THE vogue of a doctrine depends more upon the will to believe than upon the intellectual conviction which it carries. The famous doctrine of "the biological necessity of war" has recently lost some of its former popularity. At the moment men are no longer disposed to look for a scientific justification of warfare. It is doubtful, however, whether the unsoundness of the doctrine is better understood now than formerly. Indeed the obvious conclusion to draw from the nature of the struggle for existence, as popularly understood, is that contest is in the nature of things. Warfare is only the name for human contests, so the argument runs, and warfare is therefore inevitable. Men may not draw that conclusion now, but this is not because they regard it as erroneous but because they shut their eyes to the whole matter. The day may dawn when the generalization will again have an appeal. It is nevertheless a false generalization and the more widely this is understood the less possible will it become to find so-called scientific excuses for war.

A good example of the form which this doctrine has taken is found in a passage from von Bernhardi. "Wherever we look in nature," he wrote, "we find that war is a fundamental law of development. This great verity, which has been recognised in past ages, has been convincingly demonstrated in modern times by Charles Darwin. He proved that nature is ruled by an increasing struggle for existence, by the right of the stronger, and that this struggle in its apparent cruelty brings about a selection eliminating the weak and the unwholesome." In this passage there are two assertions. The first is that war is in the nature of things. The second is that in the long run war promotes the welfare of mankind. Let us examine these assertions in turn.

It is doubtful whether the first assertion would have ever been made, in any case in this positive form, had it not been for the introduction of the phrase "struggle for existence." Darwin did not invent the phrase. He adopted it but was careful to say that he employed it "in a large and metaphorical sense including the dependence of one being on another." It is nevertheless inappropriate and it has proved to be misleading. It has not merely misled non-biological authors. Many biologists who wrote in the decades immediately following upon the publication of "The Origin of Species" described that process, which they called the struggle for existence, in language which went a long way towards making inevitable the deductions by such lay writers as von Bernhardi. They painted a picture which gave the impression of an almost ceaseless and universal physical contest between animals. Some were hunters, others were hunted, others again were both. It was the era of "nature red in tooth and claw." In part they were hypnotized by the very phrase itself. In part they took a perverse pleasure in painting things red; the redder they could make them the more did their "scientific" picture differ from that of the theologians with their divinely ordered scheme of things.

We are, however, not so much concerned with the reasons why this misconception got about as with the fact that the position was misconceived. The extent of the misunderstanding is best realized if we examine what this process, going by the term" struggle for existence," means among plants. Only a small proportion of the seeds produced by a plant will germinate; most of them will fail to fall upon suitable soil. Only a small proportion of those which germinate will grow to maturity and produce seeds; many will perish because they are smothered by other plants, fail to obtain sufficient water or food, or because of one of the very many possible mishaps with which they may meet. The survivors are those which are both lucky and adapted to their surroundings. There must be luck because the best adapted organism cannot survive under extreme conditions -- say of temperature or of desiccation -- and some in every generation will be faced with the hopeless task of battling with impossible conditions. There must be some degree of adaptation, the more of course the better; otherwise even the relatively lucky would not survive. It is clear enough that the term "struggle for existence" can only be applied to this process in a very metaphorical sense.

Fundamentally the process is similar among animals. It is not similar in detail. Animals are usually gifted with the power of movement. To speak of them as struggling is therefore not quite as inappropriate as to use that term in connection with plants which for the most part are sessile. The term seems still less appropriate when applied to the higher animals whose movements are directed by instinct and intelligence. We may perhaps allow that to say that animals struggle is in a vague and general way not incorrect. But we should be well advised not to say that they "struggle for existence" without some enquiry as to what does in fact go on under natural conditions. We should be even more careful, supposing that we agree to use the phrase "struggle for existence," not to jump without further enquiry to the conclusion that it implies the existence in nature of anything analogous to war.

We are still very ill informed as to what occurs under natural conditions. The difficulties in the way of observation are serious and the methods and habits of accurate observation are still in process of formation. It is at least clear that casual observation has overestimated the frequency and importance of clashes and physical contests between animals. Such clashes are dramatic and easily observed. They occur because many animals are carnivorous. When the lion, tiger, eagle or hawk pursues its prey, and especially when the hunted resists, there is a drama and perhaps a dramatic struggle. But there can be no doubt whatever that most animals perish, as do the plants, because, owing to ill luck or want of adaptation, they cannot cope with the particular surroundings in which they are placed. It is too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet or in some other way unsuitable -- unsuitable for any organism of their type, in which case they are victims of bad luck, or unsuitable for some particular members of the species, in which case they are victims of lack of adaptation. Animals faced by these conditions, whether they survive or go under, may be said to struggle for existence with nature, if we care to use that term.

