War and Evolution: A Review Essay

Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: the Road to 1914.
Beth A. Fischer, The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War
Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy
William J. Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink

By Michel Duguay (reviewer) | 2017-01-01 11:00:00

In 2013 historian Margaret MacMillan published a book entitled The War That Ended Peace: the Road to 1914. In the 645 pages of text of this remarkable book, MacMillan reveals the mindset that was prevalent in the 1900-14 period and the events that led to World War I. Author MacMillan is a professor of international history at Oxford University and at the University of Toronto. She has received numerous awards for her considerable work.

MacMillan seeks to draw lessons from World War I in order to avoid future military conflicts. She wrote two of the best ones in her last five lines on page 645:

“And if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be, and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”

Regarding MacMillan’s first lesson, where can we today’s “failure of imagination” regarding potential military conflicts? The most flagrant example is the current trillion-dollar 30-year budget request by the US nuclear weapons establishment to ‘improve’ nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. If this budget request is granted, Russia and other countries will likely follow the US example, so that the end result in a nuclear war would ‘improve’ on the infamous “mutual assured destruction.”

Toronto Professor Beth A. Fischer published a book in 1997 entitled The Reagan Reversal, Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War in which she analyzed US President Ronald Reagan’s remarkable change of mind in 1983 regarding US policy toward the Soviet Union. She quotes Reagan: “Reducing the risk of war—and especially nuclear war—is priority number one. A nuclear conflict could well be mankind’s last.”

MacMillan’s second lesson is her reply to the pre-1914 pessimistic leaders in Europe who often said that war was inevitable: “There are always choices.”

Today, in the nine nuclear-armed countries, where do we find expressions of pessimism regarding the possibility of war? A book that describes the historical perspective of several key people in the US defense establishment was published in 2015 by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, The Last Warrior, Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy. It is about the career of Andrew Marshall, who spent more than 40 years in top posts in the US defense establishment. Marshall’s basic strategy was to ask many questions, including this:

“Do anthropology, ethology, and evolutionary biology support the belief that conflict and war are part of the human condition, in which case war is unlikely to be banished from international relations?”

The best thing about this question is that authors from the defense establishment think it worth asking. Later Krepinevich and Watts answer this:

“A fifth intellectual theme that has persisted throughout Marshall’s career concerns what might be termed the nonrational aspects of human behavior. This can be traced back to Herbert Simons’ conclusion that evolution had adapted organisms to make ‘good enough’ decisions rather than ‘optimal’ ones.”

Again the authors address this topic:

“Marshall’s conviction that human behavior has inherently irrational components was reinforced by [Lionel] Tiger and Robin Fox’s The Imperial Animal, which argued that evolution had wired ‘identifiable propensities for behavior’ into the human genome … Given all this evidence, Marshall agreed with Fox’s conclusion that the human race is as likely to have a future of peace and nonviolence as one of chastity and nonsexuality. …. Hence Marshall’s belief that war is an integral part of human nature. The use of military force might be controlled but never banished.”

One can see that the pre-1914 pessimistic mindset of several leaders (but not all) is still present. An immediate counter-argument to the pessimistic view is presented in the following reference to Marshall:

“his long-standing conviction has been, and remains, that it is not possible to predict either the strategic outcomes of actual conflicts or the course of military competitions. There is simply too much uncertainty. Despite the desire of senior leaders for accurate forecasts of what the future holds, the stubborn fact that the future is unpredictable has to be faced.”

If the future is unpredictable, a credible notion, how can Marshall and his former colleagues Krepinevich and Watts then assert that wars are inevitable? As Margaret MacMillan wrote, isn’t it a matter of choice?

MacMillan’s book is optimistic about maintaining peace. As a physicist I have been trained to look for fundamental aspects of nature. I see two outstanding examples of success that justify optimism: the evolution of genomes and scientific-technological progress.

The first is genomes. The life sciences have revealed astounding intelligence imbedded in the multitude of genomes and in their evolution over three billion years. Today about nine million living species constitute proof that DNA-based genomes can be creative through mutations and be enormously successful. While aggressive behavior is rooted in the genomes of some species and in some individual human genomes, we can each ask ourselves whether has components that favor the everlasting welfare of life on our planet. The science of genomics has shown in the last decade that the collective human genome is almost exactly the same in all countries. The message is clear: all human ethnic groups are closely related. Our evolutionary success is the success of genes present in all of us.

The second example is the surprisingly fast progress of science and technology. In science and technology almost everything works! Outstanding examples are micro-electronics, computers, lasers, modern medicine and genomics. There is even serious work underway to bring back to life the extinct mammoths. Expectations are that in the near future new human organs will be grown from your own cells.

Given these successes, why can’t we protect and enhance the life of all of humankind? In 2015 William J. Perry published an excellent book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. Perry was US Secretary of Defense 1994-97 under Bill Clinton. Perry insists on the need for new ways of thinking. Humankind would not have evolved to its present level without DNA mutations and new cultural ideas. And the field is wide open for future inventions and creativity.

Reviewed by Michel Duguay, Université Laval.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2017

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2017, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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