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  • No, We Don’t Need to Resume Nuclear Testing

    Posted on August 11th, 2018 Helian No comments

    According to an article entitled In Alarming New Study, Nuclear Lab Scientists Question U.S. Weapons’ Performance that recently appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, a couple of Los Alamos scientists have released a report questioning the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and calling for a resumption of nuclear testing.  It would be a bad idea.  Let me explain why.

    The two scientists claim that the reliability of the aging weapons in our arsenal will become increasingly questionable as the number of years since their “best if used by” date increases.  They base their argument largely on uncertainties about whether computer codes will be able to accurately predict the performance of these aging weapons.  It’s true that computer codes have not always been perfectly accurate in predicting the outcome of complex physical processes.  However, the significance of that fact must be weighed in the context of how it affects all the nuclear powers, not just the United States.  In the absence of nuclear testing, we all have the same problem.  The relevant question, then, is not whether the problem exists, but how severely it impacts us compared to the other nuclear states.  We have conducted more nuclear tests than any other country, and therefore have a much larger database than our competitors with which to compare code predictions.  When it comes to computer codes, that gives us a very significant advantage as long as the moratorium on testing continues.  That advantage will become a great deal less significant if testing is resumed.

    However, computer codes are not the only means we have of assessing the reliability of the weapons in our arsenal.  The U.S. also has an unmatched advantage in terms of experimental facilities that are able to access physical conditions relevant to those that occur in nuclear weapons.  For example, these include the Z machine at Sandia National Laboratories, which is capable of producing a far more powerful burst of x-rays in the laboratory than any competitor, and the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which can dump a huge amount of energy in a tiny target in a very short time.  Such facilities can access extreme material densities and temperatures, enabling a host of experiments in weapon physics and weapon effects that are currently beyond the capabilities of any other country.  If we resume testing we will be throwing this advantage out the window as well.  In short, we may have our problems when it comes to assessing the reliability of the weapons in our arsenal, but the problems faced by our potential competitors are even worse.  Under the circumstances, it makes little sense to do something as destabilizing as rocking the nuclear boat.

    If we are really worried about the reliability of our arsenal, we should seriously consider adding another experimental facility to go along with Z, NIF, and the rest.  I refer to what is known as an Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF.  We seriously considered building such a facility back in the late 90’s, but have pretty much forgotten about it since then.  Basically, the AHF would be a very powerful particle accelerator, capable of delivering beams of energy so penetrating that they could image the critical, high-explosive driven implosion process in nuclear weapons in its entirety in three dimensions.  Obviously, it would be necessary to replace the nuclear materials used in real weapons with suitable surrogates, but this would introduce very little uncertainly in the experimental results.  An AHF would not only add to our existing advantage over other nuclear states as long as the test moratorium continues, but would effectively lay to rest any remaining uncertainties not resolved by the computer codes and experimental facilities we already have.

    I can understand the eagerness of weapon scientists to resume nuclear testing.  It would make their lives a lot more interesting.  However, it would hardly be to the advantage of the rest of us.  I suggest that, instead of unilaterally taking such a foolhardy step, we maintain and expand the advantage we already have and will continue to enjoy as long as the test moratorium continues.

  • The Bomb and the Nuclear Posture Review

    Posted on April 22nd, 2017 Helian No comments

    A Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is a legislatively mandated review, typically conducted every five to ten years.  It assesses such things as the role, safety and reliability of the weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the status of facilities in the nuclear weapons complex, and nuclear weapons policy in areas such as nonproliferation and arms control.  The last one was conducted in 2010.  The Trump Administration directed that another one be conducted this year, and the review is already in its initial stages.  It should be finished by the end of the year.  There is reason for concern about what the final product might look like.

    Trump has made statements to the effect that the U.S. should “expand its nuclear capability,” and that, “We have nuclear arsenals that are in very terrible shape.  They don’t even know if they work.”  Such statements have typically been qualified by his aides.  It’s hard to tell whether they reflect serious policy commitments, or just vague impressions based on a few minutes of conversation with some Pentagon wonk.  In fact, there are deep differences of opinion about these matters within the nuclear establishment.  That’s why the eventual content of the NPR might be problematic.  There have always been people within the nuclear establishment, whether at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency within the Department of Energy responsible for maintaining the stockpile, or in the military, who are champing at the bit to resume nuclear testing.  Occasionally they will bluntly question the reliability of the weapons in our stockpile, even though by that very act they diminish the credibility of our nuclear deterrent.  If Trump’s comments are to be taken seriously, the next NPR may reflect the fact that they have gained the upper hand.  That would be unfortunate.

    Is it really true that the weapons in our arsenal are “in very terrible shape,” and we “don’t even know if they work?”  I doubt it.  In the first place, the law requires that both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense sign off on an annual assessment that certifies the safety and reliability of the stockpile.  They have never failed to submit that certification.  Beyond that, the weapons in our stockpile are the final product of more than 1000 nuclear tests.  They are both safe and robust.  Any credible challenge to their safety and reliability must cite some plausible reason why they might fail.  I know of no such reason.

    For the sake of argument, let’s consider what might go wrong.  Modern weapons typically consist of a primary and a secondary.  The primary consists of a hollow “pit” of highly enriched uranium or plutonium surrounded by high explosive.  Often it is filled with a “boost” gas consisting of a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen.  When the weapon is used, the high explosive implodes the pit, causing it to form a dense mass that is highly supercritical.  At the same time, nuclear fusion takes place in the boost gas, producing highly energetic neutrons that enhance the yield of the primary.  At the right moment an “initiator” sends a burst of neutrons into the imploded pit, setting off a chain reaction that results in a nuclear explosion.  Some of the tremendous energy released in this explosion in the form of x-rays then implodes the secondary, causing it, too, to explode, adding to the yield of the weapon.

    What could go wrong?  Of course, explosives are volatile.  Those used to implode the primary might deteriorate over time.  However, these explosives are carefully monitored to detect any such deterioration.  Other than that, the tritium in the boost gas is radioactive, and has a half life of only a little over 12 years.  It will gradually decay into helium, reducing the effectiveness of boosting.  This, too, however is a well understood process, and one which is carefully monitored and compensated for by timely replacement of the tritium.  Corrosion of key parts might occur, but this too, is carefully checked, and the potential sources are well understood.  All these potential sources of uncertainty affect the primary.  However, much of the uncertainty about their effects can be eliminated experimentally.  Of course, the experiments can’t include actual nuclear explosions, but surrogate materials can be substituted for the uranium and plutonium in the pit with similar properties.  The implosion process can then be observed using powerful x-ray or proton beams.  Unfortunately, our experimental capabilities in this area are limited.  We cannot observe the implosion process all the way from the initial explosion to the point at which maximum density is achieved in three dimensions taking “snapshots” at optimally short intervals.  To do that, we would need what has been referred to as an Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF.

