Evolutionary Reflections on The Great War and the New Millenium

Evolutionary Reflections on The Great War and the New Millenium

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Evolutionary biologists have long been interested in war and aggression.  It was something Darwin talked of in his Descent of Man – hardly a surprise since his mechanism of natural selection is fueled by a “struggle for existence” – and his followers and critics have struggled with the issue since.  Some, the extreme “Social Darwinians,” have argued that war is a natural and wholesome thing, part of human nature and a kind of cleansing activity, as the strongest prevail and the weak get eliminated.  Others have not been so sure.  “Evolution and ethics” is the finest essay of Darwin’s bulldog, T. H. Huxley.  He argues that a violent nature is indeed part of our evolutionary heritage (the Victorians may not have believed in God but they were always good on original sin), and it is our moral duty to fight it at every possible opportunity.  As an alternative, the Russian anarchist Prince Petr Kropotkin argued that human nature has a benevolent side, leading to a disposition towards “mutual aid.”  (The best historical account of this whole topic is Darwinism and War by Paul Crook, published by Cambridge University Press.)

The debate continues today.  The Nobel Prize-winning ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, claimed that all animals are aggressive but only humans are the beasts without inborn processes of restraint.  We truly are the vilest products of nature.  (Lorenz should have known.  He actively supported the Nazis.)  Others, the sociobiologists particularly, think that matters are more complex.  We are certainly aggressive, often.  Probably our evolutionary nature was forged by living in small groups where our chief competitors were rival groups of hominids.  At the same time however, we are “altruistic,” we cooperate with each other for biological ends.  As Ben Franklin said when he signed the Declaration of Independence, “Gentlemen, from henceforth we must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”  One of the latest to write on these subjects is the distinguished primatologist Alison Jolly, in her well-written and well-worth-reading Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution (just published by Harvard University Press).  She covers many topics, but she sees that violence and its counters are an essential part of human nature.

For various reasons, the First World War – or as it was then known the “Great War” – has always figured large in Darwinian discussions of violence.  Partly, I suppose, this was chance.  It was the first really big fight to come along after the publication of the Origin.  There was the American Civil War of course, but I think that was just too soon after the publication for people to use the ideas of evolution for analysis.  The Franco-Prussian War and the Boer War were more localized, although the German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel was certainly much impressed by the German victory in the former and it surely influenced his thinking.  But no one could escape the Great War, nor in fact did evolutionists want to.  There was much writing on the Anglo American side about how the Hun was overly enthused by dreams of struggle, with Teutonic victories sweeping away the Untermenschen and replacing them by good Germans.  Indeed, historians now suggest that at least part of the American anti-evolutionism of the 1920s, leading to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, was fuelled by precisely these fears.

I cannot say that the Fundamentalists’ fears were entirely without basis.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler certainly used and endorsed such Social Darwinian ideas: “Man has become great through struggle…  Whatever goal man has reached is due to his originality plus his brutality…  All life is bound up in three theses… struggle is the father of all things, virtue lies in blood, leadership is primary and decisive.”  More: “He who wants to live must fight, and he who does not want to fight in this world where eternal struggle is the law of life has no right to exist.”

However historians now realize that there was much more to the Great War – its origins and its bloody continuation – than a simple-minded Social Darwinism, German or any other variety.  I have been thinking much about these things recently, partly because as everyone gears up for the next century – for a new millennium even – I have been trying to make sense of the terrible events of the century just about to leave.  Trying to see if there are any messages to be learnt and gleams of hope to be discerned.  Partly for a more specific reason, namely that I live in Guelph, Canada, and this was the birthplace and home of one of the most celebrated poets of the War.  (Why there should have been this outpouring of verse is a good question.  There was nothing comparable in the Second War.)

Colonel John McCrae was a doctor, a soldier, and the author of probably the most famous of all of the lines to come down from the Great War.  Today in the Commonwealth, on Remembrance Day (Veterans Day to Americans), we wear in memory the poppy, that hardy little red plant, which ironically thrives best when the ground is disturbed and turned up, as in battle.  McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, is better known to us than our national anthem.

