Home > Politics (general), World Events > Pro-war bias (crossposted at CT)

Pro-war bias (crossposted at CT)

January 11th, 2007

The fact that people are so willing to support war is a puzzle that requires an explanation. After all, war is a negative-sum activity, so war between rational parties doesn’t make sense – there’s always a potential settlement that would leave both sides better off*. And empirically, it’s usually the case that both sides end up worse off relative to both the status quo ante or to a possible peace settlement they could have secured at a point well before the end of the war. Even the observation that rulers start wars and ordinary people bear the costs doesn’t help much – leaders who start losing wars usually lose their jobs and sometimes more, while winning a war is by no means a guarantee of continued political success (ask Bush I) All of this suggests that looking for rational explanations of war, as in the ‘realist’ tradition (scare quotes indicate that this self-ascribed title has little to with a reality-based focus on the real world) is not a good starting point.

So it makes sense to look at irrational sources of support for war. In this pice in Foreign Policy Daniel Kahneman (winner of the economics Nobel a couple of years back) and Jonathan Renshon start looking at some well-known cognitive biases and find that they tend systematically to favor hawkish rather than dovish behavior. The most important, in the context of today’s news is “double or nothing” bias, which is well-known in studies of choice under uncertainty as risk-seeking in the domain of losses (something first observed by Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their classic paper on prospect theory).

The basic point is that people tend to cast problems like whether to continue a war that is going badly in win-lose terms and to be prepared to accept a high probability of greater losses in return for a small probability of winning or breaking even. So we get the Big Push, the Surge, the last throw of the dice and so on.

There are other biases that are based more in the way we manage things as a society than in individual psychology. The most important is the failure to treat decisions about war in terms of opportunity cost, by contrast with the way in which the budgeting process of governments (admittedly imperfectly) brings home the cost of other government activities. More on this soon, I hope.

* This is not necessarily the case if your opponent is irrationally bent on your destruction, but one of the problems noted by Kahneman and Renshon is that people are overly willing to impute such motives to others, while perceiving themselves as peaceful and reasonable.

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  1. Joseph Clark
    January 12th, 2007 at 00:51 | #1

    I can think of an example where war is good:

    Country 1 is a dictatorship which maims/kills its citizens and
    keeps them in poverty. Country 2 is a (reasonably pleasant) liberal
    democracy. Country 2 spends some time and money deposing the
    dictatorship of country 1. Country 1 loses some money. Country 2
    gains social/economic freedom and its citizens are
    spared death/torture/poverty at the hands of the dictatorship.

    All hypothetical, of course.

  2. January 12th, 2007 at 01:43 | #2

    On Dec 12th, good old Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Daily Telegraph commented on the expectation of the Pound Sterling to plummet. This becomes relevant where the role of the fall of the pound triggering a further catastrophic fall of the dollar is making the rounds this week.

    Meanwhile, the oil price is falling. This may be a welcoming sight for motorists around the world, but this will go into the mix, or shall we say the descent into the maelstrom. Hedge funds could take a big beating. They have been betting on big macho man Cheney to hit Iran and start the rise of oil toward $200 a barrel. But, it has been delayed, though not entirely called off. Here’s a little bit of advice to my hedge fund friends. If the Democratic congress nixes the “surge” in Iraq, then oil will continue down. And alot of hedge fund people are going to be hung out to dry, like what happened to the Amaranth Hedge Fund people up in Greenwich Ct. Or the Amaranth people out in the Cayman Islands. You know, the usual arrangement, the onshore and the offshore branches of twin companies. Anyway a real crash is definitely in the mix for hedge fund people nation.
    More at a href=’http://www.realcrash.com’>real crash

  3. January 12th, 2007 at 01:43 | #3

    On Dec 12th, good old Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Daily Telegraph commented on the expectation of the Pound Sterling to plummet. This becomes relevant where the role of the fall of the pound triggering a further catastrophic fall of the dollar is making the rounds this week.

    Meanwhile, the oil price is falling. This may be a welcoming sight for motorists around the world, but this will go into the mix, or shall we say the descent into the maelstrom. Hedge funds could take a big beating. They have been betting on big macho man Cheney to hit Iran and start the rise of oil toward $200 a barrel. But, it has been delayed, though not entirely called off. Here’s a little bit of advice to my hedge fund friends. If the Democratic congress nixes the “surge” in Iraq, then oil will continue down. And alot of hedge fund people are going to be hung out to dry, like what happened to the Amaranth Hedge Fund people up in Greenwich Ct. Or the Amaranth people out in the Cayman Islands. You know, the usual arrangement, the onshore and the offshore branches of twin companies. Anyway a real crash is definitely in the mix for hedge fund people nation.
    More at real crash

  4. Paul G. Brown
    January 12th, 2007 at 06:33 | #4

    Joseph –

    A comforting myth. Got a single historical example that looks even remotely like that?

  5. dez
    January 12th, 2007 at 07:36 | #5

    Paul and Joseph-

    An example would be Equatorial Guinea under Macias Nguema. But no-one did anything about that terrible situation because the things Joseph lists are almost never the reasons one country invades another.

  6. Paul G. Brown
    January 12th, 2007 at 08:09 | #6

    dez –


    At the moment, Mugabe in Zimbabwe and the junta in power in Burma meet Joseph’s descriptive criteria.

    The ONLY example I could come up with was MiloÅ¡ević’s Serbia.

  7. January 12th, 2007 at 08:31 | #7

    JQ – A good book to read is this

    The blurb from the advertisement:

    ” Overconfidence and War
    The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions
    Dominic D. P. Johnson

    * 2005 Honor Book, New Jersey Council for the Humanities

    Opponents rarely go to war without thinking they can win–and clearly, one side must be wrong. This conundrum lies at the heart of the so-called “war puzzle”: rational states should agree on their differences in power and thus not fight. But as Dominic Johnson argues in Overconfidence and War, states are no more rational than people, who are susceptible to exaggerated ideas of their own virtue, of their ability to control events, and of the future. By looking at this bias–called “positive illusions”–as it figures in evolutionary biology, psychology, and the politics of international conflict, this book offers compelling insights into why states wage war.

    Johnson traces the effects of positive illusions on four turning points in twentieth-century history: two that erupted into war (World War I and Vietnam); and two that did not (the Munich crisis and the Cuban missile crisis). Examining the two wars, he shows how positive illusions have filtered into politics, causing leaders to overestimate themselves and underestimate their adversaries–and to resort to violence to settle a conflict against unreasonable odds. In the Munich and Cuban missile crises, he shows how lessening positive illusions may allow leaders to pursue peaceful solutions.”

  8. gordon
    January 12th, 2007 at 08:45 | #8

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; in many cases (and wrt the US in almost all cases outside S.America) war is not about foreign policy or relationships with other States. It’s about domestic political manoevring. So, for them, it’s a fundamental waste of time to seek explanations of war in the foreign policy realm. Look for domestic political advantages, like the surge in popularity which Bush II achieved after the destruction of the World Trade Centre with his “war on terror” and invasions of foreign countries.

    There is also (and I have the US in mind here too) the very considerable payoffs to armaments manufacturers from high levels of continuing military expenditure in peacetime and even more in wartime. Lots of people made a lot of money from Vietnam, and nobody thinks Halliburton took a bath in Iraq. Some of this money finds its way back into the politicians’ pockets, multiplying the political advantages further.

