11/19/2014 10:54 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Charles Darwin Has Much to Teach Us About War

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America's thinking about military action is impoverished. The U.S. military speaks of precision munitions and surgical strikes, suggesting a process that is controllable and predictable. Experts cite Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz for his axiom that war is a continuation of political discourse with the admixture of violent means. Here, military action is normalized as an extreme form of politics, suggesting again a measure of controllability and predictability.

But what if war is almost entirely imprecise and unpredictable? What if military action and its impacts are often wildly out of line with what the "experts" anticipate? In fact, this is precisely what military history shows, time and time again, to include recent U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. military action essentially acts like hammer blows that upset the state of nature within the complex ecologies of societies like Iraq and Afghanistan. These blows ripple in unpredictable directions, creating new states of nature that change the ecologies of these societies in fundamental ways. They further generate fault lines that are often contrary to U.S. goals and interests.

Charles Darwin can lend a hand in explaining why this is so. Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution with its idea of "the survival of the fittest," although Darwin did not use that term when he originally published The Origin of Species in 1859. Indeed, Darwin's view of evolution was highly complex and multifaceted, as befits a man who studied the natural world in great detail for his entire adult life.

In an earlier, unpublished version of his masterwork, Darwin employed a complex image, known as the "wedge" metaphor, to explain interactions within the natural world that led to species extinction. Here is the way Darwin described "The Struggle for Existence" in his Notebook prior to The Origin of Species:

Nature may be compared to a surface covered with ten‐thousand sharp wedges, many of the same shape & many of different shapes representing different species, all packed closely together & all driven in by incessant blows: the blows being far severer at one time than at another; sometimes a wedge of one form & sometimes another being struck; the one driven deeply in forcing out others; with the jar & shock often transmitted very far to other wedges in many lines of direction: beneath the surface we may suppose that there lies a hard layer, fluctuating in its level, & which may represent the minimum amount of food required by each living being, & which layer will be impenetrable by the sharpest wedge.

In his model of the face of nature, Darwin showcases the interconnectedness of all species, together with the way in which changes to that face (the hammer blows) favor some species (wedges) while forcing out others. The hard layer, which represents the minimum amount of food for all, and which Darwin says cannot be penetrated, suggests an ecology that will continue to sustain life even as some species (wedges) are forced out and die off. The face of nature constantly changes, some species perish, but life itself endures.

How does Darwin's wedge metaphor apply to military action? Consider, for example, U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East. They are the hammer blows, if you will, to the face of nature in the region. The wedges are various groups/sects/factions/tribes in the region. The U.S. believes its hammer blows will force out "bad" wedges, driving them toward extinction, which will ultimately improve the prospects of "good" wedges, such as so-called moderates in Syria. But what if U.S. blows (airstrikes and other violent military action) are driving radical sects (wedges) more deeply into the face of nature (in this case, the face of politics and society in the Middle East)? What if these radical sects, like Darwin's driven wedges, are forcing out rival sects that are more moderate? What if the "jar & shock" of these U.S. military hammer blows is being propagated throughout Middle Eastern societies and Islam in ways that are as unpredictable as they are long-lasting?

Darwin's complex wedge metaphor should make us think more deeply about the results of blows to complex, interconnected, and interdependent systems. Using military strikes in an attempt to destroy "bad" wedges may have the very opposite effect than the one intended. Instead of being destroyed, such wedges (such as the Islamic State) are driven deeper into the ecology of their communities, helping them to thrive, even as they send out vibrations "in many lines of direction" that harden the new ecology of the region against U.S. interests.

What, then, to make of Darwin's "hard layer" in his wedge metaphor, which varies in its level but which persists in that no wedge may penetrate it? The "hard layer" represents that which all wedges can't do without. All species are dependent on a source of food and energy, a source of sustenance to sustain reproduction. Darwin notes that the hard layer fluctuates, and though he doesn't explicitly state it, those fluctuations must also act much like blows, displacing some wedges while favoring others with effects that ripple across the face of nature.

Rise or fall, the "hard layer" persists, meaning life on earth persists, even as individual species perish. Darwin explicitly states that no wedge can penetrate the hard layer, but here his metaphor breaks down when we consider humans as a wedge. Because humans can and do penetrate that layer. As a species, we do have the capacity to damage, even to destroy, the hard layer of nature upon which all species are dependent. We're the killer wedge in the wedge metaphor.

Politically speaking, piercing that hard layer in the Middle East would be equivalent to igniting a new Crusade that leads to world war, one involving nuclear weapons or other forms of WMD. Devolution in place of evolution.

Of course, one shouldn't push any metaphor too far. That said, Darwin's "wedge" metaphor, in its imagery and subtlety, is more useful in understanding the complexity and unpredictability of military action than analogies that reduce war to exercises in precision surgery or power politics.

William Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and former professor of history who edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.