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Deep-time self-identity in nuclear disarmament

Michel A. Duguay 28 November 2020

-1. Introduction

This article seeks to contribute to the worldwide effort towards nuclear disarmament. The existence of thousands of nuclear bombs in the hands of leaders in nine countries threatens a great many living organisms on our planet, in particular humanity. In the twentieth century certain sectors of physics and technology have been developed to an extreme degree for application to warfare. In a conflict involving nuclear weapons it has been estimated that tens of millions of people could die in the first hours, and possibly one billion or more in the following months and years because of radioactive fallout, and because of famines caused by long-term atmospheric loading of soot from burning cities and forests [1].

The nuclear arms problem with its inherent threat, and other planetary problems such as climate change and pollution, have stimulated the search for new ways of thinking in a direction that will benefit all humanity [2-6]. In this regard the life sciences are promising. The twentieth century has seen a tremendous increase in our understanding of life, especially at the level of microbiology. One can now say that life has started to reveal its secrets, some of which are under intensive study particularly in the field of genetics and genomics [7-15, 18-20]. The latter relatively young science is the study of all genetic information in living organisms, and even in dead ones in cases where they have left well-preserved bones, an example being our Neanderthal cousins. Though invisible to the naked eye, genetic information directs our biological life and greatly influences our behavior. In the construction of one’s picture of self-identity a person may therefore choose to include the genetic information in her/his cells as part of one’s self-identity. This is illustrated in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1

But one can go farther along the time dimension: since genetic information is transferred from one generation to the next with great reliability, one can build a picture of self-identity which includes one’s

discrete sequences of inherited genetic information mostly as these sequences were present in one’s ancestors, that is in parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. This is illustrated in the family tree of Fig. 2 which shows ancestors up to the sixth generation. The single letter of DNA code symbolizes the part of DNA information (hosted in many discrete sequences) that has been transmitted to the young girl. A consequence of this view is that one’s self-identity reaches back into the deep-time past, that is about 500 000 years ago if one limits herself/himself to Homo sapiens, or to three billion years if one identifies with the general concept of life.

The second consequence of deep-time self-identity concerns one’s relationship with humanity. As one goes back deeper in time, the set of one’s ancestors grows rapidly and it merges more and more with the set of ancestors of any other person on our planet [13-16]. Modern genomics has established that all people now living on Earth are part of the same genetic family [8-16]. We all share common ancestors; in this genomic deep-time perspective we are all cousins [10, 11]. Thus deep-time self-identity is a broadly unifying concept.

If this vision of deep-time self-identity were to be adopted on a broad scale, it would remove differences in present ethnic identity as an element justifying warfare, a phenomenon that has played a key role in conflicts throughout history, up to the present time [17]. In this genomic perspective any conflict involving deaths can be seen as fratricidal at the level of nations, and also at the level of two or more persons. In the genomic perspective it becomes contradictory to condemn killing among a few quarreling individuals and at the same time to send soldiers from one’s country to go and kill soldiers — and even innocent civilians — of another country. In the genomic perspective every one is a facet of the human genome and all killing becomes fratricidal.

-2. Self-identity: Who am I, what am I ?

A traditional philosophical question which has been asked repeatedly since a long time ago is: who am I, what am I? In social encounters the answer might be: I am French, or I am American, or I am German. The question becomes more intriguing if one asks it in a philosophical context, in which case the answer might be: I am a fan of David Hume, or Hannah Arendt, or Henri Bergson, or a fan of all three philosophers.

I have encountered other surprising answers to this traditional question. A physicist friend once told me at the dinner table: ”I’m just a bunch of atoms”. Such an answer ignores the realm of information which we now know to be at the core of life either in the form of DNA or RNA. Another colleague gave me a similar, but more sophisticated answer: ”I am a bunch of molecules”. The molecules of living organisms are extremely capable: DNA, RNA and proteins can orchestrate the reproduction of our biological cells. Geneticists have firmly established that information is at the core of all living organisms, so that incorporating genetic information in one’s picture of self-identity is fully justified.

DNA, illustrated in Fig. 1, is a molecule which was discovered in 1869 by Swiss researcher Friedrich Miescher. In the first half of the twentieth century microbiologists established that DNA was the agent of biological heredity. In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the famous double helix (or twisted ladder) structure of DNA and were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1963. Maurice Wilkins shared that prize. It was later recognized that Rosalind Franklin also had played an important role in the elucidation of DNA’s structure. DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA consists of two strands of small molecules known as nucleotides linked together to form two polynucleotide chains. Each nucleotide incorporates a nitrogenous base which can be either adenine (A), or thymine (T), or cytosine (C), or guanine (G). These bases are referred to by the letters in parentheses. As shown in Fig.1, the rungs of the twisted ladder are pairs of bases, or ”letters”, where A on one strand is always linked with T on the opposite strand, and likewise C is always linked with G. When scanning down one or the other DNA strand one sees that the genetic information is thus encoded according to the quaternary code A, T, C, G. (In computers

information is encoded according to the ”1” and ”0” binary code).