    To say: “All of this suggests that looking for rational explanations of war…is not a good starting point” is mistaken. There are perfectly rational explanations, if you look in the right places.

  9. January 12th, 2007 at 11:19 | #9

    Agreed, Gordon. The problem is, as with much seemingly irrational conduct, mis-alignment of incentives between the individual conducting the behaviour and those of the organisation to which they belong. Why is it that market traders are sometimes willing to take huge risks with seemingly little chance of paying off? This is not irrational behaviour, but a rational response to the incentives they are exposed to. Why is it that governments from an ostensibly free-market background keep increasing regulation? Again, their incentives are structured around their power base, not their philosophical background. Why do dictators make war and either leave their country in or take their country into penury? Their incentives are to hold on to power, not to improve the lot of the ruled.
    Democratic governments tend to do things with a time horizon of the next election, or, if they are travelling really well, the election after that. Repressive governments have much shorter time horizons as the leader(s) has/have much shorter-term fears – coups or revolutions.
    Trying to look at the problem as one of irrationality makes the common mistake of assuming the rulers and the ruled have the same objectives. The problem is not irrationality, but incentives.

  10. melanie
    January 12th, 2007 at 11:24 | #10

    I’m inclined to agree with Gordon on this one – otherwise it is difficult to explain the persistent habit of going to war to settle almost every dispute as well as the mind bogglingly stupid strategy of maximum aerial bombardment with minimum human engagement against guerrillas. Even where they do use humans, they have to carry huge packs and go around in humvees in case somebody shoots at them. Afghanistan and Iraq have got the US out of the recession it was in back in 2001. Probably it’ll put them back in one again when the current financial bubble bursts.

    Grenada is the only case I can think of in which Joseph Clark’s idea has worked.

  11. FDB
    January 12th, 2007 at 11:54 | #11

    Also, Joseph mixes up his designators.

    What of the “saving face” angle here (w/r/t “staying the course”)? Is it rational or irrational to give weight to the “perception of weakness” implicit in admitting defeat? Personally, I think admitting failure and seriously addressing its causes is a sign of wisdom, maturity and strength, but in actual fact I’m not very good at it in my personal life. Should I expect a nation to be any better?

    As far as starting wars goes, this is usually a combination of impatience and bad advice. Impatience with the slow progress of peaceful solutions, and advice from people who just love wars that overstates the chances of success. They really believe in “their boys” (and increasingly their toys) and just can’t wait to see them in action, whuppin’ ass. Again, are either of these strictly irrational?

    Stupid, yes.

  12. Jimmythespiv
    January 12th, 2007 at 12:10 | #12

    Remember that nato’s action against serbia was decried as illegal etc in 1998 !

  13. Aidan
    January 12th, 2007 at 12:40 | #13

    re: 7 – so Munich was a good “peaceful solution”?

  14. January 12th, 2007 at 12:42 | #14

    We are having an “ABC moment” here, holding a view that war is the only answer is “puzzling” and “pro-war bias”. Hmmm…..

  15. Razor
    January 12th, 2007 at 14:00 | #15

    OK, how about the Falklands?

    Should the UK not have defended and taken back their territory that Argentina invaded?

    Exactly how would the UK and the Falkland Islanders have been better off by negotiating an outcome anything less than complete withdrawal of the Argnetinians from the Falklands?

    It might have cost money and casualties, but there was and still isn’t any other acceptable outcome other than taking back total control of the Falklands. The UK decisions were the correct ones, they weren’t irrational.

  16. melanie
    January 12th, 2007 at 14:39 | #16

    Yes, but the Falklands was a response to an invasion, not a dictatorship with significant domestic backing.

  17. January 12th, 2007 at 14:48 | #17

    More correctly, melanie, the Argentinian junta started the war by invading, calculating (incorrectly) that the UK would respond only with words, not weapons. They were trying to divert attention from a domestic economic crisis with a victory on the battlefield.

  18. melanie
    January 12th, 2007 at 15:22 | #18

    I agree Andrew, and it was their undoing (as I hoped and predicted at the time).

  19. January 12th, 2007 at 15:52 | #19

    I think there is an underlying element to the attraction of “double-or-nothing” and aversion to “cutting losses”. And it’s the problem we have with endings. How many people have you seen (or perhaps have been) continuing in a realtionship that was pretty clearly no longer a ‘going concern’. It seems hard to end something because it, in part, acknowledges failure. So it’s better to have a ‘surge’/'another roll of the dice’, than admit it’s actually all over.

  20. wilful
    January 12th, 2007 at 16:32 | #20

    For the Falklands, the UK lost a bit (some ships, some men, many pounds), gained nothing, while the Argentinians lost a lot more. So war was a negative sum game, once more. Though far more so for the presecutors.

  21. still working it out
    January 12th, 2007 at 18:12 | #21

    I think you have to get down to the level of genetic hard wiring to understand our enthusiasm for war. For genes as opposed to us war has traditionally not been a negative sum game. I am talking in terms of the tribal way we have lived for most of our existence.

    Let me explain. Say you have two identical hunter gatherer tribes, tribe A and tribe B. Lets assume that by some chance an opportunity presents itself where tribe A can attack tribe B with a 60% chance of winning. Even though the probability of a win is greater than 50% this is still a bad decision from the people tribe A’s point of view. They have an almost 100% chance of being worse off even if they win as members of both tribes will be killed or maimed. With this sort of thinking war is irrational and should be rare.

    From the point of view of the genes of tribe A it is a different story. If tribe A attacks tribe B several things will happen if it goes to the usual script. Some, perhaps many men in tribe A will be dead or maimed, but probably few or no women. All the men in tribe B will be killed or driven away but the women of tribe B not be killed because the victorious men in tribe A will want to enslave and/or rape them. So all men in tribe B dead or gone. Some or lots of men in tribe A dead or maimed. Few women of either tribe dead.

    From the point of view of tribe A’s genes this is a very good outcome. The number of women available to the genes of tribe A is practically doubled. Which means they have doubled the number of potential offspring. So from the genes point of view this was a 60% chance of doubling their number of offspring. The fact that some men of tribe A died does not matter as one man can have many children.

    But it gets better. Even if tribe A loses the war the women of tribe A will probably be spared. The men of tribe B will want to rape and enslave them. This is terrible from the point of the people in tribe A view but not disaster from the point of view of the genes in tribe A because
    1) half their genes will survive through the mothers passing them on
    2) the new offspring will have the genes of winning tribe which are presumably stronger giving them a greater chance of reproducing.

    So from the gene’s point of view its a 60% chance of a win which doubles the number of offspring with your genes. And a 40% chance of a losing which halves the number of offspring with your genes. Under those odds attacking is rational, even necessary because if you don’t attack when the odds are in your favour you will certainly be attacked when they favour your enemy.

    This theory rests on the assumption that women will not be risked in combat. The loss of men is insignificant in genetic terms because one man can have lots of children. But the loss of a women is significant because that is also the loss of a number of potential offspring. I think this is born out in practice as with some exceptions the offensive operations in war are carried out by men. The fact that women are killed in large numbers today is more a product of modern weapons being very powerful. Traditionally women do not risk their lives in attack and when on the losing side they are raped and enslaved by the victors rather than killed.

    So if you carry this through to the logical conclusion you would think that our genes would try to make us more aggressive and supportive of war than our best interests would suggest. Our modern enthusiasm for war is a byproduct of genes shaped by the tribal societies we evolved in.

