Could War Be a Genetic Imperative?


April 21, 1992|By ROBERT BURRUS

KENSINGTON, MARYLAND. — At the end of Ken Burns' Civil War series, historian Shelby Foote says of us Americans, though it applies to all humans, ''We like to think of ourselves as special. But if we really were special, we wouldn't fight these wars. But since we do fight these wars, our generals are the greatest generals and our leaders are the greatest leaders.''

From Caesar to the Khans of Asia and the unrecorded generals of Africa, plus Napoleon, Lee, and MacArthur, the greatness of our generals and leaders and wars is the stuff of history. It is also the stuff of news.

Why is war ''newsworthy''? Why are news pictures of burning cities and of stacks of burned, blasted and naked dead bodies so absorbing of attention? Why is war so fascinating?

Could war be biologically advantageous? That seems a stupid question, given the obvious horror and death. But consider: If war were biologically disadvantageous, would not natural selection delete our capacity for it? Or was Darwin wrong . . . or somehow not applicable?

Ants have wars. That might seem a frivolous anthropomorphism, ant ''wars.'' But those group savageries where, one-to-one to six-on-one, the combatants tear each other apart, look like wars.

It is well-known, though we have no evidence of it, that ants have no ideologies or religions and that they cannot have even crude ''reasons'' for their group conflicts; base instinct, we tell ourselves, drives their ''wars.'' One problem though: What biological advantage can derive from an instinct for war among sterile combatants? The winners cannot pass their superior genes into the future. Again, was Darwin wrong? Not applicable? To ants?

Actually, natural selection does seem to apply to ant ''wars.'' The losing side is depleted of workers to support the sex organ of the collective, the misnamed ''queen,'' which is at a disadvantage in passing its genes into the future. For ants, Darwin seems to stand. Fifty million years of ant wars support Darwin's survival of the fittest -- and of group selection, too.

But we are not ants. For us -- so we tell ourselves -- the Shining Reason of our Big Brains transcends base instinct and our wars transcend base Darwinian biology. Our wars are inspired by God, Democracy, Communism, Fatherland, Motherland -- not by instinct.

But 5,000 years of on-going rape, pillage and death do suggest the action of an enduring force. Again: If war were biologically disadvantageous, and if Darwin's theory is applicable, then either our capacity for war, or our species itself, would long ago have been selected out.

Assuming that war does have biological utility for humans, what might it be? What might war select for?

Among the possibilities are all the things advantageous to winning: command structure, for instance, or communication linkages and specificity of definitions of words, and the ability of individuals to subordinate personal interest. Such things contribute to organizational integrity, especially the efficiency and clarity of information transmission. Where all other non-genetic factors are equal (e.g., access to food, energy and materials), the fighting group whose individual members have the greater genetic propensity for organized group action has an advantage. War, therefore, would select for a genetic basis, within individuals, for organization.

Given the crucial importance of command structure and communication efficiency to social organization, the paradoxical bottom line might be that war could be at least one of the forces driving the evolution of society itself. Out of chaos, order -- war might select for social organizations -- and for individual conformity and for ability to rationalize irrational activities, and thus maybe even for rationality itself.

If in fact humans have an instinct for war, then the ''reasons'' we give for our wars (God, Democracy, New World Order) would also be part of the irrational instinct package. Our ideologies and religions and ideals might well be on a par with those of ants. What we call ''reason'' might well be a strategy of irrational instinct at the least a conceit of irrational instinct. Yet, from that conceit of instinct comes survival: Our well-rationalized individual craziness could have net benefit for the species -- society is our agency of survival.

We modern urbanites, insulated as we are from the vagaries of Mother Nature, do so idealize her beauty. Yet she is also a vicious monster who, in selecting which of her children will endure through time, is unperturbed by the horror borne by individuals for the benefit of the collective. It's a hell of a thing, the prospect that mother nature might bear no connection to what we call Rational.

Why is news of war so fascinating? Why are the photos of burning cities and of stacks of bodies so ''newsworthy''?

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