Another molecule carrying genetic information is RNA, which stands for ribonucleic acid. RNA is essentially one strand of DNA except that the deoxyribose sugar is replaced by a ribose sugar, and the thymine base is replaced by the uracil (U) base. The genetic information to create RNA in our cells is stored in our DNA. RNA in its various forms plays a vital role in living organisms. The genetic material of viruses is either DNA or RNA. The coronavirus currently infecting millions of people worldwide has its genetic information hosted in RNA. It is thought that in the history of evolution RNA appeared first before DNA.

A turning point in the history of genetics and genomics occurred in 1990 when the US government formally launched the Human Genome Project (HGP) whose mission was to ”sequence”, that is to read out, all three billion letters in one set of 23 human chromosomes [7]. The project was an international collaboration involving the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and China. The Celera Corporation joined the project in 1998. A convincing argument for increased international cooperation in all fields is to note that the six-country project included Germany and Japan which had been military adversaries of the other four countries during World War II. In April 2003 it was announced that the Human Genome Project had accomplished its mission, having very nearly read out all three billion letters in human DNA.

One must ponder the significance of the three billion letters. The excellent and voluminous book on World War I by Professor Margaret MacMillan, which is reference 17 here below, runs 739 pages and it hosts a total of about 1,5 million letters. Two thousand such books would host about three billion letters. In the replication of DNA an error in replicating a given letter is called a single nucleotide mutation (the phenomenon is referred to as single nucleotide polymorphism, SNP) and it generally occurs only once in one hundred million times. For the whole three-billion-letter human genome that corresponds to about 30 mutations, that is about one letter error per 60 MacMillan books! In general, in going from one human generation to the

next the number of mutations is about 100 because a few whole-genome replications are involved at the level of sperm and egg cells. Other types of mutations also occur sometimes, with a larger effect on the genome [18].

In the course of the daring human genome project, the largest cooperative effort ever in microbiology, new techniques have been developed for sequencing DNA. The development of these new techniques went on after 2003 and they were applied to sequencing the individual genomes of about one million persons, as of November 2020. Moreover the genomes of hundreds of animal and plant species have been sequenced, giving rise to the discipline of comparative genomics [18]. This new discipline allows scientists to better better understand microbiology and to reconstruct the history of evolution.

In providing an answer to the classic question ”who, what am I?”, a relevant picture is shown in Fig. 2. What is pictured here is a symbolic family tree where each one of the ancestors has a genome represented by a single DNA letter. The child is generation I and has one half of his/her genetic information coming from each one of the two parents, who are generation II. In the first circular layer the genomes of four grandparents are symbolized by a single DNA letter. The child’s DNA information is one quarter of the DNA information in each one of the grandparents, who are generation III. The child has one eighth of the DNA information in each one of the great-grandparents, who are generation IV, and one sixteenth of the DNA information in each one of the great-great-grandparents, who are generation V.

Starting at generation VI, something occurs which departs from the mathematical doubling progression 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 in the number of ancestors. The symbolic family tree in Fig. 2 was patterned after the family tree of my mother Blanche Rioux, born in 1911 in a family raised by Antoine Rioux and Lucie Belzile in St-Jean-de-Dieu, Québec. In the circular layer corresponding to generation VI there appears a couple by the names of Benjamin Côté and Félicité Asselin who occupy slots on both the paternal and maternal sides of the family tree; the slots they occupy are highlighted

in Fig. 2. The percentage of DNA information that Blanche Rioux inherited from Benjamin Côté was therefore 2/32, and the same number from Félicité Asselin. The couple Côté-Asselin therefore constitutes the point in time when the lines of ascent of Antoine Rioux and Lucie Belzile cross. Benjamin Côté and Félicité Asselin constitute what is called the ”most recent common ancestors of Antoine Rioux and Lucie Belzile”.

Thus, starting at the sixth generation in the family tree of Blanche Rioux one observes a folding back of the family tree upon itself. Science writer Adam Rutherford has looked at this folding phenomenon in some detail in his fascinating 2016 book [13]. On page 160 he points out that if you followed the mathematical doubling progression 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc, for your number of ancestors, then going back to the days of emperor Charlemagne in years 742-814 you would theoretically have about 137 billion ancestors, thereby exceeding one thousand times the Earth’s population at the time! This of course cannot be.

Instead, as Rutherford explains in the following pages 161-162, it is best to rely on the work of Joseph Chang, a statistician at Yale University [16]. Using mathematical models and data on the numbers of European citizens throughout the second millennium, Chang has established that most European lines of ascent cross at about 600 years ago [13, 16]. Rutherford quotes the following astonishing results from Chang’s work [13, 16]: ”One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today. Their lines of descent petered out at some point, when they or one of their progeny did not leave any of their own. Conversely, the remaining 80 percent are the ancestors of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century.”

Joseph Chang has extended his modeling work to the whole planet. Quoting Rutherford [13] : he ”concluded in 2003 that the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today on Earth lived only around 3400 years ago.”

Two important conclusions can be drawn from this section. One is that arguments for going to war on the basis of ethnic differences, which have been used countless times in history [17], cannot have a scientific basis rooted in a humanitarian philosophy. The genomics science has clearly demonstrated that we are all part of one genetic family on Earth. Killing others is fratricidal. Second, including one’s DNA information in one’s picture of self-identity considerably strengthens one’s connection with humanity and all of life. Internalizing the genomic connection, to which references 7-16 hugely contribute, will help develop a spirit of planetary cooperation in all matters. Leon Jaroff’s article in Time Magazine [7] was one of a great many references including DNA as a vital part of a human being [8-15, 18-20].