    We currently have an unmatched suite of above ground experimental facilities for studying the effects of aging on the weapons in our stockpile, including the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Z Machine at Sandia National Laboratories, and the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (DARHT) at Los Alamos.  These give us a very significant leg up on the international competition when it comes to maintaining our stockpile.  That is a major reason why it would be foolish for us to resume nuclear testing.  We would be throwing away this advantage.  Unfortunately, while we once seriously considered building an AHF, basically an extremely powerful accelerator, we never got around to doing so.  It was a serious mistake.  If we had such a facility, it would effectively pull the rug out from under the feet of those who want to resume testing.  It would render all arguments to the effect that “we don’t even know if they work” moot.  We could demonstrate with a very high level of confidence that they will indeed work.

    But that’s water under the bridge.  We must hope that cooler heads prevail, and the NPR doesn’t turn out to be a polemic challenging the credibility of the stockpile and advising a resumption of testing.  We’re likely to find out one way or the other before the end of the year.  Keep your fingers crossed.

  • On Losing Our “Moral Compass” in Syria

    Posted on February 13th, 2016 Helian 2 comments

    It’s important to understand morality.  For example, once we finally grasp the fact that it exists solely as an artifact of evolution, it may finally occur to us that attempting to solve international conflicts in a world full of nuclear weapons by consulting moral emotions is probably a bad idea.  Syria is a case in point.  Consider, for example, an article by Nic Robertson entitled, From Sarajevo to Syria: Where is the world’s moral compass?, that recently turned up on the website of CNN.  The author suggests that we “solve” the Syrian civil war by consulting our “moral compass.”  In his opinion that is what we did in the Balkans to end the massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Apparently we are to believe that the situation in Syria is so similar that all we have to do is check the needle of the “moral compass” to solve that problem as well.  I’m not so sure about that.

    In the first place, the outcomes of following a “moral compass” haven’t always been as benign as they were in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Czar Nicholas was following his “moral compass” when he rushed to the aid of Serbia in 1914, precipitating World War I.  Hitler was following his “moral compass” when he attacked Poland in 1939, bringing on World War II.  Apparently it’s very important to follow the right “moral compass,” but the author never gets around to specifying which one of the many available we are to choose.  We must assume he is referring to his own, personal “moral compass.”  He leaves us in doubt regarding its exact nature, but no doubt it has much in common with the “moral compass” of the other journalists who work for CNN.  Unlike earlier versions, we must hope that this one is proof against precipitating another world war.

    If we examine this particular “moral compass” closely, we find that it possesses some interesting idiosyncrasies.  It points to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with using military force to depose a government recognized as legitimate by the United Nations.  According to earlier, now apparently obsolete versions of the “moral compass,” this sort of thing was referred to as naked aggression, and was considered “morally bad.”  Apparently all that has changed.  Coming to the aid of a government so threatened, as Russia is now doing in Syria, used to be considered “good.”  Under the new dispensation, it has become “bad.”  It used to be assumed that governments recognized by the international community as legitimate had the right to control their own airspaces.  Now the compass needle points to the conclusion that control over airspaces is a matter that should be decided by the journalists at CNN.  We must, perforce, assume that they have concocted a “moral compass” superior to anything ever heard of by Plato and Socrates, or any of the other philosophers who plied the trade after them.

    I suggest that, before blindly following this particular needle, we consider rationally what the potential outcomes might be.  Robertson never lays his cards on the table and tells us exactly what he has in mind.  However, we can get a pretty good idea by consulting the article.  In his words,

    Horror and outrage made the world stand up to Bosnia’s bullies after that imagination and fear had ballooned to almost insurmountable proportion.

    Today it is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin whose military stands alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Together they’ve become a force no nation alone dares challenge. Their power is seemingly set in stone.

    It would seem, then, based on the analogies of Bosnia and Kosovo, where we did “good,” that Robertson is suggesting we replace the internationally recognized government of Syria by force and confront Russia, whose actions within Syria’s borders are in response to a request for aid by that government.  In the process it would be necessary for us to defeat and humiliate Russia.  It was out of fear of humiliation that Russia came to Serbia’s aid in 1914.  Are we really positive that Russia will not risk nuclear war to avoid a similar humiliation today?  It might be better to avoid pushing our luck to find out.

    What of the bright idea of replacing the current Syrian government?  It seems to me that similar “solutions” really didn’t work out too well in either Iraq or Libya.  Some would have us believe that “moderates” are available in abundance to spring forth and fill the power vacuum.  So far, I have seen no convincing evidence of the existence of these “moderates.”  Supposing they exist, I suspect the chances that they would be able to control a country brimming over with religious fanatics of all stripes without a massive U.S. military presence are vanishingly small.  In other words, I doubt the existence of a benign alternative to Bashar al-Assad.  Under the circumstances, is it really out of the question that the best way to minimize civilian casualties is not by creating a power vacuum, or by allowing the current stalemate to drag on, but by ending the civil war in exactly the way Russia is now attempting to do it; by defeating the rebels?  Is it really worth risking a nuclear war just so we can try the rather dubious alternatives?

    Other pundits (see, for example, here, here, and here) inform us that Turkey “cannot stand idly by” while Syria and her Russian ally regain control over Aleppo, a city within her own borders.  Great shades of the Crimean War!  What on earth could lead anyone to believe that Turkey is our “ally” in any way, shape or form other than within the chains of NATO?  Turkey is a de facto Islamist state.  She actively supports the Palestinians against another of our purported allies, Israel.  Remember the Palestinians?  Those were the people who danced in the streets when they saw the twin towers falling.  She reluctantly granted access to Turkish bases for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS only so she would have a free hand attacking the Kurds, one of the most consistently pro-U.S. factions in the Middle East.  She was foolhardy enough to shoot down a Russian plane in Syrian territory, killing its pilot, for the “crime” of violating her airspace for a grand total of 17 seconds.  She cynically exploits the flow of refugees to Europe as a form of “politics by other means.”  Could there possibly be any more convincing reasons for us to stop playing with fire and get out of NATO?  NATO is a ready-made fast track to World War III on behalf of “allies” like Turkey.

