Column: Dominion

Homo sapiens is a unique species.  It lacks many of the advantages that have evolved in other animals, and yet it prevails as the dominant species on the planet.  Eagles have better vision.  Dogs have better hearing, Rats have more resilient genito-urinary systems. Monarch butterflies have a better sense of direction. No matter what aspect of the human anatomy or physiology one examines, the result is always the same: It is deficient in some regard when compared to the anatomy or physiology of other animals. 

The Judeo-Christian claim that man would “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air …and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:26) was certainly an unrealistic view when this clumsy ape ventured out of the rift valley of eastern Africa and headed north and west and south. Given its numerous limitations, an impartial observer would have predicted an early extinction of this species. That this creature survived more than a few thousand years was a consequence of its unprecedented and unparalleled ability to make tools. Its inventiveness went well beyond fashioning sticks and stones for novel applications. It learned to shape metals and create pottery. It learned to build unimaginable weapons, and it left control of the most awful of those devices to a disturbingly small circle of men and women.

As a consequence of our cleverness when it comes to inventions and our stupidity when it comes to social organizations, we have had thousands of years of warfare. Vladimir Putin is only the most current leader sending tens of thousands of his fellow beings into combat and death. The obvious question that man must answer to avoid its own extinction is how do we avoid leaving the decision to launch aggressions that kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people to a single individual.  How do we deprive the Putins, Stalins, Tojos, Hitlers and Mussolinis from having control over military machines that are increasingly destructive with each passing generation?

At its inception, our country tried to solve this imbalance of power by leaving the decision concerning war to Congress, rather than the President. The presumption was that cooler heads would prevail if more people were involved in the decision. This approach failed, and the launching of wars by the United States has followed no consistent principles. Not only have we not had unassailable criteria for engaging in war, but we have also suspended our own Constitutional guarantees in the conduct of wars. Even in instances when we have responded to blatant aggression, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, our retaliatory actions included the unjustified and unjustifiable imprisonment of American citizens on the basis of their ancestry alone. Our government went beyond defense and energized an already robust racism in 1942. Other governments, whether led by monarchs, presidents, prime ministers, or chairmen, have used war as a cover for depriving unpopular or uncooperative constituents of their lives or liberties. Many an atrocity has been launched under the cover of the fog of war.

Although we naturally strive to limit our superheated military to strictly defensive activities, we should not deter it from using its resources to stifle conflicts, like that launched against the Ukraine, simply because the threat to America is neither nearby nor immediate. Conflicts spread like diseases, kill like plagues, and must be stopped before they infect us all.

We must find ways to frustrate the ambitions of dictators with access to weapons of mass destruction. The world cannot have peace if superpowers rely on mutually assured destruction as the deterrent to war. Inevitably a Putin or a Napoleon or a Genghis Khan or a Julius Caesar will decide that he has a way to achieve power without risking his own life or liberty. We have already had world leaders with progressive dementias or illnesses that periodically clouded their judgment who could have triggered horrific conflicts. As World War II wound down, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, three seriously ill men, met at Yalta in 1945 to reshape Europe after the war. Roosevelt would die of a massive stroke within weeks of the conference. His decline was evident even before he was elected to the Presidency for the fourth time in 1944.  Stalin was impaired by chronic alcoholism and a variety of other chronic conditions that his contemporaries dared not allude to at risk of their own lives. Churchill had cerebrovascular disease that was evident long before he had his first of several strokes in 1949. The misconceptions each of these men held about their counterparts and the miscalculations they made in their negotiations left the world in a state of persistent instability.

Even an American President might convince himself or herself that a first strike against an antagonist is feasible and desirable and thereby propel our country into another blood bath. A swift and easy victory seemed inevitable in Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution handed the President the power to press the initiative in that war. Ten years of war and hundreds of thousands dead or crippled established how wrong the investing of more power in a single person could be.

Thousands of years ago, no Homo sapiens could have imagined that the fate of the planet would be in the hands of a few dozen individuals. Groups of hunter-gatherers were well-served by a social organization that relied upon a designated individual as the ultimate decision maker.  Someone had to settle disputes and lead the group in its efforts to survive. We still adhere to that simple organization, even though it no longer works for groups that have swelled to millions or hundreds of millions of individuals. The overconfidence of men like Napoleon Bonaparte and Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II led to the unprovoked slaughter of millions of Europeans. They ruled supreme in an era when such power was a formula for disaster. Our current power structures and associated risks have not changed significantly since the wars in 1812 and 1914 that these men launched.

Mankind devised instruments that can obliterate all of its relatives and left those monstrous devices in the hands of individuals not necessarily gifted with good judgment. The League of Nations and the United Nations were supposed to broker differences and suppress hostilities between nations, but they both failed. We must find other ways to stop internal and external wars.  If we fail, the fish and birds and every other living thing that moves upon the earth will soon amuse themselves by wondering where all those annoying Homo sapiens went.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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