-3. Identical twins confirm

One potential objection that might be raised against the conclusions drawn in section 1 is that the idea presented is a theoretical abstraction with little impact upon practical life. There is a host of replies to such an objection. A first reply is that in 2007 Spencer Wells published a book explaining the Genographic Project [10]. The project’s mission was to analyze DNA from large numbers of people around the world in order to find the migration paths of various ethnic groups over the last 500 000 years. The project has been a success and has been the object of good media coverage, including television. Most people are interested in their deep-time roots and these can be accessed by sequencing their DNA. The film ”The DNA Journey”, which involved Per Christiansen and the Momondo firm, is another example of the keen interest people have in finding out who were their remote ancestors and where they lived [11]. In my case, I remember that in my thirties I would often think about my four grandparents and be conscious of the presence of their DNA in me. The two grandparents on my mother’s side, whom I had been with many times, were Antoine Rioux and Lucie Belzile. The two grandparents on my father’s side, who died before I was born, were Robert Duguay and Mary MacDonald.

A second reply to a potential objection is the present level of US federal funding for genomics research in various institutes at a level in excess of six

billion dollars yearly. The broad aim is to develop genomics for many scientific and commercial endeavors, one example being the goal of mastering personalized medicine. In this endeavor a person’s individual genome will serve as a guide for therapy. Similar goals have been adopted by the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, funded at a level of 700 million dollars by the Broad family foundation [19]. An additional ambitious goal of research in genomics is to be able to find appropriate medical treatments for people born with some hereditary illnesses. A daring cure being envisaged would be to modify the defective genes by techniques like CRISPER-Cas9 which is a precise genome editing technique. The CRISPR work by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna has led to their being awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry [20].

A third reply to the potential objection is the amazing phenomenon of identical twins. The reader can use a search engine to look at pictures of identical twins. When looking at remarkably similar identical twins, a first important point one can make is that their astonishing similarity in appearance and behavior shows that their very nearly identical genomes have translated themselves into a three-dimensional representation, i.e. their bodies and brains, with exceedingly high accuracy.

A second and more important point is that a set of identical twins, or identical triplets and quadruplets, shows that there must exist an information pattern from which each individual body is drawn. Today we know that a three-billion DNA letter sequence is the source of information from which embryological steps are directed to build up the twins; this applies equally well to you and me. Science writer Matt Ridley has noted that the transformation of a mostly linear information pattern in DNA into a three-dimensional body and brain is a most remarkable property of DNA and its complex system of associated biological molecules, like RNA and proteins in the fertilized egg cell [8].

What is obvious to and is internalized by identical twins, namely the common source of their being, can also be understood and internalized by

each one of us singletons. Once your DNA has been sequenced, nowadays in less than a day at a nearly affordable cost for most people, that whole-genome sequence can be stored in data banks and will be of interest to your physician, to your descendants, to their physicians and to genomic science. If cloning were legally permitted, which is not the case, you could theoretically be brought back to life after the death of your body, at least from a biological point of view.

-4. What makes us human ?

What makes us human ? One quick and easily observed answer to this question is our intelligence, our empathy, our creativity, and our ability to cooperate on a planetary scale. Researchers in genomics have the ambition of finding deeper answers to this question by attempting to see in our genome what makes us much more intelligent than chimpanzees by studying the differences between the two genomes [18]. Humanity displays a high level of collective intelligence, but the fact that nuclear weapons threaten all of us is an indication that we need to find ways to increase our collective intelligence and our level of empathy on a planetary scale so that nuclear weapons will be eliminated.

What makes us human ? That was the title of an article published by Professor Katherine Pollard in the May 2009 issue of Scientific American; her article made the cover of this highly reputable magazine [18]. In her fascinating article Professor Pollard compared a small region of the human genome with that of the chimpanzee and that of the chicken. In our evolution we split off about six million years ago from our common ancestor with the chimp. We split off about 300 million years ago from a common ancestor that we have with the chicken. By using high power computers to analyze the large DNA data sets for the three species, Katherine Pollard discovered a short 118-letter sequence in DNA that is now called ”human accelerated region 1”, or ”HAR1”, a sequence which has considerably evolved in us compared to the homologous sequence in chimps. This short DNA sequence changed by only two letters between the chimp and the chicken over 300 million years, and by 18 letters between us and the chimp

over the past six million years.

On page 46 of her May 2009 article one can see the following three sets of 58 letters observed in the second half of the 118-letter HAR1 DNA sequence for humans, chimps and chickens. Bold letters are used for a letter change relative to the chicken’s sequence and spaces have been added between groups of four letters to facilitate visualizing the vertical alignment which corresponds to homologous matching of DNA sites between the three species:

Humans: A G C G G C G G A A A T G G T T T C T A



Chimps: A G C A G T G G A A A T A G T T T C T A



Chickens: A G C A G T A G A A A C A G T T T C T A



In her article, as well as in her presentation, Professor Pollard has drawn the conclusion that the rapid evolution of this HAR1 region of our DNA contributed importantly to making us evolve into present day humans [18]. There is evidence that HAR1 contributes to determining the structure of our brain, in particular our cortex, a part of us that has clearly evolved much farther in the degree of intelligence than it has in the chimp.

