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08 February 2019

Men are from Mars?

When studying war we neglect biology at our peril, argued Dr Mike Martin in the annual Saki-Dockrill lecture.

Mike Martin
Mike Martin

Have students of war neglected its biological foundation? And can the disruption of warfare through AI be better understood through a better understanding of these prehistoric origins?

Dr Mike Martin, a former serviceman in Afghanistan and Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London, explored these ideas while giving the annual Saki-Dockrill lecture and prizegiving at the Department of War Studies on Tuesday 5 February. His work draws on that of researchers in the department. Watch the lecture in full here.

As the “largest most diverse most eclectic collection of conflict scholars in the world”, Dr Martin called on researchers at War Studies to consider incorporating biology and psychology into the discipline, to produce fresh insights in a similar manner to the use of behavioural psychology in economics.

Questions of evolutionary biology can help us to rethink the core problem of 'why we fight'. Although it may seem counterintuitive when put in these terms – since humans’ urge to survive is what drives evolution – Dr Martin argues that the need for belonging to the group overrides individual survival instinct.

Since childbirth typically consumes 25 seconds of a man’s time, compared with a year of a woman’s life, men must compete for the natural scarcity of sexual partners (the "rarer sex"), both directly and through status-seeking activity. The search for belonging and social status therefore leads to conflict at all levels of society, up to global warfare.

While ideology & religion are often used as core frameworks for understanding and justifying war it is in fact arguable that they prevent violence and wars, giving men reasons not to fight, contrary to their natural inclinations (backed up by various data, e.g. the fact that 95% of murders are carried out by men).

This biological foundation may change with the dawn of Artificial Intelligence. In warfare, academics like Ken Payne have argued that “the strategy of a pub fight is same as that involved in a multinational coalition”- in effect, strategy is two brains competing with each other, with a single commander on each side.

AI will upend this Clausewitzian essential structure of war. Weapons systems are already replacing individual-level combat and increasing AI decisions being made in war, and this will happen more and more. War will not look the same and the nature of strategy will change. But so long as humans are the principal warmakers our understanding of conflict will benefit from insights into human behaviour.

Dr Martin concluded by saying that for war studies researchers who do start to use biological and psychological insights to deepen their inquiries “the greatest prize is unseen."

List of Saki-Dockrill prizewinners in full:

James Maccoll  - Sir Michael Howard Award for Best Graduating Student in BA War Studies
Tomass Pildegovics & Fanny Falkenberg  - Professor Jack Spence Award for Best Graduating Student in BA International Relations
Lincoln Pigman - Saki Dockrill Award for Best Undergraduate Dissertation
Thomas Hume Mcchenroe, Ma Intelligence And International Security - Sir Lawrence Freedman Award for Best Masters Student
Thomas Hume Mcenchroe,  Ma Intelligence And International Security, Barrie Paskins Award for Best MA Dissertation
Vanessa Ugolini, Ma Intelligence And International Security, Barrie Paskins Award For Best MA Dissertation
William Angus Bisset, Directors’ Award for Best MA International Peace and Security            
Matthew James Walters, Directors’ Award for Best MA International Peace and Security