Blogs > (R)evolutionary Biology > It's Madness to Keep on Developing Nuclear Weapons, so Why Do We?

May 16, 2015 8:53 pm

It's Madness to Keep on Developing Nuclear Weapons, so Why Do We?

tags: evolutionary psychology, science relevant to history

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David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington; his most recent book is "Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science" (Oxford University Press, 2014). 

Most people can be forgiven for ignoring the threat posed by nuclear weapons. It might seem surprising, but we have been preprogrammed by our own evolutionary history to engage in such ignorance. The nuclear age is just a tiny blip tacked onto our very recent phylogenetic past, so when it comes to the greatest of all risks to human survival, we are more threatened by the instincts we lack than by those we possess.

At the same time, we are immensely threatened by the weapons we possess, and which the current administration is planning to augment and “modernize.” But first, a glimpse into how our evolution figures into this mess:

It had been the world's first murder.  The ape-man exultantly threw his club (actually, the leg-bone of a early quadruped) into the air, and as it spun, it morphed into an orbiting space station.  In this stunning image from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," millions of cinema-goers saw the human dilemma in microcosm.  We are unmistakably animals, yet we also behave in ways that transcend the strictly organic.  Ape-men all, we are the products of biological evolution - a Darwinian process that is nearly always painfully slow - yet at the same time we are enmeshed in cultural evolution, a Lamarckian phenomenon which, by contrast, is blindingly fast and which proceeds under its own rules. 

As the cinematic ape-man's club traveled through air and ultimately, into outer space, director Stanley Kubrick collapsed millions of years of biological and cultural evolution into five seconds.  This isn't, however, simply a cinematic trick:  We are all time-travelers, with one foot thrust into the cultural present and the other stuck in our biological past.

We're unique among living things in being genuinely uncomfortable in our situation.  This should not be surprising, because even though our cultural achievements must have somehow evolved along with our organic beastliness, the two evolutionary processes (biological and cultural) have become largely disconnected, and as a result, so have we: from our self interest.

Imagine two people chained together; one a world-class sprinter, the other barely able to hobble.  To understand why biological and cultural evolution can experience such a disconnect (despite the fact that they both emanate from the same creature), consider the extraordinarily different rates at which they proceed. 

Biological evolution is unavoidably slow. Individuals, after all, cannot evolve.  Only populations or lineages do so.  And they are shackled to the realities of genetics and reproduction, since organic evolution is simply a process whereby gene frequencies change over time.  It is a Darwinian event in which new genes and gene combinations are evaluated against existing options, with the most favorable making a statistically greater contribution in succeeding generations.  Accordingly, many generations are required for even the smallest evolutionary step. 

By contrast, cultural evolution is essentially Lamarckian, and astoundingly rapid.  Acquired characteristics can be "inherited" in hours or days, before being passed along to other individuals, then modified yet again and passed along yet more - or dropped altogether - everything proceeding in much less time than a single generation.  Take the computer revolution.  In just a decade or so (less than an instant in biological evolutionary time), personal computers were developed and proliferated (also modified, many times over), such that they are now part of the repertoire of all technologically literate people.  If, instead, computers had "evolved" by biological means, as a favorable mutation to be possibly selected in one or even a handful of individuals, there would currently be only a dozen or so computer users instead of a billion. 

Just a superficial glance at human history shows that the pace of cultural change has been not only rapid - compared with the rate of biological change - but if anything the rate of increase in that change has itself been increasing, generating a kind of logarithmic curve.  Today's world is vastly different from that of a century ago, which is almost unimaginably different from 50,000 years ago ... although neither the world itself nor the biological nature of human beings has changed very much at all during this time. Cultural inventions such as fire, the wheel, metals, writing, printing, electricity, internal combustion engines, television and nuclear energy have all generated seemingly overnight, while our biological evolution has plodded along, a tortoise to the cultural hare.

Try the following Gedanken experiment.  Imagine that you could exchange a newborn baby from the mid-Pleistocene - say, 50,000 years ago - with a 21st century newborn.  Both children - the one fast-forwarded no less than the other brought back in time - would doubtless grow up to be normal members of their society, essentially indistinguishable from their colleagues who had been naturally born into it. 

A Cro-Magnon infant, having grown up in 21st century America, could very well find herself comfortably reading the New York Times on her iPad, while the offspring of today's technophiles would fit perfectly into a world of saber-toothed cats and stone axes.  But switch a modern human adult and one from the late Ice Age, and there would be Big Trouble, both ways.  Human biology has scarcely budged in tens of thousands of years, whereas our culture has changed radically.

Consider violence and aggression, since this, after all, was what our cinematic ape-man was doing when so adroitly represented on film.  The history of civilization is, in large part, one of ever-greater efficiency in killing: with increasing ease, at longer distance, and in larger numbers, as in the "progression" from club, knife and spear, to bow and arrow, musket, rifle, cannon, machine gun, battleship, bomber, and nuclear-tipped ICBM.  At the same time, the human being who creates and manipulates these marvelous devices has not changed at all.  

Considered as a biological creature, in fact, Homo sapiens is poorly adapted to kill: given his puny nails, non-prognathic jaws and and laughably tiny teeth, a person armed only with his biology is hard-pressed to kill just one fellow human, not to mention hundreds or millions.  But cultural evolution has made this not only possible but easy. 