Contrasting with the rapid evolution of HAR1 in humans is the remarkably

low mutation rate between the chimpanzee and the chicken, namely, just two letters mutated over 300 million years. The highly conserved HAR1 sequence in chimps and chickens shows that it has played a crucial role in the survival of these two species. The situation is different for us humans: 18 letters mutated out of 118 letters in just six million years shows that Nature ”dared” to try something new with our brain over the last six million years. This short 118-letter DNA sequence can help us to internalize the concept of a major part of us being DNA information.

To conclude this section, I want to point out a link between the illustration in Fig. 2 and Professor Pollard’s work. The dotted lines in Fig. 2 trace the path in time between one generation and the adjacent ones. In the absence of mutations, as we see for 116 letters of HAR1 in chimps and chickens, the DNA information in a way is leaping across a 300-million-year time gap. When there many mutations, as between us and chimps, then the DNA information is enriched by successive mutations. When mutations occur in one individual and are beneficial, they spread out fairly rapidly to all members of the species; this is illustrated by emperor penguins in Antarctica who all look very much alike. When DNA information is extracted from bones and teeth, as is the case for the study of our Neandertal and Denisovan cousins, the sudden leap of DNA information is sometimes across 50 000 or 100 000 years. One can say that the transfer of DNA information is diachronic, a word used in linguistics with the meaning ”across time”.

-5. Andrew Marshall versus Nicholas Christakis and Matt Ridley

In this section the question of nuclear disarmament is addressed from a deep-time genomic point of view. First, I comment on assertions made by two authors, Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, who worked for many years under Andrew Marshall in the Pentagon and published a book about him in 2015 [21]. Marshall was for 41 years Director of the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s internal think tank. Before his job in the Pentagon Marshall had been an employee of the influential RAND Corporation in the 1950s and early 1960s. Krepinevich and Watts wrote of Marshall that he ”helped formulate bedrock concepts of US nuclear strategy

that endure to this day.” Given that this alleged ”bedrock concept” led to the stockpiling of about thirty thousand nuclear weapons in the U.S. (and about the same number in the Soviet Union) in the mid-1980s, and given that it now drives a budget request of over one trillion dollars to ”modernize” nuclear weapons systems, one is entitled to examine the philosophical framework allegedly supporting this ”bedrock concept”.

According to Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, one of Marshall’s basic strategies was to ask many thoughtful questions. On page 251 the following question is put forth among others: ”Do anthropology, ethology, and evolutionary biology support the belief that conflict and war are part of the human condition, in which case war is unlikely to be banished from international relations?”

The one good thing about this question is that these two authors from the defense establishment think that understanding human nature is necessary in order to predict the future of military strategy. Further on, on page 257, authors Krepinevich and Watts give Marshall’s answer to this question, quoting [21]: ”A fifth intellectual theme that has persisted throughout Marshall’s career concerns what might be termed the nonrational aspects of human behavior. This can be traced back to Herbert Simon‘s conclusion that evolutionhad adapted organisms to make “good enough” decisions rather than “optimal” ones.”

On page 258 the authors address again this topic, quoting: ”Marshall’s conviction that human behavior has inherently irrational components was reinforced by Tiger and Robin Fox’s The Imperial Animal, which argued that evolutionhad wired “identifiable propensities for behavior” into the human genome. …….Given all this evidence, Marshall agreed with Fox’s conclusion that the human race is as likely to have a future of peace and nonviolence as one of chastity and nonsexuality. …. Hence Marshall’s belief that war is an integral part of human nature. The use of military force might be controlled but never banished.’’

One can see that the pre-1914 pessimistic mindset of several leaders (but not all) described by MacMillan [17] is still present. An immediate counter-argument to the pessimistic view appears a few lines below on page 258 where the following statements appear in reference to Marshall, quoting [21] : ”….. his long-standing conviction has been, and remains, that it is not possible to predict either the strategic outcomes of actual conflicts or the course of military competitions. There is simply too much uncertainty. Despite the desire of senior leaders for accurate forecasts of what the future holds, the stubborn fact that the future is unpredictable has to be faced.’’ If the future is unpredictable, a statement that is easy to verify in daily newscasts, how can Marshall and his former colleagues Krepinevich and Watts then assert that wars are forever inevitable?

One very strong objection to this alleged ”bedrock concept” arises from extensive research by Yale University Professor Nicholas Christakis and his team [22]. His 2019 book is entitled Blueprint, the Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society [22]. In this broadly praised book, professor Christakis has used results from the study of genomes in several social species, including ours, and from sociology and anthropology, to draw the important conclusion that our inclination to build a good society is deeply rooted in our genes. On page 208 he wrote this:

”Increasing evidence suggests that natural selection may have favored the creation of social bonds in general, not just social bonds to kin. Although humans are unusual in the extent of our friendships to non-kin, we are not alone. Let’s look at primates, elephants, and whales to see how they make friends in order to set the stage for a closer examination of how and why humans do.”

