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Darwinism, war and history: the debate over the biology of war from the `Origin of species' to the First World War

Medical History
Cambridge University Press
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  • Book Reviews
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Linguistics


Book Reviews Paul Crook, Darwinism, war and history: the debate over the biology of warfrom the 'Origin of species' to the First World War, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. xii, 306, £45.00, $64.95 (hardback 0-521-44465-9), £18.95, $27.95 (paperback 0-5214 6645-8). This important book traces "the manifold implications of Darwin's theories for the debate over war and peace" (p. 192) up to the end of the First World War. It is generally believed that Darwinism was used to legitimize conflict and aggression, within society as well as between societies, and the beneficent effects of war-as a form of the struggle for life-on the quality of the race. But the author emphasizes "the cultural malleability of Darwinism" (p. 31), which could be accommodated to a surprising diversity of users. "In the debate over the 'biology of war', as more generally, Darwinism bred a myriad of diverse doctrines, a plurality of connotations. Complex interactions took place between biological and social domains. Biological theories took on different ideological shadings in differing historical climates" (p. 97). The same theory (but we might well wonder if it was really the same) was appealed to in support of opposed ideologies. Although many pacifists opposed biological determinism, they used biological arguments and analogies no less than their adversaries did. Professor Crook stresses the historical importance of what he calls "the discourse of peace biology", which grew out of a co-operationist interpretation of Darwin's holistic ecology. It was a strong and multi-faceted tradition, "always adaptive and resilient" (p. 153), which, unlike biological militarism, owed its persistence to its congruency with entrenched moral culture. However, peace apostles did not hesitate to appeal to the verdict of biology when this suited their case. For peace biology itself was not immune from contradictions and from blending facts and values. Nor was it a monolith. It was often a liberal movement, but not always or necessarily so

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