  22. January 12th, 2007 at 18:27 | #22

    The UK gained the Falklands, which, as was not known at the time, has good oil potential. As it was not known at the time, however, it could not have entered into consideration.

    Look, though, at the UK leadership at the time. To have simply given up would not have fitted with the “Iron Lady” persona – so, even if the overall result was a loss to the nation in economic terms the political reality meant that the incentives for Thatcher to take military action were overwhelming. She effectively had no real diplomatic leverage (the US, under Reagan, were predisposed to help the Argentinian junta and only came on board after the taskforce sailed) and so either had to merely make token protests or take military action. It was a no-brainer for her even if, from an economic standpoint it represented a (short-term) loss to the country.

  23. January 12th, 2007 at 19:02 | #23

    It is a no-brainer for anybody Andrew Reynolds. The residents of the Falklands were British subjects, obliged to adhere to British law, paid duties & taxes (where applicable) to the British Crown.

    There were entitled to British protection, & they got it. Anything else would have been reprehensible.

  24. melanie
    January 12th, 2007 at 19:23 | #24

    SWIO, with reasoning like yours you guys had better start evolving soon or we’ll have to do away with you altogether! We have the technology… grrr!

    Fortunately for you, Maggie Thatcher put a big ? over your theory. I suppose she didn’t imagine she might be raped and enslaved by General Galtieri though. She was too busy appealing to the spirit of Dunkirk, not to mention rescuing people from under the kitchen table at Government Cottage… and what about those brave souls who refused to drive on the wrong side of the road (for all of which, she won the next election)… ah yes, and testing the latest products of one of Britain’s major export industries.

  25. January 12th, 2007 at 19:44 | #25

    So if we teach the world about game theory, we’ll put an end to war? Sounds good to me.

  26. still working it out
    January 12th, 2007 at 20:11 | #26

    I don’t think our genes have hard control over our behaviour, only very strong influence. And more importantly the way genes shuffle themselves around so much means that there is a very big variation in outcomes. In general people have a strong desire for heterosexual sex driven by their genes. But this is not always the case. So most people will be genetically mentally wired up the way I hypothesize, but there will always be lots of exceptions.

    But don’t blame it all on the men! Our genes face the same incentives whether they are inside a women or a man. If wars were entirely driven genetically hardwired men while women were completely rational then every war would end up with massive splits in support broken down by gender. This doesn’t happen. Its usually only a minor difference. Whatever it is inside us that encourages us to make irrational decisions about the outcome of war seems to be inside both genders, though more strongly in men

  27. SJ
    January 12th, 2007 at 20:43 | #27

    alpaca Says:

    So if we teach the world about game theory, we’ll put an end to war?

    Not really.

  28. January 12th, 2007 at 21:29 | #28


    My recollection of the event was that at the time of the war, Falkland Islanders couldn’t vote in British elections, a bit of a sore point.

    If my memory isn’t playing tricks, it somewhat undermines the idea of British principle and rational decision making in the affair.

  29. melanie
    January 12th, 2007 at 22:06 | #29

    SWIO, “Our genes face the same incentives whether they are inside a women or a man”? You mean women are genetically wired for rape and slavery? I don’t think so. It’s not a case of men being irrational and women being rational. War can be a rational decision (depending on the context as discussed above). The reason women are less fond of it than men is that, they need men around to help bring up the kids. This is also rational.

  30. sdfc
    January 13th, 2007 at 00:14 | #30

    So because they didn’t or couldn’t vote they weren’t entitled to British protection Michael? Are you sure you want to run with that?

  31. January 13th, 2007 at 01:30 | #31

    Put that comment in the context of Hong Kong and think about it. Same Prime Minister even. British nationality and territory can be bargained away, given the right framework.
    There were, IIRC, even one or two in the British cabinet who opposed military action. It would not have been a no-brainer for everyone.

  32. Dave Surls
    January 13th, 2007 at 04:38 | #32

    “The fact that people are so willing to support war is a puzzle that requires an explanation.”

    It isn’t that much of a puzzle. In the case of the war against Iraq I support it for several reasons. One reason is because the Iraqis supported terrorist organizations like the FRC, PLF and MEK, all of which have attacked and killed Americans. The terrorists attack us, so we counterattack the terrorists and anyone who helps them.

    What’s the puzzle?

  33. still working it out
    January 13th, 2007 at 06:08 | #33

    “supported terrorist organizations like the FRC, PLF and MEK
    “we counterattack the terrorists and anyone who helps them.

    You do you realise that the MEK gets support from members of the US congress?


    And quite likely has recieved training frem the CIA?


  34. Dave Surls
    January 13th, 2007 at 07:14 | #34

    “You do you realise that the MEK gets support from members of the US congress?”

    They better not provide MEK with any material support. That would be a felony.

  35. gordon
    January 13th, 2007 at 08:58 | #35

    Wilful says: “For the Falklands, the UK lost a bit (some ships, some men, many pounds), gained nothing…” As far as I remember, M.Thatcher was having some popularity problems of her own about that time, and if Andrew Reynolds is right and the Argentinian Govt. invaded to create a distraction (I don’t remember), then there is a lovely historical irony in their being defeated by a UK whose leader was delighted to turn the tables and seize the popularity for herself. The sailors roasted alive on the burning HMS Sheffield (I think it was) played a double role; reinforcing the Spirit of Dunkirk (from which Thatcher benefited) and proving that it’s a bad idea to build warships out of aluminium and to give sailors inflammable foam mattresses (thereby contributing to R&D for the UK arms industry). All quite rational.

  36. January 13th, 2007 at 09:20 | #36

    “So because they didn’t or couldn’t vote they weren’t entitled to British protection Michael? Are you sure you want to run with that?”

    sdfc, I’m very happy to run with that, as that wasn’t the angle I was considering. Rather , the failure to bother to extend one of the most basic rights (voting) to them, makes me wonder if the Andrew Reynlds suggestion of British motivation is a little more realistic than SATPs idealistic version. It appears that territory and pride were more important than noble sentiments of protecting British subjects, which probably puts it in the irrational category.

  37. January 13th, 2007 at 10:08 | #37

    It was “irrational” for the UK to take back the Falkland Islands by force?

    Please explain for us what would have been rational?

  38. January 13th, 2007 at 11:17 | #38

    War is certainly a zero sum game, but US exceptionalism is not easily quantified.

  39. Mike Pepperday
    January 13th, 2007 at 14:28 | #39

    “You mean women are genetically wired for rape and slavery? I don’t think so.”

    Reconsider, Melanie. A woman shares genes with her brothers and woman sending two brothers out to rape and enslave is mathematically the same as being a man and raping and enslaving.

    SWIO’s story is right. Broadly, the things that a creature likes are the things that promote its genes. Men have always delighted in war and women have supported them, wherever you look, in tribes around the world, since time began. No man is prouder than a young soldier. No man feels he is as part of something great and transcending as a man at war. “To strike for all that is true and strong, for all that is grand and brave, for all there ever shall be so long as man has a soul to save.” Doesn’t it make you think you’re missing something?

    But be of good cheer. There is a counter to it: democracy. Democracies never war against each other. And Switzerland, where the people can veto over every law, has had no war for 150 years. In WW2 they were surrounded by fascism and the similar highland German culture next door welcomed fascism, yet the Swiss stayed free. As Aristotle said, and countless experiments in everything from betting markets to guessing the number of beans in a jar show, the people en masse have wisdom.

