EDWARD WILSON, the inventor of the field of sociobiology, once wrote that “war is embedded in our very nature”. This is a belief commonly held not just by sociobiologists but also by anthropologists and other students of human behaviour. They base it not only on the propensity of modern man to go to war with his neighbours (and, indeed, with people halfway around the world, given the chance) but also on observations of the way those who still live a pre-agricultural “hunter-gatherer” life behave.

Add this to field studies of the sometimes violent behaviour of mankind’s closest living relative, the chimpanzee, and the idea that making war is somehow in humanity’s genes has seemed quite plausible. It has even been advanced as an explanation for the extreme levels of self- sacrificial altruism people sometimes display. (If a neighbouring tribe is coming to wipe yours out completely, then giving up your own life to save your fellows might actually make evolutionary sense.)

But a paper in this week’s Science, by Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg of Abo Akademi University, in Finland, questions all this. Dr Fry and Mr Soderberg have reviewed what is known about modern hunter-gatherers. They suggest that although such people are far from peaceful they are also far from warlike. Most who die violent deaths in their societies do so at the hands of fellow tribesmen, not “foreigners”. Murderers, this research suggests, humans may often be. But they are not the died-in-the-wool warriors of anthropological legend.

Read the rest of the article at Economist.com.