It does so happen that two species of animals sometimes contend against the same complex of natural surroundings and, while so doing, appear to contend with one another. Cases of this kind are fairly well known and are not infrequently regarded as examples of warfare among animals. It is imagined that this supposed warfare between species, which are sometimes closely allied, is comparable with war between nations or other human groupings. Let us look into the matter. Mr. Chalmers Mitchell has used the story of the thylacine and the dingo in Australia to illustrate this point. We may follow him. The thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, is the fiercest of the marsupials which form the typical mammalian fauna of Australasia. It has much of the appearance and habits of a true dog. It has disappeared from Australia and is now found only in Tasmania; its place has been taken by a true dog, belonging to the highest grade of mammals, the dingo. The dingo may have accompanied the earliest human immigrants into Australia in a semi-domesticated condition. However that may be, it is a comparatively late arrival in Australia and it supplanted the thylacine. But how did it do it? There is no evidence that it attacked the thylacine. A "struggle for existence" no doubt took place; but it was a struggle of both animals against a common environment. The dingo was better adapted than the thylacine to this environment; precisely how it was better adapted we do not know and for our present purpose it does not matter. Another case is that of the black and brown rats. In several countries the latter has been supplanting the former for many years, but there is no evidence of fighting between them. For certain reasons, which are not altogether clear, the brown rat is better adapted to our prevailing conditions than the black rat and is ousting it. In both these cases the struggle of each species is directly with the surrounding conditions and only indirectly with the other species. Similarly the most common type of struggle between members of the same species is also indirect. Two competing members of the species are more often than not contending directly with nature and only indirectly with each other.

If we are going to employ the phrase "struggle for existence" to describe happenings of this kind, we should remember that we can also employ it to describe the comparable contest which takes place in a competitive industrial system. Of two firms competing in the same market one may supplant the other because its methods and its wares are better suited to the needs of its customers who therefore patronize it and forsake its rival. If for firms we substitute independent producers, we can find a parallel in the industrial system for the most common type of struggle for existence which takes place between members of the same species. Two blacksmiths may compete in the same village and one may oust the other if his services are better adapted to the needs of the local customers. So far at least as the higher animals are concerned, all group struggles are of this indirect type. The advance of serried ranks to battle is simply not in the picture. There is nothing among them which in the least resembles warfare.

It is said, however, that at times among certain social insects, the ants and the termites or white ants, there is something in the nature of concerted fighting. There are various types among the members of these specialized insect communities and to one type the name of "soldier" has been given. There is no doubt that bands belonging to these communities do go on foraging expeditions. It may well be that, if bands from different communities meet, they defend themselves. There is, however, some doubt about the occurrence of any fighting between bands which could properly be called warfare. Having named one type in the community "soldier," it is only natural to look for battles and to interpret any occurrence as an incident in a campaign, however far fetched such an interpretation may be. In any case, if fighting occurs among these insects, it is a relatively rare happening among a few very specialized species belonging to a part of the animal kingdom far removed from that of which man is a member. There is no warfare, or anything remotely resembling it, among the vertebrates, that vast group of animals including the fish among the lowest and mammals among the highest of its members. The possible occurrence of something resembling warfare among certain specialized insects is therefore irrelevant because it does not illuminate the position so far as it concerns man.

It is also true, however, that all competition between members of the same species and members of different species belonging to the vertebrate group is not indirect. Most of it is no doubt indirect. But there are also direct clashes. When they occur it is usually the case that one animal is captured and consumed by another without any contest. There may, however, be resistance and a fight. Nevertheless individual clashes of this kind, while they may take the form of fighting, cannot be called warfare. The very essence of warfare is concerted fighting -- an attack by one band upon another. But this does not dispose of the whole matter. It may be that clashes of this kind, occurring as they do among man's nearer relatives in the animal kingdom, become "naturally" or even perhaps "inevitably" transmuted into warfare in the case of man. If this is so, it may still be possible to assert that, so far as man is concerned, war is in a sense in the nature of things.