InFlandersfields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.


We are the Dead.  Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Love, and were loved, and now we lie



Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow.


 McCrae wrote these lines in 1915.  Note that he is still confident that the fight is worth it and the enemy unambiguously wrong.  The last verse is often dropped today, as politically a bit incorrect and insensitive.  (The neighbouring town to Guelph is now called Kitchener, after the Great War general.  It used to be called Berlin and is still the centre of Canadian-German culture, if a massive Oktoberfest can be thus designated.)

But were McCrae and his fellows really being driven by some Darwinian bloodlust, which the Human Genome Project will undoubtedly soon show to be part of our DNA?  One of the most interesting recent books about the War – highly controversial, which is a euphemism for saying that his colleagues will have none of it – is Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War.  He argues that far from a paradigm of Social Darwinism in action – the cause of the War is often taken to be the arms race between Britain and Germany – much that went on before, during, and after the War was contingency, based on the unfortunate events of the moment.  As Tolstoy argues in War and Peace, individual intentions do not count for much at all.  Social Darwinism is not so much wrong as irrelevant.

Fergusonmay be right in this, but I do not think that this makes biology per se – Darwinian evolution in particular – wrong or irrelevant.  One thing on which historians all agree is the amazing way, when once war was declared in August 1914, that almost everyone got caught up in a frenzy of excitement and patriotism.  There is a notorious photo of the cheering masses in Munich’s Odeonplatz on August 2, delirious at the declaration of hostilities.  No one roars with more enthusiasm than a failed Austrian painter, Adolf Hitler.  Whatever else, this surely tells us something about the way that human beings function.  Biology has not made us disinterested, rational, calculating machines.  Rather, as the economist Robert Frank argues in his Passions within Reason (and as David Hume argued 250 years earlier), the way we function is as animals spurred to action by feelings and emotions – feelings and emotions of the moment.  To survive in the Pleistocene what you needed was an instant boost of hormone, making you mad and determined to support your gang against the others.  You did not need bloodless moral philosophy.

The poetry at the beginning of the War reflects this almost mindless patriotism.  Rupert Brooke’s famous sentimental sonnet (written in 1914) has little touch with the reality of war, but much with the blind identification with the group – my group with no argument about the virtue of its cause.

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.  There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whomEnglandbore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body ofEngland’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.


And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts byEnglandgiven;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Laughter, gentleness, peace, heaven. 

And above all,England: “blest by suns of home.”

 By the end of the War, the poets knew differently.  How very different is Wilfred Owen writing in 1918.  Realistic and bitter.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep.  Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod.  All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.


Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. –

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


In all my dreams before my helpless sight

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.


If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,

If you could hear, at every jolt, th blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs

Obscene as cancer, bitter as cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.*

* It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

 There comes a point where blind enthusiasm will not do, where biology is not enough.  Or perhaps biology kicks in in another way.  In 1917, Russia gave up the fight.  It was not so much that it was losing but that its soldiers had simply had enough and walked away from the battlefield.  They wanted to go home to their wives and families.  The old passions had waned and passions of a different kind took over.  Owen fought to the bitter end – bitter indeed for him, for he was killed just before the armistice in November of 1918.  But one sees from his verse a very different attitude from that of McCrae, a mere three years later.  Now, it is everyone caught in this bloody awful mess – there is no right and wrong, no winner and loser.  All of that schoolmaster’s BS about the glory of dying for one’s country is just that: schoolmaster’s BS.  When the cost gets too high, then we simply recognize that we are all in it, up to our necks, and there really is no meaning or victory worth the cost.  Why go on fighting?

 ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now…’

As it happens, war – the Great War in particular – is often taken to be a counter-example to a Darwinian account of human nature.  How it is, critics ask, that men went over the top to near-certain death?  Surely this is the ultimate counter to a biologically fashioned nature which makes survival and reproduction the overwhelming causal factor?  Something else – culture or the like – has to kick in here, to override biology.  But it seems to me that if you argue – as following Hume and Frank I am arguing here — that humans are motivated not by objective, long-range rationality but by immediate, short-range emotion, then in fact the War becomes a major confirmation.  What drove men was not some ethereal commitment to duty – “the King and the Generals were distant, and God even more so” (read Robert Graves’s Goodby to All That before you disagree) – but a hatred of Fritz for killing Belgian babies and a warm comradeship with your pals, a desperate desire not to let them down.

Of all the War poems, the one which affects me most is that written (in 1916) by Lieutenant Ewart Mackintosh, platoon commander of Private David Sutherland, whom Mackintosh had carried back from battle only to have him die in his arms.

 So you were David’s father And he was your only son,

And the new-cut peats are rotting

And the work is left undone,

Because of an old man weeping,

Just an old man in pain,

For David, his son David,

 That will not come again.


Oh, the letters he wrote you,

And I can see them still,

Not a word of the fighting

But just the sheep on the hill

And how you should get the crops in

Ere the year get stormier,

And the Bosches have got his body,

And I was his Officer.


You were only David’s father,

But I had fifty sons

When we went up in the evening

Under the arch of the guns,

And we came back at twilight –

O God!  I heard them call

To me for help and pity

That could not help at all.


Oh never will I forget you,

My men that trusted me,

More my sons than your fathers’,

For they could only see

The little helpless babies

And the young men in their pride.

They could not see you dying,

And hold you while you died.


Happy and young and gallant,

They saw their first born go,

But not the strong limbs broken

And the beautiful men brought low.

The piteous writhing bodies

They screamed ‘Don’t leave me sir,’

For they were only your father

But I was your officer.

 I cannot read this poem without, as now, tears welling in my eyes.  It is the tragedy not only of the dead but also the agony of those remaining.  Not the agony of a rational being, but of a father for his son — of a father for all of his sons.  For Mackintosh, this was no metaphor but the literal reality.  We weep because we too are human, we too can share in his desolation.  For his deed, Mackintosh won the Military Cross.  He himself was killed a year later.

Although I was born in 1940, for me and my age cohort the Great War can never be just an object of interest and study.  I never met my paternal grandfather.  He was gassed on the Somme, and spent the next twenty years coughing out his life through damaged lungs.  My generation of primary-school children was taught by aging spinsters whose boyfriends had been killed at Passchendaele.  And we all knew crazy, shell-shocked cases who never recovered, ranting at us kids in the park or from behind the curtains of their dingy houses.  Even our culture in mid-century England was as much First World War as Second — looking back so painfully.  My set book at high school was Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, the first part of Siegfried Sassoon’s trilogy on the War.  It starts with the idyll of Edwardian rural life – the lightly fictionalized narrator living with an aunt who can play only the first two movements of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (the third is too fast and difficult) – and ends in the trenches of the Western Front.  And in real life, my hero was Jack Cornwell, from the slums of the London East End, who won the Victoria Cross for his courage at the Battle of Jutland.  He was mortally wounded but stood by his gun through the whole action.  He was sixteen years old.

But although I can never think of the War without emotion, I can strive to understand it – and the other events of this century.  No one has an exclusive lien on understanding, but I do truly believe that now modern biology – sociobiology or evolutionary psychology or whatever you want to call it – is starting to give us some really powerful tools to dissect and understand human nature.  We are starting to see how it is the passions of the moment which are so very important, not the grand schemes for the future.  A recent work which carries some of this thinking further, showing how social relationships emerge from individual passions, is Brian Skyrms’s the Evolution of the Social Contract (published by Cambridge University Press).  And no doubt there will be more works of this ilk.

I do not know if we learn from our mistakes, as the philosopher Karl Popper used to demand of us.  I do think that the historians and the biologists and many others are helping us to understand our mistakes.  That is no small thing and a comfort as we face the challenges of the next century.  And on this mildly optimistic note I wish you all the best of the season – a season which I fear it is now illegal even to mention by name – and hope to see you all in the new year, the new century, and the new millennium.