    But I digress.  The point is that the practice of consulting something as imaginary as a “moral compass” to formulate foreign policy is unlikely to end well.  It assumes that, after all these centuries, we have finally found the “correct” moral compass, and the equally chimerical notion that “moral truths” exist, floating about as disembodied spirits, quite independent of the subjective imaginations of the employees of CNN.  Forget about the “moral compass.”  Let us identify exactly what it is we want to accomplish, and the emotional motivation for those desires.  Then, assuming we can achieve some kind of agreement on the matter, let us apply the limited intelligence we possess to realize those desires.

    Morality exists because the behavioral predispositions responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to promote the survival of genes in times radically different than the present.  It exists for that reason alone.  It follows that, if there really were such things as “moral truths,” then nothing could possibly be more immoral than failing to survive.  We would do well to keep that consideration in mind in determining the nature of our future relationship with Russia.

  • Women in Ranger School! What’s with That?!

    Posted on August 25th, 2015 Helian No comments

    No doubt if you’ve been following this story you’ve noticed the howls coming from the usual quarters.  Take it with a grain of salt.  There’s no reason for Ranger School to be “dumbed down” for women to pass if the mission is anything like it was when I went through.  Upper body strength isn’t critical for Ranger type missions, and that includes rock/mountain climbing, rappelling, etc.  The premium is on being able to pack a serious load under adverse conditions of sleep and food deprivation, tolerate extremes of heat and cold, and “function” when you’re assigned to lead small unit operations.  A strong woman can do all those things.  There are ranger units, but the ranger and airborne badges are also marks of prestige.  Women should have the right to wear them if they can handle the physical and mental challenges.

    When I went through, they found out I was a good swimmer, so I was appointed “far shore lifeguard” of my ranger training unit.  That meant I had to strip and carry a rope across streams when we came to them and make a rope bridge so the others could shinny across without getting wet.  I suppose I would have left my jockey shorts on if women were around.  Once the ranger sergeants just had me stand in freezing water up to my neck and pull the short guys across a deep spot by the webbing on their helmets.  When I finally got out I couldn’t straighten out from hypothermia.  We still had to wade through 600 yards of cypress swamp, but I was very fortunate to find a big fire when we finally got through that.  It’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to dying, and years later four guys did die of hypothermia.  They’re probably more careful now.  The next day it was so cold (in Florida!) that my sodden fatigues started freezing on my body.  Fortunately we all had two pair, so I stripped them off, buried them, and put on my dry ones.  No doubt they’re still down there rotting away somewhere.

    We got one C ration a day (we’re talking about the ancient times before MREs), and were starving at the end of the swamp phase.  The first signs were dizziness when you went from a prone position to standing up.  Some of the guys started hallucinating at the end.  My ranger buddy seriously believed he was standing in line at Mama Leoni’s Restaurant in New York City at one point.  I got kind of worried about him.

    Occasionally Huey helicopters would pick us up to take us from one mission to another, with “aggressors” usually waiting for us when we reached our landing zones.  We would sit on either side with our legs dangling over the edge holding onto a little strap “seat belt.”  Those chopper pilots were crazy, and I could swear my feet brushed against the top of the forest foliage one time.  By that time I was so dazed it didn’t bother me.

    In those days we parachuted in to Eglin for the swamp phase from a combat training altitude of 800 feet.  Actual combat jumps were from 500 feet.  After my stick landed I looked up and saw the next one jump.  One guy’s chute was nothing but a ball of silk.  His reserve caught him a fraction of a second before he would have hit the ground.  When a later class jumped in a guy died when he landed on an old concrete airstrip and fell backwards, driving the rim of his steel helmet into his neck.  There were a few “laig” (leg, non-airborne infantry) rangers around, but they were rare.

    I didn’t notice any powder rooms when we were on the march.


  • Do We Really Need New Nukes?

    Posted on December 2nd, 2014 Helian No comments

    If an article that just appeared in the LA Times is any indication, the agitation for jump-starting the nuclear weapons program at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the three nuclear weapons laboratories (Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia National Laboratories) continues unabated. Entitled “New nuclear weapons needed, many experts say, pointing to aged arsenal,” it cites all the usual talking points of the weaponeers. For example,

    Warheads in the nation’s stockpile are an average of 27 years old, which raises serious concerns about their reliability, they say. Provocative nuclear threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin have added to the pressure to not only design new weapons but conduct underground tests for the first time since 1992.

    “It seems like common sense to me if you’re trying to keep an aging machine alive that’s well past its design life, then you’re treading on thin ice,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman-elect of the House Armed Services Committee. “Not to mention, we’re spending more and more to keep these things going.”

    Thornbury also offered support for renewed testing, saying, “You don’t know how a car performs unless you turn the key over. Why would we accept anything less from a weapon that provides the foundation for which all our national security is based on?”

    Such comments are entirely typical. They would make a lot of sense if the U.S. nuclear weapons program existed in a vacuum. However, it doesn’t. It exists in a world with several other major nuclear powers, and they all have the same problems. Under the circumstances, the fact that such problems exist and are shared by all the nuclear powers is less significant than the question of which nuclear power is best equipped to deal with them. The question of who will benefit by the building of new weapons and a resumption of nuclear testing depends on the answer to that question. If one country has a significant advantage over its rivals in dealing with a common problem as long as the status quo is maintained, then it would be very ill-advised to initiate a change to the status quo that would allow them to catch up.  At the moment, the United States is the country with an advantage. As noted in the article,

    The U.S. has by far the greatest archive of test data, having conducted 1,032 nuclear tests. Russia conducted 715 and China only 45.

    Beyond that, we have the ability to conduct tests with conventional explosives that mimic what goes on in the initial stages of a nuclear explosion, and superb diagnostics to extract a maximum of data from those tests. Perhaps more importantly, we have an unrivaled above ground experimental, or AGEX, capability. I refer to machines like Z at Sandia National Laboratories, or the NIF at Livermore, which are far more capable and powerful than similar facilities anywhere else in the world. Those who say they can’t access physical conditions relevant to those that occur in exploding nuclear weapons, or that they are useless for weapon effects or weapon physics experiments, either don’t know what they’re talking about or are attempting to deceive.