In his preface, Christakis wrote the following paragraph which supports the idea of a greater degree of planetary scale cooperation [22]:

‘’My vision of us as human beings, which lies at the center of this book, holds that people are, and should be, united by our common humanity. And this commonality originates in our common evolution. It is written in our genes. Precisely for this reason, I believe we can achieve a mutual understanding among ourselves.’’

There are of course exceptions to this optimistic view, as well reported in the media, but I think that Christakis is right when social and economic conditions permit a good life to flourish.

Another author who has looked into genomics is science writer Matt Ridley. His 1996 book is entitled The Origins of Virtue, Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation [23]. He wrote on pages 6 and 7:

‘’It is the claim of this book that the answer to an old question – how is society possible? – is suddenly at hand, thanks to the insights of evolutionary biology. Society was not invented by reasoning men. It evolved as part of our nature. To understand it we must look inside our brains at the instincts for creating and exploiting social bonds that are there. We must also look at other animals to see how the essentially competitive business of evolution can sometimes give rise to cooperative instincts.’’

We can thus see that the two Pentagon authors are contradicted in their assertion about an alleged basic propensity for human beings to resort to war. In contrast, the theoretical and experimental work of Professor Nicholas Christakis, supported by Matt Ridley, is that our propensity is towards cooperation both locally in communities and internationally, the United Nations and the aviation industry being outstanding examples.

We are also capable of empathy on a planetary scale. A most remarkable example of planetary empathy took place in Thailand in June and July 2018 when 12 members of a junior football team and their coach became trapped in the deep Tham Luang cave suddenly flooded by heavy rains [24]. Working

under extremely difficult conditions volunteer divers and helpers from many countries were able to reach the team which was trapped at a distance of some four kilometers from the cave’s entrance. The whole world followed the rescue operation on television and was rooting for its success. A total of ten thousand persons, including 100 divers, were involved in the two-week rescue operation. This was a beautiful example of international cooperation and empathy [24].

Another excellent example of successful planetary cooperation is the aviation industry. In normal times — in pandemic-free times — the average number of flights is about 100 000 daily all carefully watched by thousands of devoted air controllers. The probability of dying in a crash is about one chance in ten million. This very high reliability level has been achieved after decades of experience and improvements in airliner design and operation. One of the outstanding features of the aviation industry is to deeply care for human lives.

As Margaret MacMillan wrote about war, isn’t it a matter of choice ? [17]. The title and subtitle of her book give a concise picture of what was going on before World War I started in July 1914: The War That Ended Peace, the Road to 1914. Elements of that road were the arms race and ethnic rivalries between major players. In the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review 2018 (NPR 2018), one can read that Russia and China are designated as potential adversaries. Russia has many times offered to the US ways of improving relations, which the US has many times refused, especially during the Trump term. Pulling out of the ABM treaty under George W. Bush in 2000, and pulling out of the INF Treaty (Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty) under Trump has been disastrous in terms of US-Russia relations. Regarding the arms race, Trump has publicly declared that he wants to win the arms race, at the cost of one trillion dollars or more.

What would be an optimistic choice? Many excellent books have been written on choices that would benefit all of humankind. One of these is the 2015 multi-author book entitled The War That Must Never Be Fought, Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence edited by George P. Shultz and James E.

Goodby [2]. Shultz was US Secretary of State from 1982 until 1989, the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Goodby worked in the US Foreign Service, served as US ambassador to Finland and was vice-chairman of the US delegation to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. An idea that comes back frequently in the Shultz-Goodby book is the title of Chapter 15 authored by James Goodby and Steven Pifer: ”Creating the Conditions for a World without Nuclear Weapons”.

Other excellent and recent books are the ones by William J. Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink [4], and by William Perry and Tom Collina, The Button, the New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power From Truman to Trump [4]. These are compelling books about the history of nuclear weapons arsenals and arms control, and about the pressing need to immediately reduce the risk of nuclear detonations being triggered by accident, by miscalculating leaders, by malevolence, or by cyberattacks. The William J. Perry project has nuclear disarmament as its ultimate goal. In chapter 10 of ”The Button” Perry and Collina quoted former California Governor Jerry Brown who in 2019 compared our present situation with the passengers of the famous Titanic liner, quoting: ”Not seeing the iceberg up ahead but enjoying the elegant dining and the music. The business of everyday politics blinds people to the risk.” [4]. Further on the authors summarized 75 years of nuclear weapons politics by these words: ”Each president sought to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, but none set a new course away from the icebergs.” [4]

Another powerful book is Scott Ritter’s latest book ”The King Scorpion” which is a thorough and startling history of the nuclear weapons and arms control saga [25]. Ritter’s as well as other books show that the nuclear weapons history has been heavily marked by fights between pro- and anti-arms control persons at all levels. Many think that without arms control the risk of nuclear war is unacceptably high. The best way to have zero risk of nuclear detonations is to have zero nuclear weapons.

