Tuesday, March 16, 2010

War and the age of reason

A couple of quotes from Martin van Creveld's The Transformation of War:


Clausewitz’s ideas seem to have chimed in with the rationalistic, scientific, and technological outlook associated with the industrial revolution. Modern European man, his belief in God destroyed by the Enlightenment, took the world as his oyster. Its living beings – and its raw materials – were regarded as his to exploit and plunder, and indeed plundering and exploiting them constituted “progress.”

The more I read, the more I come across this notion that the age of reason somehow had a malign side, that the enlightenment was a spiritual disaster from which we have not recovered. Virtually the whole canon of modernist literature appears to be premised on this, and the current sense of fin de siecle which affects western sensibilities at the start of this century is undoubtedly a symptom of it. But I do not see how one can ascribe to the age of reason a sense of the efficacy of war as a means of promoting one's interests.

The final step in this direction was taken when Charles Darwin showed that humanity, too, was an integral part of nature.... that man was simply a biological organism like any other, subject to no rule but the law of the jungle. With war considered God’s (or nature’s) favourite means for selecting among species and races, it became hard to see why one’s fellow humans should not be treated as animals allegedly treat each other in “the struggle for existence”: that is, with the utmost ruthlessness and regardless of any consideration except expediency.


This seems a dubious argument. Natural selection is not war. Natural selection may advance through sexual means, through means of proliferance, or through lethal means. But lethal does not – not necessarily – mean antagonistic, and certainly not bellicose in the sense that humanity defines warfare. Are there wars of all against all in the animal world? Are there wars of honour? So the “struggle for existence” or the “law of the jungle” are simply not the same thing as warfare and to conflate them in this way is tendentious.

2 comments:

Andres Laan said...

You are quite correct in saying that natural selection does not explain away war. As John Keegan demonstrates in his book A History of Warfare”, war is sometimes more a cultural phenomenon then a response to achieve relief from socio-economical pressures. Ironically, this is especially true for primitive societies, which are also most likely to be influenced by causative agents of natural selection. Keegan at least seems to suggest that war as a ritualistic process is more characteristic of tribes with a stable territory. True evolutionary pressures instead seem to induce movements and processes on a much grander scale (like migrations of the Huns from the steps of Mongolia due to a change in local climate).
We all know of “thinkers” who tried to make natural selection explain everything they ever laid their eyes on. Sadly, over-interpretation of scientific facts and hypothesis is a thing that systematically plagues “intellectuals” and “artists” to this day.
Here is a fascinating fact is read some time ago from Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: “Animals left undisturbed during neonatal development were found to be consistently more emotionally reactive as adults. Levine and colleagues (1967) exposed rats to an early differential handling/stress regimen in which an experimental group was removed from the litter and placed in a can with shavings for 3 minutes per day for the first 20 days of life. The control group was composed of animals left undisturbed during the same period. Once mature (80 days), the rats were exposed to an open-field situation, a test that reveals general reactivity and fearfulness.{---} As noted above, the non-handled animals tended to react slowly to aversive stimulation with a prolongation of the stress reaction. This physiological response to stress exhibited by non-handled animals may eventually result in various psychosomatic effects: stomach ulcers, immunosuppression, and sometimes death from adrenal exhaustion.”
I told this to a friend studying philosophy and also mentioned that Spartans had the lovely tradition of bathing their newborn in wine to test their responses and throw them into the chasm of Mount Taygetos if the body or behavior of the child was deemed subnormal. He basically ran amuck with these two facts, trying to justify all sorts of forms of child abuse. He even quoted this brilliant exchange from Blood Meridian: “So what is the way of raising a child? At a young age, said the judge, they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbour wild lions. They should be made to run naked in the desert until…”
One can justify all sorts of madness by only presenting favourable facts. In some departments of universities, you don’t even need favourable facts. All you need favourable quotations.
This angers me, because sometimes, this sort of nonsense turns into self-fulfilling prophecies. People love sensational claims and last politicians come to power that may have glanced over the headlines of such sensational claims and soon enough we have castration of mentally ill.
What I have been speaking about is well known. So well known in fact, that it is almost standard knowledge now and I could be accused of preaching to the choir. But it is the unknown that is the dangerous bit. The field of neuroscience for example is undergoing tremendous growth of knowledge and there are already emerging false prophets to misinterpret its findings to the laymen. Western society has probably passed the violent social reform phase, but softer versions of brainwashing seem to be multiplying. I think it should be the task of intellectuals to explain and think through the consequences of new results from science, not to use them to justify their own preconceptions.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Andres, thanks very much for posting this, and sorry to be so long replying. Excellent stuff.

I've read something similar to Keegan's thoughts on migratory and stable societies. On a simplistic level, I suppose migratory societies have too much to do, finding water, food, refuge, to devote much attention to establishing ritualistic enmities. And also, I suppose, they do not have a fixed enemy on whom to project their fears.

One can justify all sorts of madness by only presenting favourable facts. In some departments of universities, you don’t even need favourable facts. All you need favourable quotations.
Ha! Alas, I believe there is much truth in what you say!

I think it should be the task of intellectuals to explain and think through the consequences of new results from science, not to use them to justify their own preconceptions.
And this is a valuable point, too. Scientists can be every bit as dogmatic as any other group, for all their insistence that they seek empirical truths. They may well be seeking empirical truth but if, as you suggest, they go looking for them always in the same places, with the same general direction in mind, it is no surprise that they come up with the answers they were looking for.