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14.7: An ancient plague perhaps vanishing

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    We close this chapter with a graph to ponder. Examine Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), an epidemiological view of annual deaths per 1000 population during the twentieth century, from a widespread and ancient cause. Imagine what it represents. Is it a sexually transmitted disease, an ordinary disease with an effective treatment introduced around 1946, or something else entirely?

    worldwide deaths.JPG

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). Worldwide deaths per year from an ancient human malady.

    The solid blue regression line goes through the average number of deaths over time from 1946 forward, projected back on the dashed line through the outbreaks earlier in the century.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) is actually an epidemiological view of deaths from warfare, which have been declining per capita over the past 70 years. The vertical line marks the beginning of the atomic era, and the numbers in parenthesis indicate (1) World War I, (2) World War II, (3) Korea, (4) Vietnam, (5) Cambodia and Ethiopia, (6) USSR–Afganistan and Iran–Iraq, and (7) Rwanda.

    Why include a chart of war deaths in a book on ecology, and in a chapter on the ecology of disease? First, war is directly connected with ecology and the environment. Throughout human history, warfare has been caused by environmental change, as existing territories became unproductive and new territories were sought, and in turn it has caused environmental change through habitat alteration and other forces. Second, humans are a dominant ecological force, whose impact we examine in this book, and warfare has been a prominent theme in the human condition. And third, warfare has some of the properties of a disease. It can spread from places of origin like a disease, and has analogs of competitors and mutualists in addition to obvious roles of predators and prey. Moreover, it involves an infectious agent—replicating not as biological agents spread between bodies of their hosts, but abstractly, like ideas—as seen by Richard Dawkins,⋆ — replicate as memes between minds of their hosts.

    Warfare has enough abstract similarities to biological agents, and enough tangible effects on ecology of the planet, that we want to offer these ideas for your future consideration, and with the hope that some progress can be made by enough minds examining them.

    From discussions with students and colleagues thus far, and from parts of the literature, here are some thoughts for your consideration.

    Nuclear weapons. It seems indisputable that these caused an initial collapse in warfare, but they may also have affected the number of war deaths during the rest of the century. Of course, they could have led to unprecedented numbers of deaths had political arrangements worked out differently.

    Immediate journalism. Photographic news coverage becoming ever more immediate gave the world a different view of war. Cell-phone cameras, social networks, and the internet expand that indefinitely today.

    International law. Most international law may not yet be written, but we have seen its beginnings. How much has the encoding of war crimes since World War II contributed to the decline?

    Self-government. The rapid expansion of self-government since the middle of the twentieth century may have contributed to the decline in war-related deaths, as self-governing nations tend to avoid war with other self-governing nations.

    International trade. In the same way, nations that trade mutualistically may also tend to avoid war so as to avoid destroying trading partnerships.

    Expanding ethics. At the end of 1957 the Soviets launched the space dog “Little Curly” into orbit, intending him to die while orbiting our planet. Though this went largely unchallenged in the twentieth century, would any nation be able to do something like this in the twenty-first? Do expanding ethics in other realms contribute at all to the decline in war deaths?

    Women in power. It is worth considering whether the increasing proportion of women in government has an effect on the number of war-related deaths. Among primates such as chimpanzees and baboons, males are the more aggressive sex. If this is true in humans, might it have continued effects in the future?

    Improved medicine. Serious wounds once meant infection and death, but now victims can recover. And mortality from diseases which can spread rapidly in wartime—like influenza—has been reduced. The same level of warfare now manifests fewer deaths, making part of the decline an artifact.

    Reduced overkill. The percentage of a population killed during a war decreased from nearly 100% in some ancient times to “what is necessary” in more recent cases. Has the development of precision weaponry contributed to continuing decrease in war deaths? This would also make part of the decline an artifact.

    Humanity has already unexpectedly broken the millennia-long rush of ever-accelerating population levels. Could something similar be happening with the millennia-long scourge of war? According to projections along the regression line, and for whatever the reasons, if the trends of Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) are real and can be understood and continued, humanity may be on a path toward the elimination of background warfare, even before the end of this century.

    This material is a partial encapsulation of Steven Pinker’s 800-page book, “The Better Angels of our Nature” (2011). That downward slope indicates a plausible goal to understand and a plausible hope to maintain. It is plausible, but we cannot know if it is practical without dedicating ourselves to it.

    There is a level of self-fulfillment in such things, for if we collectively do not believe a goal like this can be achieved, it likely will not, but if we believe in it and work toward it, we might succeed. Along present trends, you can work with reasonable, rational, data-based hope to make background warfare vanish in your lifetime. And regardless of the outcome, all will be ennobled by the effort.

    Arlington National Cemetary.JPG

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.

    This page titled 14.7: An ancient plague perhaps vanishing is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clarence Lehman, Shelby Loberg, & Adam Clark (University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.