Historically, there have been several crises where some people in the US contemplated the use of nuclear weapons in response to an attack with

conventional arms or even to a cyberattack. Such is the case in the Trump-inspired Nuclear Posture Review 2018. Fortunately, so far cooler heads have prevailed every time and nukes have been kept out. Author Nina Tannenwald has written a book and several articles where she has presented evidence that an international norm, a nuclear taboo, has developed over the years against any use of nuclear weapons. [26, 27]

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in building momentum for the TPNW (Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons), now ratified by 50 countries [28-31]. ICAN director Beatrice Fihn and Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow received the prize in Oslo in December 2017. This was the fifth time that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for work on nuclear disarmament. ICAN is a federation of several hundred organizations that have been favorable to nuclear disarmament. One organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) has been working for peace and arms control since 1920, and since 1945 against the use of nuclear weapons. Ray Acheson, who is director of Reaching Critical Will, and Tim Wright who is a director of ICAN, have published excellent articles on their work leading to the TPNW [29-31]. References [29-31] are interviews with them. In one of the interviews Tim Wright mentioned that two thirds of the world population are for the abolition of nuclear weapons [31].

-6. Caring about the future

When I was an employee at the AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories in the nineteen seventies and eighties, during lunch conversation we sometimes addressed the topic of nuclear war. In the context of such a conversation, one colleague once made the following startling declaration in the presence of several other persons at the lunch table: ”After I die, I don’t care what happens!”

This colleague had no children. In his declaration I see two components that are not far removed from the way some people think. First, we can observe that many people calculate, or believe, that nuclear war has a very low probability of occurrence so that they will live their lives without experiencing a nuclear war catastrophe. Second, there is a widespread way of thinking that your are not responsible for what will happen after the death of your body.

These two components in my former colleague’s startling declaration can be countered by the following two arguments. The first one is based on the reaction of people to the statistics of natural events, and the second one is based on the genomic perspective. In the afternoon of March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred in north-eastern Japan with an epicenter off the coast at about 70 kilometers east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku. A gigantic tsunami resulted and started speeding towards the coast. After about 20 minutes the first tsunami wave reached the city of Fukushima, some 337 kilometers away from Tohoku. A 14-meter high tsunami wave went over the 10-meter seawall that authorities had previously judged high enough to protect four nuclear reactors lined up along the coast. More than ten thousand people drowned, most buildings and houses were wiped out, and three nuclear reactors suffered core meltdowns and hydrogen explosions because emergency diesel generators had been knocked out by the tsunami, thereby stopping the cooling pumps.

From extensive media coverage of the catastrophe we learned that some seismic experts had predicted that a magnitude 9 earthquake was possible and therefore that giant tsunamis were possible. Also, there was evidence from historical records that very large tsunamis had previously occurred. In spite of this danger the authorities had allowed a lower seawall at Fukushima. The lesson from this event, and more broadly from very strong earthquakes on land, from floods, hurricanes and volcanoes, is that society’s collective consciousness has a strong propensity to ignore past catastrophes if they have taken place more than one hundred years ago. When people talk about ”100-year floods”, there are many who think that you are relatively safe for 100 years. But probability science, and observation, will tell you that the 100-year flood could come back next year.

In the question of nuclear war, the argument has often been voiced by pro-nuke advocates that since the world has not had a nuclear conflict for the last 75 years, we can infer that we can count on another 75 years of nuclear-assured peace. Such an inference cannot be accepted. Since we do not know what present and past political leaders, or malevolent persons, have in mind, or what accidents could happen, common sense tells us that there is a possibility of nuclear detonations and that we should do our best to convince the world to endorse the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will come into force on January 22, 2021 [28].

Let us now look at the question of responsibility after the death of one’s body. If you have bought into this idea of deep-time self-identity, then you are aware of having within yourself the precious DNA information transferred to you from a large number of ancestors. If you choose to allow the prolongation of nuclear arsenals then you’re allowing the possibility of nuclear conflict to be prolonged. We know that virtually all our ancestors did their best to survive and to raise their children to maturity. We know that it is in the broadest interest of our ancestors, and of us, to do our best to prolong the life of everyone, including that of up-coming generations. This argument can be summarized by keeping Fig. 2 in mind. In this picture everyone of us is made up of DNA information parts from all humanity. And we know that humanity has always wanted to survive and prosper. From that perspective it is imperative to care for the future of humanity. Philanthropists give a good example of caring about the future of all by setting up foundations, or giving to universities, to keep supporting good causes far into the future. So do devoted parents and their friends.

Our genes are made up of parts that can be traced back 300 000 years in deep time. Some people will feel a bit constrained if limited to the approximately 300,000-year age of Homo sapiens. Considering that parts of many genes in us are a few million years old, and even a few hundred million years old, let us identify with life going all the way back to the first cell some three billion years ago.

Fig. 2

Let us picture the past as being present in us, as illustrated in Figs 1 and 2. I this vastly increased self-identity, let us look at the future. Everyone is aware of the asymmetry between the past, of which we have pictures, books and recordings, and the future, which is for the most part unknown and unpredictable. With this temporal asymmetry, a shocking picture emerges if nuclear weapons continue to play their present political role. As an example, let us take as 75 years the time period that has been free of nuclear war after 1945. All a pro-nuke weapons advocate can claim on the basis of probability theory is an unknown number of years, perhaps 75 years or more, into the future without accidental or intentional nuclear war.

