David P. Barash is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington; his most recent book is Threats: bullying and its discontent (2020, Oxford University Press). Ward Wilson is Executive Director of RealistRevolt and author of Five myths about nuclear weapons (2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
“You can’t put genie back in the bottle.” Those of us keen to get rid of nuclear weapons often hear this and at first glance it seems true; common sense suggests that neither geniuses nor nuclear weapons are easily bottled up. But this “common sense” is singularly false. Technologies have appeared throughout human history and just as the vast majority of plant and animal species have finally disappeared, so have the vast majority of technological geniuses. They were only rarely detained or forcibly erased; almost always, they were simply abandoned once people recognized that they were ineffective, dangerous, outdated, or sometimes just plain stupid.
So don’t be fooled by the over-repeated assertion by “defense intellectuals” that we cannot put nuclear engineering back in its bottle. We don’t have to. A lot of lousy technologies have simply been abandoned. The first big wheel bikes, called penny-farthings in England because their huge front wheel and tiny rear wheel looked like a penny next to a farthing, were very popular in the 1870s and 1880s. They were not only tough. to climb, but dangerous to fall. No one has had to uninvent them.
Between 1897 and 1927, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company sold over ten thousand Stanley Steamers, automobiles powered by steam engines. The two technologies are now funny curiosities, reserved for museums. Maybe the “transport intellectuals” warned at the time that you couldn’t put the Stanley Steamer or the penny farthing geniuses back in their bottles.
Technological determinism – the idea that an objective technological reality decides what technologies exist – seems compelling. After all, we can’t uninvent something that applies to nuclear weapons just as much as it does to penny-farthings and Stanley Steamers. But to say that nuclear weapons will always be with us because they cannot be uninvented is like saying that I will always be alive because I cannot be born.
Pessimists attached to the myth of disinvention argue that nuclear weapons can never be done away with because as long as knowledge of how to build them exists, things themselves will always exist. Inventing something is conceived as a one-way process in which the crucial step is the moment of invention. Once this line is crossed, there is no turning back.
Again, this is superficially plausible. After all, it almost always happens that once knowledge is created or ideas are promulgated, they rarely disappear. But there is a crucial difference between knowledge and ideas on the one hand, and technology on the other. Human beings do not conserve technology (except sometimes in museums) as they conserve knowledge in libraries, textbooks and cultural traditions.
Bad ideas can linger in libraries, but they won’t continue in the real world. Physicist Edward Teller, “father of the hydrogen bomb,” had bad ideas. He demanded, for example, that H-bombs be used to melt arctic ice in order to dig seaports and also to free the Northwest Passage, while other physicists, including Freeman Dyson, have spent years on Project Orion, hoping to design a rocket that would be powered by a successive series of nuclear explosions. Crap ideas should not be forgotten and given up.
Useless, dangerous or outdated technology does not need to be forced to disappear. Once something is no longer useful, it is rightly and unceremoniously ignored.
To understand how nuclear weapons could fit into this mold and be eliminated, let’s look for a moment at technologies more generally, and how they disappear. Venture capitalists, for example, realize that new technologies do not become permanent the moment they are invented, nor do they disappear because they have been uninvented. Technologies have a life cycle whose two ends are not birth and death, but adoption and abandonment.
A new device can be quite awesome, but if it isn’t widely used it won’t persist; certainly, it will not live forever just because it was invented. Technologies disappear when enough people decide to abandon them. This also applies to weapons. Stone axes did not disappear because people could no longer make them or because our ancestors ran out of stone. Iron has replaced bronze, steel has replaced iron; spears, blowguns, bows and arrows, matchlocks, blunderbusses, the gatling machine gun: each has died out because it was simply abandoned, and for good reasons.
Consider hand mortar. Developed in the 1600s, these rifles (much like a sawn-off, wide-barreled shotgun) were meant to fire an explosive grenade at an opponent. Back then, however, the triggers that could ignite on impact hadn’t been developed yet, so hand mortar relied on a somewhat complicated process: you prime the gun, put it down, grab it. grenade (carefully), light its fuse, stuff into the muzzle of the pistol and pushed it all the way down the barrel, picked up the pistol, aimed and fired.
In theory, hand mortars should have been effective weapons. But there were a lot of things that could go wrong, and that’s what happened. The fuse could hit the grenade and detonate it in the barrel. Or the fuse could double on itself when driven into the barrel, shortening the burn time, causing it to explode in the barrel again. The gun could misfire, leaving the grenade in the barrel, where it would eventually explode. (Neither event was healthy for the firing soldier.) The shock of the shot could separate the fuse from the grenade, rendering it no more lethal than a thrown stone. If you misjudged the amount of powder needed to fire the grenade from the pistol incorrectly, it could either drop the grenade at your feet or a few feet away among your own troops, or send it far above the sea. head. of your opponents.
In practice, there was too much that could go dangerously wrong with hand mortars, so that ultimately killing a group of enemy soldiers if all went well was not worth the many risks involved. Even if hand mortars had been invented, and even if any madman who wanted to could have armed his forces with them, they had negligible impact on combat. They have never been banned or uninvented. Being a technology that is both dangerous and of little use, they have simply been abandoned.
What about nuclear weapons? They are certainly dangerous, since deterrence cannot persist indefinitely without failing one day. Bertrand Russell noted that one can imagine watching a tightrope walker swinging in the air for five minutes, or even fifteen, but for an entire year? Or a hundred years? At the same time, nuclear weapons have never been very useful, if at all, except for the benefit of the few individuals, civilians and military alike, whose careers have benefited from their design, development and deployment.
So why is it not possible to imagine that they will be abandoned – just like other dangerous and essentially unnecessary technologies? They could easily disappear even if the memory of their making persists.
So yes, nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. But the way to eliminate the danger is not to imagine that they are imbued with magical powers; it’s more about understanding that they were never a great technology to start with. Or, to the extent that they are bad geniuses, to recognize that it is not necessary to put them back in their bottles. They can be dropped on their own weight or they can just rot.