Tag Archives: war

Even a localized nuclear war can alter the world’s climate

A nuclear exchange could lead to global climate instability for several years, a new paper reports. Surprisingly, however, the effects depend in no small measure on where bombs fall and what happens after detonation — not on the weapons themselves. Their severity could range from minimal to significant cooling of the climate.

Atmospheric black carbon (soot) levels one month (left), six months (middle), and 12 months after the nuclear exchange. Image credits Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

We don’t talk about nuclear weapons too much today. It’s pretty interesting when you consider that our weapons have only become stronger and faster since the Cold War, and back then, the threat of nukes was always looming. In order to understand what their use would mean for the planet, a research team from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) looked at the climate consequences of a regional nuclear weapon exchange. The scenario involved 100 15-kiloton nuclear weapons being launched between India and Pakistan.

The scenario was run through two high-fidelity models taking a wide range of factors into account, the team explains.

Bombing the climate

“One of the new aspects of our work is that we examined the dependence of the climate effects on different amounts of fuel available at the location of the detonation and subsequent fire,” said LLNL mechanical engineer Katie Lundquist, the leader of the study and a co-author of the team’s paper.

The team focused their analysis on the fires such weapons would ignite, They considered factors such as available fuel at the site of the fires and the characteristics of the plume such as smoke composition and aerosol properties. All these allowed the team to simulate the effect such fires would have on global climate through their emission products. If the fires started by these bombs are large enough, they can block incoming sunlight and thus influence global climate.

All in all, if smoke and soot from these fires remain in the lower troposphere they will be quickly degraded and have a negligible effect. If they can reach all the way to the upper troposphere or higher (due to the rising heat of particularly strong fires) they will push through to the stratosphere. Here, smoke can deflect much more of the incoming light, enough to cool the surface down.

“Our simulations show that the smoke from 100 simultaneous firestorms would block sunlight for about four years, instead of the eight to 15 years predicted in other models,” the Livermore researchers wrote.

In the example given above, they write, global surface temperatures would likely drop by 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

However, if the weapons only start fires in suburban areas, there would be little to no climate effect. Fires in dense urban areas are the most problematic, they explain, as they contain a lot of varied types of fuel in a small area (high fuel density). All this material can produce enough heat and particles to influence the climate. Such fires could produce a cooling effect three times that of the 1991 eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines.

The study comes to show just how important local factors are in determining the climate impact of such an exchange. It also helps showcase the full extent a local nuclear war could have.

The paper “Examining the climate effects of a regional nuclear weapons exchange using a multiscale atmospheric modeling approach” has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.


Warming climate means more, hotter armed conflicts, paper reports

Climate change is poised to make the world a hotter place — ‘hotter’ as in ‘more armed conflict’.


Image credits Michael Gaida.

More intense climate change will increase the risk of future armed conflict within countries, a new paper reports. The authors draw their conclusion from a compilation of experts’ views, estimating that climate change has fostered between 3% and 20% of all armed conflicts during the last century. That influence, however, is likely to increase dramatically in the future, the team warns.

Cold war, hot war

“Appreciating the role of climate change and its security impacts is important not only for understanding the social costs of our continuing heat-trapping emissions, but for prioritizing responses, which could include aid and cooperation,” said Katharine Mach, director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility and the study’s lead author.

In a 4-degrees-Celsius-warming scenario — which is where we’re headed currently unless steps are taken to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the influence of climate on conflicts would increase over five times, the team notes, reaching up to a 26% increased chance of substantial conflicts popping up. A tamer, 2-degrees-Celsius-warming scenario, which is the stated goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, would still carry a 13% increased chance of such conflicts flaring up.

But how exactly does climate change foster conflict? The team writes that climate shifts promote extreme weather events, which are related to natural disasters that lower farming output, livestock production, generally damage economies, and widen inequality among and within social groups. While these may not be enough to spark conflicts by themselves, they do increase the risks of violence — and, together with pre-existing tensions, can lead to conflicts.

“Knowing whether environmental or climatic changes are important for explaining conflict has implications for what we can do to reduce the likelihood of future conflict, as well as for how to make well-informed decisions about how aggressively we should mitigate future climate change,” said Marshall Burke, assistant professor of Earth system science and a co-author on the study.

Whether or not climate plays a role in triggering conflict within or between states is still up for debate in the scientific community, the authors explain, which is what prompted the present study. To get to the bottom of things, they interviewed experts in the fields of political science, environmental science, economics, and other fields, as well as looking at various debates on the subject.

Overall, they agree that climate conditions have indeed affected the risk of organized armed conflict in recent decades. At the same time, they caution against reading too much into this — climate, by itself, isn’t the main factor here. Low socioeconomic development, the strength of government, inequalities in societies, and a recent history of violent conflict have a much heavier impact on conflict within countries.

It’s still unclear how climate conditions affect conflict and to what extent. The study also notes that the consequences of future climate change will also likely be a new breed indeed compared to historical climate disruptions. Society as a whole will be faced with unprecedented conditions. Basically, we simply don’t know the full extent of what we’re facing, and we don’t have any comparable historical context to tell if society will be able to adapt to these changes or not.

“Historically, levels of armed conflict over time have been heavily influenced by shocks to, and changes in, international relations among states and in their domestic political systems,” said James Fearon, professor of political science and co-author on the study.

“It is quite likely that over this century, unprecedented climate change is going to have significant impacts on both, but it is extremely hard to anticipate whether the political changes related to climate change will have big effects on armed conflict in turn. So I think putting nontrivial weight on significant climate effects on conflict is reasonable.”

There is a silver lining here, however. Many of the measures we can take to mitigate the effects of climate change can also prove useful in nipping such conflict in the bud. Adaptation strategies such as crop insurance, post-harvest storage, and training services can help increase food security while diversifying economic opportunities for different communities. Both of these would reduce the potential of climate-induced conflicts, the team writes. It would also be prudent to include climate as a risk factor in peacekeeping, conflict mediation, and post-conflict aid operations, they add.

However, the researchers underline that we should take great care to understand and weigh the potential benefits of such measures against their side-effects. For example, enforcing food export bans in one area can shore up food security there while increasing instability — and thus fostering conflicts — somewhere else.

The paper “Climate as a risk factor for armed conflict” has been published in the journal Nature.

Medicinal plants used in the Civil War can stomp our modern antibiotic-resistant germs

New research into old germ-fighting methods suggests they could prove effective in combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria today.


Bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln in Virginia, USA.
Image credits Dennis Larsen

At the height of the Civil War, the paper reports, the Confederate Surgeon General released a guide of traditional plant remedies from the South that battlefield physicians could draw upon when faced with shortages of conventional medicine. Three of the plants in this guide — white oak (Quercus alba), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) — have antiseptic properties that could be useful today, the authors explain.