The temporal profile is this: we have toiled three billion years to reach this point in our evolution, and we now face about 75 years before coming to the nuclear war wall, which could signify the end of progress for humanity, possibly the end of humanity. Think that there is no other field of human endeavor that imposes such an asymmetry: raising a family, studying science and technology, setting up a foundation, creating art, all can extend to much more than 75 years.

Of course, watching the news and listening to threats made or evoked by some nuclear arms promoters, we may conclude that even 75 years is optimistic. For a more optimistic picture, note that new ideas in science and technology, and more generally in our modern culture, can spread over the planet in just a few years. Extensive media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has shown that all countries can cooperate for a common goal, which in this case is preserving our lives and well-being.

Let’s build on this solidarity. The second example is the surprisingly fast progress of science and technology in particular over the last three centuries. Briefly expressed, it seems that in science and technology almost everything works! Outstanding examples among many others are micro-electronics, computers, lasers, modern medicine and genomics. There is even serious work underway to bring back to life the extinct mammoths. The success of anti-corona virus vaccines currently underway is another great

example of the benefits arising from international scientific cooperation.

Expectations are that in the near future new human organs will be grown from your own cells thereby prolonging your life if the need or the wish arises. Given these examples of incredible success in biological and cultural activities both of which are part of us, we can engage optimistically and successfully in activities that protect and enhance the life of all of humankind. In 2015 William J. Perry published an excellent book entitled My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.[4] Perry served as the 19th US Secretary of Defense from February 1994 until January 1997, during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Among the themes that Perry insists on is the need for new ways of thinking and international cooperation. Present day humankind would not have come out of biological and cultural evolution if DNA mutations and new cultural ideas had not taken birth.

The scientific and technological evidence indicates that the field of future inventions and creativity is wide open. There is every reason to believe that progress can take place in the particular field of human and international relations. This optimistic choice can be exercised individually and nationally so that a better, more collectively intelligent and empathic world is possible. Such is the choice that Elizabeth Zelman promoted in her excellent 2015 book entitled Our Beleaguered Species, Beyond Tribalism. [32]

-7. Conclusion

Nobel Prize laureate John Polanyi recently published an article in the Toronto-based newspaper ”The Globe and Mail” and asserted in the title: ”Nuclear weapons are a disgrace to humanity. Banning them is the only way forward.” Polanyi’s article is one among hundreds of articles, books, video-clips, seminars and webinars where one can see that the wind has turned on nuclear weapons. Whereas the governments of nine countries in the first four decades after 1945 thought that nuclear weapons gave them protection, political power and prestige, historical events have now accumulated and our collective intelligence has risen to the point where two thirds of the planet’s

population now wish nuclear disarmament [31].

With the ratification of the TPNW by 50 nations on October 25, 2020, this treaty will enter into force on 22 January 2021. Experience with other treaties abolishing certain types of weapons, one can hope that all nations, and especially the nine nuclear powers, will start their journey towards total verified nuclear disarmament. Professor Paul Meyer, Chair of the Canadian Pugwash group has published a paper strongly advocating that Canada take a leading role in having NATO join the TPNW [34]. Douglas Roche, former Member of Parliament and former Ambassador for disarmament, just published a paper in the Hill Times, informing us that Canada may be moving its posture to one at least not opposing the TPNW [35]. We can hope that Canada will go farther and convince other NATO members to support the TPNW. It has been for years the official policy of NATO to work towards nuclear disarmament.

If we want to do better than the passengers on the Titanic, we must look at another much darker side of the nuclear story. On July first 2019, the Chair of the Canadian Network for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (CNANW), Earl Turcotte, published a disquieting article in the Hill Times [36]. In June 2019 a member of the Federation of American Scientists, Steven Aftergood, had downloaded from a US government web site an article entitled ”Nuclear Operations” [38-40]. Following the Trump-inspired Nuclear Posture Review 2018 [37] , the Pentagon had worked out a new way of preparing for military combat involving both conventional and nuclear weapons. Turcotte quoted the Pentagon’s article with these words: ” … nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability. Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.” Turcotte commented that this new military doctrine ”marks a shift in U.S. military thinking towards the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war.” Turcotte concluded with an invitation to everyone with the following words: ”When the top military commanders of the, militarily, most powerful country on Earth suggest that «nuclear weapons could create the conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability», we should all be worried sick and ask

ourselves , what can we do — individually and collectively — to prevent this insanity from continuing.” [36]

Advocates of ”prevailing” in a nuclear war should watch the film made by one member of Canadian Pugwash, Guylaine Maroist. She and co-producer Éric Ruel won an award for their documentary film ”Time Bombs” which described how Canadian soldiers were subjected to witnessing atomic bomb explosions in Nevada in the 1950s, only two kilometers from Ground Zero. These soldiers later died one after the other, mostly from the effect of radiation. When the pro-nuke advocates talk about keeping nuclear weapons as an ”option” on the table, everyone on Earth should realize that this nuclear option entails a corresponding new option for the manner in which we will die.

