Through a genetic lens, we should be willing to die to save 2 brothers, 4 half siblings or 8 cousins. Statistically, that would leave more surviving copies of a gene for self-sacrifice than would be lost with the death of the individual. Animals sacrifice themselves in line with these principles, but only in the face of an immediate threat. Humans regularly put themselves in harm's way on behalf of people we’re not even closely related to. We fight for our tribe, country, or religion: entities that exist only in our minds.
Historically war served a useful ecological function: thin the population whenever it exceeds the available natural resources. Humans aren’t the only animals that go to war: for example amongst Chimpanzees war is fairly common, to acquire territory from other apes. More territory means more fruit trees, which in turn means females will have more to eat, and be able to reproduce faster and more successfully. War is an adaptive evolutionary trait: it has been selected for because it’s good for survival. In chimp wars as well as human ones, the story begins the same: a weak leader is struggling to hold onto power as ambitious upstarts plot to take over. As tensions rise, the community splits and the killing begins.
The difference in human wars is culture: chimps have social networks but as far as we’re aware they don’t use propaganda. With humans the strategic placement of stories in the media, repeated use of Xenophobic words or phrases, and even forced re-education of citizens emphasise our differences and hide our similarities. We’re all just people: we only believe we’re part of a different nation because centuries ago an imaginary border was drawn, fought over, and killed for by our ancestors. Tribes infected with the best mechanisms for disseminating “war memes” either killed off more peaceful viewpoints, or their women and children were captured by the victors, bringing their pro-war culture with them. Eventually these tribes became cities, and eventually countries, or empires, shaping the geo-political landscape in their image.
The problem is that genetics isn’t keeping up with memetics. Psychological traits suited to limiting hunter-gatherer populations and allocating sparse resources to species with the strongest genetics, aren’t fit for purpose in a world with atomic bombs. Most chimp warfare is limited to relatively small skirmishes and raids: the biggest ape-on-ape war on record lasted 4 years, and chimps are strong enough to rip a human apart with their bare hands, but they don’t have machine guns, artillery, or bombs. Ever since humans sharpened our first spear, war became a game of innovation, not of physical strength. It has certainly pushed technology further, but at what point does it bring human progress to an abrupt stop? As Einstein lamented "I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”.
Given that war has increasingly existential implications for humanity, the U.S. military is researching ways to stop “war memes” from activating in the first place. If we can counter enemy propaganda, we can stop the division of society from occurring, and nip a potential war in the bud before anybody gets hurt. As Dr Robert Finkelstein envisioned: "Countering terrorists and insurgents before and after they become terrorists and insurgents: influencing beliefs in a scientific way”. According to several reports, memetics has been a research topic within the U.S. Military, and although there have been no documented, declassified uses of the discipline.
Many within the military have urged for new capabilities to be developed, for example to combat a growing list of enemies with which the U.S. cannot fight a conventional war. ISIS wins new recruits globally by sharing memes on social media. Russia has invested heavily in ‘troll farms’ to spread disinformation ahead of military action. China has used its ‘great firewall’ to neutralise memetic insurgencies within their own borders. As Jeff Giesea urged in the NATO Strategic Journal, “It's time to embrace memetic warfare”.
Academic journal "Defence Strategic Communications" Vol1
Chimps, Too, Wage War and Annex Rival Territory
Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War
Is America Prepared for Meme Warfare?
Only known chimp war reveals how societies splinter
Presentation Military Memetics Tutorial 13 Dec 11.pdf
Why the US Government Spent Millions Trying to Weaponize Memes