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A letter regarding Hugh Gusterson's review of Natural Security

I am writing to respond to Hugh Gusterson's review (March-April 2009, pp. 162-13) of Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, a volume I coedited with Terence Taylor that presents a wide range of ideas about improving security in society based on lessons taken from biological evolution and ecology. I recognize that in criticizing a very negative review of my work I open myself to the argument that I am merely being defensive. To that, I simply note that, along with my coeditor and coauthors, I have purposefully exposed this work to more criticism from a wider range of audiences than any other work I have been a part of as a scientist. The dozens of public and private symposia and discussions we have held on the subject of natural security—with audiences from the general public to universities to security think tanks to Google and IBM—have been an integral part of testing and refining our novel approach to security, and we welcome all thoughtful and constructive criticism. Unfortunately, Gusterson's review provides neither.

Gusterson begins by asserting that our authors are, "mostly geologists, ecologists and anthropologists, not specialists in international relations." In fact, 5 of the 15 chapters are authored by specialists in the theory, analysis and practice of international relations, and their contributions are intricately linked with the contributions of life scientists. A sixth chapter, authored by paleobiologist Greg Dietl, presents an entirely new approach to international relations. The implication that only international relations experts should talk about international relations is exactly the kind of stultified thinking that has led to the many failures in our security policy to begin with. Gusterson's incomplete characterization of our authorship would be merely irritating were it not for the fact that a truly interdisciplinary approach in which leading security experts are interacting with all types of life scientists is the central tenet of and driving force behind our novel take on security.

A much more pernicious misinterpretation is Gusterson's claim that chapter author Luis Villarreal uses Nazi-like language to speculate "on the possibility of treating Islamic extremists with drugs if liberal education does not work on them." This interpretation of Villareal's work could not be more off the mark. Villarreal's contribution is, in fact, a remarkable and detailed synthesis of the long evolutionary history of self non-self recognition systems (culminating in human religious beliefs) with a very abbreviated speculation on implications for counter-terrorism policy. He clearly presents the idea of treating the radical religious "virus" with drugs as a straw man, which he immediately and strongly dismisses before any mention of liberal education policies and other potential solutions. Villarreal presents this straw man precisely to address the kind of simplistic interpretation that the reviewer unfortunately succumbs to. The fact that misinterpretations of analyses of Islam have led to violent reactions pushes Gusterson's careless, and needlessly inflammatory, remarks into the arena of recklessness.

Gusterson ends his unfair treatment of Villarreal's work by huffily declaring, "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." In fact, Luis is well aware of this body of work because he was present in the wonderfully interactive working group discussions from which this volume was created. If Villarreal did not go into detail on his interpretation of these findings, it is because several other chapters of the book use both original and synthesized research in the social sciences to address these issues, a fact that Gusterson disingenuously ignores.

In short, in its mean-spiritedness, Gusterson's review violates the norm of reasonable discourse that we have come to expect in science. In its inattention to observable facts and completely unbalanced presentation of the evidence, it violates a much more important and central tenet of science, that of getting the story straight.

Fortunately, our experience with a diverse readership and diverse audiences overwhelmingly suggests that our approach to security is eye-opening and provocative.  We encourage readers to consider our ideas with an open mind and share with us their reactions and constructive criticism.

Raphael Sagarin
Associate Director for Ocean and Coastal Policy
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina


Reviewer Hugh Gusterson responds:

In my review of Natural Security I made the following criticisms of the book: Despite its avowed goal of laying out a new paradigm for thinking about international security, the book largely ignores such pressing issues as nuclear proliferation, climate change, resource depletion, genocide in Africa, and great power rivalries between the United States and Russia or China; its chapters are repetitive and often too technical for a lay audience; a sociobiological explanation of suicide attacks as a mating strategy is not persuasive; and the book's oft-repeated argument that centralized authority inhibits evolutionary adaptation and survival is at odds with the nature of some of the threats we face today.

Raphael Sagarin's response ignores all these larger critiques and instead, wrapping a small complaint in a large cloud of indignation, laments that I mischaracterized the disciplinary affiliations of the contributors and was unfair to one of the 15 chapters in the book. Let me explain why I think he is mistaken on both counts.

