Small Wars Journal

Natural Selection and Nature of War

Mon, 11/14/2011 - 6:54am

What is war? The answer to this deceptively simple question is more elusive than one might think. Coverage of armed conflicts, revolutions, and various other struggles inundates media outlets and affects defense spending, foreign aid, and our lives. However, do we really understand what fuels these conflicts? Is the answer political, social, or is there a scientific theory we can use to better understand this phenomenon. Do such scholars as Carl von Clausewitz provide a comprehensive theory of war, or should we also look to the writings of Charles Darwin and others for answers. Modern advances in genetics and evolutionary biology have yielded new insights and powerful tools that allow us to peer beneath war’s anthropocentric veneer and glimpse at the essence of this violent phenomenon, a phenomenon that may very well determine a species’ path toward evolution or extinction.

To examine what I deemed The Nature of War Theory while a student at the U.S. Army War College, I proposed that war is fundamentally a series of violent adaptive behaviors originating from natural selection. When war is considered from this primal level, natural selection serves well to provide the scientific foundation upon which complex military and social theories may build.

In order to appreciate the theory’s most basic application a comparison between the group behaviors relating to the recent Arab Spring uprisings and the behaviors of a researched social species such as lions may prove instructive. To do so, it is necessary to place the uprisings’ two antagonistic groups, the regime and the popular uprising, within the context of natural selection.

Recalling the traditional version of natural selection familiar to most, survival of the fittest drives. For lions, this means a pride that hunts better will eat better and thus will reproduce more than other prides. To remain dominant in an environment characterized by limited resources regimes must similarly display a set of behaviors to out-compete rival groups.

However, recent advances in evolutionary biology demonstrate that natural selection in social species occurs not only at the individual level, but at multiple group levels simultaneously. For the lions, the next level is characterized by adaptive behaviors between prides. In order to prevent extinction, a pride of less skilled hunters must adapt to usurp a dominant pride or perish. Although lions often adapt non-violently (e.g. becoming better hunters) another alternative is combative adaption. The Arab Spring uprisings are characterized by both violent and non-violent adaptations that allow unarmed or lightly armed civilians to compete against government security forces.

The theory continues in complexity by applying additional levels of group adaptation with one of these being adaptation among a group. Consider the violent adaptive behavior between lion prides. Logically all lions should contribute to territorial defense, but research shows not all do. This same trend exists in nearly all social species, including our own. This situation results in an example of the curious paradox of early theories of natural selection. Because defending lions incur higher injury and death rates, this will overtime result in higher reproductive rates from the sedentary lions. If left unchecked, sedentary lions’ genotypes become dominant in the lion population, which is in stark conflict with natural selection. To balance the evolutionary books as it were, natural selection requires an offsetting behavior to keep sedentary behaviors in check.

Returning to Arab Spring, when a regime becomes sedentary and takes individual advantages from the group, natural selection requires the similar offsetting and adaptive group behaviors from among certain members of the group. Without these adaptive behavioral sets, the group will ultimately face extinction. As callous as it may appear, war as a group behavior, when placed in the context of natural selection, plays a vital role for a group, or even a species, by keeping sedentary adaptations in check.

At the most primal level, Arab Spring may be seen as a series of “tug of war” matches both between and among competing evolutionary behaviors. As the environment and the groups become more complex and dynamic the theory continues to pull from natural selection. In doing so, it can be used strategically to characterize other events such as the rise of non-state groups such as Al Qaeda, the co-opting of educated societies such as Nazi Germany, and the fall of great powers such as ancient Rome.

To examine these volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, what I deem The Nature of War Theory explores the phenomena of war from the academic middle ground between the hard and soft sciences. With the exception of a few scholarly efforts in the years immediately following World War I by noted authors Quincy Wright and J.F.C. Fuller, most academics considered this middle ground a “no man’s land” and not worthy of study. In general, students of military theory favored the seminal works of such greats as Carl von Clausewitz, Antoine-Henri Jomini, Sun Tzu, and others to understand war, while students of natural selection relied on the works of Charles Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and Edward O. Wilson to understand evolution.