Animals whose biological equipment make them capable of killing each other are generally disinclined to do so.  Eagles, wolves, lions, and crocodiles have been outfitted by organic evolution with lethal weaponry and not coincidentally, they have also been provided with inhibitions to their use against fellow species-members.  (This generalization was exaggerated in the past.  Today, we know that lethal disputes, infanticide, and so forth do occur, but the basic pattern still holds: rattlesnakes, for example, are not immune to each other's venom, yet when they fight, they strive to push each other over backwards, not to kill.)  Since we were not equipped, by biological evolution, with lethal weaponry, there was little pressure to balance our nonexistent organic armamentarium with behavioral inhibitions concerning its use. 

The disconnect between culture and biology is especially acute in the realm of nuclear weapons.  At the one-year anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Albert Einstein famously noted that "the splitting of the atom has changed everything but our way of thinking; hence we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

musk ox

He might have been talking about musk-oxen.  These great beasts, like shaggy bison occupying the Arctic tundra, have long employed a very effective strategy when confronted by their enemies: wolves.  Musk oxen respond to a wolf attack by herding the juveniles into the center, while the adults face outward, arrayed like the spokes of a wheel.  Even the hungriest wolf finds it intimidating to confront a wall of sharp horns and bony foreheads, backed by a thousand pounds of angry pot roast.  For countless  generations, their anti-predator response served the musk ox well. 

But now, the primary danger to musk oxen is not wolves, but human hunters, riding snowmobiles and carrying high-powered hunting rifles. Musk oxen would therefore be best served if they spread out and high-tailed it toward the horizon, but instead they respond as previous generations have always done: they form their trusted defensive circle, and are easily slaughtered.

The invention of the snowmobile and the rifle have changed everything but the musk ox way of thinking; hence they drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.  (Musk oxen are now a threatened species.) They cling to their biology, even though culture - our culture - has changed the payoffs.  Human beings also cling to (or remain unconsciously influenced by) their biology, even as culture has dramatically revised the payoffs for ourselves as well.  That musk ox-like stubbornness is especially evident when it comes to thinking, or not thinking, about nuclear weapons.

Take, for example, the widespread difficulty so many people have when it comes to conceiving nuclear effects.  When told something is "hot," human beings readily think in terms of boiling water, burning wood, or perhaps molten lava.  But the biological creature that is Homo sapiens literally cannot conceive of temperatures in the millions of degrees.  Before the artificial splitting of uranium and plutonium atoms (a cultural/technological innovation if ever there was one), nuclear explosions had never occurred on earth.  No wonder we are unprepared to "wrap our minds" around them.  

Similarly with the vast scale of nuclear destruction: we can imagine a small number of deaths - so long as none of them include our own! - but are literally unable to grasp the meaning of deaths in the millions, all potentially occurring within minutes.  And so the conflict between our biological natures and our cultural products cloaks nuclear weapons in a kind of psychological untouchability.

By the same token, the "cave man" within us has long prospered by paying attention to threats that are discernible - a stampeding mastodon, another Neanderthal with an upraised club, a nearby volcano - while remaining less concerned about what cannot be readily perceived.  Since nuclear weapons generally cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled (something to which government policy contributes), they evade our psychological radar, allowing the nuclear Neanderthal to function as though these threats to his and her existence don't exist at all.

If a homicidal lunatic were to stalk your workplace, people would doubtless respond, and quickly.  But although we are all stalked by a far more dangerous nuclear menace, the Neanderthal within us remains complacent.

This doesn’t mean, however, that our situation is hopeless. Begin with this rather homely question: Why are human beings so difficult to toilet train, whereas dogs and cats - demonstrably less intelligent than people by virtually all other criteria - are housebroken so easily? Take evolution into account and the answer becomes obvious. Dogs and cats evolved in a two-dimensional world, in which it was highly adaptive for them to avoid fouling their dens. Human beings, as primates, evolved in trees such that the outcome of urination and defecation was not their concern (rather, it was potentially a problem for those poor unfortunates down below). In fact, modern primates, to this day, are virtually impossible to house-break.

But does this mean that things are hopeless, that we are helpless victims of this aspect of our human nature? Not at all. I would venture that everyone reading this article is toilet-trained. Despite the fact that it means going against eons of primate history, human beings are able - given enough teaching and patience - to act in accord with their enlightened self-interest. This is something to celebrate!

Is it unreasonable, then, to hope that a primate that can be toilet-trained can one day be planet-trained, too? As Carl Sagan emphasized, eliminating nuclear weapons – eventually, all of them – is a basic requirement of species-wide sanity and good planetary hygiene. And yet, the United States government is currently planning to upgrade its investment in the nuclear triad of “delivery systems” (missiles, bombers and missile-firing submarines) as well as the bombs and warheads themselves, at an estimated cost of one trillion dollars over the next three decades.  

I began by noting that people (at least, those of us not making a career from them) can be forgiven for having largely ignored nuclear weapons. After all, our evolutionary past is paradoxically working against our ability to focus effectively on these terrible devices. But we’re more than musk oxen, and if nothing else, the currently intended nuclear expansion, involving as it does a huge expenditure of money desperately needed for genuine human needs, offers the prospect of converting a proposed technological and political obscenity into a counter-evolutionary opportunity.

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