Among mammals contests between males of the same species may take place at mating time. Such encounters are seldom fought out to the death. Otherwise serious encounters between members of the same species are rare. It would seem to be exceptional for members of the same species to fight for food or for territory. Physical encounters between members of different species are relatively common in connection with the carnivorous habit. More often than not such encounters do not take the form of contests; the whale engulfs its prey by the million and no semblance of resistance is or can be shown. But in other cases the hunted animal has some powers of defense and the effort to capture prey may assume the form of a contest. Now man is partly a carnivorous animal. He was also formerly subject to attacks by carnivores more powerful than himself. In consequence he may be said to possess an instinctive tendency to pursue and to defend himself. Whatever view we may hold as to the presence of specific instincts, there is no doubt that man is so emotionally disposed as to desire to attack under certain circumstances and to reply to attack by defense under others. The problem is whether -- these dispositions being in the nature of things -- it can be said that war is the "natural" consequence.

The first point to observe is that these dispositions, while no doubt generalized rather than specific, were evolved primarily in relation to the hunting of other species and to the defense from attacks of other species. In other words, in so far as man's disposition to enter into contests is specific, it is directed towards members of other species. Now, biologically, there is no resemblance between species and nations. They are not groups of the same order, and any tendency that man may possess to enter into hostility with other species does not carry with it the implication that there is a tendency to hostility between national groups. But the combative disposition is perhaps, as we have said, more generalized than specific. It may be urged that man is disposed under certain circumstances to fight with his fellows. This is certainly true. From time to time we all have feelings which would be relieved if we knocked the other man out. Is war built upon this "natural" basis?

A glance at human societies in all stages of culture shows that it has not proved to be a very difficult task to curb and regulate these clashes. They have always occurred. They still occur. But they can be held in check. In modern times they do not present a serious problem. During the evolution of what we call civilization the need for putting a check upon personal violence has become less and less of a matter causing serious concern to governments. Evidently, so far as man is combative, he is easily capable of being tamed. Even, therefore, if war is founded upon combativeness, there is hope of eliminating it. But is it in fact so founded? The argument for this view is based upon an obviously weak chain of reasoning. It must be supposed that somehow this combative disposition, originally evolved primarily in relation to other species, and now generalized but so feeble that the immediate results which it brings about -- namely individual contests -- can easily be checked, is aroused between groups of the order of nationalities. A very little common sense and knowledge of international affairs ought to be enough to dispose of it. In any case it is a very far-fetched argument and the best method of dealing with it is to ask whether any more reasonable explanation of the origin of war can be found.

It is not the case, as is sometimes asserted, that the most primitive communities are peaceful. Feuds are common among them. By a feud is meant an organized retaliation by a part of the community upon some other part. War, by which is meant an operation conducted in the name of the community as a whole, is not as frequent as among more advanced societies. The reason for this is obvious. By definition war requires a more advanced degree of social organization. But how do feuds arise and what is the relation between feuds and war?

In primitive societies feuds usually owe their origin to an act of violence inspired by combativeness. But they may also arise because a taboo has been broken or a regulation infringed. The incident, whatever it may be, is seen by primitive man in the light of that rigid scheme of things which his growing intelligence has fashioned. The incident does not fit in. Something must be done. But it is logic and not impulse which inspires action. Joint action to punish the offender is demanded and is often undertaken more in a spirit of fear than of combativeness. It is not possible here to inquire further into the tangled problem of the springs of human action. It is enough to point out that while impulses, combative and otherwise, play a part in feuds, they do not, in the ordinary sense of the word, cause feuds. Feuds are not collective manifestations of combativeness; they are customs -- very much as mother-in-law avoidance is a custom and not an instinctive manifestation of hatred. It may be supposed that warfare grew out of the feud. There is indeed evidence from the comparative study of human society that this was what happened. That being so, there is no case for the view that warfare is in the nature of things. War is a custom or habit in the technical use of those terms and as such can be eradicated, difficult though the task may be.

