Hide table of contents

I was delighted to see an open philanthropy-sponsored video going viral on YouTube about the consequences of full-scale nuclear war. It made me come back to complete this summary of the book by Douglas Emlen, which I think is a must-read in present times. I will attach the video at the end of this blog.

Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle is written by an evolutionary biologist, who extended research into arms and armament evolution while studying the origin of weapons in varied species found all across nature. 


Here we go...

In the final part, the author starts by recalling the significance of defense in the setting of a conflict. We are introduced to Siafu, a deadly variety of predatory African ants. These ants are known to kill and eat anything in their way. Surprisingly, these ants have a hard time with termites because of their sophisticated shelters. Termite mounds are built like fortresses, with walls acting like force multipliers, dedicated alarm signals, and kill zones. Breaching a colony of termites is difficult for Siafu as their strength lies in their numbers. Inside the mounds, a direct duel in the tunnels results in the termite’s victory due to their large weapon and body size. The sheer number of ants is neutralized by the meticulous fortification of the mounds. The chain of command works like clockwork, with workers blocking the gates upon receiving the signal and soldiers facing the intruders in several blocks while the queen and eggs are secured on the top of the towers. Other times, when the ants get lucky, large tunnelers like aardvarks gape through the mounds to get a fill of termites. The ants use this opportunity as a cheat to breach the defense and launch an all-out attack.

Similar arrangements of siege warfare are observed across Europe, Middle-east and parts of Asia throughout history. Just like the Saifus and termites, battles have unfolded between the Assyrian societies and Lachish.[1] According to the author, the city of Lachish exemplified this style of ancient fortification. The Assyrian siege strategies applied overwhelming forces to different parts of the fortress, with carefully engineered siege towers constructed on-site at the same time. These towers house huge iron-tipped battering rams suspended by a frame large enough to swing back and forth. Upon breach, the strength of the Assyrian army was unmatched at the time, with rapid-firing archers and foot soldiers with shields, pikes, and swords in massive numbers. Defense architecture has undergone multiple changes/updates in different parts of Eurasia. We do not observe such fortifications in the case of Mayans, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican civilizations, as they did not develop heavy siege weapons. Towers, Castles, forts, Starforts, etc, have their remains scattered at present times. What caused their extinction are not ballistas and catapults. Gunpowder and explosives changed everything.

What sets the human arms race apart?

One valid argument is that humans manufacture weapons from the materials obtained from the environment. They act as separate entities to our battles. They get damaged, broken, and repaired but do not affect our bodies in the process. Whereas in animals, the weapons are attached to their bodies and get modifications parallel to their anatomy. One could argue that there is a clear distinction between our world and theirs, so there shouldn’t be a correlation between the two arms races. The author argues that the circumstances triggering the arms race and the stages of the evolution of weapons are the same regardless.

Animals also manufacture their weapons, just like we saw in the case of termites. Genetic information is transferred from parents to offspring through templates of their DNA. The evolution of their DNA and further mutation directly result from how efficiently or poorly the previous weapon performed. For instance, the antlers of the progeny resemble the father, for he was the victor of the battle of strongest antlers. Although the cultural information is not encoded in the DNA, the transmission along the timeline follows the same path. The selection pressure applied is the same. Biological evolution is a diverse criterion, but there are apprenticeship and replication criteria that play connecting roles in both arms races. Cultural information travels faster than genetic information. It can cross borders and taught by other agents like spies and travelers. Since cultural information is learned rather than inherited, it can transferred from person to person. The same is present in bacteria and viruses, which carry and transfer genetic information, deriving mutations across animal species.

The key difference is that the cultural traits of a weapon are not related to the reproductive success of the wielder. Antlers are evolved along with the body of the elk who wears them. Human evolution works independently from weapons evolution. If we keep them separate, we can compare the animal weapons with ours. The successful traits of human weapons like rifles and missiles are passed down to the next generation. Innovation takes the role of mutation. The constant experimentation with design and use efficiency is replicated with each update along with the changes. As we have seen, advances in artilleries pushed for better fortifications and strategies and vice versa. This cycle spirals into an arms race, just like in the case of prey and predators. The battles we get are reminiscent of the ones with beetles, crabs, elks, etc.

Warring States of the Modern Times

The wars of modern times are quintessentially defined by armed vehicles. Vehicles can be considered very similar to animals as they burn energy to travel while carrying the weight of their body and maintaining speeds.

As the majority of the space on Earth kept getting established,[2]the competition and economic defensibility grew exponentially among the turbulent governments around the world. During the Modern Era, the seas were rampant with naval warfare fueled with gunpowder and canons.[3]As the first two ingredients were provided by the states, ships started dueling at close range triggering another arms race at the sea in the 1600s. This time marks the development of the sailing warship, The Galleon. These ships were propelled by wind and had sturdy hulls capable of withstanding storms and extending the voyages in the open ocean. The evolution of this technology was so significant that it gave rise to the golden age of piracy.[4] With time, they grew larger, faster, and deadlier, with the number of canons pushing the size of the ships to be bigger than battlegrounds on lands. But soon, like in animals, the size proved to be a liability than an advantage. Big galleons were ill-suited for ramming; smaller, faster ships would sneak into the fleet with men carrying fast-loading rifles and dismantle the formation, or taint the canons. By the eighteenth century, bigger ships weren’t just worth the cost, and the arms race ended. The invention of airplanes changed everything. Battleships nowadays have some to the point of extinction and sea travel has become central to global trade and export.[5]

