7 min read

What Animal Evolution Can Teach Us About The Arms Race

<p>Larry Smith / <a class="checked-link" href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lsmith2010/14660495729/" target="_blank">Flickr</a> (<a class="checked-link" href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/" target="_blank">CC BY 2.0</a>)<span></span></p>

Two new books landed at my doorstep this week and both deserve a wide readership. Their contrasting titles, "Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle" by noted Montana State University researcher Douglas Emlen, and "Why Life Matters: Fifty Ecosystems of the Heart and Mind," edited by renowned ecologists and filmmakers Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison, caught my eye.

Both of these books are easy and essential reads. In "Animal Weapons" Dr. Emlen covers the wide array of weaponry donned by a wide range of species - elk antlers, crab and cat claws, eagle talons, and the sharp and large teeth possessed by many different animals - and explains why they have evolved and how they are used. What's so appealing about this book is the way in which Dr. Emlen seamlessly weaves in his personal and extensive field experiences studying among other animals, dung beetles, who also display formidable weapons, and solid scientific research. Readers don't have to know much about animal behavior or evolutionary theory to come away with an understanding of why many different animals have invested a good deal of energy in evolving extreme weapons in their own arms race that might also compromise them in contexts other than battle.

We're not likely to survive another arms race

Dr. Emlen also considers the evolution of weapons in human animals. Noting that he's "no expert in geopolitics or national security ... since I work on beetles," (p. 215) he presents a very reasonable discussion of the arms races in which humans have and continue to engage including chemical warfare and the tactics used by terrorists. While human animals are very similar to nonhuman animals, Dr. Emlen notes, correctly, that there are significant differences. He writes, "The deadliest weapons of today have no precedent - never before has an animal wielded the capacity to destroy life on such a planetary scale, and never have there been weapons so dangerous they can never be used" (p. 220). He concludes on a somber note: "Weapons of mass destruction change the stakes, and the logic, of battle. We're not likely to survive another arms race" (p. 220).

After reading Dr. Emlen's fine book and seeing, of course, that while we have the potential to wipe ourselves off our fascinating and magnificent planet, there are also many people all over the world doing wonderful things to sustain life, and reading "Why Life Matters" was especially welcomed. The essays in this book mostly stem from interviews published in the editors' Forbes "Green Conversations" blog series with others added in from the Eco News Network. The back-and-forth conversations flow nicely and are admirably dynamic. There are fifty parts that cover, among many other topics, "Ethics, science, technology, ecological literacy, grass-roots renaissance thinkers, conservation innovation from the US to the UK; from India to Ecuador; from Bhutan to Haiti; from across Africa, the Neo-Tropics, Central Asia and Japan, to Rio, Shanghai and Manhattan." The wide-ranging table of contents, preface, and sample pages can be downloaded here. Reading through this book made me think of the magnificent pictures in world renowned photographer Thomas Mangelsen's new book called "The Last Great Wild Places."

"Why Life Matters" is an incredibly eclectic and outstanding book and, similar to "Animal Weapons," an easy read. I really enjoyed reading both in tandem, and find myself going back to each of them from time to time. I highly recommend them for a broad audience who is interested in human and animal behavior and detailed and credible discussions of many timely topics that are presented in a style so that non-experts can understand them. I also highly recommend them for use in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in which open discussion is encouraged and appreciated.