A biological perspective of nuclear proliferation

The first thermonuclear weapon, code-named Mike, was detonated at Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands, Nov. 1, 1952. This picture was taken at an altitude of 3,600 metres (12,000 feet) approximately 80 km from ground zero.

Three major theoretical models exist to explain both nuclear proliferation and disarmament, yet no single model fits all real-world cases. This article argues that states seek nuclear weapons as a byproduct of the traits selected for through our species’ evolution, which drives us to compete with each other at all levels, and to also cooperate with some in order to better compete against others, and that this unites the three current theoretical models. Humans (along with many other species) are hard-wired to conflict or compete with each other. If unrestrained, this necessarily leads to physical conflict. Since the time of mere rock throwing, this competition has led to arms races and the development of better weapons, and it is only logical that as nuclear weapons are useful in this competition, and can be made relatively easily, states will produce them. As well as arms races, competition between humans extends to prestige, ability, and success, and as thermonuclear weapons are the most powerful weapon that humans can produce they also act as symbols of achievement for both individuals and states, thus it is only logical that people will pursue nuclear armament for reasons other than defence.

First, let’s take a look at the current theories describing nuclear proliferation.

Current theories describing nuclear proliferation
1. The Security Model
This is essentially a realist interpretation of why states seek nuclear weapons. Due to the destructive power of nuclear weapons, any state that wishes to maintain its security must balance against rival states which possess nuclear weapons, by gaining access to nuclear weapons themselves. This theory asserts that when one state pursues a nuclear strategy to balance against another state, they in turn force rival states to pursue a nuclear strategy to balance against them. A major problem with this theory is that the decision to pursue nuclear armament is often made in a timeframe that does not correlate with a national security threat, and although leaders generally claim that the decision to build nuclear weapons is made for national security reasons, the evidence is not in support of their statements.

2. The Domestic Politics Model
Disregarding the international environment and the security of states, the pursuit of nuclear weapons also likely serves the interests of individual actors within the state. According to Sagan, three main actors generally appear to historically benefit from the development of nuclear weapons. These are the state’s nuclear energy establishment, particular units within the military, and politicians in states with multiple parties where the public support the pursuit of nuclear interests. These actors may form coalitions powerful enough to enact the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Although the realist view acknowledges the influence of these coalitions, it differs in how much power they really have over the decision making process. The case of India’s nuclear weapons development programme is a good example of the domestic politics model, as India was able to have nuclear guarantees from the US or USSR to balance against China, and also India could have developed nuclear weapons much faster if it was simply a response to China’s 1964 nuclear test.

3. The Norms Model
This model places importance on the role of nuclear weapons in building and displaying state identity. According to this theory, decisions to pursue nuclear interests are made not through calculations of security issues, but by shared beliefs of what is legitimate behavior in the international community. In this model, nuclear weapons serve the same purpose as national flags, airlines, and Olympic teams in that they provide states with what is necessary for them to feel that they are legitimate and modern states.

How human conflict and competition is linked to nuclear weapons

In normal physical conflict, both sides seek out the best weapons, as this increases the chances of succeeding in the conflict. Although this has been occurring since even before modern humans evolved, and other primates also seek out weapons in conflict, a good modern example of this behaviour is small arms proliferation amongst conflicting groups where small arms are the most powerful weapons available to them, such as the warlords across Africa. The most powerful weapon available to humanity today is the thermonuclear bomb, and as such, if conflicts escalate then a nuclear exchange is the highest level that can be reached. Thus far, states are the only actors with the capability to produce nuclear weapons and so only inter-state warfare can currently escalate to a nuclear exchange, however that may change if nuclear material finds its way into the hands of non-state actors. To put this in simple terms, in physical human conflict, the least powerful weapon is the unarmed human body itself, and the most powerful weapon is the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb. This combination of humans continuously seeking out the most powerful weapon in conflict, and the nuclear bomb being the most powerful weapon available, can already explain, at a primitive level, why states seek nuclear armament.