The seeds of salvation

“Our findings suggest that the use of these topical therapies may have saved some limbs, and maybe even lives, during the Civil War,” says Cassandra Quave, senior author of the paper and assistant professor at Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health and the School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology.

The team found that extracts from these three plants have significant antimicrobial properties in the face of three dangerous species of multi-drug-resistant bacteria: Acinetobacter baumannii, Staphylococcus aureus, and Klebsiella pneumoniae. These bacteria are often seen in wound-associated infections.

Quave’s research focuses on understanding the role of plants in traditional healing and other practices, a field known as ethnobotany.

“Ethnobotany is essentially the science of survival—how people get by when limited to what’s available in their immediate environment,” she says. “The Civil War guide to plant remedies is a great example of that.”

“Our research might one day benefit modern wound care, if we can identify which compounds are responsible for the antimicrobial activity,” adds Micah Dettweiler, the first author of the paper.

If the active ingredients in these plants are identified, explains co-author Daniel Zurawski from the Wound Infections Department at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, they can be tested through modern “models of bacterial infection.” In a way, he says, this is mixing the “wisdom of our ancestors” with modern techniques to create new solutions for the problems we’re facing today.

Around 1 in 13 soldiers that lived through the Civil War went back home with missing limbs, the authors report. “Far more Civil War soldiers died from disease than in battle,” Zurawski explains, adding that he was surprised to see how “common amputation was as a medical treatment for an infected wound.” At the time, germ theory was still crude, and very much a work-in-progress. The training medical personnel at the time received was also shoddy at best.

An antiseptic was simply defined as a tonic used to prevent “mortification of the flesh.” Iodine and bromine were sometimes used to treat infections, according to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, although the reason for their effectiveness was unknown. Other conventional medicines available at the time included quinine for treating malaria, and morphine and chloroform to block pain.

Union blockade

The Confederacy, however, didn’t have reliable access to these compounds. In the 1863 copy of “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests,” Francis Peyre Porcher (who was commissioned by the Confederacy for this task) set about detailing alternatives to the essential but lacking medicine. Porcher was a botanist and surgeon from South Carolina, and his book represents a compilation of medicinal plants of the Southern states, including plant remedies used by Native Americans and enslaved Africans. Among others, the book contains a description of 37 species for treating gangrene and other infections. His work formed the foundation upon which Samuel Moore, the Confederate Surgeon General, produced the “Standard supply table of the indigenous remedies for field service and the sick in general hospitals.”

The team collected samples of the three plants from around their university’s campus, abiding to the specifications Porcher set out in his book. Extracts were produced from white oak bark and galls; tulip poplar leaves, root inner bark and branch bark; and the devil’s walking stick leaves, and were then tested on multi-drug-resistant bacteria commonly found in wound infections.

White oak and tulip poplar extracts inhibited the growth of S. aureus, while the white oak extracts also inhibited the growth of A. baumannii and K. pneumoniae, the team writes. Extracts from both of these plants also inhibited S. aureus from forming biofilms, which can insulate it against antibiotics.

Staphylococcus aureus is considered the most dangerous of the staph bacteria, and can spread from skin infections or medical devices to infect internal organs. Klebsiella pneumoniae is a leading cause of hospital infection and can result in life-threatening cases of pneumonia and septic shock. Aceinetobacter baumannii is particularly worrisome as it exhibits extensive resistance to most first-line antibiotics, and is closely associated with combat wounds. Extracts from the devil’s walking stick inhibited both biofilm formation and quorum sensing — a signaling system that staph bacteria use to manufacture toxins — in S. aureus.

“There are many more ways to help cure infections, and we need to focus on them in the era of drug-resistant bacteria,” says Quave.

“Plants have a great wealth of chemical diversity, which is one more reason to protect natural environments,” Dettweiler adds.

The paper “American Civil War plant medicines inhibit growth, biofilm formation, and quorum sensing by multidrug-resistant bacteria” has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

War makes people more religious, sparking a potentially vicious cycle

War and religion — name a more iconic duo.

Image credits: David Ilff / Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Over the centuries, countless wars have been fought over religion. From Ancient times and up until the very current day, religion has often been a spark for war. But does it go the other way around too? In other words, can war make people more religious? In a new study, an international team of researchers analyzed this possibility, finding a strong connection between the two.

“Why would war increase religiosity? Here, we consider two interrelated sets of hypotheses derived from cultural evolutionary theory. First, both theory and evidence suggest that external threats cause people to adhere more tightly to social norms, including their religious beliefs and practices,” researchers write. As for the second hypothesis, “religions may have culturally evolved to specifically exploit the psychological states created by uncertainty and existential threats as a means to more effectively disseminate themselves.”

There’s even another reason why war could induce increased religiousness: the belief in gods goes hand in hand with some idea of divine protection and afterlife, which can help individuals operate in existential uncertainty and extreme danger. But whether or not this was really the case remained unclear until now.

In order to get to the bottom of things, researchers analyzed survey data from 1,709 individuals in three post-conflict societies: Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Tajikistan. The unfortunate environment of these countries makes them suitable for this type of study, and the fact that they were in different geographical areas and come from different cultures also give an extra degree of robustness to the results.

The nature and intensity of the conflicts in these countries varied substantially. However, regardless of these factors, there did seem to be a connection between war and religiosity: across all three sites, those more exposed to war were more likely to be members of religious groups and attend rituals. Even years after the conflict had ceased, people who were more affected by the war were more likely to participate in religious groups — both Christian and Muslim. The results hold even when researchers compared only individuals from the same community, ethnic group, and religion.

In other words, it doesn’t look like there’s any external factor responsible for this. It’s still a correlation and not a causation, but it there are good reasons to believe that there is a cause-effect relationship at play.

This could have important consequences. If war makes people more religious, and if religion makes people more war-prone, we have the recipe for a devastating feedback loop — which could help to at least partially explain some of the current situations in modern-day war areas.

“In conclusion, our results suggest that the experience of war-related violence increases religious engagement and ritual participation. The potential existence of these relationships has important theoretical, political and social implications,” researchers conclude.

The study “War increases religiosity” by Henrich et al. has been published in Nature Behavior.


Bombs dropped during the Second World War were felt to the edge of space

The Second World War brought unprecedented destruction upon the face of the Earth — one that reached up to the edge of space, new research reveals.


Image via Pixabay.

Allied bombing raids during the Second World War caused shockwaves so strong that they weakened the ionosphere, the electrified layer of the atmosphere that reaches up to 1000 km (621 mi) above ground, reports a new paper from the University of Reading.

