Review – THE PROBLEM of WAR  By Michael Ruse

Oxford University Press, 2019

Review by Bob Lane

Ruse ends with “War is a horrible thing. We should work together toward a bigger picture.” Almost no person in this world will disagree with that sentiment. War IS a terrible thing, and we continue to be involved in war year after year after year. Why? Is the answer in our culture? Or is it in our biology? Or, perhaps in our religion? Why do we, knowing of war’s consequences, continue to glorify it, to participate in it, to kill and die for it?

Ruse writes, “Since I was a schoolboy, I have been haunted by Wilfred Owen’s terrible poem, written as the conflict was about to enter its final year. This book is a tribute to those who fought, those who suffered, those who died, those who were left behind.”

Read Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

That poem captures in its few verses the emotional and intellectual attitude toward war that we all should try to achieve, and the emotional/intellectual stance that Michael Ruse writes from in this book.

This is a book about religion, primarily Christianity, about war and its causes and consequences, about biology, primarily Darwinism, and about the human condition. “Because we are sinners and ongoing sinners, war will be with us always. God promised David peace and tranquility. “And I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant him, and he shall dwell apart, and shall be troubled no more” (2Samuel 7, 10).

This is not for this world. “But if anyone hopes for so great a good in this world, and on this earth, his wisdom is but folly. Can anyone suppose that it was fulfilled in the peace of Solomon’s reign?” (Augustine 413– 426, 801).

Because of original sin, war is part of life.”

What is original sin? Do we have it; and, if so, is it religious or cultural or biological?

Looking for a good review of Darwin’s theory of evolution? This is the book for you.

Looking for a thoughtful review of Christianity and its relationship to war? This is the book for you.

Ruse insists, “One absolutely fundamental thing must be grasped right here, for it is the key to the whole Darwinian story. Selection does not merely cause change, but change of a particular kind. It makes for useful features or characteristics, things that will help their possessors in the struggle.”

So, what about original sin? Ruse: “Am I now saying that the only way we get out of the traditional Christian take on war is by giving up Christianity? Absolutely not! One counter move is to go on defending the Augustinian position by insisting that no sophisticated Christian thinker today takes literally the story of Adam and Eve. An obvious way of executing this defense is by appealing to evolutionary biology. Inherited sin is not something that came about through the act of Adam but something that comes with our biological nature. We are sinners because, as Thomas Henry Huxley pointed out, the things that lead to sin are good adaptations for survival and reproduction. This not only explains sin, but shows why it is very unlikely that we will get rid of it once and for all. Even if culture can overcome sin, cultures change, and reverses occur. From the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich.

Of our sinful behaviors, evolutionary biologist Daryl P. Domning (2001) writes: “it is demonstrable by experiment and fully in accord with Darwinian theory that these behaviors exist because they promote the survival and reproduction of those individuals that perform them. Having once originated (ultimately through mutation), they persist because they are favored by natural selection for survival in the organisms’ natural environments.” This explains the “stain of original sin.” Culture is involved but ultimately it is biology.”

 This is a good book. Thoughtful and thought provoking – the problem of war is, I am afraid, one that will always be with us.

War is a horrible thing. We should work together toward a bigger picture.”


Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at Vancouver Island University and a Korean Veteran.

One thought on “Review

  1. Even though war is a terrible thing and arises out of “survival of the fittest” we can seek a dialogue of shared interests and understand the need to resist it. Part of my hope for survival is that we find peaceful ways to deal with conflict.

    Liked by 1 person

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