Why humans have evolved to conflict and compete
The human species, as all life on earth, must compete for survival. During times of plentiful resources, this conflict is generally restricted to conflict between members of the same gender in order to have their genes sexually selected for by the opposite gender. This conflict may not always be physical, especially in humans, where some examples can be sporting competitions, the arts, career achievement, etc. During times of limited resources, conflict increases, and not only sexual but natural selection also plays a very important role in the survival of the underlying genes. Put simply, the humans that are alive today are only here because their ancestors succeeded in competing through sexual and natural selection by appealing to the opposite sex and by physical survival through the use of violence, physical competition, ability to provide, and through a display of the arts, thus those genes were selected for and this is why humans are hardwired to compete on these issues. This competition is not limited to individuals, and where there is an external threat, for example another group, tribe, or another state, members of the group cooperate to defeat a common enemy. This is not only the case in humans but has been observed in other primates, dolphins, and packs of wolves.

How competition relates to the three models of proliferation
The security, domestic politics, and the norms models of nuclear proliferation can all be explained through this idea of competition. The security model is an example of individuals acting together to defeat a common enemy. The domestic politics model is an example of individuals working together to maintain the popularity and power of their government or department in competition with other actors, as well as the career development or the ability to provide, of individuals involved. Finally the norms model is also an example of individuals acting together to elevate themselves above a common enemy, however the common enemy is not necessarily a physical threat but a logical or ideological threat, which can be just as powerful.

How we can stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons?
It is only logical to deduce that while there is human conflict and competition, combined with the capability to produce nuclear weapons, states will always seek nuclear weapons. It may be possible to correct our species’ inherent nature to compete and conflict, and as Steven Pinker claims, we may in fact have begun this process through the changing norms in human culture, if this is correct, then educating people about the true nature and causes of conflict may eventually prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons because the competition and conflict factor will be far less powerful. Another method of preventing proliferation may be the uniting of our entire species against a common threat, just as threats against groups such as nations unite the members of the group. This threat could be in the form of an extra-terrestrial incident such as an impending asteroid impact, or a terrestrial threat such as a pandemic, although this may be short-lived. As Carl Sagan argued, our species could become united politically if we were to pursue manned space-flight and settle on other planets, in an indirect way this would also negate the phenomenon of nuclear proliferation. In fact according to Sagan, we must do this or our species will ultimately become extinct. In any case, humans inherently conflict with each other, and this conflict if left unabated will necessarily lead to the development of nuclear weapons. Treaties amongst states to prevent conflict simply for the sake of preventing conflict have not worked in the past, as has been seen in Germany and Japan’s violation of, amongst others, the Versailles treaty. There is no reason to assume that any non-proliferation treaty, simply for the sake of non-proliferation, will be successful in the future, a recent example being Australia’s blatant willingness to violate existing non-proliferation treaties.


Although there are three current major theories regarding nuclear proliferation, which together can explain all cases of states acquiring and abandoning nuclear arms, none of these theories alone explains all cases of proliferation. From a biological perspective however, states seek nuclear weapons as a direct byproduct of the evolution of the human species through natural and sexual selection, which has created the phenomenon of competition and conflict. This can explain all situations that the three international relations models explain, with the benefit of only one theoretical approach being required. The link between human competition and nuclear weapons is straightforward. The reasons why humans have evolved to conflict and compete is also quite straightforward and is also the case in many other species. This innate drive for competitiveness underpins all three of the theories describing nuclear proliferation and disarmament and no patchwork of different theories to explain different situations is necessary. Under this biological perspective, the prevention of nuclear proliferation is only possible through a force that can unite the entire human species and re-align the species’ perceived threats. Legal treaties have not been successful in the past and there is absolutely no reason to believe they will be successful in the future.

Academic Version: http://www.academia.edu/3888284/Why_do_states_seek_nuclear_weapons_-_a_biological_perspective

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