High-altitude bombing

“The images of neighbourhoods across Europe reduced to rubble due to wartime air raids are a lasting reminder of the destruction that can be caused by man-made explosions,” says Chris Scott, Professor of Space and Atmospheric Physics at Reading and one of the paper’s coauthors. “But the impact of these bombs way up in the Earth’s atmosphere has never been realised until now.”

“It is astonishing to see how the ripples caused by man-made explosions can affect the edge of space. Each raid released the energy of at least 300 lightning strikes. The sheer power involved has allowed us to quantify how events on the Earth’s surface can also affect the ionosphere.”

World War Two was perhaps the single most calamitous war humanity has ever embarked upon. Fueled by an already-ripened Industrial Revolution and incredible technological leaps, belligerent countries unleashed unprecedented destruction upon their foes’ troops and homelands.

So awesome was their fury that not even the ionosphere escaped unscathed. The team drew on daily records collected by the Radio Research Center in Sough, UK, between 1943-45, a period that saw rapid development of radio and radio-based technology (such as radar). Among other research topics, scientists at the center shot sequences of shortwave radio pulses at heights between 100 and 300 km (62 to 186 mi) above the Earth’s surface in order to better understand the height and ionization levels of layers within the upper atmosphere.

Their work helped reveal the existence of the ionosphere — and now, it’s helping researchers understand how natural forces from below, like lightning, volcanic eruptions, or earthquakes, affect this layer of our atmosphere.

The ionosphere underpins several technologies such as radio communications, GPS systems, radio telescopes, and some variations of radar, as it helps bounce radio signals back down towards the surface (instead of letting them escape to outer space). So it’s not hard to see why we want to have as comprehensive an understanding of it as possible. Being a highly-charged layer, the ionosphere is strongly influenced by solar activity.

However, scientific modeling has revealed that our star alone cannot account for all the waxing and waning we see in this layer. Ground-level activity has to account for the rest.

Higher-altitude effects

To help us understand how ground-level events influence this layer, the team studied the ionosphere’s response around the time of 152 large Allied air raids in Europe.

The team focused on Allied bombing runs over continental Europe rather than attacks more close to the center — such as the infamous London ‘Blitz’ — due to their more sporadic nature. The Blitz was a monumental and sustained bombing effort, but its continuous nature (and the fact that relatively little information is available to accurately time and locate individual runs) made it much more difficult for the team to tease out its effects from natural, seasonal variations in the ionosphere. In other words, Nazi Germany dropped so many bombs on Britain and for so long, that it ruined the data sample.

Another factor that made the team focus on Allied raids was sheer ‘boom’. The German Luftwaffe employed two-engine tactical bombers, which carried relatively small bombs; the Allies, in contrast, relied on four-engine strategic bombers that carried much larger ordinance — such as the 10-tonne ‘earthquake bomb’ Grand Slam. Quantity, it turns out, truly is a quality in and of itself:

“Aircrew involved in the raids reported having their aircraft damaged by the bomb shockwaves, despite being above the recommended height,” says Professor Patrick Major, University of Reading historian and a co-author of the study. “Residents under the bombs would routinely recall being thrown through the air by the pressure waves of air mines exploding, and window casements and doors would be blown off their hinges.”

“There were even rumours that wrapping wet towels around the face might save those in shelters from having their lungs collapsed by blast waves, which would leave victims otherwise externally untouched.”

The team reports that electron concentration in the ionosphere dropped significantly following these events, due to shockwaves generated by air-detonating bombs exploding near the surface. These pressure waves, the team believes, heated up the upper atmosphere, enhancing the loss of ionization.

“The unprecedented power of these attacks has proved useful for scientists to gauge the impact such events can have hundreds of kilometres above the Earth, in addition to the devastation they caused on the ground.”

The researchers now need members of the public to help digitize more early atmospheric data, to understand the impact of the many hundreds of smaller bombing raids during the war, and help determine the minimum explosive energy required to trigger a detectable response in the ionosphere.

The paper has been published in the journal Annales Geophysicae.

Azaz, Syria. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rivers are overflowing around Syria because there’s no one to use them anymore

Azaz, Syria. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Azaz, Syria. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Syrian civil war has displaced millions and left a once prosperous industry in ruin. In many parts of the war-torn country, few people still have a job and farm lands are left to themselves. It’s enough to talk to any Syrian refugee to get a feel of the putrid state of affairs in their country. And if you don’t believe them, you’re free to study objective proxies like satellite imagery and data. One recent study, for instance, found many of Syria’s once shallow rivers are now overflowing because irrigated agriculture is now almost non-existent, thousands of miles of pipeline are severed, and cities are empty.

Since 2008, when the situation in Syria started to get very hot, the Jordan river has swelled to three times its regular size. The river runs through Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon, however, Syria had built many reservoirs that capture water from Jordan river tributaries which cross the country. These neighboring countries are now benefiting from having more water resources at the expense of a whole nation. There are millions of Syrian refugees living in camps in Jordan, though, and this extra water will certainly help these unfortunate people.

jordan river

Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica.

According to the study’s authors, about half of the Jordan river’s swelling can be attributed to war, while the other half is due to natural recovery following the years of drought which preceded the war. Some believe that this drought, which is actually less severe than the Californian one, was one of the contributing factors to the war.

Map of irrigated farmlands in Syria, then and now. Credit: PNAS

Map of irrigated farmlands in Syria, then and now. Credit: PNAS

These effects were studied using satellite imagery and the study is among the first to analyze watershed regions in war zones. The Stanford researchers looked at composite satellite images of the 11 largest Syria surface water reservoirs. Water management and land use on the Jordanian side of the Yarmouk basin and Israel’s Golan Heights — areas where there is no refugee crisis — served as baselines to assess the toll of war on the environment.

“The water management practices in Syria have changed and that’s visible from space,” said study co-author and principal investigator Steven Gorelick, the Cyrus Fisher Tolman Professor in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “The Syrian crisis has resulted in a reduction in agricultural land in southern Syria, a decline in Syrian demand for irrigation water and a dramatic change in the way the Syrians manage their reservoirs.”

It’s believed Syria’s reservoirs now store 49 percent less water. Concerning land use, Syria’s irrigated land in the Jordan river-Yarmouk basin is down by 47 percent.

“In the past few years, there’s been increasing focus on how climate change and drought influences conflict, but there hasn’t been as much research on how conflict can actually lead to impact on the environment and water resources,” said study co-author Jim Yoon, a PhD candidate in Earth system science at Stanford.


The Pentagon is investing heavily to protect its ‘space real estate’

Both civilian and military applications have become heavily reliant on digital communications, which in turn are dependent on space hardware like satellites. If only two decades ago, only the biggest companies or wealthy governments could afford to launch permanent or semi-permanent satellites. Today, satellites are smaller, better and cheaper than they ever were, which is why there are more than 1,100 active satellites orbiting the planet. However, they’re as vulnerable as ever, too.