Through the 20th Century, leading scientists considered natural selection to occur only at the individual, or survival of the fittest level. Because of this, it was not considered relevant to either military or social theory. However, advances in genetics, sociobiology, and other life sciences are radically transforming traditional interpretations of Darwin’s classic theories and in doing so are yielding potentially revolutionary insights into the causes of warlike behavior in social species. Driving this advance is Wilson and others whose research demonstrates that evolution is both an “individual and a team sport.” As it is for any team, success comes not only from a survival of the fittest mentality, but also from the sacrifice of individuals for the good of the group. Behavioral scientists use the term altruism to describe these self-sacrificing behaviors.

The competing evolutionary behaviors of individualistic and altruistic adaptations form the basis of The Nature of War Theory by suggesting a dual nature of war that aligns with the dual nature of natural selection. The theory presents the conflict between individualistic and altruistic adaptations and respectively aligns these with traditional and irregular warfare. Individualistic war is violent conflict originating from a primacy of individual-level adaptations over altruistic adaptations within a group. For a regime, this leads to violent behaviors that serve to benefit only a portion of a group, but no one outside it. Conversely, altruistic war, like a popular revolution, stems from group-level adaptation and serves as an evolutionary mechanism to ensure success of a larger group and perhaps even an entire species. War is thus two or more separate events corresponding to the behaviors that may be between or among dueling individualistic and altruistic evolutionary groups.

The central idea of natural selection fueling war is not new and literature suggests classic scholars of war conceived this causa bellum, but were unable to contextualize the concept because the science of environmental biology did not yet exist. In fact, many would come very close to describing war by using phrases with remarkably similar counterparts to those used to describe evolution. For example, in the fifth century, B.C., Sun Tzu wrote war is “the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin.” In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote wars are “the natural consequence of individual and societal acquisitive appetites.” Clausewitz offered wars “are to be regarded as a blind natural force.”  Indeed, had he not died prematurely, it would have been fascinating to see how Clausewitz would have completed his epic work, On War, after incorporating evolutionary biology in his early chapters. Yet sadly, he would die at roughly the same time the young naturalist Darwin embarked on the HMS Beagle for a five-year scientific voyage. Darwin would later publish two groundbreaking works, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in 1859 and 1871, respectively, which would radically change the course of the human understanding of biology.

More recent publications suggest natural selection is emerging from the murky waters of theoretical biology to take its first steps onto the dry academic land of social theory. Two current examples of this are the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars “A National Strategic Narrative” by Mr. Y and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s recent article, “Something’s Happening Here.” Although Mr. Y offers complex systems of human social behavior will quickly transcend the bounds of evolutionary biology, he recognizes the importance of natural selection as a behavioral process characteristic of social groups. This common ground should suggest to social and natural scientists alike that the something, in Friedman’s “something is happening here,” is natural selection and would place it as a contributing factor fueling such group behaviors as the sweeping Arab Spring revolutions as well as the recent insurgency/counterinsurgency conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The theory also serves to assuage the academic conflict between the dueling groups on both sides of the counterinsurgency argument. It recognizes the writings of Clausewitz serve well to capture individualistic war and the writings of David Galula serve well to depict altruistic war. Rather than applying either theory, or their variants to frame the conflict, it recognizes the phenomenon stems from two fundamentally different evolutionary processes. The theory unifies these theories by expanding the aperture of analysis so one can simultaneously explore both types of evolutionary war: individualistic and altruistic. In doing so, it provides a holistic method that endeavors to provide a degree of symmetry to seemingly asymmetric tactics, perspectives, leadership styles, and objectives.

Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This quote serves as a fitting conclusion by illustrating how the Nature of War theory is built on the seminal works of Darwin, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Wilson, and countless other scholars from both the traditional and social sciences. The theory capitalizes on their works and recent advances in evolutionary biology to provide a compelling scientific argument for the unification of traditional and irregular theories of war within a single overarching theory.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.