  40. January 13th, 2007 at 18:23 | #40

    “It was “irrationalâ€? for the UK to take back the Falkland Islands by force?
    Please explain for us what would have been rational? ”


    If it never bothered the British to value the Falkland Islanders highly enough to give them the vote, then it’s hard to argue that the purpose of the war, as you claim, had a rational basis in the protection British subjects.

    I suspect if we were to be completely rational, the best course of action, given their location, would have been to allow Argentinia to assume sovereignty over the Islands, preferably long ago. But then Empires, even faded ones, aren’t too rational.

  41. January 13th, 2007 at 19:09 | #41

    Just as well the leaders of the western world don’t have your mentality Micheal, or we’d be doing this in Japanese.

  42. melanie
    January 13th, 2007 at 20:42 | #42

    Mike Pepperday, I think you and SWIO are adopting a teleological approach. The best you can actually say is that war is not detrimental to the reproduction of the species. However, just because we like it doesn’t mean that it promotes the genes – otherwise there would be no homosexuality, for example. War, since it tends to promote brawn over brain, is probably holding back the evolution of the species!

    Btw, a country that denies the vote to half its population is hardly a democracy. Got another example?

  43. January 13th, 2007 at 22:14 | #43

    you might want to check your facts on the HMS Sheffield – wikipedia covers it well. It was not a problem with the ship design it was a problem with battle tactics and the understanding of mission profiles.
    Rationality depends on your point of view. In the short term, it probably would have been better for the UK, as a country, to give up the Falklands. For the UK government, however, it would have been a devastating blow to the image of an “Iron Lady”. Action was, therefore, rational for the PM and the government, if not, possibly, for the country. As we cannot see what would have happened without the re-taking of the Falklands a judgement of the long-term position is much more difficult. Would it have been better or worse, in the long run, for Michael Foot to have become PM?
    Any government is simply another interest group within a country, its impact varying by the powers it has. The more representative a government is the closer the interests of the government are aligned to those of the country – but they cannot be and will never be perfectly aligned. This is why, to me at least, we need a liberal framework, limiting the powers of governments.

  44. January 13th, 2007 at 22:56 | #44

    I agree.

    And what seemed rational for Argentina, may have been less so if it had factored into it’s calculations, the potential irrationality of a British response. Rational considerations must include the irrational.

    You asked for a comment on what was rational, not what was moral or legal.

  45. January 13th, 2007 at 23:30 | #45

    The British government’s response was perfectly rational – if I had been in her position (not likely, admittedly) I think I would have done the same thing. It’s what was rational for the government that counted, not what was rational (perhaps) for the British people. No irrationality was involved (IMHO).
    The moral and legal response is occasionally not the rational one. As you noted, this is a crucial difference.
    To invite a thousand flames down upon me, this is why I believe many do not understand the rationale of the current war in Iraq. The decision was, I believe, founded on a rational basis on what was known, or thought to be known, at the time. That the subsequent events have proved that many of the assumptions were wrong does not mean the original decision was irrational on the part of those who took the decision.

  46. January 14th, 2007 at 00:13 | #46

    The British Govt’s response may have been perfectly rational from it’s prespective, but I’d imagine that the Argentinians might have thought otherwise. But then that could be their own irrationality (careless optimism). This is were knowing the irrational nature of decision making in war has its limits and can’t ensure a correct or good decision. Argentina looking at the Falklands probably saw a small isolated island far from GB, of minimal stratgic and economic signifigance. Thatcher obviously looked at the same islands and saw a threat to power, prestige and national pride. Different assumptions and weighted in importance very differently.

    On the Iraq War, I think you’re right, you might get a bit of heat on this. I wonder to what degree can actions be based on self-delusion and remain rational?

  47. January 14th, 2007 at 02:25 | #47

    Until (and if ever) the intelligence data is released the question of whether it was self delusion, simple error, wrong assements, deliberate misinformation or a combination of all of these or more will have to (IMHO) remain open. It will be an interesting question for historians to mull over in the decades to come. In the mean time the question is what to do now.

  48. melanie
    January 14th, 2007 at 08:48 | #48

    Andrew, I think you spiked your own argument. Rationality from the point of view of interests is not the same as rationality from the point of view of information/knowledge. I would contend that the Iraq war was rational from the interest angle – Big Oil, christian looney, support for Israel, etc, and then was dressed up with half-baked information about WMDs. The strategic interest actually prevented them from doing a proper assessment of the reality (particularly in their “planning” for the post-war situation).

  49. Mike Pepperday
    January 14th, 2007 at 09:43 | #49

    Teleological, Melanie? You are the one talking of “detrimental to� and “holding back�. Meaningless. Utterly meaningless. “The best you can actually say is that war is not detrimental to the reproduction of the species.� Best? Good and bad play no role.

    Please – go back and carefully read SWIO’s original post. What he says is orthodox Darwinism. Then put everything else aside and read The Selfish Gene – the 1989 edition with the addenda on game theory should be to your taste.

    War didn’t promote brawn. Since we are the most warlike species and also the cleverest (but not the strongest) war presumably made our species. The cleverness requires a long slow childhood and the fact that men are the warriors may be why they take two years longer to mature than women.

  50. Ken
    January 14th, 2007 at 09:48 | #50

    Seeing someone get hurt when you think they deserve it gives a feeling of satisfaction, even pleasure. That we require no proof beyond reasonable doubt to feel that way appears seems to be irrelevant – the need for proof is not wired into our brains. The effect works quite well even with stuff we know to be fictional, like a good movie. The actual consequences also appear to be irrelevant – do the people of a nation that’s been thoroughly defeated end up feeling it was a fair cop or do they go on to feel satisfaction from seeing some of those “victors” get hurt? The consequences hoped for are largely imaginary, the costs are mostly hidden or glossed over and the suffering of those labelled as Enemy is a point of satisfaction, not remorse. I think I have to agree that there is an element of irrationality involved in going to war.

  51. still working it out
    January 14th, 2007 at 12:04 | #51

    When looking at the interests of the countries it is to my mind quite clear that Argentina as a country acted irrationally. Britain as a country may or may not have acted rationally. I think they probably did as my thinking, derived from game theory, is that it is almost always correct to respond to an attack and impose a cost on the attacker. Conversely its almost always irrational to initiate an attack as modern history bears out.

    Whether the leaders of these countries acted rationally, or whether the countries as a whole acted rationally is not to me an interesting question or one which will illuminate the issue of pro-war bias.

    The illuminating question is “Why did the leaders of Argentina think invading the Falklands was a good idea?”. The Argentinian leaders were in trouble. Their economy was tanking. The Argentian leader’s basic problem was that they were losing support within their own country.

    Their solution was to start a war.

    Think about that carefully for a few moments while imagining every Argentinian as a rational actor looking out for their own self interest. It should be a complety insane solution. Why would an Argentian increase support for an unpopular government that is doing something very risky which may get lots of Argentinians killed for the possession of a few relatively unimportant islands that are of almost no practical value to the average Argentinan? It should make absolutely no sense at all. But the leaders of Argentina thought that the average Argentinian would respond in this very irrational way. They had very good reason to believe this would happen.

    Populations again and again increase support for leaders that start wars. At the start of a war, before things turn bad, leaders almost always experience increases in domestic support. This is absolutely crazy. It makes no sense at all. It is clearly irrational for populations to increase support for leaders that are going to get lots of their own population killed for benefits that often do not materialise and usually don’t go to to the general population anyway but it happens again and again and again. This is irrational thinking on a mass scale repeated across almost all cultures and periods of history.

    It is my contention that we are genetically hard wired to behave like this. When faced with mass conflict, regardless of the cause, we revert to very tribal behaviour and thinking. We support our leaders unquestioningly, become jingoistic, exhibit hyper-patriotism and de-humanise those that are different. On some level successful leaders are aware of this and initiate conflicts with outsiders to bring out this kind of behaviour when their own domestic support is weak.

  52. January 14th, 2007 at 13:11 | #52

    “Until (and if ever) the intelligence data is released the question of whether it was self delusion, simple error, wrong assements, deliberate misinformation or a combination of all of these or more will have to (IMHO) remain open”


    I didn’t think that the debate on this point was too much in doubt.

    The article by Ron Susskind sticks in my mind, when he quoted a Bush aide -
    “The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    Perhpas there is another way to intrepret this other than a contempt for inconvenient reality, but I have trouble seeing it.

  53. Mike Pepperday
    January 14th, 2007 at 13:14 | #53

    SWIO – sometimes but your outline is simplistic.

    The Germans supported their leaders long after things turned bad – right to the end. I think there are other cases where support was “to the death”.

    Opposed to them, the feeling in the UK, the US and here was not characterised by jingoism. Not claiming that was absent, of course, but it was more of a backs to the wall, job to be done, attitude.

    Whatever the side, if the ship is danger, you stand with your crew, you stand by your captain. No doubt leaders are indeed aware of this. But before that, before it has become a fait accompli, feelings might be different.

    Has any country voted, at referendum, to go to war? I do not think any would unless there was perceived to be really no option. Germany 1939 would not have, nor Argentina on the eve of Falklands. I cannot imagine that at any time the Americans would have voted, at referendum, to go to war in Vietnam. Here the Liberals won the 1966 election on Vietnam participation but if there had been a referendum on the issue we would have talked about it and saved all that later demonstrating.

    Democracy, as Kant said long ago, is the solution to war.

  54. melanie
    January 14th, 2007 at 22:57 | #54

    Mike Pepperday, True, I haven’t read The Selfish Gene. The title smacks of anthropomorphism – but I’m very much enjoying The God Delusion.

    My understanding of Darwinian selection is that it is random. This means that things we like doing (such as going to war, knitting sweaters, etc) have a random probability of ‘promoting’ our genes (your word not mine). This in turn can mean that war has survived because it does not prevent the reproduction of the species, or that the species has survived despite its propensity to war. It does not imply that war is an inevitable attribute of species survival. (Needless to say, I was not talking about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at all – only what it is possible to say about the role of war in genetic selection).

    I do not find SWIO’s original to be orthodox Darwinism, because he discounts the possibility that a superior survival mechanism might be obtained in the absence of war.

    “war didn’t promote brawn”. I was not comparing humanity with other species, I was comparing brawny humanity with – let’s call it – “effeminate” humanity. In what sense do men take 2 years longer to mature than women? In intelligence? I’m not aware that there is any difference in intelligence between men and women or girls and boys.

  55. Mike Pepperday
    January 15th, 2007 at 10:48 | #55

    The God Delusion is a diatribe; The Selfish Gene is a scientific exposition. Your “understanding of Darwinian selection” is deficient. Many books would rectify this but SG is very well written. Many people have commented on its title; yours was passe 20 years ago.

    No! Sexual maturity! Girls about 14, boys about 16.

    Your “brawn” is what is referred to as sexual dimorphism: here the larger size of the male. Humans are moderately dimorphic. This is not from war; this is from competition for females. War requires lots of brains for planning and communicating strategy and tactics – and little blokes are just as deadly as big blokes.

  56. melanie
    January 15th, 2007 at 11:45 | #56

    The Selfish Gene is a controversial work among evolutionary biologists. I gather from some scientific mates that Dawkins has since admitted a rather loose equation of ‘gene’ with phenotype traits and even learned behaviours.

    Wtf does the age of sexual maturity have to do with cleverness? Just to remind you what you said: “cleverness requires a long slow childhood”.

    Agreed, human warfare requires the application of a certain type of intelligence (more than chimp warfare anyway). So what?

  57. Mike Pepperday
    January 15th, 2007 at 15:23 | #57

    Dawkins had an argument with Gould (“punk eek”) but I think D won and it died with G. The SG was controversial when it came out but hardly with biologists. D made mincemeat out of all comers – partly because he is a good arguer but at bottom because it is orthodox Darwinism. I am not aware of any admissions by Dawkins. I think your mates are full of wind but if you can get a reference I would like to see it.

    Cleverness. A mammal our size could mature in 3 years – like a cow. Why are we held back? Presumably because we need 15 years to wire our brains. Chimps mature in about 7 years – smarter than cows, dumber than us. Men are held back a further two years compared with women. Men are warriors and war has shaped us probably since we were still swinging from the trees (male chimps make war) so presumably males need another two years to get the wiring together to cope with the extra aggro.

    So what? So we should face up to reality. We are wired for war. War is one strategy our genes steer us toward in their competition with each other.

    We can’t change the genes but we can outsmart them by a tried and proven remedy: democracy. It is lack of democracy that allowed Bush to go to war. The American people would never have voted for Iraq if there had been a referendum on it. Never. But you mention referendums to most people and they recoil. Our genes hate democracy.

    An outrage like Iraq would never even be considered if there was a referendum system. For a few egos millions of people must suffer and die. It was ever thus.

  58. derrida derider
    January 15th, 2007 at 15:42 | #58

    I think things like ‘double or nothing’ bias and the different incentives of rulers and ruled often explain how long wars continue (I’ve just finished reading a history of WW1 in which it was clear that both were instrumental in the failure of Wilson’s efforts to secure a compromise peace in 1916 at a time when the objective facts on the ground favoured such a peace). They’re relevant to the recent ‘surge strategy’, but less so to the original decision for unprovoked aggression against Iraq.

    But SWIO is absolutely correct – hardwired, testosterone-mediated militarism rather than exotic calculation explains the irrational militarism and jingoism that leads to outbreaks of war across virtually all human societies. Making an unprovoked surprise attack to eliminate the next clan was highly adaptive on the East African plains, and modern day Western leaders are rarely immune from these urges, no matter how much they tell themselves otherwise. And they are generally happy to exploit them in the populations they supposedly serve. The trouble with Bushian ‘gut instinct’ is that we don’t have very nice guts.

    On Melanie’s comment:
    - Its true that some individual examples from the Selfish Gene are controversial. Its even true that some biologists say that Dawkins oversimplified the relations between genotype and phenotype, especially in the light of developments since its publication in 1976. But only a handful – eg the late Stephen Jay Gould, the Roses, Levrontin – deny the basic thesis of individual gene selection rather than group phenotype selection, and their opposition is very clearly based on ideological priors.

    - And yes, cleverness requires a long childhood. For engineering reasons animals can’t be born with really big brains so they have to develop (and there are anyway advantages to having plasticity in response to environment). The more there is to develop, the longer it takes.

  59. melanie
    January 15th, 2007 at 20:02 | #59

    Hmm. Elephants reach sexual maturity at 9-12 years (F) and 10 (M) (for females this is pretty much the same as humans these days – btw, what explains the earlier maturity of modern humans?), green sea turtles at around 50. These long maturation times are presumably not related to the wiring of the brain.

    Anyway girls require 2 years less than boys to reach the same level of cleverness. Maybe the boys take a bit longer to develop the brawn (or the not very nice guts – as DD put it)?

  60. wbb
    January 15th, 2007 at 21:18 | #60

    Would it be rational for America to attack Iran in 2007? At least, would it be rational for George Bush and his team? Would an attack on Iran improve Bush’s polls? Would it help him divert attention from the messiness of his Iraq play? Assuming in each case that there was an immediate causus belli. A suitable provocation.

    The only thing I know is that it would not be rational for Iran to strike American naval shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.

  61. Mike Pepperday
    January 15th, 2007 at 22:54 | #61

    “Maybe the boys take a bit longer to develop the brawn”

    No. As I pointed out before, as with a cow, the brawn could be done by age 3. Men’s brains must have some complication that takes an extra two years. I suggest war making and associated male cooperation.

    In western countries average onset of menarche is said to be 5 years younger now than a century ago. Presumably it’s through better nutrition: the body is rigged to detect good seasons and to reproduce at the earliest viable date. The only use of a body is to pass on genes. The genes have figured out that their optimum for a human body is three score and ten years (or so) and then they discard the husk.

  62. melanie
    January 16th, 2007 at 06:58 | #62

    Mike P., the genes don’t “figure” anything out (but I’ll let it pass as a rhetorical flourish). As Dawkins himself points out, evolution can be wasteful. Genes can be copied even if they are not optimal for survival, the only condition is that they are not actually dysfunctional for survival.

    Although male elephants are sexually mature at age 10, they take another 20 years to develop sufficient brawn to be able to conduct the elephant “wars” that are required for successful mating. If boys can play football at age 10, they can do the cooperation at 10. You are just wishfully speculating there.

  63. melanie
    January 16th, 2007 at 07:08 | #63

    Further Mike, if 70 years is what the genes have ‘figured out’, why doesn’t menopause kill women off?

  64. gordon
    January 16th, 2007 at 08:34 | #64

    Discussing the “surge strategy” in Iraq, US economist Paul Krugman seems to be adopting the view that yes, it’s rational – for some people: “The Hail Mary aspect — … that somehow, things really will turn out all right — is the least of their motivations. The real intent is a form of looting. I’m not talking mainly about old-fashioned war profiteering… No, I’m saying that the hawks want to keep this war going because it’s to their personal and political benefit. …

    [E]scalation buys [Mr. Bush] another year or two to claim that we’re making progress — and it gives him another chance to prove that he’s the Decider, beyond accountability. And as for pundits who promoted the war and are now trying to sell the surge: for a little while longer they can be Very Important People who have the president’s ear.

    Meanwhile, the nation pays the price”.

  65. Bill O’Slatter
    January 16th, 2007 at 08:53 | #65

    Yes I’s have to second you on that one Melanie . The idea that genes figure out and respond directly to optimise the organism for certain environmental factors is a form of
    Lamarckianism rather than Darwinism. Darwinism is the hypothesis that evolution is a random walk through gene space (the set of all possible genes from the previous generation) constrained by the survival value of those genes. To imagine that a complex phenomena like war could be explained by genes is ludicrous. The survival value of increased brain size or evaluation of resources ( to think or emote )might be.

  66. January 16th, 2007 at 12:02 | #66

    Some research I saw a little while ago may show why women do not (tend to) die at menopause – the longer lived a woman is the more descendents she tends to have at grandchildren and great-grandchildren level. The conjecture of the researchers was that the role of the grandmother was important in deciding the success of the grandchildren and perhaps in helping the decision to have more children on the part of her children.
    The same effect was not noted on the part of a grandfather. If you want, I will dig it up for you.

  67. wbb
    January 16th, 2007 at 12:03 | #67

    why doesn’t menopause kill women off?

    One theory says that grandmothers play a critical role in nurturing children; teaching and assisting mothers; and as a repository of information for the entire clan. Clans that retain grandmothers beyond the fertile years outperform groups with a more nuclear family structure.

  68. wbb
    January 16th, 2007 at 12:06 | #68

    jeez – pipped at the post or what !

  69. wbb
    January 16th, 2007 at 12:10 | #69

    To imagine that a complex phenomena like war could be explained by genes is ludicrous.

    No doubt. Nobody here would ever suggest such a thing. The proposition is that the capacity for violent aggression is genetic not that sequencing the genome will allow us to predict whether Bush will strike at Iran this year. The only thing we can know from human genetics is that one part of Bush will certainly be itching to do so.

  70. Bill O’Slatter
    January 16th, 2007 at 12:28 | #70

    The proposition that the capacity for violent aggression is gemetic is also a lot of hogwash.Aggressive behaviours are some of the most complex and calculated of human behaviour ; to think that a low dimensional system like the genetic code can code for them is an article of a bizarre faith. The null hypothesis must be that culture explains war you have to demonstrate in a micro logical manner ( and not could bes , might bes and just so stories and a whole lot of malarkey about testosterone) that genes bias the human perceptual system to war.

  71. wbb
    January 16th, 2007 at 12:58 | #71

    Genes code for the four humours, Bill. It’s the humours which more directly account for our aggression. Aggression is not in a different class from co-operation or nurturing. Genes do more than dictate your hair colour. And of course, we are not slaves to all our genes all the time.

    We can live perfectly peacefully if conditions are propitious. The ability to wage war is there – for when the occasion demands. Culture is the art of avoiding those occasions.

  72. Bill O’Slatter
    January 16th, 2007 at 13:26 | #72

    Now we are down to humourous theory. I think hoever we can agree on something : the emotions do play a vital role in the path to war. But to say that this is genetic is drawing a long bow. Culture explains war adequately and to use Occam’s razor you don’t need genetic explanations. The idea that women are incapable of war or are the spoils of war is misogynistic. Usually those most prone to use physical force are those who have most of it.

  73. Mike Pepperday
    January 16th, 2007 at 13:32 | #73

    So, BO’S, you reckon that male aggression is not biological? Male chimps learn it culturally? It’s just a funny coincidence that, round the world, human males fight? The male kangaroo spends its whole growing-up time practising, at play, how to kick other male kangaroos. And when they are grown those big hind feet will rip into the belly of another male who has the attention of a female. Did he learn this from his mother? No. He inherited from her (and his father). The purpose of that genetically steered behaviour is to get those genes into the next generation.

    Yours is the “argument from personal incredulity” as Dawkins calls it. Incredulity is what we all feel when we contemplate what genes do. But argument from that has no merit.

    You don’t think the genes have figured out that 70 is their optimum period for holding onto a human body before discarding it? You reckon it is just some weird mystery, that we get 70, dogs get 10, butterflies a month, an olive tree a 1000 years? There are plenty of mysteries but one aspect is not: it is the product of natural selection.

    “As Dawkins himself points out, evolution can be wasteful. Genes can be copied even if they are not optimal for survival…�

    Melanie, I doubt he did. Another airy assertion on your part. Genes WILL be copied. They are made to do it without fail, without omission, without flaw. I doubt anyone knows how many millions of times they copy until a flaw occurs in the gametes. Then if that flaw somehow happens to let the vehicle it builds (ie the plant or animal) be more reproductive the “flaw� will prosper. Tautologically true. As for “optimal� – there is no such thing: if one phenotype is better at promoting its genes than another, the genes of the first will come to dominate the gene pool. That is all – and another tautology.

  74. Bill O’Slatter
    January 16th, 2007 at 14:10 | #74

    “Yours is the “argument from personal incredulityâ€? as Dawkins calls it. Incredulity is what we all feel when we contemplate what genes do. But argument from that has no merit.”
    This is nonsense whether you or Dawkins say it. Dawkins for all his virtues is not the ultimate authority on Darwinism .We are always looking for the most likely explanation for some phenomena. War , in my opinion , is emergent behaviour. In other words given our large brain it becomes a possibility. The necessary and sufficient condition for war is a large brain. You neglect to mention aggression amongst female animals and also the rate of mutation is not a mystery and the bounds on it well known http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutation_rate.
    Your two claimed tautologies are not tautologies. Darwinism is not a tautology. The phenotype genotype link is very complex except for very simple cases. The theory of why you drop dead at age 70 is quite simple ( although the details are not) you accumulate genetic errors in cellular systems until a large scale system ( an organ) fails. Other species have different ways of coping with oxidative and other stresses which result in different rates of genetic damage. Now is 70 the optimal age ? No its just the way the engineering pans out.

  75. wbb
    January 16th, 2007 at 14:56 | #75

    Yes Bill, the engineering conks out at 70. But that this particular engineering has been selected for is still true. 70 is only optimal in the sense that it is the lifespan that is most abundantly achieved amongst our species. The word optimal is distracting.

    The engineering is certainly mappable one to one with our genes. No chance of culture there.

  76. Bill O’Slatter
    January 16th, 2007 at 15:42 | #76

    wbb the point you make is a good one. Is life span a trait that is selected for ?. It is a phenotype as you implicitly mention. Is it an isomorphism ( one to one mapping)with our genes ? probably not , but that is not unusual for complex phenotypes. This doesn’t shed much light on what is and is not a phenotype e.g. culture.
    If you claim aggression is mainly associated with the male then you have given the Y chromosome a lot of work to do.
    “For example, the kangaroo Y chromosome contains only the SRY gene.”
    So the kangaroos Y chromosome consists of one gene ( the sex determining region), and the human y chromosome consists of 83 genes ( compared to 1000 on the X chromosome).

  77. melanie
    January 16th, 2007 at 16:32 | #77

    Since I happen to be reading The God Delusion at the moment:
    “the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for one, which betrays its evolutionary history in a massive and wasteful detour on its way to its destination. Many of our human ailments, from lower back pain to hernias, prolapsed uteruses and our susceptibility to sinus infections…” p. 134. (he is referring to things he has discussed at length in other works)

    “we are dealing with a generalized process for optimizing biological species” (p. 139, emphasis in original).

    Btw, optimizing is always subject to constraints.

    70 has historically not been the age when the engineering conked out. 3 score years and ten is biblical I believe (and therefore literary rather than scientific), but average life expectancy for most of the human species is in the 50s or 60s. In the developed world we have learned how to slow what we now understand to be the rate of genetic damage and our average is now about 80. So we have not been selected for a 70 year lifespan.

    Aggression is not the same as war. While all of us presumably have genetic coding for aggression, rather few of us volunteer for war if we are given the choice (which may or may not be linked to democratization). Whether we go to war or not is a rationally calculated decision based on the information available to each decision-maker.

  78. wbb
    January 16th, 2007 at 16:38 | #78

    If you watch some army training vidoes, Melanie, aggression is part of the kit that soldiers are encouraged to develop though. You couldn’t run a good war without some agressive soldiers.

  79. melanie
    January 16th, 2007 at 17:29 | #79

    wbb, Of course you are right. Aggression is a necessary part of the soldier’s kit. But they’re also supposed to be able to control it – so, for example, they don’t end up raping their own women or fragging the officers, as some of them have been known to do. It doesn’t mean we are genetically wired for war. That’s all.

  80. Mike Pepperday
    January 16th, 2007 at 17:42 | #80

    wbb “70 is only optimal in the sense that it is the lifespan that is most abundantly achieved amongst our species. The word optimal is distracting.�

    No, “optimal�, referring to the genes’ point of view, is right and crucial. The age a body’s genes throw the body away is the age which maximally propagates those genes. If you wish to say “allow it to break down� that would change nothing though it is simpler just to posit deadly genes. Genes that are deadly cut in at age 70 on humans. Those that cut in earlier got weeded out of the gene pool. Those that cut in later: ditto. In a dog optimal is 12 years. Natural selection sets optimal (potential) lifespan.

    Bill, you gave me that reference, saying mutation rates are well known. Did you read it? The final words of that Wikipedia entry are “This means the mutation rate is still not clear to scholars,” which is pretty much what I’d said. Before that the entry had said 1 in 10000 to 1 in a million. I presume that is individuals. How may copies of every gene have been made for every individual? The human male ejaculates a million copies each orgasm. But all this is more or less by-the-by. The point is everything is copied and the whole mechanism is structured to make copying fidelity very good.

    Personal incredulity is actually what fosters God: species couldn’t possibly be the result of random process! Incredible! Impossible! There has to be an almighty Creator! Incredulity is not a useful emotion. In scientific analysis no emotion is useful.

    “Likely explanation” is quite another matter. That is what you have been seeing from me and SWIO and wbb. If that kangaroo chromosome has a lot of work to do, then so be it. I asked you before (rhetorically because I thought the answer not merely likely but obvious): If the male kangaroo doesn’t get aggression genetically where do you think he gets it from? What is your “likely explanationâ€??

    As for males being more aggressive than females, that holds across a lot of species but not all. In species near us it is usual. Even if there were no human evidence you would have to presume we are similarly wired. Why would you presume otherwise, especially given our dimorphism? In those species males fight to monopolise females, including humans. This is how the females cull the males.

    A large brain allows war. I guess so – and the brain is caused by genes. But women don’t do it. And male chimps do do it but females chimps don’t. Far more “likely� that war put selection pressure on humans (ruthlessly in the case of men). The humans left standing are the ones who are good at war.

    Darwinism is not a tautology? Never said it was. Those two sentences I wrote were, though. Actually, I was never convinced that Dawkins really showed that Darwinian natural selection was not a tautology.

  81. melanie
    January 16th, 2007 at 18:13 | #81

    “how the females cull the males”. In Vietnam 106 males are born for every 100 females. The ratio remains roughly the same until the age of 18 when suddenly women are the majority – a majority that increases steadily over time. The largest cause of death is head injury (i.e., motor bike accidents). It’s called stupidity – large brain and all!

  82. melanie
    January 16th, 2007 at 18:46 | #82

    Sorry, that was ‘until the age of 15′, not 18.

  83. Bill O’Slatter
    January 16th, 2007 at 19:00 | #83

    Mike Pepperday
    Unfortunately that wikipedia entry (Mutation_rate) has been hacked by Creationists. (http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v12/i1/eve.asp)
    Instead see : Methods Enzymol. 2006;409:195-213.”Methods for determining spontaneous mutation rates.”
    I don’t know why male kangaroos get aggressive and female kangaroos don’t. Do you know why female hyenas are aggressive and males aren’t ?
    Thorough going psychological studies on aggression in human males and females don’t show much difference. The level of aggression is the same in both sexes but females are less inclined to show or act it out ( Any surprises there ?).
    The sex detemining region in mammals acts as a switch on genes which are common to male and female.
    The most common chimp to wind up dead on a male chimp patrol ( patrolling their border)is a female chimp.

