Is War Inevitable? A View From The Stars

Aug 14, 2012
Originally published on August 14, 2012 9:59 am

Are we doomed to war? It seems like one of humanity's oldest questions.

Everyone claims to hate war, its cruelty and its waste. Yet collectively we jump into armed conflicts at the drop of a hat, or the drop of an insult, or a threat, or the perception of riches. Some wars seem "good," with solid justification for the call to arms, while others clearly spring from baser motives. In either case, war seems to be something we are stuck with as a species.

But are we really stuck?

In a pair of Discover magazine articles, biologist E.O. Wilson and science journalist John Horgan take on the question "Is War Inevitable." While they come to opposite conclusions, they bracket the modern answers to this ancient question. Both positions make for fascinating reading, but there is another possibility that, I believe, comes only by looking at life in its largest, planetary systems context.

Let's begin with Wilson, who looks at our evolutionary history and finds reasons to be less than optimistic:

"Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group competition was a principal driving force that made us what we are. In prehistory, group selection (that is, the competition between tribes instead of between individuals) lifted the hominids that became territorial carnivores to heights of solidarity, to genius, to enterprise—and to fear. Each tribe knew with justification that if it was not armed and ready, its very existence was imperiled."

According to Wilson, the record of organized human aggression stretches far back into pre-history. It may even reach to the origins of the entire hominid line. He points to patterns of chimp violence in male raiding parties as an argument that our warlike nature might be the eons-old "gift" of a common ancestor.

John Horgan disagrees. In his view, this "killer-ape" theory of human warlike origins doesn't hold up to more careful scrutiny:

"Researchers did not observe the first deadly chimpanzee raid until 1974, more than a decade after Jane Goodall started watching chimps at the Gombe reserve. Between 1975 and 2004, researchers counted a total of 29 deaths from raids, which comes to one killing for every seven years of observation of a community. Even Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, a leading chimpanzee researcher and prominent advocate of the deep-roots theory of war, acknowledges that 'coalitionary killing' is 'certainly rare.' "

In addition, Horgan says, the evidence for war in human culture doesn't date back millions of years, but only 10 or so millennia. "In short", he writes, "war is not a primordial biological 'curse.' It is a cultural innovation, an especially vicious, persistent meme, which culture can help us transcend."

Both authors make strong arguments defining the endpoints of a spectrum. Either war is in our evolution and hence in our genes, or war is a cultural invention that also can be un-invented.

I think there is another perspective, and it comes from taking the long view — the view from the stars.

Astrobiology is a relatively new field that attempts to put life, its origin and its evolution into a planetary perspective. It asks questions like how do planetary environments (from surface to solar system and beyond) foster or inhibit the emergence of life. And once living systems gain a toehold, how do life and the planetary environment co-evolve? Looking from this vantage point, we might ask a different kind of question about war's "naturalness" and its/our future

War might have made evolutionary sense for emerging groups with a predisposition to social hierarchy and tool building. But what happens when those societies become global, along with their tools (including tools of war)? Just as questions of sustainability arise only once a culture reaches a certain technological capacity, when the tools of war become effective enough to alter planetary habitability then war itself must cease to hold much evolutionary advantage.

This idea is not new. Ever since the first mushroom cloud appeared over the New Mexico desert, it has been apparent that war's effectiveness had reached a limit.

What is new, however, is our understanding of how closely the history of planets and life can be coupled. In his essay, Wilson raises the point that it was "limiting factors" such as the availability of arable land for food production that drove war so deeply into our evolution. Given the changes we are making made to Earth's planetary systems, those limiting factors are likely to get more ... um ... limited.

Thinking this way about life in the context of planets means there must be a bottleneck. If a planet evolves a global technological culture through war-like group selection then evolution likely would take it through the narrow straits of technology-driven overconsumption. Passing through that bottleneck, if it's possible, must involve the evolution of new behaviors. In particular, it must involve the recognition of planetary limits – the very conditions Wilson would point to as driving new wars.

The important point to note is that we are encountering conditions that are fundamentally new to us. Globe-striding issues such as climate change and fresh-water depletion represent a new environment from which a new, evolutionary response might be expected (in genes or culture, for better or worse). Thus Horgan may be right enough in pointing to the importance of culture as a meme-creator that takes us past war. It would then be a cultural evolution that provides metaphors organizing humanity into new collective behaviors that don't include war.

Thus an astrobiological perspective, which is also a planetary perspective, might suggest that either war goes, or we do.

That is kind of hopeful if you look at it the right way.

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking onFacebook and on Twitter @AdamFrank4. His latest book isAbout Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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