July 2, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Can evolutionary theory explain terrorism?

In military strategy, it is vital to know what the enemy is up to.  Can evolutionary theory help?  An interdisciplinary team at the University of Miami got their heads together and appealed to an evolutionary notion called the “Red Queen” hypothesis, and claimed it provides a “Pattern in Escalations in Insurgent and Terrorist Activity” that is neutral regarding the good guys and the bad guys.  It resembles, they argue, how pedators and prey evolve in nature.  They offer their model as a way military planners can have the ability “to estimate not only the number of fatalities but how often attacks that result in fatalities will take place.”  They applied their pattern prediction to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How robust is this notion, and should evolutionary theory take credit for it?

The paper was published in Science July 1.1  Live Science provided a summary of the hypothesis.  The “Red Queen” hypothesis comes from a character in Alice in Wonderland who complained that she had to run as fast as she could just to stay in place.  Like a runner on a treadmill, or like the old Spy vs. Spy cartoons from Mad Magazine, predators and prey co-evolve just to keep up with each other’s new technology. Can these cartoons apply to the real world?  The authors realized that human armies are much more complex, but chose to omit all the factors involving human intellect, choice and planning, and make their theory completely amoral:

Our broad-brush theory does not require knowledge of specific adaptation or counteradaptation mechanisms, and hence bypasses issues such as changes in insurgent membership, technology, learning, or skill set, as well as a need to know the hearts and minds of local residents. We regard the escalation of hostilities as representing adaptation and counteradaptation in a way that is analogous to the Red Queen hypothesis of evolutionary biology. The traditional story features the Red Queen (which in our context is an insurgency, or terrorist group) running as fast as she can just to stay at the same place, implying that her Blue King opponent (the coalition military or antiterrorism organization) instantaneously and perfectly counteradapts to her advances so that they are always neck and neck (the distance between the two R = 0). However, instantaneous and perfect counteradaptation is unrealistic; indeed, complex adaptation-counteradaptation dynamics generated by sporadic changes in circumstances imply that R’s temporal evolution is likely to be so complex that it can be modeled as a stochastic process.

So right off the starting block, they admitted the Red Queen cartoon is unrealistic.  Yet they continued their simplistic story of a Blue King fighting a Red Queen, and somehow produced a linear relationship for which they found matches for a couple of particular battles in the Middle East conflicts.  It was not clear whether their model was rigged to match the particular cases.  “One might argue that analyses of this kind are useless once publicly known, because they can be invalidated by insurgents’ free will,” they worried, but then justified their model by appealing to another analogy – the fact that commuters will hit the freeways knowing that there will be a rush-hour traffic jam.  “External constraints of working hours, school schedules, and finite numbers of direct roads mean that such predictability is hard to avoid,” they ended.  “Similarly, the spontaneity of fatal attacks by an insurgency is probably constrained by many factors, including the availability of troop convoys, explosive materials, and sympathy within the local population.”

Other than reference to the Red Queen hypothesis, mention of the E-word evolution was rare in both the Science paper and the Live Science summary. The original authors did not even refer to predators and prey, to Darwin, or to any natural analogues among animals.  Only Live Science referred to similarities with predator-prey relationships, and realized that, for a law of nature, the model has lots of exceptions:

The Red Queen race does not necessarily apply to civilians who don't actively react and adapt to the new weapons or tactics brought to bear by the insurgents or coalition forces, Tivnan says. In other words, the Taliban attack with suicide bombers on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on June 28 would not have fit in the researchers' latest study.

Still, the researchers have already begun different studies about how civilians play their own role in the ongoing battle between insurgency and counterinsurgency.

1. Johnson et al., “Pattern in Escalations in Insurgent and Terrorist Activity,” Science, 1 July 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6038 pp. 81-84, DOI: 10.1126/science.1205068.

Military strategists needs Darwin like a soldier needs Calvin and Hobbes (the cartoon, not the philosophers).  It’s a fictional, entertaining distraction with no practical use.  Strategists can study human nature as a somewhat predictable trait in people, and can learn from history, but that is not evolution; it is folk psychology.  We all use it when trying to predict what other people are thinking and planning.  It has nothing to do with how human nature originated or maintains itself.  Folk psychology assumes free will, reasoning and planning – e.g., intelligent design – not evolution. We learn about human nature from the Bible, not from Origin of Species or Descent of Man.  Even these Darwin-loving theorists realize that their “broad-brush” theory speaks in generalities with many exceptions.

The Red Queen hypothesis is another personification fallacy in Darwin’s large collection. One cannot leap from actions of free moral agents (real or imagined, like Lewis Carroll’s character) to laws of nature that act on bacteria and cheetahs by amoral, unguided, materialistic processes. To see the extent that the personification fallacy has polluted Darwin’s theory of natural selection itself, read Randy Guliuzza’s new article in ICR’s July issue of Acts and Facts, “Darwin’s Sacred Imposter: How Natural Selection Is Given Credit for Design in Nature.”

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  • Rkyway says:

    – I see no evidence of the ‘arms race’ that is supposed to be going on. What we really see in most species is stasis. How anyone can hold to the arms race idea in the face of all the evidence for stasis I don’t know. If an animal (insect, etc.) doesn’t change in tens of millions of years, how can there have been an arms race going on?

    As far as I’m concerned, we can call this theory Jabberwocky.

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