Monday, July 05, 2004

Herbivores, Carnivores, and Nuclear Weapons

So here I am, reading a fascinating book called King Solomon's Ring by Konrad Z. Lorenz, when I find myself thinking about nuclear weapons. What's the connection, you say? Well, I'll tell you.

King Solomon's Ring has little to do with the legend that King Solomon, rather than speaking “also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes,” he spoke “also with beasts, and with fowl, and with creeping things, and with fishes...”, using a magic ring. Rather, it has to do with a man, the author, whose study of animals lead him to a profound understanding of the communications animals have with one another, the combination of instinctive automatic reactions to moods and learned attempts to influence another's behavior. The chapter I am reading is entitled “Morals and Weapons,” in which he discusses the nature of intra-species confrontations, between wolf and wolf, or dove and dove.

He describes beasts with hunting weapons as having remarkable restraint. A wolf will never bite the outstretched neck of a rival, nor a crow peck at the eye of another crow. The reason is obvious. If they did not have such inhibitions, the species would quickly disappear. I am reminded of human warriors, from extensive lines of warriors, well practiced in their weapons, who are capable, in all but the most extreme of circumstances, of settling very angry conflicts with a dual that ends with the cry, “I yield!”

He also spoke of herbivores—of hares, of doves (that ubiquitous symbol of peace), and of roe deer. These are animals which don't possess the weapons of a carnivore, but rather an extraordinary ability to escape harm. If one witnesses a battle between two of these, one can't help but think it couldn't help but be more civilized than the more heavily armed. In captivity, however, their true colors show. For while a wolf would never murder another wolf (or at least, very seldom), if you cage rival herbivores in close proximity, you see that they have no such inhibitions. Lorenz put two turtledoves into a large, roomy cage, went on an errand, and when he returned, found the larger of the two standing over the smaller, the lower one plucked and bloody. Had Lorenz not intervened, the smaller surely would have been killed.

The reason these have no inhibition is also obvious, once one thinks of it. Ordinarily, such confrontations end with one fleeing the other and, when a herbivore wishes to flee, there is generally little the pursuer can do about it. There is no need for inhibition; the ability of the loser to evade damage is far greater than the ability of the winner to cause it. Cage the two, and the loser cannot flee, and the winner has absolutely no concept of sparing the loser, the species having not had a need to evolve such a mechanism.

Where do humans come in? Well, we have two stereotypes of people with weapons: the honorable warrior who would spare an enemy who has surrendered, and the vicious murderer who would flay alive one who screamed for mercy. I would like to advance a theory regarding how these two things occur.

First, you have man in a more primitive state. His chief weapons are fists, sticks, and stones. The population density is such that a confrontation can be ended by the loser fleeing the scene, and the winner claiming his territory. This may describe man at his earliest stage of development, as well as men, in our own era, who still live in the countryside and, if they do have guns, at the very least, when they fire them, they fire them to drive off a rival, rather than killing him. So long as a conflict can end with the loser fleeing, these conflicts can remain relatively bloodless, though the newer brain-based mechanism allows more accidents with newer brain-developed weapons than ancient instincts honed on a biological weapon.

Force these people into the city, and a bloodbath quickly ensues. Every murderous urban underclass that has ever existed has always been a recent, and usually unwilling, migrant from the countryside, whether it be the urban poor of pre-American England or the minority urban poor that haunt the “bad side of town” to this day. These people are every bit as dangerous to their fellow men as flock of doves forced into captivity. Having no experience with the power to kill one who cannot escape, their anger finds no barrier. Attempting to beg for mercy just might be a bad idea, though I am not sure. I have never been in such an encounter.

Fast-forward to the urban warrior, one who has weapons which have been in existence for some time and yet remain the best one can have, and also comes from a family line which has lived under such conditions for generations. Now you might find a code of honor, some dueling system with a clear guidelines on how to proceed, how to fight, and how to end a combat without killing. When one willingly delivers himself into the hands of another, the other is stayed by a powerful cultural obligation to accept that a sufficient victory. However angry he might be with the submissive loser, his honor requires that he spare the life. Once again, the large human brain can find a way around this brain-based inhibition much more easily than the small brain of an animal can find its way around its own biologically based inhibition; nevertheless, it is created by the same kind of evolutionary pressure.

Whence comes war, then? Well, I think there are two impetus to the cruelty of war that even civilized beings are capable of engaging in.

