Nuclear weapons. Hands down.
Reading the news about Ukraine this morning—as John Kerry disdainfully said, “so nineteenth century”—it struck me forcefully, really for the first time, what an inadvertently brilliant invention they are. With diabolical, unintentional cleverness we have confronted ourselves with a device like a Zen koan, one that confounds and baffles our impulse to keep escalating aggression, to just have a bigger, badder one than the next guy. That impulse is stopped cold in its tracks by the dim realization, a messenger from the (pre)front(al lobes) shouldering through the limbic murk, that advantage cannot be gained. One up is one too many: he who uses the ultimate weapon will destroy any treasure he hoped to capture, destroy himself, and unleash the destruction of everything. Either we find another way, or we wipe ourselves out. Back in the Sixties someone called this “humanity’s final exam.” Finally I get it—but it’s adding a biological twist that brings it home.
The ultimate weapon is an evolutionary fail-safe. It is to intelligent life what apoptosis is to cellular life: if a life-form goes rogue, or goes down a dead end, it self-destructs. Pretty neat, seen through a cold eye.
(Of course, the koan might also spur the work-around of a better ultimate weapon, one that would destroy life but not property, and whose toxic radiation would dissipate rapidly, allowing conquerors to come in and pillage away. Wasn’t the neutron bomb once touted as that weapon? Whatever happened to that? Even then, though, nukes would trump neuts as the preferred medium of retaliation.)