The space race never went away


Artist impression of an anti-satellite missile (Jeremy Cook/Popular Mechanics)

The first big wake up call came in 2007 when China unceremoniously blew up one of its defunct satellites with a ballistic rocket. This event littered the orbit with thousands of space debris which travel at 17,500 mph, jeopardizing the integrity of other satellites and the safety of humans aboard the international space station. Then, in May 2013,  China launched a mysterious missile from its southwest region which Chinese officials said was a scientific experiment. In reality, it seemed like an anti-satellite test as it reached a far more distant orbit than you’d expect, as high as 22,000 miles away right where the Pentagon prefers to park its national security satellites.

“If satellites are knocked out, even temporarily, it could have serious consequences on the military’s ability to operate effectively,” said Bill Ostrove, a space systems analyst at Forecast International.

“There are a few different ways that a satellite could be disabled that the United States is afraid of. The most obvious way is to launch a missile into space that targets a satellite,” Ostrove said. “The United States has a legitimate fear of anti-satellite weapons.”

Since these events were reported, U.S. military officials, like the Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, have repeated called out that “foreign adversaries are developing weapons that could degrade or destroy some of the United States’ key satellites that provide essential communication to the military.” These include cyber attacks, but also hardware attacks from jamming, to alright obliteration with a missile. For instance, China has laser weapon capabilities that can dazzle satellites by overloading its sensors, temporarily or permanently damaging them.

These sort of anti-satellite capabilities are also operated by the United States, but the country wants to achieve dominance in space at least as well as it does on Earth.

The United States has the most satellites than any other nation, by far. Without them, both civilian and military operations would be seriously disrupted. To counter the looming threat of space warfare, Air Force Gen. John Hyten told the Washington Post that the Pentagon is heavily investing to protect the “most valuable real estate in space.”

“Every military operation that takes place in the world today is critically dependent on space in one way or another,” said Hyten, commander of the Air Force Space Command. “Whether our own people in the United States are fully cognizant of the dependence on space or not, the rest of the world has been watching us very closely.”

Hyten said agencies are now collaborating and participating in space war games at the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center. A space-war center was established this year where the military is “going to develop the tactics, techniques, procedures, rules of the road that would allow us … to fight the architecture and protect it while it’s under attack,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work . “There are also plans for a so-called “space fence” which will track space debris, expected to enter operation in 2019.

According to WP, the Pentagon is investing $20 billion in space programs, with an additional $5 billion funneled this year. To get an idea, NASA’s budget for 2015 was less than $19 billion.

There were no details given as to what these counter-measures entail.

This is still new terrain for everyone involved, though. Not too long ago, space was considered a ‘virtual sanctuary’, but as we can plainly see it’s now becoming an  operational domain in ways militaries haven’t had to think about in the past. Hopefully, we’ll never see the day of space warfare.


Magic bullet changes direction mid-flight to hit enemy anywhere

The United States Department of Defense just demonstrated one of the scariest weapons ever – a ‘magic bullet’ that can change trajectory in mid flight on command and hit a target no matter what. Shots can be fired from as far as 1.2 miles, and snipers can remain hidden without risk of getting spotted. In fact, shots can be fired even without directly seeing the enemy. It’s truly a showmanship of technology, but one can only wonder what things DARPA would make if its energy was directed towards something other than killing people. We have the military to thank for things like the internet and GPS after all, but bullets and bombs have little use for civilians.


Credit: Larry Cuban

The bullet, developed under the Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program, is crammed up with a slew of technologies including sensors, radio transmitters and receivers. The optical sensors at the bullet’s tip gathers flight information in real time and transmits it back to a on-board computer where things like speed and distance are computed. Data is then used to move tiny fins on the bullet to adjust trajectory.

Cross-section of the bullet. Image: DARPA

Cross-section of the bullet. Image: DARPA

Tests have been made on a .50 caliber shot from 1.2 miles away. Even when the rifle was intentionally pointed away from the target, the bullet still went for its mark directed by a laser. As you can witness from the video embedded below, it’s deadly accurate.

It’s maybe one of the most expensive bullets ever made, so no ordinary sniper will get to use them. Most likely, these magic bullets will only be used in special ops or in times of difficult weather.

Graphene could be used to make bullet-proof armour – up to ten times better than steel

It might not come as a surprise to hear that the world’s strongest material, graphene, was found to be a great impact absorber as well. After all, there always seems to be a study that adds to the growing list of graphene’s useful properties, be its lightness, flexibility, or electrical conductivity. It’s been labeled as a wonder material because of its potential to transform the electronics industry, but the jumps it could help make in other fields such as energy or infrastructure shouldn’t be overlooked as well. Now, graphene might be used to save lives by being integrated into armor.

Atom thick bulletproof fest

Image: Halo

Image: Halo

Jae-Hwang Lee from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and colleagues fired tiny silica “micro bullets” onto a graphene surface comprised of sheets of graphene between 10 and 100 layers thick. Each layer is only one atom thick, while graphene itself consists of Carbon atoms arranged in a hexagon structure.

As you can imagine, tracking what happens when you shoot particles through an atom-thick material isn’t easy. Previous work used nano-pokers to push into graphene at walking speed (less than 1 meter per second), or a shotgun approach using several laser pulses. These methods proved to be ineffective at measuring graphene’s ballistic properties. Lee’s team used an alternate route and devised a set-up where a laser pulse is used to superheat gold filaments until they vaporized, acting like gunpowder to fire a micron-size glass bullet into stack graphene sheets at 3000 meters per second

After analyzing the ballistic fingerprint using an electron microscope, researchers found that graphene dissipates energy by stretching into a cone before cracking in various directions. Because of its amazing stiffness, tensile strength, and elasticity, graphene was able to absorb between 8 to 10 times the impact steel can withstand. However, the impact hole itself was wider which could prove to be a potential advantage, according to the paper published in Science.

This is what perfect graphene looks like: A monolayer of carbon atoms. Image: Wikipedia

This is what perfect graphene looks like: A monolayer of carbon atoms. Image: Wikipedia

In any event, graphene might be too expensive to make armor or clothing solely from it. Instead, the findings prove that excellent impact protection could be achieved if stacks of graphene are joined to other materials traditionally used for armor. The big boost graphene might make in this field might not be its added protection, but rather its potential to make armor much lighter. It’s already two times better than kevlar. For personal protection, this means that ultra-thin bulletproof clothing might be developed in the future.

Image: Global Terrorism Index 2014

Two bloody wars and 13 years later, the War on Terror has helped increase Terrorist Attacks Seven Fold

In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration launched a counter-offensive which went on to be known as the “War on Terror” and saw the US wage war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and most recently Syria. The WoT was initiated, in theory at least,  to eliminate the threat from al Qaida’s leader, Osama bin Laden, and as a long term goal to reduce terrorist threats as a whole. Thirteen years and a couple trillion dollars later, here’s where we stand against terror: in 2013 there were nearly 10,000 terrorist attacks worldwide or nearly seven times more than in 2000 when 1,500 terrorist activities were reported, according to the  Global Terrorism Index.

Image: Global Terrorism Index 2014

Image: Global Terrorism Index 2014

Sixty percent of attacks last year occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria. The same countries saw eighty percent of the total number of people killed by terrorist attacks in 2013. After two wars that destabilized a whole region for more than a decade, is anyone surprised about all this? Just so we’re clear, we have a country, the United States, which through its foreign policy has publicly vowed to tackle terrorism, but in the process has done nothing but promote terrorist activity. Does anyone sense something wrong in all this?

According to the report, terrorism is “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”

In 2013 terrorist activity increased substantially with the total number of deaths rising from 11,133 in 2012 to 17,958 in 2013, a 61 per cent increase. Over the same period, the number of countries that experienced more than 50 deaths rose from 15 to 24. This highlights that not only is the intensity of terrorism increasing, its breadth is increasing as well.

Since 2000 there has been over a five-fold increase in the number of deaths from terrorism, rising from 3,361 in 2000 to 17,958 in 2013. The majority of claimed deaths from terrorist attacks, 66 percent in 2013, are claimed by only four terrorist organisations; ISIL, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qa’ida and its afliates.  The following graphs come directly from the report. I took the liberty of sharing those which I found most interesting with you:

graph5 graph4 graph3 graph2 graph1

It’s true, however, that there aren’t that many terrorist attacks in developed countries. The report looked at “black swan” event –  2011 Norway attack, the 2004 Madrid
bombings, the 2005 7/7 London attacks and September 11 – and found that a person is 40 times more likely to be murdered than die from a terrorist attack.

A recent study published by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School found the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most expensive wars in US history – totaling somewhere between $4 to $6 trillion. This includes long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs. The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid.


Libyan fighters chants slogans as they take control of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists' villages in the desert some 750 km south of Tripoli, at Gohta, north of the southern city of Sahba on Sunday. Credit: Francois Mori / AP

In the face of Adversity and War, Bonds among Soldiers are as Strong as Kinship

It’s no surprise for anyone to find that soldiers fighting together on the front-line are tied together by a special relationship. They have to be. Soldiers need to know they can wholeheartedly depend on each other, put faith in the other’s ability. It’s not just about survival. It’s about comfort; knowing there’s someone close to you that can perfectly relate to the hell you’re going through. You’ll often hear warring bands of brothers speak of their unit as a “family”, but how deep or intense is this link? A study made by researchers who joined front-line warriors during the Lybian 2011 revolution suggests that the bonds soldiers formed in times of great adversity were as strong as those they had with their own kin, literally.

A band of brothers

Libyan fighters chants slogans as they take control of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists' villages in the desert some 750 km south of Tripoli, at Gohta, north of the southern city of Sahba on Sunday. Credit: Francois Mori  /  AP

Libyan fighters chants slogans as they take control of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists’ villages in the desert some 750 km south of Tripoli, at Gohta, north of the southern city of Sahba on Sunday. Credit: Francois Mori / AP

Scientists have always been puzzled by soldiery bonds. What makes most fighters from the same side ready themselves to make the ultimate sacrifice for a person with which they do not share close genetic makeup. Family members will do anything for one another, but their actions are supported by evolutionary considerations: they need to maximize their chances of preserving and passing on their characteristic genetic makeup.

[AMAZING PHOTOS] The “do it yourself” weapons of the Libyan rebels

One of the researchers part of the “Ritual, Community, and Conflict” project – an initiative made up of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, archaeologists and evolutionary theorists working together to try to understand the forces that bind and drive human groups –  joined a humanitarian relief convoy travelling to Misrata, in the north-west of Libya. The researcher, Brian McQuinn, followed front-line soldiers in the heat of battle, only four months into the conflict. He saw first hand how groups of three to five fighters swelled in numbers until they developed into large revolutionary groups, whose members would all pray, sleep and fight side by side.

Libyan rebel fighters gesture at the former female military base in Tripoli, Libya. (AP)

Libyan rebel fighters gesture at the former female military base in Tripoli, Libya. Credit: AP

Mcquinn was joined by Harvey Whitehouse from Oxford University as the conflict resolved to an end. The two received permission to survey 79 civilians from four different battalions registered with the Misrata Military Council. Very important for their study was that the participants came in two groups: fighters and non-fighters, which include civilians that support front line efforts like drivers, doctors, engineers and so on.

[MUST READ] The Nature of War – We Are Not Programmed to Violence

The surveys were designed to measure the participants’ identity fusion or how much they identified with their group. Each Lybian was asked to choose from a series of pictures that represented different degrees of overlap between themselves and three groups: their families, their battalions and other battalions. The results for the front-line soldiers show that 99% of them believed they were “fused” with their own families, but amazingly 97% indicated fusion with their own battalions, and 96% with fighters in other battalions.


Credit: Anti Compass

When they were asked which of the groups they were most connected with, nearly half (45%) of front-line fighters chose their own battalion rather than their family. By contrast, only 28% of non-fighters chose battalion over family. Interestingly, hardly anyone surveyed (only 1%) were fused with ordinary Libyans who supported the revolution but did not join the battalions.

Whitehouse wrote in a recent piece for the Conversation:

“One interpretation of this study is that sharing life-shaping, intense experiences, such as bearing the brunt of enemy fire, is what bonded Libya’s revolutionaries so strongly; an alternative explanation might be that those who were predisposed to bond with the battalion at the outset are most likely to end up on the front line with each other.

The fact that fighters experienced such low levels of fusion with ordinary Libyans was quite surprising. In our discussions with fighters, they suggested that non-combatants were incapable of understanding what the fighters had experienced during the revolution. In the minds of the revolutionary fighters, this distinction may have sowed the seeds of distrust between fighters and non-combatants after the war.

There are already a number of studies that look at how cohesion in the military affects group performance, but very little research has looked at how intense bonds like these are formed – how bonding with the group can lead individuals to place themselves in harm’s way and sacrifice their lives for other group members.”

The paper, published in PNAS, is a formidable documentation of human bond and kinship, yet it doesn’t explain how these bonds arise. Personally, I feel Richard Dawkin’s gene-line selection offers a valid explanation. In short, while family members might sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of the kin because they’re likely to share genes, to a lesser extent  members of an in-group are likely to share genes and be invested in the survival of copies of these genes. As such, while people living in the same in-group are less likely to risk their lives as they would for their children, there’s still a bond that makes them take a chance. Also, on the psychological side, soldiers can be months, even years away from their real families and in time they may feel the urge to develop the same family ties with those closest to them. Nevertheless, I thought this story was amazing. Special consideration must be awarded to the researchers who joined the front-lines and risked their lives… for science.