The first is the mob mentality, that aspect of humankind that makes a group of individuals almost like an individual in and of itself. People behave very differently in groups than alone, and a human being, in defense of the group, will go to much greater lengths against an individual of the opposing group than against another individual, as an individual. One can almost analogize the conflict to the groups themselves, which wield their individuals against one another. Individuals within the groups may die in this conflict, and, once it's over, the survivors may grieve, but the groups will survive, nonetheless. When the battle looks hopeless, one group will surrender to the other, and assuming they both use the same signals, the other group will generally permit the submissive party to live.
The other is cultural in nature. Human beings are probably the least biologically diverse of all globally distributed species, and are likely less biologically diverse even than species of a more geographically limited nature. Nevertheless, we have profound differences, ones which are lodged within our brains, rather than our DNA, to the point where very biologically related human beings (an Eskimo is more closely related to an African Bushman than are lions on opposite sides of the same continent) are capable of regarding each other in a way most animals regard creatures of a different species. A band of marauders is often as dangerous to a group of defenseless farmers as a pack of lions is to a herd of sheep, for the simple reason that the two groups are so different in habit, temperament, and language (even within the same language group, inflections and slang can serve the same role) that they may as well be different species.

If we have different surrender habits, that can also cause a problem. Lorenz wrote that wild turkeys and peacocks are capable of getting into fights because they are closely related enough to recognize the other's posturing as threatening, and yet, the fight is invariably dangerous to the turkey. For while the turkey is larger and stronger than the peacock, the turkey has an evolved mechanism for deciding conflicts bloodlessly, and the peacock has no such mechanism. The turkey struts up to wrestle, the peacock takes flight and attacks from above. The turkey, unable to cope with this unorthodox technique, lays his head on the ground in a submissive gesture. Were the other combatant another turkey, he would now be completely unable to attack, held back by thousands of years of evolution which demand that he spare the loser. The peacock, however, doesn't understand. He pecks and pecks and pecks. The turkey is driven by this into further submission, prevented from escaping by thousands of years of evolution. Only intervention by another species (most likely human) prevents the death of the turkey. So it is when humans cannot understand an appeal for mercy due to difference of language and/or custom.

Human beings build weapons with their brains, not of their bodies. Humans must, therefore, develop inhibitions based upon thought, not instinct, for our instincts are based upon a creature which has nothing but his bare hands to fight with. Instinctively, we are as doves who suddenly acquired the beaks of crows and the talons of eagles, and haven't the faintest idea of their own strength. If there is to be peace, it is based upon the mind, not the body. The “soft animal within” (which a minister I know refers to so lovingly) is a clumsy brute when the mind gives him weapons which surpass those of even the greatest of predators.

On to nuclear weapons. Up to this point, whatever the inhibitions of the individuals that make up a group, the group itself has few inhibitions against fighting to the death of the individual within. At its most bestial, such conflicts are rarely destructive to the group as a whole; the rules of victory and submission can generally regulate the outcome of such battles. Genocide is the product of the individual mind, the decision that such conflicts can be brought to an end forever by eliminating the other group. Otherwise, the interplay of bravado and fear can regulate such conflicts, though they be disastrous to the individuals involved.

However, now, we have weapons that frighten even the group mind: nuclear weapons. With one fell stroke, entire cities can be eliminated. What has been the result? On the one hand, some individuals lived through the cold war in a constant state of agitation, while most, due simply to the enormity of the threat, simply did not grasp it, to the benefit of their stress levels. Though guns and bombs have made war between advanced powers more brutal, nuclear weapons have made them more seldom; the fear they evoke is simply too great. Though we may see the day when a truly nuclear war occurs, such would merely be a step on the path toward a day when even mobs treat each other honorably... that, or the human race must perish. I, for one, believe that, given the deterrent nature of the picture the imagination produces, an actual memory of nuclear war may well make all mankind as shy of total war as Old Europe is today.

Personally, I think non-proliferation is a self-serving policy by which those powers which already dominate the world through the thread of nuclear weapons deny other powers this deterrent. We are in the position now that we can invade non-nuclear powers at whim, and the best they can do is fight our troops on the field. If another power attacks us directly, however, we have the option of laying waste to their entire country, leaving nothing left to oppose us. So, we still live in a perpetual state of war. The day every bit of ground on the planet is jealously guarded by a full fledged nuclear power is perhaps the most dangerous day we will ever face. We may end up like doves with teeth and claws, pretending we can still fight as we did before, and eliminating the entire human race in the process—but, if we survive that day, the day after will be a day of true peace. The costs of war will simply be too great, and those high costs will no longer be outside the comprehension of the human animal.

And I am a gambler. I would rather stay than fold. I would rather give up the wars of non-proliferation and roll the dice that have eternal peace on one side, and nuclear Armageddon on the other. I am well aware there are many that would disagree with me on this. I wonder, however, if we can truly stop proliferation. I wonder if, given non-nuclear nations with sufficient determination, we wouldn't end up driving ourselves into bankruptcy making enemies, and then find them with nuclear weapons, anyway.

No comments: