War, What is it Good For?

Edwin Starr asked the right question in 1969, when he rocked us with his lyrics:

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for

Absolutely nothing
Say it again y’all

War, huh, good God
What is it good for

Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

War, it’s got one friend
That’s the undertaker

War can’t give life
It can only take it away

E.O. Wilson, the indefatigable defender of biological determinism, in the June edition of DISCOVER magazine, takes on a different question from Starr’s.   His article is entitled,”Is War Inevitable?”,  and unlike Starr Wilson thinks war has served such a powerful purpose for humanity in evolution that now war is in our genes.  The article is an excerpt from his new book, THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH.   His bottom line is depressingly enough: “We simply took what was given us and continued to multiply and consume in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained paleolithic ancestors.”  It reminds me of the much discredited 1968 book The Population Bomb in which the Ehrlich’s predicted massive famine and starvation in the 1970’s and 1980’s because the earth could not support the growing human population.  The world has added 3.3 billion people since 1970 and their predictions like many religious end time prophecies failed.  Turning lemons into lemonade, they claim that due to their book the world took the growing population problem seriously and changed its ways enough to stave off starvation.

EO Wilson who has championed biological determinism also once predicted that eventually they would find a gene that would determine everything about being human, including a gene that would differentiate believers from non-believers.  Even that idea has fallen from popular view among many geneticists who recognize the truth about genes determining behaviors is far more complex than originally imagined.

I give DISCOVER magazine credit for following the Wilson article promoting biological determinism in regards to war, there was a rebuttal  by John Hogan author of THE END OF WAR.   Hogan totally acknowledges the brilliance of Wilson in biological studies, but thumps Wilson for perpetuating “the erroneous- and pernicious- idea that war is ‘humanity’s hereditary curse.'”  Wilson in a new book claims, according to Hogan, “that science can help us achieve self-understanding and even, perhaps salvation.”  Maybe science is religion after all.  Hogan writes: “Wilson actually spells out his faith that we can overcome our self-destructive behavior and create a ‘permanent paradise,’ rejecting the fatalistic acceptance of war as inevitable.”  But Hogan believes Wilson’s deterministic bent is wrong and ending military conflicts is far more possible than Wilson thinks.

I am reminded of the arguments of Raymond Tallis in APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY that evolutionary biologists ought to take evolution seriously and recognize that in fact the human species has evolved to the point of consciousness which means humans now can guide their own continued evolution and are no longer determined completely by genetics.   As Tallis wrote humans now lead their lives rather than simply live them.   Biological determinism is a philosophical presupposition not a scientific fact.  War is not biologically inevitable.  Humans are capable of making conscious decisions that are not determined by genetics.

I wrote extensivley about Tallis in my blog series which began with THE BRAINLESS BIBLE AND THE MINDLESS ILLUSION OF SELF.

While science has certainly brought about many technological inventions that have improved life on earth, faith that science can “save” the earth and accomplish something religion did not or cannot do, always seems to fail to take into account that humans will be humans.  Scientific humans will make as many errors in moral judgement as religious humans, and perhaps even more since they will rely on humans to decide all ultimate values.  Human hubris has proven itself enough times in history to make us realize it is a fact of life with which we must contend whether we look to science or religion for dealing with human failings.

I hope this summer to read Wilson’s new book as I try to read at least one book from current scientific writings each year.

6 thoughts on “War, What is it Good For?

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. darrell

    War is all about killing people and other creatures, destroying things, and then taking things. The goal is to beat your opponent into submission and force them to adopt your beliefs, which leaves the only remaining questions: has these new belief systems, forcibility adopted, made civilization more holy?

    1. Fr. Ted

      Answering your question depends on your starting point. EO Wilson in the article mentioned would say holiness was never the goal,but survival was the goal, and war becomes a way to help one’s particular gene pool survive by eliminating the competition. So while war destroys things, it also enables one subgroup of humans to survive in a world of limited resources. But in that thinking holiness has nothing to do with it. Wilson is an atheist, I believe, and his interpretation is Darwinian. So your question would not even be pertinent.

      Others who held to some religious belief might justify a war based on the need for defense, to try to recapture or free friends and relatives who may have been captures by an enemy, to attempt to regain lost farmlands taken by the enemy. Not every war, and perhaps few wars, claimed their goal was to make civilization more holy. Even the Crusades were fought over land – trying to reclaim territories in the Mideast.

      I’ve read that even in the history of Buddhist people, a religion known for teaching pacifism, that Buddhist leaders were intensely defensive of their people’s and territories, and went to war willingly when threatened by others. But this is not a motive about holiness but territorial defense.

      Some historians claim Byzantine Christianity never embraced a just war theory, but they did find at times that they had to go on a war of defense or reconquest when efforts to pay off the enemy failed. They supposedly recognized war was not holy, but sometimes necessary.

      Islam has a stronger war tradition for the Quran does endorse war at times, even when people don’t want to go to war, the Quran says God knows what we don’t and so war is obligatory. There does not seem to be any room for pacifism in the Quran.

  3. Marc

    Having graduated from high school the year Edwin Starr’s “War” was released I really relate to this post. As the son of WWII combat veteran, I decided that I needed to do my duty and enlisted to serve in the USAF in 1969. Although I did not see combat, I did serve almost four years in the “cold war” in Europe.

    Over thirty years latter I found myself as the father of a son in the U.S Army going off to war in Iraq. My Son Andrew survived two combat tours in the infantry and has since retired.

    I think the issue of war is related to the fallen condition we find ourselves in, and is defined well by St. John in the revelation he was given by our Lord Jesus Christ:

    When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come and see.” Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword. When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.” When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth (Revelation 6:3-8).

    For the inhabitants of the earth the rebellion against God is a horrible tragedy. The second, third, and fourth seals reveal in the symbolisms of the three horses and their riders, a summary of the effects of sin on mankind: Murder and war, famine and disease, and a hostile environment, bringing death to all of the people who will ever live on the one fourth of the earth’s surface inhabited by human beings.

  4. Pingback: Biological Determinism (III) | Fr. Ted's Blog

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