It remains to say something about quite another aspect of the biological subject, namely consequences of war. According to some writers, such as von Bernhardi, the results are beneficial; according to others, such as David Starr Jordan, they are disastrous. One thing at least is clear; the biological consequences of war can be very important. We do now know beyond any possibility of dispute that the physical and mental characteristics of men are what we find them to be owing in no small measure to the inherited basis with which they began life, and we know that like tends to produce like. We also know that the inherited basis which one man receives may differ in the most profound manner from that which another man receives. One man may have an inherited predisposition to develop a black skin, another a white skin; one may have an inherited predisposition towards genius and another towards idiocy. If we put these facts together, it follows that, supposing that persons with a certain inherited basis are killed off by war rather than persons with another inherited basis, black skinned men rather than white skinned men for instance, there will follow profound biological results. In this case the inherited predisposition towards a white skin will be relatively far more widespread after the war than before.

Granting this much as common ground, we are led to ask how it comes about that such different views as to the biological consequences of war are arrived at. It will have been observed that biological consequences follow upon selective elimination; that is to say, they follow when persons with a special kind of inherited predisposition are killed off. Now, broadly speaking, selective elimination may take either one of two forms. A group of whites may go to war with a group of blacks and eliminate them. We may call this group selection. It may also happen that a group of persons, consisting of some who by inherited predisposition are physically strong and of others who are physically weak, may go to war and that the weak may fall in battle. We may call this individual selection. In this latter case it is certain individuals in a group, and not a whole group (as in the former case), who are selected for elimination. Generally speaking, it will be found that those who believe that the biological consequences of war are beneficial are thinking of group selection, whereas those who take the opposite view are thinking of individual selection.

If we now set out to examine the evidence as to the results of either kind of selection, we discover it to be very meagre. The plain fact is that we have very little solid evidence to go upon. Nevertheless there is reason to suppose that both those who think group selection to be beneficial and those who think individual selection to be injurious, have overstated their case. Let us consider group selection. It is maintained that whenever in the course of history one group has attacked, overcome and eliminated another group, and possessed itself of the other's territory, there is prima facie evidence of the biological superiority of the former group. Its members are presumed to have been by inherited predisposition stronger, more energetic, more intelligent. It is therefore to the good of the race as a whole that the better group should replace the less well endowed. When considering arguments of this type we may first note the fact that even in past times group elimination has been less common than is often supposed. It is probable that in many cases what is taken for elimination was in fact "smothering" -- that is to say, that many of the defeated group, especially women, survived, though outwardly, owing to the adoption of the customs of the conquering group, traces of the defeated were lost. The defeated were smothered rather than wiped out. In later times group elimination falls entirely out of the picture. Not even the most bloodthirsty patriot on the Allied side hoped that the war would end by the elimination of some sixty million Germans and the occupation of the vacant lands by victorious Frenchmen. Waiving this point, there are two main things to be said about this line of argument. First, victory is no proof of biological superiority. Victory tends to favor the big batallions of populous communities, and populous communities as such are not superior to smaller communities. Victory tends still more to favor those best equipped with weapons. But superior equipment is no proof of biological superiority. The possession of superior weapons is at least as often due to superior luck as to superior intelligence. The white settlers in America eliminated, or nearly eliminated, the Indian aborigines. The former had been lucky in the sense that generations previously circumstances in Eur-Asia had prompted the use of iron and had inspired other inventions. Since the settlers were armed with iron weapons, gunpowder and so on, the issue of the contest was never in doubt. The invaders may also have been biologically superior but, even if they were so, it was not primarily on this account that they won and all but wiped out the aborigines.

Secondly, although such indices as we have invented to measure inherited predispositions show vast differences between one man and another belonging to the same group, they show little difference between the average member of different groups. Take intelligence, for instance. There are immense differences in respect of inborn intelligence and inborn physique between individual Americans or between individual Englishmen. But as between the average Englishman, the average American, Frenchman, German or Indian there are either no differences or they are so small as to be difficult to detect. If this holds for national or racial groups in general, as, broadly speaking, it apparently does, then group elimination would not be likely to have serious biological consequences. With these considerations in mind we must greatly reduce the claims made for group elimination as productive of biological consequences. It is hardly operative in historical times because, as mentioned above, group elimination in the true sense is almost confined to earlier times. In those earlier times group elimination may have had some biological results and they may have been on the whole beneficial. That we may admit, but the admission does not amount to much.

