Charles Darwin Has Much to Teach Us About War

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

W.J. Astore.  Also at Huff Post.

America’s thinking about military action is impoverished. The U.S. military speaks of precision munitions and surgical strikes, suggesting a process that is controllable and predictable. Experts cite Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz for his axiom that war is a continuation of political discourse with the admixture of violent means. Here, military action is normalized as an extreme form of politics, suggesting again a measure of controllability and predictability.

But what if war is almost entirely imprecise and unpredictable? What if military action and its impacts are often wildly out of line with what the “experts” anticipate? In fact, this is precisely what military history shows, time and time again, to include recent U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. military action essentially acts like hammer blows that upset the state of nature within the complex ecologies of societies like Iraq and Afghanistan. These blows ripple in unpredictable directions, creating new states of nature that change the ecologies of these societies in fundamental ways. They further generate fault lines that are often contrary to U.S. goals and interests.

Charles Darwin can lend a hand in explaining why this is so. Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution with its idea of “the survival of the fittest,” although Darwin did not use that term when he originally published The Origin of Species in 1859. Indeed, Darwin’s view of evolution was highly complex and multifaceted, as befits a man who studied the natural world in great detail for his entire adult life.

In an earlier, unpublished version of his masterwork, Darwin employed a complex image, known as the “wedge” metaphor, to explain interactions within the natural world that led to species extinction. Here is the way Darwin described “The Struggle for Existence” in his Notebook prior to The Origin of Species:

Nature may be compared to a surface covered with ten‐thousand sharp wedges, many of the same shape & many of different shapes representing different species, all packed closely together & all driven in by incessant blows: the blows being far severer at one time than at another; sometimes a wedge of one form & sometimes another being struck; the one driven deeply in forcing out others; with the jar & shock often transmitted very far to other wedges in many lines of direction: beneath the surface we may suppose that there lies a hard layer, fluctuating in its level, & which may represent the minimum amount of food required by each living being, & which layer will be impenetrable by the sharpest wedge.

In his model of the face of nature, Darwin showcases the interconnectedness of all species, together with the way in which changes to that face (the hammer blows) favor some species (wedges) while forcing out others. The hard layer, which represents the minimum amount of food for all, and which Darwin says cannot be penetrated, suggests an ecology that will continue to sustain life even as some species (wedges) are forced out and die off. The face of nature constantly changes, some species perish, but life itself endures.

How does Darwin’s wedge metaphor apply to military action? Consider, for example, U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East. They are the hammer blows, if you will, to the face of nature in the region. The wedges are various groups/sects/factions/tribes in the region. The U.S. believes its hammer blows will force out “bad” wedges, driving them toward extinction, which will ultimately improve the prospects of “good” wedges, such as so-called moderates in Syria. But what if U.S. blows (airstrikes and other violent military action) are driving radical sects (wedges) more deeply into the face of nature (in this case, the face of politics and society in the Middle East)? What if these radical sects, like Darwin’s driven wedges, are forcing out rival sects that are more moderate? What if the “jar & shock” of these U.S. military hammer blows is being propagated throughout Middle Eastern societies and Islam in ways that are as unpredictable as they are long-lasting?

Darwin’s complex wedge metaphor should make us think more deeply about the results of blows to complex, interconnected, and interdependent systems. Using military strikes in an attempt to destroy “bad” wedges may have the very opposite effect than the one intended. Instead of being destroyed, such wedges (such as the Islamic State) are driven deeper into the ecology of their communities, helping them to thrive, even as they send out vibrations “in many lines of direction” that harden the new ecology of the region against U.S. interests.

What, then, to make of Darwin’s “hard layer” in his wedge metaphor, which varies in its level but which persists in that no wedge may penetrate it? The “hard layer” represents that which all wedges can’t do without. All species are dependent on a source of food and energy, a source of sustenance to sustain reproduction. Darwin notes that the hard layer fluctuates, and though he doesn’t explicitly state it, those fluctuations must also act much like blows, displacing some wedges while favoring others with effects that ripple across the face of nature.

Rise or fall, the “hard layer” persists, meaning life on earth persists, even as individual species perish. Darwin explicitly states that no wedge can penetrate the hard layer, but here his metaphor breaks down when we consider humans as a wedge. Because humans can and do penetrate that layer. As a species, we do have the capacity to damage, even to destroy, the hard layer of nature upon which all species are dependent. We’re the killer wedge in the wedge metaphor.

Politically speaking, piercing that hard layer in the Middle East would be equivalent to igniting a new Crusade that leads to world war, one involving nuclear weapons or other forms of WMD. Devolution in place of evolution.

Of course, one shouldn’t push any metaphor too far. That said, Darwin’s “wedge” metaphor, in its imagery and subtlety, is more useful in understanding the complexity and unpredictability of military action than analogies that reduce war to exercises in precision surgery or power politics.

William Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and former professor of history who edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.

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7 thoughts on “Charles Darwin Has Much to Teach Us About War

  1. Both nuclear holocaust and looming anthropogenic climate change (an inevitability unless near-instant and planetary energy usage modifications are adopted to adequate scale) are two possible events which imperil the “hard layer” sufficiently to create conditions which make it extremely difficult to sustain human life on planet Earth, and perhaps most other life forms as well.