    As far as the NIF is concerned, it is quite true that it has so far failed to achieve its fusion ignition milestone, but that by no means rules out the possibility that it ever will. More importantly, the NIF will remain a highly useful AGEX facility whether it achieves ignition or not. Indeed, before it was built, many of the weapons designers showed little interest in ignition. It would merely “muddy the waters,” making it more difficult for the diagnostics to precisely record the results of an experiment. The NIF could access weapons-relevant conditions without it. In fact, in spite of its failure to achieve ignition to date, the NIF has been a spectacular success as far as achieving its specifications are concerned. It is more than an order of magnitude more powerful than any previously existing laser system, its 192 laser beams are highly accurate, and its diagnostic suite is superb.

    Another problem with the resumption of testing is that it will lead to the development of weapons that are much more likely to be used. Once the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, it will likely prove very difficult to put it back in. For example, again quoting the article,

    John S. Foster Jr., former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and chief of Pentagon research during the Cold War, said the labs should design, develop and build prototype weapons that may be needed by the military in the future, including a very low-yield nuclear weapon that could be used with precision delivery systems, an electromagnetic pulse weapon that could destroy an enemy’s communications systems and a penetrating weapon to destroy deeply buried targets.

    The commonly heard narrative at DOE goes something like this: “We need to develop small, precise, penetrating nuclear weapons because they will be a much better deterrent than the existing ones. Potential enemies are unlikely to believe that we would ever use one of the high yield weapons that are all that remain in the current arsenal. They would be far more likely to believe that we might use a small bunker buster that would minimize the possibility of significant collateral damage.” The problem with that narrative is that it’s true. We would be far more likely to use such a weapon than the ones in the current arsenal, and there would be no lack of voices within DOE and DoD calling for its use if an appropriate opportunity ever arose.

    I can understand the agitation for a resumption of testing. It’s a lot sexier to make things that go boom than to serve as custodians for an aging pile of existing nukes. Unfortunately, the latter course is the wiser one. By resuming nuclear testing we would really be unilaterally surrendering a huge advantage, playing into the hands of our enemies and destabilizing the nuclear landscape at the same time.

  • On the Continuing Adventures of the “Killer Ape Theory” Zombie

    Posted on November 19th, 2014 Helian No comments

    An article entitled “The Evolution of War – A User’s Guide,” recently turned up at “This View of Life,” a website hosted by David Sloan Wilson. Written by Anthony Lopez, it is one of the more interesting artifacts of the ongoing “correction” of the history of the debate over human nature I’ve seen in a while. One of the reasons it’s so remarkable is that Wilson himself is one of the foremost proponents of the theory of group selection, Lopez claims in his article that one of the four “major theoretical positions” in the debate over the evolution of war is occupied by the “group selectionists,” and yet he conforms to the prevailing academic conceit of studiously ignoring the role of Robert Ardrey, who was not only the most influential player in the “origins of war” debate, but overwhelmingly so in the whole “Blank Slate” affair as well. Why should that be so remarkable? Because at the moment the academics’ main rationalization for pretending they never heard of a man named Ardrey is (you guessed it) his support for group selection!

    When it comes to the significance of Ardrey, you don’t have to take my word for it. His was the most influential voice in a growing chorus that finally smashed the Blank Slate orthodoxy. The historical source material is all still there for anyone who cares to trouble themselves to check it. One invaluable piece thereof is “Man and Aggression,” a collection of essays edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and aimed mainly at Ardrey, with occasional swipes at Konrad Lorenz, and with William Golding, author of “Lord of the Flies,” thrown in for comic effect. The last I looked you could still pick it up for a penny at Amazon. For example, from one of the essays by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer,

    Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.

    In case you’ve been asleep for the last half a century, the Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest debacle in the history of science. The travails of Galileo and the antics of Lysenko are child’s play in comparison. For decades, whole legions of “men of science” in the behavioral sciences pretended to believe there was no such thing as human nature. As was obvious to any ten year old, that position was not only not “science,” it was absurd on the face of it. However, it was required as a prop for a false political ideology, and so it stood for half a century and more. Anyone who challenged it was quickly slapped down as a “fascist,” a “racist,” or a denizen of the “extreme right wing.” Then Ardrey appeared on the scene. He came from the left of the ideological spectrum himself, but also happened to be an honest man. The main theme of all his work in general, and the four popular books he wrote between 1961 and 1976 in particular, was that here is such a thing as human nature, and that it is important. He insisted on that point in spite of a storm of abuse from the Blank Slate zealots. On that point, on that key theme, he has been triumphantly vindicated. Almost all the “men of science,” in psychology, sociology, and anthropology were wrong, and he was right.

    Alas, the “men of science” could not bear the shame. After all, Ardrey was not one of them. Indeed, he was a mere playwright! How could men like Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Moliere possibly know anything about human nature? Somehow, they had to find an excuse for dropping Ardrey down the memory hole, and find one they did! There were actually more than one, but the main one was group selection. Writing in “The Selfish Gene” back in 1976, Richard Dawkins claimed that Ardrey, Lorenz, and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt were “totally and utterly wrong,” not because they insisted there was such a thing as human nature, but because of their support for group selection! Fast forward to 2002, and Steven Pinker managed the absurd feat of writing a whole tome about the Blank Slate that only mentioned Ardrey in a single paragraph, and then only to assert that he had been “totally and utterly wrong,” period, on Richard Dawkins’ authority, and with no mention of group selection as the reason. That has been the default position of the “men of science” ever since.

    Which brings us back to Lopez’ paper. He informs us that one of the “four positions” in the debate over the evolution of war is “The Killer Ape Hypothesis.” In fact, there never was a “Killer Ape Hypothesis” as described by Lopez. It was a strawman, pure and simple, concocted by Ardrey’s enemies. Note that, in spite of alluding to this imaginary “hypothesis,” Lopez can’t bring himself to mention Ardrey. Indeed, so effective has been the “adjustment” of history that, depending on his age, it’s quite possible that he’s never even heard of him. Instead, Konrad Lorenz is dragged in as an unlikely surrogate, even though he never came close to supporting anything even remotely resembling the “Killer Ape Hypothesis.” His main work relevant to the origins of war was “On Aggression,” and he hardly mentioned apes in it at all, focusing instead mainly on the behavior of fish, birds and rats.

