but engaging with modern media and reading many academic and popular texts you would never know it. One antidote to this global pessimism, and ignorance, is to read this book by the anthropologist Douglas Fry and discover our immense potential for peace.

Amongst the various anthropological texts that have emerged over the last decade, this is clearly one of the most important. At a time when practitioners in the social sciences continue to haggle over the relative merits of interdisciplinary approaches, of paradigm shifts, and of the role of war and peace in human endeavors, this book strikes a relevant chord. Douglas Fry reminds us that in the human experience it is neither solely nature nor nurture, neither aggression nor camaraderie, rather it is a complex synthesis of human endeavors resulting in a clear and resounding potential for peace.

The great power of this book is two-fold. First, in his emphasis on the human potential for peace, not an artificial representation of ubiquitous peace or a discarding of the reality of human aggression, Fry produces a complex and engaging alternative to the predominant discourse of human nature and our proclivity for lethal conflict. In this text Fry provides a glimpse of the potential for peace but does not in any way advocate a stance implying that that humans are all peaceful or innately only so. Rather he garners a robust body of anthropological evidence that illustrates why the innate aggression hypothesis as a human adaptation is wrong, and especially that modern warfare is neither our heritage nor our obligate future.

The second powerful component of the book is that it is a well written review of a broad set of ethnographic data revealing the incredible ways in which humans negotiate the most socially complex contexts of any living organisms. Combining an astute theoretical perspective, real data, and a review and challenge of the current discourse on human aggression and peace, Douglas Fry provides the reader with a convincing argument that humans are at least as good, if not substantially better, at peace than they are at war.

How does Fry achieve this end? He does so by weaving a complex yet engaging and highly readable narrative thread. The text itself is divided into a number of sections. The first chapter lays out the trajectory of the book. Chapters 2-6 lay out the patterns of the potential for peace and significant ethnographic information demonstrating multiple societies’ processes for negotiating and engaging in peaceful community relations. Chapters 7 and 8 tackle Hobbesian mythos and reveal the underlying importance of social structures. In chapters 9 through 11 preconceptions and misconception about creating our past and “inner-selves” are debunked, and chapters 12-14 provide explicit ethnonological data to counter the series of assumptions underpinning popular (and many academic) notions about human social systems and their tendency for aggression and war.

Turning to a famous locale for these debates, chapter 15 provides a mature review of the Yanomamo Unokais and the aggression and sex hypothesis. Chapter 16 reviews a set of case studies on conflict management systems in five culture groups in the context of the preceding chapters. In chapters 17 and 18 Fry removes interpersonal aggressing from warfare and presents an alternative to the classic adaptive aggression hypothesis. Finally, the last chapters (19 and 20) review the themes of the book and present a hopeful and resiliently idealistic prospectus for our future: that we, as peace making primates, move forward towards the abolishing of war.

Backing up each of these chapters are substantial footnotes (51 pages for 264 pages of text!) and an in-depth reference section. Fry also provides organizations to contact for engaging this potential for peace. As a biological anthropologist I can find details in the sections on evolutionary models to quibble with. I would have enjoyed an expanded section reviewing the aggression hypotheses using primatological and fossil data sets and would differ on some of the relatively linear adaptationist models that Fry advocates, for example. As a general anthropologist I can complain that despite the multiple chapters and societies covered, there was not enough ethnographic data to address all of my inquiries into the diversity of social systems in humans.

However, these are minor points that, if included, would render the book less accessible to a popular audience and thus dull its potential impact across the board. It is this across the board impact that makes Douglas Fry’s book most relevant. For those researchers, like myself, who want more, this text acts to stimulate and engage, driving us to take up themes and debates presented by Fry and evaluate them further. This is the kind of inspiration most authors aspire to.

In an epoch when evolutionary psychologists, popular geographers, and television spin doctors control the public discourse on basal humanity, it is high time that anthropologists come to the fore. Fry does that with this text. Whether you agree in total, in part, or even just a bit with his conclusions, he presents a voice to be reckoned with. A voice that actively counters the chorus of aggression and warfare as the base nature of humanity.

Douglas Fry demonstrates that we do have a potential for peace and that a robust body of data support this assertion. He suggests that we must create a public voice for this discussion, bypassing the either/or arguments and engaging human complexity in a holistic manner. We can, and should, reach beyond simple discussion of peace and strive to reach our potential as human beings. Douglas Fry makes a major contribution to this effort, one that deserves to be read not just by practitioners, not just in classes, but by the public as well.