Air reconnaissance was deemed the future of wars for centuries before the invention of the aircraft. Just ten years after their advent, aircraft started shooting each other down.[6] WWI became the testing ground for aerial duels, starting with reconnaissance missions to mounting machine guns to rough dogfights. By the WWII, “air superiority” had become the priority for success in battle. The planes had categories by then—from transport carriers to lightweight fighter bombers and heavy bombers.[7] The fierce competition pushed the arms race to exponential heights. Model after model hit the skies, each a bit faster and better than the last.[8]

By the time the war ended, human civilization was posed to enter the two arms races interlinked together to form the deadliest one in history: Air superiority and Nuclear warfare. The rapid evolution of bomber aircraft even forced the pilots to their limit, with fighter jets pushing past the supersonic speeds. The two superpowers remaining after the war, the United States and the USSR, made way for the grandest scale of arms race between the rival nations. States are even more like animals than vehicles. They consume resources while competing with each other for the control of these resources. In this case, unlike the ancient times, these rival nations compete to get access to energy, mainly in the form of oil. When states compete, the individual that confronts each other are rival governments. During this time, these states spend more and more of their resources on weapons until the race culminates into an outright war. Or one spends beyond its capabilities and collapses. Just like the Irish Elks, who took too much calcium and phosphorus from their skeleton to develop their antlers. They are now extinct.

Following WWII, the two superpowers entered the Cold Wars along with a series of proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. These were deemed low-risk conventional means for both states to signal to the opposition military and act as deterrents for a full-scale conflict. Most states have a limited resource pool (GDPs) and a discretionary pool. In the case of rich countries like the US and the USSR, these pools extended up to trillions of dollars. In the next forty years, right after dropping nuclear warheads on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we saw the growing fleet of nuclear submarines, dozens of generations of supersonic fighter jets, a new generation of tanks, Unmanned aerial vehicles(UMVs aka Drones), antitank and antiaircraft missiles, anti-mines and bridging vehicles and a barrage of technological advancements for wars fought during that time. On the nuclear side, silos with intercontinental ballistic missiles(ICBMs) were born with nuclear warheads placed into their nose cones. Possessing nuclear power was only as good as living with the explosives in your house. The power to launch them anytime and anywhere was the ultimate deterrent. It pushed Humanity into the space race in the 1960s when the Soviets launched the first space satellite, proving the world their technological prowess. The decades followed huge investments in rocket technologies, missile guiding systems, and propulsion fuels, all designed for the offensive. It was high time for full-scale nuclear war to unfold.

It is estimated that the US spent 10% of its GDP each year and 70% of its discretionary funds on defense during this period. For the Soviets, the numbers were unclear, but it is believed to be at least 15-17% of the GDP (40% by some estimates) while exceeding the discretionary funds. In December 1991, the USSR collapsed; the following year, all the republics declared independence.[9]


Weapons of Mass Destruction

Humanity faced high chances of extinction more than once during the period of the Cold War, avoided only by luck and the individuals who refused to press the button.[10] We nearly escaped these events, and in the end, deterrence prevailed because of the looming threat of mass destruction. In the Cold War, obtaining nuclear warheads was expensive. They were seen as an honest signal of strength. At present, obtaining them has become both accessible and inexpensive for small rival states. Deterrence only works up to a point. Even in animals, when rival males back off against a stronger opponent, they then seek the ones they can defeat. Both deterrence and honest signals are effective in avoiding a full-scale war, but the case of mass destruction propagates further from this logic. Smaller rivalries involving nuclear warfare can be sudden as well as deadly for the entire planet. As the author states, collateral damage from weapons of mass destruction is likely to be staggering, and this changes the stakes of conflict. The primary use of deterrence is choosing the battles wisely and using honest signals to predict the fighting ability of the rival. In the absence of honest signals, anybody can make these weapons and use them. This paves the way for the evil actors of war to use sneaks and cheats to get on top of a conflict, irrespective of the inevitable consequences.

The existential risk of weapons of mass destruction is not limited to nuclear weapons. Bioweapons are equally likely to cause near-extinction events for humanity. Living in 2024, we even have precedent for such scenarios. These weapons are not even expensive to make. Many countries are investing in research and technology for tons of heat- and cold-resistant strains of viruses that are beyond the comprehension of the general population. In the presence of constant global conflict, there is fierce competition to prepare vaccines for a future attack of bioweapons. New studies are aided by advanced computing tools of machine learning and big data processing.[11] Since the possibilities of bioweapons are endless, the decisions of catastrophic life and death lie in the hands of unreliable government states and often in the hands of rogue individuals capable of producing the tiniest weapons of mass destruction. 


The author ends the book on the high by stating that Humanity would not survive the next arms race. In terms of X-risks, it is probably right up there at the top(along with probably AI misalignments and Climate Change). Through this book, we understand that the primary factors of any arms race are the same. We can not discount economic defensibility from our systems. And most probably, it is going to stay with humans forever. Duels, on the other hand, can be considered as the direct result of competition. If we think about the stakes that are involved with weapons of mass destruction, I can argue that states can potentially avoid a competitive setting. Peter Theil, in his book, states that Competition is for losers. In the case of the arms race, Humanity always ends up on the losing side. Although Theil wrote this line in entrepreneurial settings, it can be understood as humans’ tendency to imitate the traits of others, especially animals; in this case, the competitive need to fight. We are attracted to do things other people do. Competition always helps in improvements and makes us better at things we are competing for. But it comes with a price: we lose sight of what’s more valuable.

Huge thanks to Superlinear for supporting me in covering this book. Do share any feedback/comments about the topics I mentioned. I hope I didn’t overstep in taking creative liberties while writing on sensitive subjects.

  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^

    Direct book quote by Douglas Emlen

  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
No comments on this post yet.
Be the first to respond.
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities