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BOOK REVIEW

On the Origin of Specious Arguments

Hugh Gusterson

NATURAL SECURITY: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World. Edited by Raphael D. Sagarin and Terence Taylor. x + 289 pp. University of California Press, 2008. $49.95.

The contributors to Natural Security, a collection of essays edited by Raphael D. Sagarin and Terence Taylor, seek to unearth “potential biological inspirations for solving security problems in modern society.” However, readers hoping for Darwinian solutions to such problems as nuclear proliferation, threats presented by the rise of China, reemerging tensions with Russia, climate change, resource depletion, genocide in Darfur or civil war in the Congo will be sorely disappointed. Nearly all of the book’s 15 chapters deal either with the theoretical implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution for international security or with the threat of Islamist terrorism. A lot that could have been said is not. And a lot that could have been said just once is said many, many times over.

The contributors to this volume are mostly geologists, ecologists and anthropologists, not specialists in international relations. In chapters that show much greater familiarity with natural than with social evolution, sometimes using language that will be daunting to lay readers, many of these authors explain in detail the processes by which species adapt to environmental challenges or become extinct. And then they ask what we might learn about international security from the survival strategies of corals, yeasts and viruses. We read a lot about survival strategies—from withdrawing into shells to developing routines confusing to predators—that have evolved over millions of years; about the dynamics of population ecology; and about the hidden functions of religion in maximizing genetic survivability. The take-home message is that we inhabit a hostile world in which new threats can be expected to emerge, often unpredictably, and that the key to survival is flexibility—and an understanding of the lessons of evolutionary biology.

I mainly learned from this volume that evolutionary theory can have a strangely narcotic effect on the brains of otherwise intelligent people, leading them to take quite bizarre positions. Take, for example, Bradley A. Thayer’s argument in chapter 8 that “Islamic fundamentalist terrorism may be considered a male mating strategy.” Thayer, a senior analyst in international and national security affairs at the National Institute for Public Policy, does acknowledge that there are a wide variety of causes for such terrorism. But he also argues that it is no coincidence that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis, because Saudi Arabia practices polygamy, leaving many young males desperate for mates. According to Thayer, the 9/11 hijackers killed themselves in a spectacular effort to “increase their attractiveness as mates.” Leaving aside the question of why he would expect the murdering of thousands of innocent civilians to make someone sexually attractive, one might reasonably object that killing oneself is not a very promising reproductive strategy.

But Thayer has already thought of this: He points out that the hijackers were promised 70 virgins in the afterlife. He does not tell us whether the laws of natural selection also apply in heaven. He does, however, opine that the hijackers’ siblings, with whom they share genes, will also be rendered more attractive as mates. Like so much in this book, this is stated as self-evident fact, with no supporting evidence required. Did anyone check to see whether the hijackers’ siblings found themselves fighting off marriage proposals?

Thayer is not alone among the contributors to this volume in seeing religion, especially militant Islam, as a profound threat to human security. Luis Villareal, a virologist, tells us, following a long discussion of the propagation strategies of viruses, that

the Islamo-fascist belief appears to represent a virulent variant of group identity that attacks all nonmembers. . . . It has a metastatic and invasive character with implications for global social security.

Apparently unaware that his own language is eerily reminiscent of Nazi descriptions of the Jews, he speculates on the possibility of treating Islamic extremists with drugs if liberal education does not work on them. If he is aware of the substantial literature in the social sciences that connects the rise of militant Islam with blocked social and political grievances in the Middle East, he does not let on.

The central dogma of this book, repeated by many separate contributors, is that natural selection processes smile on “redundancy, flexibility, and diffuse control” and that “an organization of semiautonomous parts under weak central authority” is most likely to survive in a variety of threat environments, because different organisms can experiment with different reactive strategies to see which works best. We are warned that government bureaucracies, with their predilection for standardization and centralized control, cannot react with agility to emergent threats.

The problem with this axiom is that it fits some threats much better than others. Unfortunately, some threats thrive on “weak central authority.” The threat of climate change, for example, is exacerbated by the lack of a strong global authority able to impose emissions reductions on the myriad corporations and countries each merrily pursuing its own narrow interests as more and more species slip toward the brink. And the threat of a garage-based bioterror attack is increased by the absence of a national or international authority capable of stopping the market diffusion of new biosynthesis technologies.

Evolutionary biology surely does have lessons for international security, a field that for too long has looked to physics for guidance, seeing the international system as characterized by “forces,” “pressures,” “vacuums,” “orbits” and so on. Sadly, this repetitive and shapeless volume, which shows much more knowledge of yeasts and viruses than of the human heart, does not deliver the change we need.

Hugh Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. He is the author of Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War (University of California Press, 1996) and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America's Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), and is coeditor, with Catherine Besteman, of Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back (University of California Press, 2005).


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A letter regarding Hugh Gusterson's review of Natural Security

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