Venable on Payne, 'Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence'

Kenneth Payne
Heather P. Venable

Kenneth Payne. Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2018. 272 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62616-580-9.

Reviewed by Heather P. Venable (Air Command and Staff College) Published on H-War (September, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Kenneth Payne’s challenging but illuminating Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence posits that we must understand how humans think about strategy in order to appreciate how artificial intelligence (AI) will make strategic decisions quite differently. This emphasis aligns with Payne’s overarching point that revolutions in weapons do not constitute the most significant drivers of change in the history of warfare. Rather, his stress on two different revolutions provides a refreshing focus on potentially more significant changes in warfare—the invention of writing and the invention of AI, both of which center on how we use information to make decisions.

AI will result in an unparalleled departure from thousands of years of human strategic thought about war because now “machines” will “make strategy via an altogether alien form of cognition” (p. 215). Thus, much of the author’s argument rests on AI being a “decision-making, not decision-facilitating, technology” (p. 191), a role that Payne believes makes it “inevitably strategic,” even in the not-so-distant future (p. 218). It also likely will be highly destabilizing because it will greatly privilege the party that makes the first offensive move, offering little chance of a defender rebounding from initial attacks.  

Strategy, Evolution, and War is Payne’s third work on strategy, which flows naturally out of his previous works. The senior lecturer in the School of Security Studies at King’s College has also written The Psychology of Strategy: Exploring Rationality in the Vietnam War (2014) and The Psychology of Modern Conflict (2015).

This work has three sections, with the first exploring the long and relatively slow evolutionary development of strategy. A critical change in strategic thinking occurred around one hundred thousand years ago, when humans needed to mass in groups larger than families for survival, driving cognitive changes that made human thinking more social and flexible. As a result, strategy became an “imaginative, inherently psychological act involving sophisticated theory of mind” (p. 14). This “ever-increasing sociability” and the ensuing emphasis on ruminating on others’ thoughts and parsing through emotions differs greatly from AI’s abilities (p. 9). Paradoxically, though, human characteristics of strategic thinking have key limitations. The strengths of their thinking vis-à-vis other humans, for example, can prove to be a disadvantage against animals such as chimpanzees and, more importantly, AI. People sometimes “invest in emotionally engaging sunk costs” in irrational ways, for example (p. 85).

The second section explores intersections between culture and strategy in three chapters illuminating aspects of ancient Greece, Clausewitz, and nuclear weapons. In these seemingly disparate case studies, Payne highlights the general continuity in the “fundamental underlying principles” of strategy (p. 89), which he believes, suggests that human psychology predominates over culture. The sole exception to this continuum is AI, which Payne argues will be far more transformative than nuclear weapons, in part because warfare will move so quickly that it will be largely impossible for humans to interject their own strategic thinking into the process.

Nearly at the end of the book, Payne finally delves into nonbiological thinking in two chapters: tactical AI, which is close at hand, and artificial general intelligence (AGI), which experts disagree on when it might emerge. By tactical AI, Payne refers to practical applications on the battlefield that improve facets of traditional military operations such as maneuver by capitalizing on AI’s strengths, including “pattern-recognition, probabilistic reasoning, memory, and, above all, speed” (p. 164). Payne labels this kind of AI as artificial neural networks (ANN), or “connectionist” AI (p. 166). Readers might be more familiar with the term artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), however. ANI recently has made amazing breakthroughs; key limitations, though, center on its narrow range of learning. ANI that has learned to play poker, for example, currently can beat humans at that game; ask it to play a game of checkers, however, and it will be clueless.

Prospective readers new to the field might consider reading a work like Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History (2016) in tandem. Payne acknowledges his work, but he does not fully engage with more skeptical opponents of technological developments.  

There are also some contradictions in how Payne describes human thinking. Payne contends at one point, for example, that AI will not be able to make the kind of “flexible, commonsense judgments that we expect from humans” (p. 187). This more rational interpretation of how humans think strategically is at odds with his earlier emphasis on emotional limitations in how humans make strategy, as mentioned earlier in the review.

More importantly, Payne does not provide a clear sense of how AI-led attacks will translate into desired political ends. This tendency can be seen in some of his historical examples. Regarding the Korean War, for example, he stresses the “disproportionate effect” that speed and decision-making had on the air superiority battle (p. 181). Yet Payne does not make compelling connections between these tactical advantages and the war’s ultimate outcome. Thus, one of the key historical challenges of strategy remains unanswered—how does one translate ways and means into desired ends when AI has taken the wheel? As such, the argument shows some signs of technological determinism.

While the work’s longue-durée perspective on how humans strategize makes it essential reading for grappling with the future implications of AI, the book is more challenging than it needs to be. Early chapters get bogged down in discussing a myriad of examples taken from a wide range of literature, making it difficult to see where the book is going. The emphasis on establishing continuity also means that Payne does not directly begin discussing AI until page 163, and then only for sixty pages.

Readers might consider reading the introduction and the straightforward and highly readable conclusion before returning to the rest of the book in bits and pieces, as it is replete with dense but relevant information. Follow this strategy to take a provocative walk into the future of strategic thinking, where machines make unanticipated and often undesirable decisions at dizzying speeds while humans wonder where it all went so wrong.


Citation: Heather P. Venable. Review of Payne, Kenneth, Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence. H-War, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL:

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