Of individual selection we cannot say, as we did of group selection, that the differences are small and that therefore the results of selection can be of no great magnitude. The differences between individuals are vast; that has been sufficiently stressed. The question is whether elimination within the group following upon warfare is selective. The argument, as generally put, runs as follows. In former times when no one, or at least no males, were left at home and all went out to battle, when missile weapons were not employed and fighting was man to man, it may have resulted that in general the weak and slow-witted fell while the strong and quick-witted survived. Later, however, the situation changed, until nowadays only those above a certain standard of physical and mental fitness are permitted to fight. The weaklings and the mentally deficient stay at home. Among those who do go the strong are as likely to fall as the weak because of the introduction of missile weapons. The best types may even be the most likely to fall because they take the most risks. As the process of army organization becomes more scientific, the most intelligent, as judged by the latest methods available, are made officers. In this manner the officers of the American army were appointed in the war, and the number of casualties among officers was higher than among the rank and file.

On these lines an impressive argument is built up. In modern war only the better endowed part of the community is exposed to risk. The feeble and half-witted stay safely at home. Certain statistics have been produced to demonstrate the unfavorable biological results of war. Tschuriloff made a careful examination of the figures of the height of recruits for the French army in the nineteenth century and came to the conclusion that the Napoleonic wars had a measurably unfavorable effect upon the physique of the French people. Nevertheless it is certain that these claims must be scaled down. It should be remembered that in battle itself there is no selection of women, that is to say of half the population. The number of casualties again is often exaggerated. It is forgotten that disease accompanies war and attacks the non-combatants, who may suffer more severely than the combatants. It is alleged that the soldiers, that is the physically fittest, get married more easily than the non-combatants and therefore tend to leave more children. Dr. Gini has lately stressed these counteracting factors and has made some investigations into the consequences of the last war. He finds, for instance, no evidence from Italian data that those among the professional classes who perished were of greater intellectual promise or achievement than their surviving colleagues. But even Dr. Gini does not go further than to question whether war has had unfavorable results on intellectual character and to suggest that the unfavorable results on physical characters have been exaggerated. It was indicated above that the claims made for group selection as a favorable factor should be very much reduced. Some reduction, but not an equal reduction, seems called for in the case of the claims made for individual selection as an unfavorable factor.

It thus seems possible that before the dawn of history the biological consequences of war were not unfavorable. Group elimination sometimes took place, and when it had any biological significance the upshot was more likely to be favorable than unfavorable. The same may be said of individual elimination in early times. It is also possible that war was at one time socially beneficial. There was little to destroy and the habit of acting in common may have helped to bring about social cohesion which is the basis of civilization. Had war been deleterious on all counts, it is difficult to see how the human race could ever have reached the beginnings of civilization. At a later stage in the story, however, conditions changed. Group selection ceased to be of much account and individual selection was more likely than not to be unfavorable. Socially, warfare became a disaster of the first magnitude. But that is a matter which falls without the scope of a paper dealing with biology and war. To a biologist war presents itself as a habit or custom. Warfare may have biological significance but the causes are not biological. Men are not impelled to make war because, together with the rest of the animal world, they are subject to a scheme of things of which warfare inevitably forms a part. That doctrine is due to a misunderstanding of the struggle for existence. The sooner this is generally realized the better. As long as there is a danger of bewilderment owing to these misunderstandings, so long there is an obstacle to any effort to bring about a saner and better state of affairs.

The present position of the discussion as to the biological consequences of war demands a few more words. It has been emphasized above that the data upon which a sound conclusion must rest are very scanty. There is in fact an international committee at work upon the matter, and when that committee has concluded its labors it may be possible to make more definite statements. In the meanwhile all positive statements should be distrusted. But positive statements are often made. It has been pointed out how easy it is to build up a case for thinking that modern war leads to biological deterioration. There may, however, be fallacies in the argument. The matter must be put to the test of hard statistical facts. Now let us suppose, as may quite possibly turn out to be the case, that modern war is not so biologically deleterious as is affirmed by a number of writers who have the ear of the public. What will be the result? It cannot but come about that the public, when it gets to know the facts, will think itself deceived. There will be a reaction going beyond the point demanded by the demonstration and it will no doubt be thought that the whole case against war, sociological as well as biological, has been weakened. Thus these well-meaning popularizers of the doctrine of the biological dangers of war may turn out to have damaged in popular estimation, in any case for a time, that part of the argument against war which rests on secure foundations. Such is only too often the fate of good causes. They have to be saved from those friends who support them for unsound reasons.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now