    And what of Ardrey? As it happens, he did write a great deal about our ape-like ancestors. For example, he claimed that Raymond Dart had presented convincing statistical evidence that one of them, Australopithecus africanus, had used weapons and hunted. That statistical evidence has never been challenged, and continues to be ignored by the “men of science” to this day. Without bothering to even mention it, C. K. Brain presented an alternative hypothesis that the only acts of “aggression” in the caves explored by Dart had been perpetrated by leopards. In recent years, as the absurdities of his hypothesis have been gradually exposed, Brain has been in serious row back mode, and Dart has been vindicated to the point that he is now celebrated as the “father of cave taphonomy.”

    Ardrey also claimed that our apelike ancestors had hunted, most notably in his last book, “The Hunting Hypothesis.” When Jane Goodall published her observation of chimpanzees hunting, she was furiously vilified by the Blank Slaters. She, too, has been vindicated. Eventually, even PBS aired a program about hunting behavior in early hominids, and, miraculously, just this year even the impeccably politically correct “Scientific American” published an article confirming the same in the April edition! In a word, we have seen the vindication of these two main hypotheses of Ardrey concerning the behavior of our apelike and hominid ancestors. Furthermore, as I have demonstrated with many quotes from his work in previous posts, he was anything but a “genetic determinist,” and, while he strongly supported the view that innate predispositions, or “human nature,” if you will, have played a significant role in the genesis of human warfare, he clearly did not believe that it was unavoidable or inevitable.  In fact, that belief is one of the main reasons he wrote his books.  In spite of that, the “Killer Ape” zombie marches on, and turns up as one of the “four positions” that are supposed to “illuminate” the debate over the origins of war, while another of the “positions” is supposedly occupied by of all things, “group selectionists!” History is nothing if not ironical.

    Lopez’ other two “positions” include “The Strategic Ape Hypothesis,” and “The Inventionists.” I leave the value of these remaining “positions” to those who want to “examine the layout of this academic ‘battlefield’”, as he puts it, to the imagination of my readers. Other than that, I can only suggest that those interested in learning the truth, as opposed to the prevailing academic narrative, concerning the Blank Slate debacle would do better to look at the abundant historical source material themselves than to let someone else “interpret” it for them.

  • John Horgan and the “Warfare is Innate” Red Herring

    Posted on November 15th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    The Blank Slate may be dead, but its zombies still walk among us.  One of the most persistent is the myth of the purely cultural origins of warfare.  With a pedigree extending at least as far back as Rousseau’s “noble savage,” it has been refined and reinvented many times since then.  According to the latest version, the ubiquity of human warfare throughout history is just an unfortunate coincidence.  Its independent appearance at several places on the planet is a purely cultural artifact of the introduction of agriculture.  This, of course, is very convenient, because the relevant evidence becomes both increasingly sparse and increasingly amenable to “interpretation” to fit pet theories the further one goes back in time.

    John Horgan, who blogs for Scientific American, recently published a series of articles in favor of this “nurture not nature” interpretation of warfare.  According to their titles, “A New Study of Foragers,” “A New Study of Prehistoric Skeletons,” and “A Survey of Earliest Human Settlements,” all “Undermine the Claim that War has Deep Evolutionary Roots.”  A glance at the first of these will familiarize us with the types of “studies” we’re dealing with.  The authors of the “new study of foragers” are identified as Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg of Abo Akademi University in Finland who, we are informed, are anthropologists.  In the first place, one might ask why one would ever uncritically accept the word of any modern anthropologist for anything.  Modern anthropology is more of a narrative than a science, and we have recently seen what anyone who strays from that narrative can expect in the form of the almost unbelievably vicious smears and reprisals directed at Napoleon Chagnon.

    Indeed, Horgan himself was an avid participant in the Chagnon witchhunt, writing a gushing review of Patrick Tierney’s vile, “Darkness in El Dorado,” for the New York Times Review of Books.  Among other things, the review set forth the kind of “evidence” Horgan finds compelling as follows:

    …his book’s faults are outweighed by its mass of vivid, damning detail. My guess is that it will become a classic in anthropological literature, sparking countless debates over the ethics and epistemology of field studies. Tierney evokes Derek Freeman’s “Margaret Mead and Samoa,” which argued that Mead’s portrayal of Samoan life was just a projection of her utopian fantasies. But Mead, at worst, misrepresented her subjects; she did not incite, sicken and corrupt them: When anthropologists speak henceforth of the observer effect, the horrors documented by Tierney will be exhibit A.

    It’s a classic in anthropological literature, all right.  Readers interested in a somewhat different take are encouraged to read Alice Dreger’s “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association.”  In a word, the uncritical assumption that anthropologists are all so many purely objective men of science, who needn’t have the slightest fear of endangering their careers if they publish “incorrect” results is perhaps somewhat too optimistic.

    With that in mind, let’s have a look at the paper Horgan cites.  Entitled ”Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War,” it appeared in Science in July of this year.  For the purposes of their study, the authors define war as “coalitionary aggression against other groups,” and contend that it was largely absent among the forager groups they studied, including the Aranda and Tiwi of Australia; Kaska, Copper Inuit and Montagnais of North America; Botocudo of South America; !Kung, Hadza and Mbuti of Africa; and Vedda and Andamanese of South Asia.  As it happens, there are accounts of at least some of these groups written by people who weren’t anthropologists at a time before their activities were regulated by modern states.  For example, in the case of the aborigines of Australia, an interesting account appeared in the October 1814 edition of the British Quarterly Review.  The article in question was a review of a book published by Capt. Matthew Flinders, in which he described a voyage to Australia in the years 1801, 1802 and 1803 for the purpose of “completing the discovery of that vast country.”  Flinders describes the native Australians as living in family groups, which were almost constantly engaged in “coalitionary aggression” against other families.  As recounted in the Quarterly,

    The paucity of their numbers would not seem to be owing solely to poverty and scarcity of food.  Families and relations are perpetually destroying each other either by stratagem or open combat.   If one man seriously injure, but more especially if he put to death, any member of a neighboring family, all the relations of the party aggrieved think it incumbent to put the offending party or any of his relations to death, unless he be willing to expiate the offence by standing exposed to as many as may think fit to hurl their spears at him… When this species of retaliation is not resorted to, the revenge of the family injured extends to every branch of the offending family, and persons on both sides, even to the children, are put to death whenever an opportunity offers.

