If we are to examine the idea of choice then we should begin by defining our terms. I will define choice in the mathematical sense according to the axiom of choice. The actual statement of the axiom is a bit technical and requires infinity so we can content ourselves with the following: choice is defined as the ability to select one item from a set of indistinguishable items. Distinguishability has important implications in mathematics, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics so it is reasonable to include it in our definition. If the items are distinguishable, then selecting one is a trivial matter as some factor will favor one choice over the others. It is only when the choices are identical that we truly “choose.”

Philosophers may debate whether choice as such exists or does not, but we may also ask a practical question about how this ability might arise. For this purpose, let us assume that humans do possess the ability to choose and that most other species do not (or at least not at our level). It would necessarily have evolved and therefore be of enough benefit to survival to warrant the extreme cost of the human brain. As it must have evolved before the advent of agriculture, it would be beneficial in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. When hunting, selecting the weakest, or fattest, or most desirable is a fairly simple application of the decision-making power which weighs information and finds the optimum. If a unique optimum can be found then there is no need for choice. Distinguishability on the basis of some optimizable factor is the difference between a choice and a decision.

Before we proceed I should describe a defensive behavior of prey animals called flocking. There are many benefits to travelling in a large group, especially for protection. One non-obvious benefit is that predators are presented with the opportunity to kill one of many. This is known as the predator confusion effect. The effect can be heightened if all the individuals look and act identically (flocking behavior). A good example is the zebra whose stripes make a lone zebra highly visible, but make herds of zebras a mass of shifting lines stopping a predator from focusing on a target long enough to kill it. In systems where predator confusion is in effect, prey can be singled out for greatly increased risk by marking them as different using colored dye. How might hunters counter this strategy of indistinguishability? If choice is an ability specifically evolved, and not some freak accident of nature, then I think it possible that it is a counter-strategy to flocking behavior in our prey.

It is sometimes said that when presented with many similar options, choice is paralyzing, but in fact the opposite is true; choice is what allows us to select an option despite it not differing from its fellows in any way. The paralysis comes from attempting to make a decision among distinguishable objects without enough information to definitively know which is optimal. I have had much success with clarifying the difference between choices and decisions to friends asking about selecting colleges, careers, romantic partners, etc. When they accept that it is impossible to decide what is “best,” they are free to make an arbitrary choice and continue with their life.

The hippies would have us believe the answer is ‘absolutely nothing,’ and that it is a characteristic of primitive cultures which have not progressed beyond the need for violent conflict. But then some people believe hippies should be kept away from the public in bong-equipped zoos and drum for our amusement. Let us pretend that I am one of them. I will attempt to make a positive case for war in both the past and future.

Historically war has been an agent of change and there are numerous instances of that change being for the better as a direct result of the war. Wars for independence are an undeniable example; non-violent resistance rarely works against an autocrat. Wars to defend a people from an aggressor are justified. Offensive wars to eliminate repressive regimes can have a beneficial impact on a nation’s inhabitants far outweighing the damage caused by the war. We can agree that war has been useful and necessary in the past. The case for war in the future is more difficult to make because one must argue that there will be problems not possible to solve in a different way. To form this argument I will go further into the past to the time of proto-human evolution.

Hominid evolution developed in 2 million years a species the intelligence of which far exceeds any other. Not only this, it far exceeds what is necessary for its survival. Seemingly necessary. Our bodies are not so different from chimpanzees that we could not survive in approximately their mode of living which requires only chimpanzee level intelligence. The human brain is immensely expensive in oxygen and calories. It is also highly dangerous as can be seen by the number of women who died of childbirth prior to the 20th century. This does not happen in other species. There must be an evolutionary benefit to something so costly. What in this world could a proto-human need such intelligence for unless it were to outsmart other proto-humans? There are a multiplicity of side branches in hominid evolution, none of them still exist. What are the chances that they died out of natural causes?

The following is pure supposition: I posit that humans evolved intelligence to compete with other humans and that the ultimate competition is war. Any increase in intelligence, any product of that intelligence contributes to the military capability of the population that has it. When this war-born intelligence has no conflict to spend itself on, it creates an internal conflict manifesting in a desire to create art, pursue science, build, invent, produce; all the things which make humans recognizable from other species. The hunting instinct that became the war instinct is what drove our evolution towards intelligence and still drives us to be unsatisfied with our current achievements. Even if this feeling does not culminate in war, it is important that it could. To take away the possibility of war it would be necessary to take away the willingness to die or kill. It is a cheap existence which contains in it nothing worth more than life itself. But I’ll let Steinbeck say it: ”fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live, for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died . . . fear the time when manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one property is the foundation of manself, and this one property is man, distinctive in the universe.” War is the result of a fundamental piece of our character. War is a result of this property in our species. To remove war we would need to remove the cause. Again, Steinbeck: ”Results, not causes; results, not causes.” (Ch.14 Grapes of Wrath)

However, war is quite destructive and while we should retain the will to war, we should restrain ourselves in most circumstances. We can keep the war-like character alive without a full war by engaging in mock-battles, that is, sports. It is in competitive sports that we exercise and hone and learn to control our desire to fight.

In a collection of similar species, the predatory ones tend to be most intelligent. As Larry Niven writes of herbivores, “how much intelligence does it take to sneak up on a leaf?” Alien species that contact our world are often portrayed as war-like for the sake of entertainment. If we assume evolution works similarly on all planets, it is quite likely that this will be true.