  84. Mike Pepperday
    January 16th, 2007 at 19:41 | #84

    “Thorough going psychological studies on aggression in human males and females don’t show much difference.”


    “The level of aggression is the same in both sexes but females are less inclined to show or act it out”

    And I am kind and generous but I never show it.

  85. melanie
    January 17th, 2007 at 07:21 | #85

    While the stags are busy locking horns, they fail to observe what the does are up to! Your ‘drivel’ comment is wrong Pepperday.

    Actually physical manifestations of aggression (i.e. violence) are very rare in humans. Statistically, therefore, it seems highly improbable that war has played any role in the evolution of the species.

  86. Bill O’Slatter
    January 17th, 2007 at 09:12 | #86

    The point I am making is a little more subtle than that Melanie. Evolution can no more adapt to war than it can to stock market crashes.

  87. January 17th, 2007 at 09:38 | #87

    Even though war (lasting, in the documented case, for 4 years) has been observed amongst chimpanzees?

  88. melanie
    January 17th, 2007 at 11:25 | #88

    Andrew, we are talking about humans here. We just don’t kill a very large percentage of the species (in reality a very tiny percentage). Even WW2 with all the Russian deaths and atomic bombs didn’t do much to sort out the human genes.

  89. January 17th, 2007 at 11:31 | #89

    Maybe, then, we are using our humanity to overcome our baser instincts when we make war. Our evolution and intelligence means that we make war in a more civilised (if I can use that term here) way than our distant ancestors would have.

  90. still working it out
    January 17th, 2007 at 11:34 | #90

    Actually physical manifestations of aggression (i.e. violence) are very rare in humans. Statistically, therefore, it seems highly improbable that war has played any role in the evolution of the species.

    If one person in 20 is seriously affected by violence then you would have to say its going to have an important impact on human evolution. If we assume that our ancestors lived to the age of 30 on average then this would imply one serious violent incident per 600 person years. You can’t be suggesting a person could go 600 years without ever facing serious violence in stone age socities ? Especially with the lack of modern medicine causing most major injuries to lead to death, and many minor injuries to be crippling? Violence may be rare but its impact on genes is so large it only has to occur once a decade in a person’s life to have overwhelming influence on evolution. You die, you don’t reproduce.

    Or put it this way. Even during the more civilised times the death rate due to war is significant. During the 20th century it is estimated that one person in 22 died as a result of violent conflict. One out of 22 is not statistically insignificant.

  91. still working it out
    January 17th, 2007 at 11:44 | #91

    We just don’t kill a very large percentage of the species (in reality a very tiny percentage). Even WW2 with all the Russian deaths and atomic bombs didn’t do much to sort out the human genes.

    Of course single incidents like this are not going to have any noticable effect. Evolution doesn’t work like that. But the culmulative pressure of 5%, or even a fraction of a percent of a population dying in war is going to have an enormous effect over thousands of generations. To convince yourself look at any computer model of exponential behavour. It quickly becomes obvious that truly tiny effects are overwhelming when applied exponentially.

  92. gordon
    January 17th, 2007 at 11:54 | #92

    “…I and the public know
    What all schoolchildren learn,
    Those to whom evil is done
    Do evil in return.”

    W.H. Auden, from “1st September 1939″. I recommend this poem to everybody.

  93. Bill O’Slatter
    January 17th, 2007 at 12:13 | #93

    It is best to think of the genetic code as a computing device with very limited storage. Information is stored as genes of which in humans there are approximately 20,000. Most of these are concerned with very routine activity. The idea that this mechanism could store information about complex environmental events is fanciful and the onus is on you to show it. ( For still working it out a thorough going war is a recent invention notwithstanding what chimps do). The incapacity of the genetic code to immediately adapt is being demonstrated before your eyes as millions of species go extinct.

  94. January 17th, 2007 at 12:30 | #94

    War has been clearly documented throughout human history. Any belief that it did not also occur in prehistory would either have to be proven or just be accepted as a point of faith. You may have such faith – in the absence of evidence I have none. The onus, surely, is on you.
    The only difference now is that the weapons are better (at their designated task), the production methods are faster and medical services make wounds and illness more survivable. There may be more, but you get the point.
    The chimpanzee evidence, to me at least, makes it plain that if this is socialised behavior it has proven remarkably persistent.

  95. Bill O’Slatter
    January 17th, 2007 at 12:50 | #95

    I am sorry to lower the tone of the conversation but I can’t resist. So chimps can’t resist fighting each other for the estabilishment of the glorios nation state of Chimpistan and estabilish as their noble leader George Halliburton Chimp ( supreme alpha male ).There may be more, but you get the point. All of this and more can be deduced by simple resource and other conflicts without the deus ex machina of the gnetic code.

  96. January 17th, 2007 at 12:55 | #96

    But surely, if the chimps all worked together Chimpistan would be a Nirvana of social progress and love and balanced, green, development. So why does the alpha male fight for the resource instead of negotiating for it?
    If the optimal outcome did not involve violence, why is violence resorted to?

  97. melanie
    January 17th, 2007 at 13:38 | #97

    Generally, the alpha male does not fight for the resource, but negotiates for it. War is a rare occurrence, even if you can find one going on somewhere at any given point in time, it actually happens to a very small percentage of the population – and historically in the absence of weapons of mass destruction.

    SWIO, if even 5% were killed in a war, 95% were not and their genes are also multiplying exponentially.

    About the 600 person years: My mother has discovered about 100 of her ancestors going back to the 1600s. None them was in a war in 350 years – in fact none of them even left their little village for the first 200 years. Come to think of it, migration has probably had a bigger impact on the human gene pool than war.

  98. January 17th, 2007 at 13:53 | #98

    There was also historically an absence of good medical practice which makes wars more survivable now. A quick glance at the casualty figures for battles such as Cannae may also be illustrative.
    Your (maternal) ancestors may the exception. On my father’s side, all but one of my uncles (I had 6) went off to WWII. My grandfather went off to WWI. As my mother has done all the lines of our family most have been miners or farmers, but quite a few had gone off to war, with most coming back.
    They were also very seldom in any one place for more than a full generation.

  99. Mike Pepperday
    January 17th, 2007 at 13:54 | #99

    In Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” (which is worth a read but is biased. JQ wrote a review of it – or was that of another Pinker?) there is bar graph of percentage of male deaths through violence for various human tribes. The Yanomamo, of course, scored very high and their bar might have been 5 cm long. Other tribes were 4, 3 cm. Then came Europe in 20C and it was 0.5 cm long.

    All that just from memory so the details will be off but the picture is clear: two world wars were nothing in comparison with the violence in our presumed evolutionary environment.

    I suppose the lengths of those bars prove we are civilized.

  100. still working it out
    January 17th, 2007 at 14:15 | #100

    “My mother has discovered about 100 of her ancestors going back to the 1600s. None them was in a war in 350 years – in fact none of them even left their little village for the first 200 years. Come to think of it, migration has probably had a bigger impact on the human gene pool than war.”

    Your sample is skewed by survivor bias. Ancestors who did not die violently are

    1) much more likely to actually be someone’s ancestor. Its somewhat of an obstacle to being discovered by your progeny in 300 yours if you’re killed before you have kids.

    2) its easier to track down ancestors who were lucky enough to have had peaceful lives as all records of their existence weren’t wiped out when the local town hall was burnt to the ground.

    You probably have a lot more relatives of ancestors who you will never know about because they did not survive to pass down their genes or any memory of their lives.

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