A biologist’s thoughts on the causes and courses of arms races—in the natural world and elsewhere.
Recasting his adult-oriented Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle (2014) for a younger audience, Emlen focuses on dung beetles, which he studied for many years in locales from Panama to the Serengeti. He describes in fascinating detail how he designed studies and experiments that proved not only that horned varieties fought individual duels over females underground, but that they also produced offspring with larger or smaller weapons through a process of natural selection. It’s a great account of science in the field and in action…until, that is, he suddenly switches course, trying to extend his findings to the history of human warfare with a claim that “arms races” are effectively the same. This leads to some questionable, not to mention sexist, claims, notably that armored “knights errant” fought each other for “forty or more years of continuous battle” to win “the hand of an heiress” and that the Cold War was, like those battling beetles, a one-on-one duel writ large. More defensibly, he also discusses how weapons systems, natural and high-tech alike, become ever more unwieldy until rendered obsolete by “cheaters,” such as, in the case of humans, guerillas and “cyberhackers” who refuse to fight face to face. Maps, paintings, and photos, many drawn from the previous edition, complement the text.
Entertaining and instructive, if more than a bit shaky in its historical reaches (source note, index) (Nonfiction. 11-14)