As Sagarin notes correctly, I said that "the contributors to this volume are mostly geologists, ecologists, or anthropologists, not international relations specialists." I stand by this characterization. The book's section on contributors provides only their affiliations. From that information, it can be readily inferred that 7 of the 16 contributors are biologists or ecologists (Daniel Blumenstein, Kevin D. Lafferty, Elizabeth M. P. Madin, Joshua S. Madin, Sagarin himself, Katherine F. Smith, and Luis Villareal), 2 are geologists (Gregory P. Dietl and Geerat J. Vermeij), and 2 are anthropologists (Candace S. Alcorta and Richard Sosis). In addition, an Internet search reveals that Ferenc Jordán is a biologist and Scott Atran is an anthropologist. I defy any reasonable person to conclude that I exaggerated the contribution of geologists, biologists, ecologists and anthropologists to this volume.

Sagarin goes on to attribute to me "the implication that only international relations experts should talk about international relations." Since I have spent much of my professional career complaining (in print) about the disciplinary narrowness of international relations, I found this claim startling. Nowhere in my review do I state or imply that "only international relations experts should talk about international relations," and I conclude the review by saying that "evolutionary biology surely does have lessons for international security specialists," describing international security as a field that needs shaking up.

Sagarin also complains about my critique of Luis Villareal's chapter. I found this chapter both tedious (in its mind-numbingly technical exegesis of virology) and offensive (in its application of virological metaphors to Islam). For example, Villareal says of "militant Islamists" that

the resemblance to a virulent genetic colonizer seems strong and seems to represent a virulent version of group identity that is attacking nonmembers. [p. 61]

He also says,

The Islamo-fascist belief appears to represent a virulent variant of group identity that attacks all nonmembers. It has a strongly toxic and self-sacrificing (apoptic) character that provides a very stable (cognitively addictive) group identity. . . . It has a metastatic and invasive character with implications for global social security. [p. 61]

Then on the following page, Villareal says that "When virulent, [strong religious] beliefs are clearly viruslike and demand a societywide response, as does a virulent epidemic."

I stand by my observation, made in passing, that likening people and their beliefs to diseases, viruses and cancers is eerily reminiscent of the language Nazis used against the Jews. Not to mince words, I was deeply troubled by this deployment of ostensibly scientific language in a way that objectifies and dehumanizes others. While we are on the topic, let me further note that "Islamo-fascist" is hardly an empirical term, and that many experts on Islam would dispute the characterization of Islamists as inherently invasive and incapable of peaceful coexistence with others.

In one half of one sentence of my review, I also say that Villareal "speculates on the possibilities of treating Islamic extremists with drugs if liberal education does not work on them." (I chose the term "speculates" carefully to make clear that Villareal did not actively recommend this). Sagarin protests that Villareal "clearly presents the idea of treating the radical religious 'virus' with drugs as a straw man, which he immediately and strongly dismisses." Here is the relevant passage from Villareal's chapter:

[C]an pharmacology or psychoactive compounds affect such states of hostility or absence of empathy? If such states do indeed have biological foundations, such biological interventions would also seem plausible. However, our understanding of these cognitive process [sic] is so poor, applications from current biology are highly questionable. [p. 61]

I read this not as a muscular dismissal of a straw man but as a rumination that pharmacological treatment for "Islamo-fascism" might one day be possible, although not at current levels of knowledge. But let readers decide for themselves.

Let me conclude by saying that, although I found Sagarin's book deeply disappointing, I believe that ideas, models and metaphors from evolutionary studies could bring a sorely needed infusion of fresh ideas into security studies—a field that tends, to its detriment, to be ahistorical and to lean too heavily on the wisdom of physicists and economists. To give one small example, the notion of an "ecological niche" might help security specialists to move away from universalistic theories of security and ask how it is that Switzerland and the United States, each occupying a different niche in the world, both succeed in being secure.

However, when we import models and metaphors from other disciplines, we must always be aware of their limitations and beware of treating them too literally. Many of the chapters in this book don't keep biological models and metaphors in proper perspective. Take Villareal's metaphoric comparison of Islamists with viruses. There are important differences between people and viruses in that people, unlike viruses, have strong feelings, are capable of reflexive awareness, and live by symbols and meanings.  When discussing how religion can mobilize people to kill and die under a banner of grievance, the helpfulness of the virological model is surely limited, then. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once observed that, in its flattened portrayal of people as enslaved to profit-maximizing genetic algorithms, sociobiology strips humans of much that makes them human: jealousy, love, obsession, and so on. And this is the problem with Natural Security: you can hardly see the human for the viruses and yeasts and corals.

Hugh Gusterson
Department of Anthropology and Sociology
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia

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