Throughout history, war seems to have had an iron grip on humanity. In this short book, internationally renowned philosopher of war, Christopher Coker, challenges the view that war is an idea that we can cash in for an even better one - peace. War, he argues, is central to the human condition; it is part of the evolutionary inheritance which has allowed us to survive and thrive. New technologies and new geopolitical battles may transform the face and purpose of war in the 21st century, but our capacity for war remains undiminished. The inconvenient truth is that we will not see the end of war until it exhausts its own evolutionary possibilities.
Christopher Coker is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
About 100,000 years ago human beings began to evolve in a way that was not true of any other species – our social practices began to replicate, mutate and accumulate just as genes had been doing for billions of years. The key was our own exceptional neural plasticity, which significantly increases our adaptability. It is the foundation for the skills which are unique to us such as language, self-awareness and self-control. The term we use for the ability to pass on social skills such as collaborating and communicating via speech or Facebook is a very simple one: culture.
In Darwin’s Cathedral, David Sloan-Wilson offers a very persuasive example of cultural evolution with respect to religion, one of the most important cultural phenomena of all. He describes it as an adaptive product whose function is to facilitate co-operation in larger units. Religion, Wilson insists, appears to be ‘designed’ to minimize internal competition within groups and maximize the competitive advantage of a particular group.1 It establishes social norms as well as penalties against those who break them; it also promotes group selflessness – in binding people together it makes them put the group’s interests ahead of their own.
The same dynamic would appear to be also operative in the case of war. Like religion it had adaptive value – it protected us against the murderous in-fighting of tribal groups and it helped us to avoid characterizing out-groups as non-human, in contrast to the characterization of other tribes. The names that hunter-gatherer tribes call themselves tell their own story – ‘the People’, ‘the Good Ones’ or ‘the Fully Complete Ones’. Primitive warfare is particularly murderous, for that reason, and mortality rates are astonishingly high. Some of the battles in hunter-gatherer societies have a death rate of 0.5% of the population per year. If that had been true of industrialized warfare in the twentieth century 2 billion people would have died instead of the 100 million who actually did.2 Had that dynamic been maintained over the centuries you probably wouldn’t be reading this book.
Generally speaking, the more co-operative a species is within the group, the more hostility there is between groups. When there is a very variegated society, such as in New Guinea, which has more than 800 languages, out-group enmity can be fierce. That is why Robert Wright believes that religion was essential for early states to keep war within bounds. The relationship between the two is a dialectical one. The gods (in his felicitous words) were ‘geopolitical lubricants’ who made possible rudimentary international law; divine authority policed treaties between tribes and later hereditary chiefdoms. The problem, of course, was that the gods also sanctioned war, and still do.3 Think of the suicide bomber in today’s Middle East. The point is that religion is still deeply entrenched in human life. Schopenhauer thought we would outgrow it as we do our childhood clothes, but the failure of the ‘new atheism’ to make much of an impact suggests that we need to go back to humanity’s childhood to see why it still has ‘an iron grip’ on us all; and if that is true of religion, it is surely also true of war.
Now, of course, this is an unashamedly group selection thesis and it assumes that warfare is the natural state of human existence. Fortunately, however, group selection is now coming back into fashion after being challenged in the 1960s. The neo-Darwinian evolutionists who still reject it, claims Mary Midgley, have simply misread Darwin.4 And although there are many anthropologists who still question whether aggression has always been rewarded and can often be inherited, here too the tide is turning (Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday  makes short work of the traditional idea that primitive societies are innately peaceful).
What is important about evolution is that it is an active agent in increasing the options, choices and possibilities of the different species, organisms or societies in which it is the life principle. It promotes among other things ubiquity, diversity and complexity. The fact that all three show continued development would suggest that war is continuing to evolve, and that it is unlikely to be eliminated until such time as its evolutionary possibilities have finally been exhausted.
The evolution of war, writes Edward O. Wilson, was an auto-catalytic reaction that could not be halted by any people, because to attempt to reverse the process unilaterally would have been fatal.5 ‘War is not the best way of settling differences, but it is the only way of preventing them being settled for you’ (G.K. Chesterton). Chesterton’s words are well taken. An auto-catalytic reaction is something that gathers pace by feeding upon itself. It breeds, explodes and grows and it is facilitated by other attributes that are unique to humans – language, for one. Not one major power, empire or culture decided not to go into the war business, and not one so far has gone out of it. To have rejected war would have been as fatal as rejecting agriculture; the Mesolithic communities of Central Asia who did the latter were quickly side-lined by history. This may appear counter-intuitive but it is not. As Edward Luttwak puts it: ‘The paradoxical language of strategy contradicts the logic of everyday life. It goes against all normal definitions of intelligence we have. It only makes sense if you understand the dialectic. If you want peace, prepare for war; if you actively want war, disarm yourself and then you’ll get it.’6
Devoid of anti-social instincts we probably might have led a peaceful life, but that is not how we are designed biologically. Hobbes was quite right to tell us that war is central to the human condition and that its causes – competitiveness, diffidence (fear) and glory (honour) – are what make us human. We are instinctively territorial creatures whether we are laying claim to land, marking out a person as property, or, as in the last century, defining the limits of someone else’s thoughts. The propensity to excel makes us sociable as well as competitive; it also makes us fearful of others who are competing against us. Finally, honour is programmed into us to amplify emotions such as pride, anger and love of kith and kin. We are prone to retaliate against those who would dishonour us. Honour is a social bond and winning it back a social obligation, and it is just as important today as it was in our prehistoric past (the only difference is that we have translated it into a new currency: credibility). War remains ubiquitous because we are still in thrall to our inherited biology, and from the first day that our ancestors threw a stone in anger, tools and then technology have enabled us to compete more successfully.
Paleoanthropologists tell us that our ‘accelerated evolution’ is techno-organic in nature; we developed so that we could use technology, and it is just so happens that technology has been determining our history as never before. At least 76 countries, for example, are developing some form of drone technology (and other non-state actors will follow the lead set by Hamas and Hizballah). It is not a very promising prospect given that even the United States is finding it difficult to adapt its traditional codes of warfare to the practice of war by remote control. Drones are evolving faster than our ability to understand how, legally and ethically, to employ them. Like Darwin’s finches, they are evolving furiously to fill more and more operational niches, and creating new ones as they go.
Even nuclear weapons, the signature weapon of the twentieth century, may be coming back into fashion. In the 1960s 31 countries had nuclear weapons programmes; 22 chose to abandon them. But nuclear proliferation is back on the agenda. The principal lesson of the First Gulf War (1991) was that any country that does not wish to be attacked by the US should develop nuclear weapons. And there is now a global trade in nuclear material for states or non-state actors who wish to do precisely that. All of which merely confirms what we have always known: it is impossible to restrict technologies to ‘the haves’. What Marvin Minsky calls the ‘have-laters’ are merely waiting in the wings.7
Human cultural traditions which are ubiquitous promote different ways of performing the same task. Imagine war without cultural diversity. Max Brooks gives us a vivid example of one in his bestselling book World War Z (2011). The novel is constructed around a series of interviews with those who survived the Great Zombie War. So, what were the problems, an American general is asked, in dealing with zombies? World War Z was a total war, but not one with which human beings were familiar. No society is ever 100% committed to fight. There are always the old and the young, the pacifists and the Fifth Columnists, and the conscientious objectors and the fellow travellers. Not so, of course, in the case of zombies, who gave 100% commitment. All societies also have their limits; few will risk total destruction. Zombies, unfortunately, had no limits of endurance. They didn’t surrender, or negotiate, or give up the...