Canada has several groups working towards nuclear disarmament, notably Canadian Pugwash [42, 43], Science for Peace [44], Project Ploughshares [45], and the Rideau Institute [46]. Former Science for Peace member Metta Spencer organized a two-day meeting in Toronto in May 2018 [47]. Several new ideas were aired at this meeting, notably that most of our planetary problems are linked, like nuclear disarmament, climate and species preservation, pollution, poverty, pandemics and cyber-attacks. Metta Spencer runs a series of interviews with various militants [47].


-1. A. Robock, L. Oman, G.L. Stenchikov, O.B. Toon, C. Bardeen, and R.P. Turco, ”Climatic Consequences of Regional Nuclear Conflicts”, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 7, 2003-2012, (2007).

-2. George P. Shultz and James E. Goodby, The War That Must Never Be Fought, Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University (2015).

–3. Tom Sauer, Jorg Kustermans, Barbara Segaert, Non-Nuclear Peace, Beyond the Nuclear Ban Treaty, Palgrave Macmillan (2019).

–4. William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina, The Button, The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power From Truman to Trump, BenBella Books, Inc., (2020). William J. Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, Stanford University Press, 2015.

-5. Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Prometheus Books, (2017).

–6. John Polanyi, ‘’We must do more to prevent nuclear war’’, 9 December 2019, edited from a talk given at the Nobel Foundation on 8 December 2019. Web site:

John Polanyi, How to save our planet from nuclear annihilation, Toronto Star, 30 May 2018, web site:

John Polanyi, ”Nuclear weapons are a disgrace to humanity. Banning them is the only way forward”, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 24 November 2020.

-7. Leon Jaroff, ”The Gene Hunt’’, Time Magazine, pp. 54-55, 20 March 1989. The Human Genome Project has this web site:

–8. Matt Ridley, Genome, the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Perennial (2000).

–9. Bryan Sykes, The Seven Daughters of Eve, W.W. Norton (2001).

–10, Spencer Wells, Deep Ancestry, Inside the Genographic Project, National Geographic Society (2007). Web site:


-11. Per Christiansen in the DNA Journey project of the firm Momondo, web site:​

-12. Svante Pääbo, Neanderthal Man, In Search of Lost Genomes, Basic Books (2014). Web site:


–13. Adam Rutherford, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, Orion Publishing Group Ltd., The Experiment, LLC (2016).

–14. Carl Zimmer, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, Dutton, Penguin Random House LLC (2018).

-15. David Quammen, The Tangled Tree, A Radical New History of Life, Simon and Schuster (2018).

–16. Joseph Chang, ‘’Recent Common Ancestors of All Present-Day Individuals’‘, Advances in Applied Probability 31, (1999), pp. 1002-1026.

-17. Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace, the Road to 1914, Penguin Canada Books, (2013).

-18. Katherine S. Pollard, ”What makes us human?”, Scientific American, pp. 44-49, May 2009.

-19. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard for Biomedical and Genomic Research. URL:

-20. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, Nobel Prize in chemistry, 2020 at web site:

–21. Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, The Last Warrior, Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, Basic Books, (2015).

–22. Michael Christakis, Blueprint, the Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Little, Brown Spark, (2019).

–23. Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue, Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, Penguin Books, (1996).

-24. Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand in June-July 2018, web site:

-25. Scott Ritter, The Scorpion King: America’s Suicidal Embrace of Nuclear Weapons from FDR to Trump, Clarity Press, Inc., (2020).

-26. Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, The United States and the Non-use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

–27. Nina Tannenwald, ‘’How strong is the nuclear taboo today?’’, Washington Quarterly, Volume 41, 2018, Issue 3, Fall 2018.”

-28. Web site for the TPNW:”

-29. Ray Acheson, ”The nuclear weapons ban and the NPT”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, june 2017

–30. Ray Acheson and Tim Wright, Interview on web site:

-31. Tim Wright, ICAN Asia-Pacific director, interview:

-32. Elizabeth Crouch Zelman, Our Beleaguered Species, Beyond Tribalism, available on Amazon, (2015).

-33. Ratification of TPNW by 50 nations, on SIPRI web site:

-34. Paul Meyer, ”The nuclear ban treaty is entering into force. What now for Canada? Canada needs to be bolder about joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and press NATO by disavowing support for nuclear deterrence”, in Policy Options, 23 November 2020:

-35. Douglas Roche, ”In subtle diplomatic move, Canada ceases its opposition to nuclear weapons prohibition treaty”, The Hill Times, 30 October 2020,

-36. Earl Turcotte, ”U.S. joint chiefs release alarming nuclear operations document”, The Hill Times, 1 July 2019. Web site:

–37. ”Nuclear Posture Review’’, February 2018, on web site:

–38. Department of Defense Joint publication 3-72 ‘’Nuclear Operations’’, 11 June 2019, on FAS web site

–39. Federation of American Scientists, 19 June 2019, web site:

–40. Matthew Gault, 21 June 2019, on FAS web site

–41. Guylaine Maroist and Éric Ruel, film ”Time Bombs” , web site:

–42. Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, web site


–44. Science for Peace, University of Toronto, web site

-45. Project Ploughshares,

-46. The Rideau Institute,

–47. Metta Spencer, Science for Peace forum in Toronto, 30-31 May 2018, How to save the world in a hurry, web site:

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