By Nguyen Ha

Biology tells us that the remnants of wars can be enduring. What can practitioners and researchers learn from this?

As battles begin to halt in Syria, talks on reconstruction have estimated that the country would need between US$250 billion and 1 trillion to recover from all the damages of the war. The human costs seem even more insurmountable. The conflict has killed more than 400,000 and injured at least 1 million people. Twelve million have been forced to leave their homes and to date, many are still reluctant to return.   

War is devastating—but we already know that. What’s more difficult to gauge is the exact costs inflicted by conflicts. This has never been a simple task: notwithstanding the issue of data quality, some costs are simply impossible to measure with numbers. Personal experiences, such as the loss of a loved one or the unsettling memories of violence, are but a few examples. One may think that health-related harms are slightly easier to probe. However, isolating the causal factors and possible effects still proves to be a formidable challenge to research and policy prescription.  

Malnutrition is the first example that comes to mind. For one, it is ubiquitous in the context of civil conflicts, as disruption to food supplies means that many children would regularly go to bed hungry. The impact of this is well-documented by both journalists and researchers. Living close to conflict zones, for example, has been shown to be strongly associated with acute malnutrition in Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and Syria. Aside from stunting and wasting, malnourished children are also more prone to infectious diseases.

Women who experience severe conflict environments tend to give birth to children weighing less than average. Low birth weight is bad not only because of its link to infant mortality. Even if the child survives to adulthood, chances are that ill health may have prevented him or her from attending school regularly or carrying out strenuous physical tasks. In the grander scheme of things, this means the ensuing poverty may be trapping a whole generation for years to come.

None of this is good news for any country reeling from the aftermath of conflict. But to make it worse, these effects are likely to persist to the next generations via biological mechanisms. It may take a few generations, for instance, to correct the adverse implications of malnourished children.

Mental health, too, is a victim of war. Traumatic experiences can transcend generations. Witnessing violence, death or being separated from one’s parents, for instance, can wreak havoc on the psychological well-being of children. But here biology may also play a role: research has connected maternal anxiety to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms and a higher risk of infections in infants. While most research on this topic has taken place in non-conflict settings (with a growing attention to conflict environments), we can surmise that living in, or close to battle areas could only aggravate PTSD effects.

The examples above offer a glimpse of the complex consequences war may bring to a society. They also point to the intricate relationship between nature and nurture. In a nutshell, “what” we are as humans is a function of both the genes we inherited from our ancestors and the many circumstances that shaped their lives and our lives. The epigenome, which regulates the expression of our DNA, is crucial to these intergenerational effects. It’s similar to ordering at Subway–how you pick your ingredients is ultimately what makes your sub unique. In the case of epigenomes, pure chance or the prevailing environmental trigger becomes the key determinant.

The discovery of epigenetics prompts a revisit to our notions of social identity. For the sake of this mental exercise, let’s imagine that we start out in life with clean, blank slates. We may choose to identify ourselves with a specific collective identity – this has nothing to do with our genetical makeups. Still, the closer we grow to this community, the more we are exposed to similar living conditions or social treatments.  In many cases, our identity becomes… us. In the extreme case of ethnic conflicts, for example, identities can turn one into a victim of violence, sexual harassment, and all sort of horrible actions that leave permanent marks on one’s life. The opposite may also follow: traumatized individuals may find solace in each other’s company and form a resilient, politically powerful community.

The biological side of the story shows us how detrimental protracted conflicts can be on human’s lives. For policymakers, this emphasizes the importance of peacekeeping missions in reducing the duration of conflicts and protecting civilians. In this regard, more research is offering supportive evidence for the effectiveness of peacekeeping missions. The caveat? Contributing nations must be willing to funnel an annual estimate of at least US$17 billion – twice the current funding amount – into these efforts. Moreover, interventions should also be early and sustained.

For researchers focusing on development economics, post-war reparations, and population health, a cross- and interdisciplinary collaboration will be beneficial to all sides. Biology can offer tools that refine the methods by which social scientists establish counterfactuals on the true costs of war. In return, the perspectives of social science can steer genomic research away from deterministic conclusions that—if history is any indication—may give rise to discriminating policies. At the end of the day, the interactions between our social environments and our biological processes weave a maze-like landscape that is all the more fascinating to navigate, no matter which disciplinary background from which one may hail.   

By Nguyen Ha

Illustration: Merle Ecker

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