Margaret Mead – anthropologist
There are no greater threats to the future survival of humanity than the climate emergency and militarism, threats that arise from human behaviour itself. From an evolutionary perspective, both are attempts at survival and adaptation that have gone badly awry.
The human brain exists for its own survival. Its purpose is no greater and yet nothing less. But it is an organ at odds with itself. Its attempt to survive maybe also be its undoing. It has brought the human species to the threshold of two evolutionary dead ends – nuclear war and the climate emergency.
An evolutionary dead end is where a species’ means of evolution and adaption also carry within it the means of its own extinction. The history of the planet earth is a history littered with countless species that once existed and that are now extinct.
The discipline of sociobiology, developed by American biologist Edward O. Wilson, is the systematic study of how Darwinian natural selection shapes the biological basis of all species’ social behavior. Thus, behavior that is advantageous in passing on the species’ genes to the next offspring is selected for transmission to the next generation. However, evolution is not a straight line and can lead to the exaggeration of pre-existing structures, a phenomenon known as evolutionary hypertrophy. An example in a physical sense is the development of the elephant tusk from the elephant’s pre-existing tooth. But sociobiology also predicts that hypertrophy can also occur within the context of human cultural evolution as well. Cultural evolution is defined as the idea that cultural change, that is changes in socially acquired information such as knowledge or beliefs, constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares fundamental similarities with (but also some differences to) genetic evolution.
Militarism has been an aspect of human behavior since its inception. It comes out of our endowed primate instincts as a rudimentary means of survival. Our closest cousin, the chimpanzee, shares more than ninety-nine percent of the same DNA as humans. Chimpanzees hunt in groups of males who attack and kill, not just prey but other chimps that intrude on their perceived territory. They are instinctually male dominated, with the submissive females attracted to the more aggressive males. Out of this related species, our species, homo sapiens, evolved 300,000 years ago. Thus, the middle part of the human brain is instinctually pre-programmed for the same behavior. Kill or be killed. Thus, the victor in battle passes on their genes to the next generation. This is the evolutionary basis of war. Throughout human history warfare has culturally evolved from stones and tribes to the creation of nuclear weapons and standing armies. Nuclear weapons represent an example of cultural evolutionary hypertrophy, a hypertrophy that is now capable of leading humanity into an evolutionary dead end. With the creation of nuclear weapons, the survival advantage of war has become meaningless.
Militarism is driven by competition leading to fatal destruction which is antithetical to the behavior of co-operation required to address and survive the climate crisis. Thus, militarism is determined by a now mal-adaptive schema of survival that exists in opposition to addressing the existential climate emergency upon which humanity’s survival now depends.
Militarism, through its combat and non-combat activities, heavily pollutes the atmosphere and negates the political conditions required for the collaborative co-operation necessary to negotiate solutions to the climate emergency. It robs the global community of copious resources necessary to fund and address this emergency. It thus therefore represents a double existential threat – through the specter of nuclear war and further its jeopardization of humanities’ capacity to resolve the climate emergency.
As with nuclear weapons, the climate crisis has also redefined the notion of what human survival means. Humans have attempted through cultural evolution to fashion their physical habitats in an effort to maximize their survival. However, through the process of hypertrophy the species has overdeveloped these habitats to the degree that they now have become inhospitable to continued human survival. And thus, now, humanity stares into the face of the climate emergency.
It is the nascent environmental movement, less than two centuries old in the annals of human history, which is now propelling governments to address and act on the climate crisis, not the military. In contradistinction, the military only sees the climate crisis through the prism of future warfare.
Human survival will be determined by the capacity of the environmental movement to influence governments to resist the control of vested economic interests detrimental to the survival of the species such as the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial complex. This is what is necessary if humanity is to bend the arc of evolution from its current pull toward extinction. Militarism, on the other hand, is functioning from a model of survival of the individual as determined through warfare, rather than collective global survival as now required by the existential dictates of nuclear weapons and the climate emergency.
A crucial challenge for the environmental movement is to drive the public and governments to redirect the activities and resources now going towards militarism and the destruction of the planet and to instead harness them towards resolving the climate emergency and preserving the earth.
Mark Leith is a retired psychiatrist, a past national board member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War Canada, a SCAN member and a member of the Culture Innovative Tactics and Education committees.