15 years of research shows kids in Gaza are suffering from PTSD

A study conducted by researchers from Leicester University shows how an entire generation of children in Gaza is traumatized by PTSD and anxiety.

“Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?” – Varys, A Game of Thrones

War is almost never about soldiers fighting soldiers. Usually, war is about soldiers fighting soldiers and civilians; and nowadays, to be honest, it’s more about missiles and drones versus civilians. Imagine how it would be like growing up in such an area, where every day is a risk, where people you know are constantly threatened and killed, and where you don’t have the safety of a tomorrow. A new study has quantified the psychological effects of long term war exposure on adolescents, and the results are grim.

Professor Panos Vostanis from the University of Leicester’s Greenwood Institute of Child Health, Professor Abdelaziz Thabet from Al-Quds University and Omar EL-Buhaisi from the University of Leicester investigated the traumatic effects endured by Palestinian adolescents exposed to war in Gaza in relation to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and coping strategies. They studied 358 adolescents aged 15 to 18 years; most of them have been exposed several times to mutilated bodies on TV, were exposed to heavy artillery shelling, saw evidence of shelling and heard sonic sounds from jetfighters. Here are some of the figure the subjects reported:

  • 90% of them have seen  mutilated bodies on TV
  • 88.5% have heard shelling of an area by artillery
  • 86.6% have seen shelling evidence on the ground
  • 67% have witnessed people being killed by rockets
  • 60.6% have had a close relative killed by rockets
  • 46.1% have been directly threatened by shooting
  • 29.9% have directly witnessed the killing of a friend
  • 27.7% have witnessed their own home be bombarded
  • 26% have been beaten by the military
  • 22.9% have been arrested
  • 21.8% were physically injured by a bomb in their home

Take a look at these figures, and remember – these are children we’re talking about! It’s people under 18 years old, living in a constant state of fear and real threat. They see their friends killed, their houses bombarded, and are threatened by a military conflict; under these conditions, I find it actually a bit surprising that the rates for anxiety is “only” 33% for girls and 26% for boys. Overall, the study showed that 29.8% of participants met the full criteria for PTSD.

But perhaps the long term implications are even more severe. We’re talking about a generation of children who will grow up, and likely harbor feelings of extreme anger, probably prolonging the conflict even more. The point of this study is not to show that Israelis are the aggressors or that the Palestinians are the victims, it’s to show that in this war, the ones who suffer the most are civilians – and especially children.

Scientific Reference: Abdelaziz Thabet, Omar EL-Buhaisi, Panos Vostanis. Trauma, PTSD, Anxiety and Coping Strategies among Palestinians Adolescents Exposed to War in Gaza. The Arab Journal of Psychiatry (2014) Vol. 25 No. 1 Page (71–82)(dio: 10.12816/0004117)


Stuxnet virus that crippled Iranian nuclear facility infects International Space Station

The world’s most complex malware ever created, the Stuxnet virus which was designed and enforced by the U.S. and Israel against Iran a few years ago, may have ended up infecting the International Space Station according to leading security analyst Eugene Kaspersky head of  IT security at Kaspersky Labs. The virus was designed to only attack specific software and specific hardware in a specific  uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, Iran. Stuxnet, however, isn’t at all specific on the targets it infects – basically it’s all over the world.

stuxnetIt’s been long thought that only a country or organization with vasts amounts of resources could develop a virus of Stuxnet’s complexity. Last year, the Obama administration stepped out and confirmed that indeed the virus was made as a joint-operation with Israel against Iran, to nobody’s surprise frankly. A leftover from the Bush administration, Stuxnet operations were accelerated during Obama’s presidency and eventually launched against Iran.

Without getting into too many details, here’s the short story: the enrichment facility depended on a series of centrifuges, which were controlled by Siemens micro-controllers. These chips governed how fast these centrifuges would spin or if they would spin at all. Stuxnet was designed to infiltrate the facility through unconventional means (spread out across the whole internet, infect millions of computers, eventually an Iranian employee would bring in an infected flash memory drive from home to work and thus compromise the whole network. Elaborate, I know), make the centrifuges randomly vary in the speed at which they rotated and in turn burn out their bearings. All of this was done of course while the monitoring software showed everything was in order.

A cumbersome worm

The Iranians had no idea what hit them, they actually blamed their in-country suppliers and the whole operation delayed uranium enrichment months and months. A perfect modern espionage attack, but was it worth it? Well, the Iranians were no saints. The local government had signed  the Non-Proliferation Treaty in which they had agreed that they would not try to develop a bomb. Guess what highly enriched uranium is good for? Nuclear bombs.

Overall, however, it was a pretty stupid move by the US. Stuxnet has infected millions if not billions of devices in the world,  including Russian nuclear plants as indicated by Kaspersky in this video at the 27 minute mark. Probably, other high end, vital infrastructure facilities are also infected by the virus all over the world and beyond apparently. In the same video, Kaspersky hints that he has information that suggests the International Space Station is also infected with Stuxnet. He credits his sources as “Russian space guys” – not quite solid, I know, but Kaspersky is a figure in the digital security world, I expect him not to flaunt ideas without a minimum of evidence backing them up.

Yes, the virus remains dormant, like a latent gene waiting to be turned on and mutate its host organism. The bad part is that the virus is open source – it’s source code has been exhaustively studied and is freely available on the web. Any hacker can study it, manipulate it and make his own Stuxnet.  However, the virus’ worst damage lies not in a few shattered centrifuges in an Iranian enrichment facility – it’s the proof of concept that’s terrifying. Imagine, for instance, having the entire US east coast or the whole country for that matter, why not, blacked out by a virus that fries electrical transmissions stations. Yes, it’s possible; most of these plants are fully automatized. The great powers all have cyber and counter-cyber warfare units well in place for obvious reasons. The wars of the future, at the flick of a button.

(c) AP

How chemical weapons ‘work’ (kill) people

For nearly two years now, Syria has been embroiled in a gruesome civil war that has so far claimed thousands of lives. Cruelties in the region reached a climax in past weeks after alleged reports of chemical weapons use against civilians were made. So far, it’s unclear which side – the government or rebelling opposition – was responsible for the heinous act, and little does it matter for those struck down by the chemical attack. UN officials are currently deployed – and have actually been attacked by snipers during a tour – in order to assess the situation and confirm whether or not chemical weapons were deployed. How do chemical weapons like sarin nerve gas affect the human body, and how can it be detected beyond the obvious onslaught (showing footage of devastated people isn’t proof enough; you need to show that those people were hit by chemical weapons and not something else) ?