    In the case of the Andamanese, the results of the study are even more dubious.  The Andamanese are notoriously violent and aggressive towards outsiders.  They routinely killed shipwrecked sailors who fell into their hands, and were bombed by the Japanese during WWII for their hostility.  According to the Wiki blurb on them, “In 1974, a film crew and anthropologist Trilokinath Pandit attempted friendly contact by leaving a tethered pig, some pots and pans, some fruit and toys on the beach at North Sentinel Island. One of the islanders shot the film director in the thigh with an arrow. The following year, European visitors were repulsed with arrows.”  And so on, and so on.  It strikes me as somewhat surprising that none of this data ever fell in the way of Fry and Soderberg when they were collecting their evidence.

    I will add another bit of evidence on foragers different from any of the groups addressed in the study.  It was supplied by Robert FitzRoy, the Captain of the Beagle during the famous voyage on which Charles Darwin tagged along as the expedition’s naturalist.  His story also appeared in the Quarterly, in the edition of December 1839.  The foragers in question are the Patagonians of Tierra del Fuego.  The ships first encounter with them went off peacefully enough, and some agreed to join the voyage as interpreters.  The crew had named two of them York Minster and Jemmy Button, and FitzRoy describes their reaction on seeing others of a different tribe on shore in the distance as follows:

    To them who had never seen man in his savage state – one of the most painfully interesting sights to his civilized brother – even this distant glimpse of the aborigines was deeply engaging; but York Minster and Jemmy Button asked us to fire at them, saying that they were “Oens-men – very bad men.”

    According to FitzRoy’s further account,

    From the concurring testimony of the three Fuegians above-mentioned, obtained from them at various times and by many different persons, it is proved that they eat human flesh upon particular occasions, namely, when excited by revenge or extremely pressed by hunger.  Almost always at war with adjoining tribes, they seldom meet but a hostile encounter is the result; and then those vanquished and taken are killed and eaten by the conquerors.  The arms and breast are eaten by the women; the men eat the legs; and the trunk is thrown into the sea.  During a severe winter hunger impels them to lay hands on the oldest woman of their party, hold her head over a thick smoke, and choke her.  They then devour every particle of the flesh, not excepting the trunk, as in the former case.  Jemmy Button, in telling this horrible story as a great secret, seemed to be much ashamed of his countrymen, and said he never would do so – he would rather eat his own hands.  When asked why the dogs were not eaten, he said, “Dog catch iappo” (iapo means otter).

    In a word, when independent evidence is available, it is not always in perfect agreement with that of modern anthropologists.  The question is, does it really matter?  I doubt it.  The Horgan school of anthropologists claims to be debating a strawman, or better, a legion of strawmen, of a type that exists only in their own imagination – the “genetic determinists.”  Maybe such creatures actually exist, but, if so, I have never encountered one, at least among serious scholars.  As Horgan puts it in one of his articles,

    One of the most insidious modern memes holds that war is innate, an adaptation bred into our ancestors by natural selection.  This hypothesis – let’s call it the “Deep Roots Theory of War” – has been promoted by such intellectual heavyweights as Steven Pinker, Edward Wilson, Jared Diamond, Richard Wrangham, Francis Fukuyama and David Brooks.

    In fact, to the best of my knowledge none of these authors have ever said that “war is innate.”  What they have said in one form or another is that, while not inevitable, warfare is a potential outcome of the expression of the innate human behavioral traits that have been loosely described as “human nature.”  In general, their argument has always been that it behooves us to understand these traits if we wish to avoid warfare in the future.  As the great but now largely forgotten Robert Ardrey once put it,

    The command to love is as deeply buried in our nature as the command to hate.  Amity – as Darwin guessed but did not explore – is as much a product of evolutionary forces as contest and enmity.  In the evolution of any social species including the human, natural selection places as heavy a penalty on failure in peace as failure in battle.

    In reality, then, the debate isn’t over whether or not warfare is innate, but over how it is best to be avoided.  Regardless of whether warfare happened in pre-Neolithic times or not, it has certainly happened since.  If there really are such things as innate human behavioral traits, then it seems to me absurd to erect a firewall between warfare and the rest of our observed behavior and claim that, while our other behaviors may be influenced by innate predispositions, warfare is purely a cultural phenomenon.  That argument is really nothing but a reflexive grasping after the rotting corpse of the Blank Slate.  This impression is given added weight by the habitual hostility of the Horgans of the world to anything emanating from the field of evolutionary psychology.

    Horgan himself occasionally seems to recognize the real nature of the dispute.  For example, in his article on Prehistoric Skeletons he writes,

    Some readers might conclude based on my criticism of Deep Rooters that they are all hawks, warmongers, who think that war, because it is innate, is inevitable and perhaps even beneficial in some sense.  Such views were once quite common, especially in the era of Social Darwinism.  President Teddy Roosevelt once said, for example, “All the great masterful races have been fighting races.  No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war.”  None of the Deep Rooters I have cited subscribe to such odious balderdash.  All fervently hope that humanity can eradicate or at least greatly reduce the frequency of war.  Deep Rooters believe that we will be better equipped to solve the problem of war if we accept the Deep Root theory.  Of course, I disagree with them on this point… I would nonetheless accept the Deep Roots theory if the evidence supported it, bu the evidence points in the other direction.  That is my main source of disagreement with the Deep Rooters.  In the interests of constructive dialogue, however, I’m providing a link, sent to me by anthropologist and prominent Deep Rooter Richard Wrangham, to a column supporting his position.  In the column, political scientist and self-described “conservative Darwinian” Larry Arnhart asserts that “explaining the evolutionary propensity to war in human nature is not to affirm this as a necessity that cannot be changed.  In fact, understanding war as a natural propensity can be a precondition for understanding how best to promote peace.”  Okay, so we all want peace.  We just disagree on how to get there.

    Again, as I’ve pointed out above, while many of the “Deep Rooters” may agree that there is a “propensity to war in human nature,” I know of none of them who have ever said without qualification that “war is innate.”  In fact, the “war is innate” red herring was commonly used by the Blank Slaters of old and is still used by the leftover proponents of that ancient orthodoxy today to promote the false claim that their opponents believe that war is inevitable.  Several examples of such arguments may be found in Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater essays edited by Ashley Montagu.  Of course, this belated pacific comment by Horgan also flies in the face of his earlier statement, cited above, to the effect that his opponents are the bearers of “an insidious meme.”  As far as Horgan being receptive to the evidence of the Deep Rooters is concerned, I very much doubt it.  I can sum up the reasons for my doubt in one word; Chagnon.  Napoleon Chagnon published a great deal of evidence that conflicted with Horgan’s theories.  His response was not exactly a disinterested and objected weighing of the facts.  Rather, it was to join enthusiastically in the vilification and smearing of the bearer of that evidence.


  • Obama, Romney, and the British Debacle at El Alamein

    Posted on November 6th, 2012 Helian No comments

    In an article entitled “Hitler’s Second Front,” that appeared in the November 1942 issue of the Atlantic Review, one T. H. Thomas confidently predicted disaster for the British forces in North Africa.  In his words,

    Roughly speaking, Rommel is sixty miles or so away from winning the war.  There looms up close at hand the prospect of a decisive victory – one which would involve an irreparable disaster to the Allied conduct of the war.

    In the mustering of forces for this battle, the enemy has now the advantage of position.  At one time British convoys could still take the direct sea route to Alexandria, but German dive bombers then appeared over the central Mediterranean.  By now it has actually become Mare Nostrum.  The British forces in Africa and the British fleets had no planes with which to strike back in kind.  British factories do not produce them.

    British tanks were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans:

    These actions (earlier fighting in north Africa) also brought into the field German medium tanks armed with 75’s (i.e., 15 pounders) against British tanks carrying nothing larger than 2-pounders.  The effective range of the German guns is said to be over three times that of the 2-pounders.  This contrast has dominated the fighting in Egypt since that day.  The British 2-pounder is an excellent tank against infantry positions.  In the naked landscape of Libya, mechanized warfare develops the situation of duels between tank and tank, or tanks against anti-tank artillery.  On this footing, the heaviest British tanks were hopelessly outranged.

    Victory, was out of the question for the British.  It was merely a question of hanging on for dear life until the various nostrums proposed by Mr. Thomas could be applied:

    The narrow front at El Alamein has become the keystone of the whole arch of Allied resistance east of Suez.  Here, as on every other front, the pressing task is to avoid defeat – the question as to how the war is to be won does not yet arise.

    As it happens, on this day 70 years ago, just as Thomas’ prophecy of doom was appearing on the newstands, the question of how the war was to be won did arise.  Rommel’s “hopelessly superior” forces had been smashed by a British offensive after nearly two weeks of brutal fighting.  The remnant was in speedy retreat, leaving Hitler’s Italian allies, who had fought well at El Alamein, helplessly mired in the desert without food, ammunition or fuel.  Quoting from the Wiki article on the battle:

    It had not been the first time that the Allies had had numerical superiority in men and equipment in the Western Desert, but never had it been so complete and across all arms. Furthermore, in the past—except in field artillery—they had struggled with the quality of their equipment. But with the arrival of Sherman tanks, 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Spitfires in the Western Desert, the Allies at last had the ability to match the opposition.

    Allied artillery was superbly handled. Allied air support was excellent in contrast to the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica which offered little or no support to ground forces, preferring to engage in air-to-air combat. This overwhelming air superiority had a huge effect on the battle…

    In the end, the Allies’ victory was all but total. Axis casualties of 37,000 amounted to over 30% of their total force. Allied casualties of 13,500 were by comparison a remarkably small proportion of their total force. The effective strength of Panzer Army Africa after the battle amounted to some 5,000 troops, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns.

    So much for Mr. Thomas’ prophecies of doom.  The Atlantic described him as follows:

    A military hitorian who served with distinction on the staff at GHQ in the First World War, T. H. Thomas is well qualified to appraise the developments of the war.

    I have no information on what became of him after he penned the article, although I didn’t put a great deal of Google time in searching for him.  If he had written the same stuff in Germany or the Soviet Union, no doubt he would have been shot as a defeatist.  However, the Allies were remarkably tolerant of pacifists and defeatists during the war.  I suspect that such tolerance played a major role in the rapid collapse of France, and may have cost Hitler’s other enemies dearly if he had not been so completely outmatched by the forces arrayed against him.  Be that as it may, there were many other T. H. Thomases writing similar disinformation about Hitler and the phenomenon of Naziism, the likelihood of war, the probable outcome of the war, etc., during the 30’s and 40’s.  I know of none whose careers suffered significantly as a result.  Apparently they just swept their past mistakes under the rug, and kept writing more of the same.

    Fast forward 70 years, and a new generation of pundits has been busily enlightening readers as to the reasons why either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney will inevitably win the election.  Half of them, more or less, will be wrong, and the other half, more or less, will be lucky.  Given the number of pundits and the laws of probability, a random few will be very lucky, predicting not only the outcome, but the exact tally of votes in the electoral college.  No doubt these lucky ones will be celebrated as geniuses, at least until the next election.  Except for Cassandra, successful fortune tellers have always prospered.  However, those who put too much faith in them would do well to recall the example of Mr. Thomas.

  • Paradigm Shifts and the “Science” of Religion

    Posted on August 16th, 2012 Helian No comments

    We’ve witnessed a remarkable paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in the last couple of decades in the aftermath of the collapse of Blank Slate orthodoxy.  A similar one has happened in politics with the collapse of Communism.  A significant fraction of our species are attracted to messianic ideologies as moths to a flame.  For many years, Communism was the brightest flame around.  However, it suffered from the Achilles heal of all secular religions.  It promised paradise, not in the realms of the spirit, but here on earth.  Predictably, it couldn’t deliver, and so eventually collapsed.

    That left something of a vacuum for those hankering to be the saviors of mankind.  No new secular religion was waiting in the wings to take up the slack.  But nature abhores a vacuum, so they had to make do with one of the traditional, spiritual religions; Islam.  The resulting ideological paradigm shift has presented us with one of the most remarkable political spectacles history has to offer.  On the ideological left, former Marxist true believers, militant atheists who scorned religion as the opiate of the masses, are being displaced by a new generation of activists who find to their dismay that radical Islam is, at least for the time being, the only game in town.  The result has been a grotesque love affair between the would be liberators of the oppressed masses and one of the more obscurantist forms of religious fundamentalism on the planet.  Those who once despised religious belief have now become some of its most outspoken apologists.

