John McCaffrey
6 min readJan 12, 2024

Survival of the Pacifist: Natural Selection and War

“We don’t always rise to a higher level.”

War is always confusing. And confounding in its continuance, given that humans are believed to be evolving creatures, i.e. we learn and grow from mistakes and become more enlightened beings. But that is not how evolution works. We don’t always rise to a higher level. In fact, one of Charles Darwin’s seminal books on the topic is titled, “The Descent of Man.”

While descent, in the context of Darwin’s treatise, derives from ‘descendant’ and pertains to our origins, our shared beginning, I believe the word might also foretell our collective end. For Darwin’s theory of whence we came and how we got here is predicated on natural selection, more commonly known as “survival of the fittest.” In simplistic terms, this entails an organism beating out another organism for sustenance. If true, it is a system that admires adaptability, inspires initiative, and rewards ruthlessness. To the victor go the spoils, as they say. In this case, it means the chance for the triumphant organism to procreate, and to pass on to their progeny whatever traits helped to establish dominance. It provides the prospect of everlasting life to the winner, and eternal death to the loser.

Which might explain the human penchant for war. Perhaps our past and ongoing cruelties, our barbarous actions, our wielding of weapons in the name of one cause or another, our taking up of arms no matter if the reason righteous or the motivation madness, can be chalked up to evolutionary instinct. Kill or be killed, is the old axiom to justify taking a life to preserve one. But history is littered with bloody battles begun without threat or without provocation. Take, for instance, the deadliest of them all: Stalingrad.

This singular clash between the Soviets and the Nazis during World War II produced, in less than one-year’s time (August 1942 to February 1943), 1.2 million fatalities. Yet it started when the two countries were at peace. It was Hitler who broke the accord based on contrived and flimsy grievances. Given the order, his army invaded Russia, just as Bonaparte and his French legions had done (also unsuccessfully) one hundred years earlier. For Hitler, more clearly, it was not just the prospect of controlling vast resources fueling his murderous desires, but murder itself. He called for total war — an annihilation of the “Bolsheviks.” He wanted to wipe them off the map.

No matter how grotesque and gruesome Hitler’s actions, arguments have been made by evolutionary scientists and scholars that initiating such a mass-homicidal event, that starting a war, and fighting back, is a manifestation of natural selection. As the late cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “When one group enters conflict/war, others must either take it up or be destroyed.”

Robert Dickey, in Scientific American (War and the Survival of the Fittest-Does Physical Conflict Between the Nations Select the Highest Type?) adds more context to this line of thinking:

“Evolutionists who are accustomed to magnify the office of natural selection as a key to every problem, look upon war as the final expression of a law wrought into all life. They point out that during the long history of life from its earliest dawn upon our planet there has been a struggle for existence in which the weaker and less fit have gone to the wall and the superior type has survived and perpetuated itself. “Nature red in tooth and claw” has “with ravine shrieked” from the beginning. But, despite all this apparently immeasurable waste and cruelty, there has been through this process a gradual improvement of the types of life. The unfit have gone to the wall and left no descent, whereas the fit have survived and brought forth after their kind. The struggle for existence, turning nature into a shambles as it has, has yet been the mother of progress. In this prodigality of cruelty and death there is to be traced the history of life mounting to ever higher forms. Natural selection, we are assured, has been wrought into life from the beginning and is the sacred instrument of progress.”

But I.W. Howeth, in The Scientific Monthly (War and the Survival of the Fittest) denies such outcomes. He writes:

“We have now seen that war is not an essential part of the struggle for existence, and that, while it results in the survival of the fittest, it does not necessarily result in progress, the reason being that the fittest are not necessarily the best.”

Which is what I believe. To my great sadness, and to my growing distress. It is my contention that war after war after war after war, continuous conflict for thousands of years, has had evolutionary impact on who we are today. For if one believes, as I do, in natural selection, in the survival of the fittest theory, than those who are best at war are most likely to survive war. And those that survive pass on to the next generation their traits — be it physical, intellectual or psychological. When applied to nations, it helps to explain emphasis on military strength, massive expenditures on armies and arms, the creation and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But how do we stop this evolutionary slide? In keeping to the survival of the fittest model, the answer is simple, but also seemingly impossible: creating a world where engaging in war is the antithesis to survival. Which, in many ways, is a world we are creating. For if we stay on our current track and complete the job of destroying ourselves and the earth, who will be left to fight and for what? As Albert Einstein, the genius theoretical physicist, who with E=MC2 helped to explain the release of atomic energy, predicted: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”.

We cannot stay idle and wait for this inevitable outcome. I say we fight back with the most fierce weapon we have at our disposal: love. Darwin wrote: “The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.” It’s true. Love is the antidote for war. The trick is convincing the leaders of nations, of countries large and small, the media giants and the mega-corporations, anyone and everything that has the power to influence, to persuade, to set policy, that our survival depends on love, and nothing else.

For love is sustaining. It is the foundation for good. A loving world is not hungry. Food is treasured, shared, cultivated with care, and not used to coerce, to punish, or to profit. Love is patient. It means listening to all sides of an argument, accepting differences, welcoming debate, and not trying always to win. Love is honest. It is not manipulative, controlling, or deceptive — there is no “spin” with love. Love is active, and it is passive. It means “turning the other cheek,” as Jesus taught. It means living in the present, as espoused by the Buddha. Love is kind. It is compassionate. It is self-aware. The Prophet Muhammad said, “The strong man is not the one who can overpower others, but the one who can control himself when he is angry.” Love is generous. Love is forgiving. “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” is written in the Torah. Loves flows inward, and equally outward.

You might say, this is all just platitudes, words on a page, wishful thinking in a world where might equals right. Perhaps, but I say, what choice do we have but to lead with love? It is the one thing we can all do, right now. Anne Frank, while experiencing inconceivable isolation and hardship, and facing the prospect of death, still was able to write: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Her love has outlasted and bested the hate. How many have read her diary and been inspired to do good, to protect the most vulnerable, to work toward peace? Each of us can also take up loving arms and lift others through love.

Darwin believed that organisms with heritable traits that favor survival and reproduction will tend to leave more offspring than their peers, causing the traits to increase in frequency over generations. What better reason than to love? To be a person who loves. Whose love encourages others to love. To pass on love so that it can be passed on and on and on, from generation to generation to generation. Until love becomes the most dominant trait of all, and the most important trait for our survival.

Because, it is.

John McCaffrey is a novelist, professor, and Trustee of a nonprofit mental health treatment and training organization in NYC.

John McCaffrey

John McCaffrey is a writer and a professor at The Rochester Institute of Technology.