War is here to stay, thanks to evolution, author says

“Can War Be Eliminated?” by Christopher Coker (Polity Press, 120 pages, $12.95, paperback)

Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics is one of the world’s leading war theorists, a philosopher and political scientist of considerable acumen, acuity and lucidity.

His short answer to the question posed in the title of his latest book is simple. No.

Coker’s essential argument stems from war’s centrality to the human condition – a centrality emerging at the pace of evolution’s long arc, which includes the primate’s genetic propensity to align in-groups against out-groups, territorial instincts that promote in-group hierarchical organization and attendant violence, and evolution’s selection of warrior abilities.

But war is not simple, despite the simple-seeming similarities among war’s basic activities. In fact, the cultural, evolutionary, technological and social faces of war make up this short book’s most important, surprising and thought-provoking engagements.

War comes to human beings “naturally,” eventually dependent on the complex structures that are the outcome of a number of simple, symmetrical laws. Even so, wars are very different and take on many aspects – indeed, war itself is a product of the social complexity of life. From a thin, localized population of hunter-gatherers 12,000 years ago (violent to some degree, but not warlike), through the first hydraulic civilizations, and now, to today’s specialized, technological urbanized societies, war has evolved.

Coker’s book is no dry treatise. His discussions of evolution’s contribution to war’s meme gene-expression; the cultural dynamics of war (dueling militias, irregular warfare, guerilla insurgencies, low-tech terrorism, even hostage-taking); its technological elements (drones, cyber-warfare and defense, robotic warfare); and geo-politics and peace – all are brilliant.

Coker argues against the widely held notion that war is an idea that can be defeated by firmly held counter-ideas (for instance, John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”).

Coker looks forward into the 21st century and gives us a glimpse of new kinds of war.

“Can War Be Eliminated?” has excellent end notes and a superior, short bibliography for those who wish to pursue the topic.

Above all, war will not disappear until it exhausts its own evolutionary possibilities. We should not hold our breath.