Arms races

Bob Herbert in an angry op-ed piece in the NYT on January 18 (“How Many Deaths Are Enough?”) takes on the position of gun enthusiasts (“gun fetishists” is the contemptuous term he uses) that the antidote to gun violence is more guns:

They want guns on campuses, in bars and taverns and churches, in parks and in the workplace, in cars and in the home. Ammunition everywhere — the deadlier the better.

Herbert doesn’t use the expression arms race, but that’s what he’s describing — a ramping up of firearms in the face of gun violence, which is likely to increase the amount of gun violence rather than damp it down.

Some words on the metaphorical arms race. The story begins with a compound of literal arms ‘weapons, armaments’ with metaphorical race ‘competition’. OED2 under arm n. 2:

arms race n. competition between unfriendly nations or other groups in the accumulation and development of weapons.

1936    Hansard Commons 5th Ser. CCCIX. 1842   This House cannot agree to a policy which in fact seeks security in national armaments alone and intensifies the ruinous arms race between the nations, inevitably leading to war.

1937    Daily Express 20 Apr. 2/7   Arms Race Worry.‥ All were worried at the armament race.

1938    W. H. Auden & C. Isherwood On Frontier ii. ii. 78   The arms race is good for another five years at least.

1964    Ann. Reg. 1963 138   In a speech of 10 June‥Mr. Kennedy called for a halt to the arms race.

Similar definitions can be found in other sources. In some contexts, arms race comes to refer specifically to the nuclear arms race, as in the Kennedy quote above and here:

In an nuclear context, the competition between the United States and Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II to develop a superior arsenal of nuclear weapons. (link)

At some point, the metaphorical sense of race here seems no longer to be appreciated by most speakers, and arms race comes to be seen simply as a fixed expression.

And then it’s available for a metaphorical extension as a whole, as in this OED3 cite under overprescribe v.:

2001    Org. Style Nov.–Dec. 44   Unless doctors stop overprescribing antibiotics‥an arms race between humans and microbes might be all but impossible to win.

And from the Wikipedia page of a few days ago:

More generically, the term “arms race” is used to describe any competition where there is no absolute goal, only the relative goal of staying ahead of the other competitors in rank or knowledge. An arms race may also imply futility as the competitors spend a great deal of time and money, yet end up in the same situation as if they had never started the arms race.

An evolutionary arms race is a system where two populations are evolving in order to continuously one-up members of the other population.

This is related to the Red Queen effect, where two populations are co-evolving to overcome each other but are failing to make absolute progress.

In technology, there are close analogues to the arms races between parasites and hosts, such as the arms race between computer virus writers and antivirus software writers, or spammers against Internet service providers and E-mail software writers.

Note the more specific evolutionary arms race, as on the Wikipedia page:

In evolutionary biology, an evolutionary arms race is an evolutionary struggle between competing sets of co-evolving genes that develop adaptations and counter-adaptations against each other, resembling an arms race, which are also examples of positive feedback. The co-evolving gene sets may be in different species, as in an evolutionary arms race between a predator species and its prey (Vermeij, 1987), or a parasite and its host. Alternatively, the arms race may be between members of the same species, as in the manipulation/sales resistance model of communication (Dawkins & Krebs, 1979) or as in runaway evolution or Red Queen effects.

Dawkins, R. & Krebs, J. R. (1979). Arms races between and within species. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B 205:489-511.

Vermeij, G. J., (1987). Evolution and escalation: An ecological history of life. Princeton University Press.

I don’t at the moment have evidence about when the metaphor first appeared in evolutionary biology, though it seems that Richard Dawkins was a vector in its spread.

These newer metaphorical uses of the expression continue to co-exist with the somewhat older uses with literal arms in them, so that the expression is still available to refer to competitions in firearms used by individuals (as in the case of gun advocates) as well as to armaments used by nations or other entities (as in quotes from the first half of the 20th century).


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