    I can easily see the approach of climate change effect (I recommend The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert); a sentient dinosaur who noticed a bright object grow larger in the sky day after day may similarly have sensed imminent certain catastrophe.

    On the other hand, if nuclear weapons exchanges occur at anything approaching potential runaway reaction volume/time estimates, at least the dread period I experience will be mercifully brief. I may even — best case — be incinerated before I learn multiple launches occurred. (A comprehensive prediction of outcomes from nuclear exchange from Paul Erlich circa 1984: http://www.lib.uci.edu/quest/index.php?page=ehrlich)

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  2. Allow me to add an additional wrinkle to the original post and the comment of “lsnrchrd1.” In Darwin’s time evolution was generally viewed as a very long-term, painfully slow process, with change being virtually imperceptibly gradual. As science improved we discovered Earth has endured a number of mass extinctions of vast numbers of species, caused by sudden catastrophic events, including the exogenous influence of impact by asteroidal bodies (hinted at by “lsnrchrd1”). The late Stephen Jay Gould helped formulate a post-Darwin theory of “punctuated equilibrium” to better describe how evolution actually works. We have been deemed overdue to take another hit from a major body drifting through space. Some research is being done seeking ways to divert these bodies while they’re still at a safe distance from our only home, Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” in space. The funding for such efforts, of course, absolutely pales compared to the spending on needless wars. Wars to control crude oil and natural gas (see current situation in Ukraine) reserves. The more those resources are extracted and combusted, the more rapidly global climate chaos will accelerate. In evolutionary terms, we may well deem it a quick, catastrophic event.

    Let us now examine Col. Astore’s comments through this new prism of punctuated equilibrium. We can now see that among the unintended consequences of US foreign policy (Our Motto: All War, All The Time) could easily be outbreaks of violence in our beloved friend and ally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as other regimes long considered on America’s leash, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, etc. These unpredictable shockwaves could easily spread far beyond the Middle East, as there is no shortage of disaffected, impoverished young people in the world who may fall under the sway of a group like “the Islamic State.” The media tell us daily that even youth from the developed world are flocking to that organization’s cause (whatever the devil that may actually be!). Political movements based on, or at least cloaked in, religious fundamentalism (of any stripe) are extremely dangerous, for they operate on “faith,” not human reason. Thus, in addition to global climate chaos, we have another purely human-generated threat to global stability. At least when examining global warming–and it was just reported that October was the warmest since recordkeeping began, and despite the snow in Buffalo 2014 is en route to being the warmest year overall yet recorded–we can say “Okay, if carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere increases by X% over the next decade, global temperature is likely to rise by Y degrees Centigrade.” It’s not down to an exact science yet, but we can make reasonably firm predictions. Not so when dealing with the minds of humans! How can we predict the ultimate outcome of the US “War on Terror”? My predictive powers are limited to saying: it will not turn out well for the people of the United States or anyone else.

    [AUTHOR’S NOTE: Greg Laxer is forced to admit, like Senator Mitch McConnell, that he is “not a scientist.” However, he has studied the sciences since he learned to read, not out of compulsion but out of deep curiosity and love of knowledge.]

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    1. Good points, Greg. Now if we combine punctuated equilibrium (mass death that asserts more pressure on evolutionary processes, favoring dramatic changes) with chaos theory (small changes that accelerate and expand non-linearly and unpredictably), one truly has a recipe for “interesting times.” And doubtless you’ve heard that Chinese curse about the joys of living in “interesting” times.

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  3. More recent thinkers offer an explanation: “When resources and land get sparse, we designate those who do not look or speak like us as “the others” and then we use those differences to justify exterminating or expelling them to eliminate competition.” – Curtis W. Marean in Scientific American, August 2015 (vol 313, no.2) “The Most Invasive Species of All” page 39

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    1. Yes, there’s truth to that. But is rapacious struggle inevitable? Humans have in the past found a way to cooperate, to barter, to trade, rather than to steal and dominate and kill. Is the well of human cooperation running dry? Even as our water wells run dry?

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  4. Reblogged this on Bracing Views and commented:

    U.S. military intervention in Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein led to the creation of ISIS. Military intervention in Libya and the overthrow of Gaddafi led to chaos and the spread of ISIS to the region. U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, which initially dislocated the Taliban, has enabled the return of the Taliban to dominance. Why is this? Partly because the U.S. does not understand the ecology of war. The U.S. sees war as a great simplifier, but events prove that war usually generates complexity and chaos. The U.S. also thinks in the short-term, rarely considering the long-term impacts of military action. These are lessons I attempted to grapple with in this article on Charles Darwin’s ideas about the state of nature and its complexity when it experiences hammer blows of change. This complexity is something that U.S. politicians rarely discuss when they talk about war. The rhetoric of people like Trump, Cruz, and Clinton promotes a bigger, stronger, more aggressive and more violent military. Juvenile thinking about war leads to quagmires and disaster, a price America seems willing to pay as long as war remains far from its shores. But for how much longer? How long before the hammer blows of war ripple across the face of nature to disrupt democracy in America? Indeed, these ripples are already striking home, strengthening militarism in the USA and silencing serious talk of pursuing less violent courses in the world.

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