Speaking to ABC science, Dr David Caldicott an emergency physician and senior lecturer at the Australian National University, is pretty convinced chemical weapons were indeed deployed on the people of Syria. The substance in question is most likely a type of chemical known as an organophosphate. You’d be surprised to know that some of you might have already been exposed to organophosphates, albeit in a tiny concentrations, through ingestion of food derived from sprayed crops. This class of chemicals include many of the insecticides we use every day, however they’re also deployed in cruel chemical weapons like sarin, soman, tabum, and VX. The main difference is that the warfare-grade organophosphates are “several thousand times” more potent than everyday organophosphate insecticide, according to Dr. Caldicott.

“It’ll probably become very obvious very quickly whether an organophosphate has been used, more difficult than that will be determining what sort of organophosphate that was, and even more difficult than that who was responsible for its release,” says Caldicott.

Organophosphates inhibit an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase at the nerve junction (synapse), responsible for  regulating the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine crossing nerve synapses. Acetylcholine is one of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain, signaling tasks to the body’s autonomic nervous system. Depending on frequency and concentration, acetylcholine  controls things such as heart rate, respiratory rate, salivation, digestion, pupil dilation, and urination.

(c) AP

(c) AP

It’s clear that inhibing the acetylcholinesterase enzyme – which can be resembled to a on-off switch – can have a devastating impact on living beings.

“You can imagine that if you block one of the major ‘off-switches’ of the body, and are left with all the lights turned ‘on’ all of the time, the body might run into trouble. With an extremely rapid build up of acetylcholine in the synapse, things like secretions, respiratory problems, and muscular dysfuntion can go on unattenuated,” explains Caldicott.

“And that’s really how people suffer and die.”

Scientific security analysts can probe whether or not a person has been contaminated by organophosphates by taking urine and blood samples.

“Early on following the exposure to a military organophosphate you may well see the breakdown products of metabolism in the urine, but after it’s been secreted in the wee it’s very difficult to detect.

“If someone has got very low levels of functioning acetylcholinesterase in their blood, then they’ve probably been exposed to an organophosphate, because the poison has bound to it and inactivated it.

“Depending on the toxicity of the agent used, how much was involved, how long patients were exposed and how they were exposed, enzyme levels can start to return to normal levels from several days to several weeks post-exposure.

“What is more difficult and more problematic, the later we are in the process of analysis, is working out what sort of organophosphate has been used.

“That is the real test for the inspectors, particularly a week down the line.”

Caldicott says it is unclear whether or not military-grade chemicals have been used.

“You could mimic this effect by using a high concentration and large volumes of a simple insecticide,” he says.

Charles Duelfer, the former head of U.S. weapons inspection teams in Iraq, said the U.N. experts will be looking to collect evidence from witnesses and survivors of last week’s attack, including samples that can be analyzed later.

“They’ll be looking for remnants of the munitions, which could be sophisticated munitions that a military would have — or if it turns out, unexpectedly, to be the case that the insurgents had cobbled together some sort of CW capability, maybe they’ll find that,” Duelfer said.

UPDATE: In the meantime, CNN has footage of alleged chemical attack victims. Be warned viewer discretion is advised, as the video is most, most graphic. 

Civil wars in Congo have killed 5.4 million people in 10 years. Climate change could make future conflict more likely, say scientists. (c) AFP/GETTY

Hot temperatures and tempers: climate change heat wave linked to rise in violence

The ramifications of climate change are long and vast, but with all this talk and attention the subject’s been gaining it’s a bit surprising that the mood of humans, and how this in turn affects the world, has been greatly overlooked. For instance, a new study, which has collected and statistically analyzed data from more than 60 studies from a wide array of fields (archaeology, climatology, economics etc.) spanning across hundreds of years, found a link between seemingly small changes in temperature and other climate change parameters and rise in human aggression. This relation holds true for both small and large scale violence, from rapes and local murders, to large scale conflicts and wars.

We’re used to hearing about climate change fallouts such as rise in sea level, increased heat waves, greenhouse gas effect so on and so forth, but now it seems you can add rise in violence to the list as well, and considering currently global warming projections, the world is expected to become an ever violent place. The researchers, led by  Solomon Hsiang, an economist at Princeton University in New Jersey, state however that they do not have a definite answer why this happens, though.

Marshall Burke, from the University of California, Berkeley, said: “This is a relationship we observe across time and across all major continents around the world. The relationship we find between these climate variables and conflict outcomes are often very large.”

The scientists first went through hundreds of papers from a wide array of fields which they found relevant, before they eventually settled for 60 studies on subjects related to climate, conflict, temperature, violence, crime, and more. The challenge was to align each study to a common ground, so that each individual findings might be correlated. They did this by implementing a common statistical framework, which can be seen sort of like exchanging various currencies (euros, dollars, british pounds) into a single one.

Mr Burke said: “We want to be careful, you don’t want to attribute any single event to climate in particular, but there are some really interesting results.”

Degrees of violence

What the researchers eventually found can only be classed as striking: even for minor variations from the traditional temperature or rainfall levels, substantial increase in frequency of violent events was witnessed on all levels, from local crime to war. Concrete examples given in the study include domestic violence in Australia, police violent interventions in Amsterdam, ethnic violence in South American and Europe and more.

Also the study was careful not to assess contemporary violence only. For comparison purposes, climate data spanning back many centuries was assessed. This helped paint a clearer and broader picture of how man had adapted, or didn’t for that matter, to climate change. For instance, political instability and warfare and linked to widespread and lasting droughts around A.D. 900 in lands near the Pacific, which eventually brought the demise of Maya empire. Decades of drought interspersed with intense monsoon rains collapsed the Khmer empire (modern day Cambodia) in the 14th century.

“Archaeologists can actually observe how [Khmer] engineers were trying to adapt,” Hsiang said. “They were trying to keep up with the climatic changes, but in the end, even though they were the most sophisticated water engineers in the region at the time, it still seemed too much.”

“A lot of the civilizations that were nailed by climatic shifts were the most advanced societies in their region or on the planet during their day, and they probably felt they could cope with anything,” he said.

“I think we should have some humility [and] recognize that people in the past were very innovative and they were trying to adapt to these changes as well.”

The researchers estimate that a 2C (3.6F) rise in global temperature could see personal crimes increase by about 15%, and group conflicts rise by more than 50% in some regions.

The root of the conflict? Hot temper

Other scientists show skepticism over the drawn conclusions, like Dr Halvard Buhaug, from the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway.

“I disagree with the sweeping conclusion (the authors) draw and believe that their strong statement about a general causal link between climate and conflict is unwarranted by the empirical analysis that they provide,” Buhaug said.

“I was surprised to see not a single reference to a real-world conflict that plausibly would not have occurred in the absence of observed climatic extremes. If the authors wish to claim a strong causal link, providing some form of case validation is critical.”

The study strengthens the idea that climate change and human aggression are linked, but it doesn’t however address why this occurs. One hypothesis, rather straightforward, is that increase in temperature or rainfall are unpleasant by nature, and thus make people cranky. Cranky enough bash each other’s skulls apparently. Then there’s the economic and social aspects of climate chance consequences.

“When individuals have very low income or the economy of the region collapses, that changes people’s incentives to take part in various activities,” study first author Hsiang said. And “one activity they could take part in is joining a militant group.”

Hsiang has faith that the exact mechanism that underlies the two might be uncovered in the future. The researchers liken their situation to that of doctors in the 1930s who knew that smoking and lung cancer were linked but had not yet uncovered the mechanism.

“It took decades, but people did eventually figure out what was going on, and that helped us design policies and institutions to help mitigate the harmful effects [of smoking],” Hsiang said.

Likening a biological mechanism to social-economic one, however, seems to me like apples and oranges though. Whatever’s the case, their findings published in the journal Science are truly fascinating.

A cave painting in Jebel Acacus, modern day Lybia. Along with many other, this painting is 12 000 years and is among some of the best works found anywhere else in the world. source

The Nature of War – We Are Not Programmed to Violence

Controversy surrounds biologist E.O. Wilson’s latest publication ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’. Most of it centres on his repudiation of kin selection and the question of whether or not its replacement, group selection, actually works. What most of the debate overlooks is Wilson’s contention that humans have evolved violent instincts from a past of warfare that he describes as “universal and eternal”.

This assumption that our evolutionary history is warlike is not unique to Wilson – it is implicit in most evolutionary pyschology. In turn these theories rely upon primatology and anthropology to connect supposed current instincts with those of ‘violent’ ape ancestors. Raymond Dart was the first to put forward such a link, when in the 1950s he put forward his killer ape theory that argued for the “predatory transition from ape to man”. Later Robert Ardrey wrote that “man has emerged from the anthropoid background for one reason only: because he was a killer.”

Recently, the anthropologist and primatologist Richard W. Wrangham has sought to provide a more sophisticated mechanism that connects human behaviour with that of our primate ancestors. In his paper ‘Evolution of Coalitionary Killing’ Wrangham puts forward the chimpanzee violence hypothesis, which says that “selection has favoured a tendency among adult males to assess the costs and benefits of violence, and to attack rivals when the probable net benefits are sufficiently high.” This instinct he says, is behind much of our current warfare.

Countering theories, such as Jeremy Griffith’s theory of the human condition, which holds that humans evolved genuinely cooperative instincts, and that our current violent state has a psychological basis, are extremely rare.

What then is the evidence?

We know through archeological discoveries, as well as pictorial records, that the Holocene Epoch (from the present to approximately 12,000 years ago) was characterised by warfare; however similar finds from the Paleolithic are almost non-existent.

A cave painting in Jebel Acacus, modern day Lybia. Along with many other, this painting is 12 000 years and is among some of the best works found anywhere else in the world. source

A cave painting in Jebel Acacus, modern day Lybia. Along with many other, this painting is 12 000 years-old and is among some of the best works found anywhere else in the world.  Source

The Paleolithic (covering a lot of what is colloquially known as the stone age) is that period of time that stretches back from the start of the Holocene to some 2.5 million years ago. If violence and the propensity to war are instincts inherited from our ape ancestors, we would expect to find a continuation of evidence leading all the way back to those ancestors. Indeed, if our instincts were formed by “universal and eternal” warfare as Wilson claims, then the Palaeolithic should abound with evidence of interpersonal violence, just as the Holocene does.

In looking for evidence of violence, there are three main sources that scientists rely upon. I. J. N. Thorpe describes them as: “the existence of weapons, depictions of warfare, and skeletal remains demonstrating conflict”.

Of these, the most incontrovertible are skeletal remains demonstrating conflict  because they have weapons or artefacts lodged in them, or injuries that could only have been incurred from early human weapons–this is gold standard evidence if you like.

While it is not exhaustive, nor entirely ‘gold standard’, the following lists most of the accepted archaeological finds from Palaeolithic times that might indicate interpersonal violence:

250 k.a. BP. Sima de los Huesos, Spain. At least 32 skeletons. Several skulls have healed impact fractures. It remains unclear whether this find is evidence of warfare.

90 k.a. BP. Kasies River, South Africa. A healed skull fracture is argued to be from an attack.

50 k.a. – 12 k.a. BP. There are a number of multiple burial sites e.g. at Predmosti in Moravia where 20 individuals were buried. There is argument whether this was due to lethal conflict or disease or starvation.

13 k.a. BP. San Teodoro cave in Sicily. Woman with a flint point in her iliac crest.

13 k.a. BP. Grotta de Canciulli France. Child with a flint in its Thoracic vertebra.

12 k.a. BP Jebel Sahaba Nile where. 59 burials or which 24 skeletons had flint points embedded in the bones or found within the grave fill. The excavator of the site suggests that environmental pressure and vanishing resources were the cause of the violence.

I.J.N. Thorpe argues that if a bioligical theory of violence such as Wrangham’s chimpanzee violence hypothesis did hold, then even taking into account the vagauries of archeological research, there should be common and uniform evidence of violence across cultures and time. Thorpe says: “The biological theories imply a constant level of violence, not supported by the archeological evidence, which demonstrates significant variations in evidence for conflict from virtually none to apparent massacres.

However beyond the skeletal evidence, the artistic evidence (or lack thereof) is perhaps even more compelling. During the Holocene, war dominated all artistic records, both pictorial and mythic. This domination makes the lack of any such pictorial record during the Paleolithic even more notable. This is an extraordinary distinction. The palaeobiologist R. Dale Guthrie, arguably the world’s leading authority of Palaeolithic art, comes to this conclusion: “This shortcut to stored bounty by raiding the wealth of others became a universal tribal phenomenon: warring conflicts constitute most of recorded and mythic Holocene history. But Palaeolithic art shows no drawing of group conflict, and there is virtually no indication from late Palaeolithic skeletons of murderous violence.” (underlining mine)

In summary, biological theories of violence and aggression, such as that put forward by E.O. Wilson in support of group selection, presuppose uniform and consistent levels of violence; however the evidence does not support this. On the contrary, the evidence is that while some violence exists in extant chimpanzees, the behavioural history of hominins was almost entirely violent-free before 12,000 years ago. The conclusion that is hard to escape is that our propensity for violence is not instinctive, and that we need to look elsewhere for its cause.