    I found one of the more comical manifestations of this strange love affair in an article, embellished with all the jargon, references, and other stigmata characteristic of the stuff that appears in academic journals, posted on the website of the reliably leftist BBC.  Entitled God and War:  An Audit & An Exploration, it purports to debunk the New Atheist claim that religion is a prominent cause of war.  Taking an attitude towards religion that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting progressive in the heyday of socialism, it notes that “…at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence.”  It continues,

    One organising feature of this article is what it calls the ‘Religious War Audit’. BBC asked us to see how many wars had been caused by religion. After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.

    This is a typical feature of the recent crop of articles emanating from the apologists for religion on the left.  Just as good Marxists or defenders of “Confederate Heritage” will tell you that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, even though at the time it actually happened the leaders and population of the south, the leaders and population of the north, foreign observers of U.S. politics, and, no doubt, any aliens who happened to be hovering around in their flying saucers would have agreed it was about slavery, they tell us that many of the wars that merely seem to the casual observer to be about religion are really caused by nationalism, imperialism, territorialism, etc., etc.  If nothing else it’s a safe strategy.  Take any war you like and, no matter how much the actual participants had deluded themselves into believing they were fighting about religion, any historian worth her salt will be able to “prove,” based on abundant citations, references, and historical source material, that it wasn’t about religion at all.  Ostensibly secular wars can be transmogrified into “religious” wars just as easily.

    As the article cherry picks the historical record, so it cherry picks the holy books of the various religions to show how “peaceful” they are.  Predictably, this is especially true of the Quran.  For example, quoting from the article,

    The Islamic tradition provides for limits on the use of force in war similar to those found in the Christian tradition: ‘Never transgress limits, or take your enemy by surprise or perfidy, or inflict atrocities or mutilation, or kill infants’; and ‘Never kill a woman, a weak infant, or a debilitated old person; nor burn palms, uproot trees, or pull down houses’. The Koran also provides for the humane treatment of prisoners of war: ‘And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive’ [Koran 76:8-9].

    As with most religions, one can “prove” the opposite by a judicious choice of verses.  For example,

    Quran 5:33

    The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.

    Quran 8:12

    I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.

    After this exegesis of the holy books, the article provides a pair of tables purporting to show that the role of religion in the wars prior to and during the 20th century has been minimal.  In the case of the 20th century, for example, the role of religion is supposedly zero on a scale of 0 to 5 for World War I and one on the same scale for World War II.  In fact, in the case of WWI, the war was explicitly declared a religious war (jihad) by the religious leaders of Turkey, one of the major combatants.  Many tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, frozen and starved in pogroms or as they were forcibly removed from areas stretching back many miles from the front lines by the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia, and over a million Christian Armenians were murdered by the Moslem rulers of Turkey.  By all accounts, the assurance that the war was not religious did little to relieve their suffering.

    In the case of World War II, the role of religion depends entirely on how you define religion.  I doubt that our brains have any hard-wired ability to distinguish immortal gods from mortal ones.  At least as far as evolutionary biology is concerned, the distinction between traditional spiritual religions and modern secular ones, such as Nazism and Communism is, then, entirely artificial.  Every essential element of the former has its analog in the latter.  From that perspective, World War II was almost entirely a “religious war.”

    Suppose, however, that we refrain from such unseemly quibbling, nod apologetically to the many millions even the authors agree have been killed over the years in religious wars, and accept the authors’ premise that, for all that, warfare really has played a “minimal” role in promoting warfare.  Alas, the role of individuals in shaping historical events can be great indeed. After reading page after page establishing the benign role of religion in modern society, the authors inform us, to our dismay, that there is reason for concern, after all.  An evil religious zealot of truly gargantuan power and influence appeared on the scene quite recently, almost single-handedly setting at naught the calming influence of religion as an instrument of peace.  And who might this evil bogeyman be?  Think, dear reader!  The article we are discussing emanated from the left of the ideological spectrum.  That’s right! The warmongering jihadi in question is none other than George W. Bush!  Quoting a noted psychologist, the authors inform us with a shudder that,

    …however much Bush may sometimes seem like a buffoon, he is also powered by massive, suppressed anger towards anyone who challenges the extreme, fanatical beliefs shared by him and a significant slice of his citizens – in surveys, half of them also agree with the statement “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

    Gee, and I always thought he seemed like such a nice guy.  How wrong I was!  Reading on we find,

    He hated his father for putting his whole life in the shade and for emotionally blackmailing him. He hated his mother for physically and mentally badgering him to fulfill her wishes. But the hatred also explains his radical transformation into an authoritarian fundamentalist. By totally identifying with an extreme version of their strict, religion-fuelled beliefs, he jailed his rebellious self.  From now on, his unconscious hatred for them was channeled into a fanatical moral crusade to rid the world of evil.

    Damn!  Now I finally understand why my sister never liked the guy.  The authors provide us with the laconic conclusion,

    As the commander in chief, Bush dominates US foreign policy especially in regards to the war on terrorism that is presently the US government’s major military commitment. His plans, however influenced by advisors, arise from his personal view of the world and his concepts of justice, retribution and peace. Clearly his past and his relationships impact these views and ultimately help shape those of the American state. Therefore individual leaders’ psychology is perhaps an underrated area of study in the debate on God and war and could do with further analysis.

    What an understatement!  Why, that crazed religious fanatic had his finger on the nuclear trigger for eight years!

    How wonderfully ironic!  After spending so much time and effort to create an ideologically driven mirage of religion as benign and peaceful, in the end the authors upset their own apple cart because they couldn’t stifle their ideologically driven need to portray Bush as the personification of evil, complete with all the religious fundamentalist trappings.  By their own account, religion nearly inspired, not merely a war, but the mother of all wars, a nuclear holocaust that might have exterminated our species once and for all.  “Further analysis” indeed!  Maybe we should have listened to the New Atheists after all!

  • War and the Fantasy World of the Blank Slate

    Posted on July 30th, 2012 Helian No comments

    In the introduction to his book The Origin of War, published in 1995, Johan van der Dennen writes,

    When I embarked upon the enterprise of collecting literature on human primitive war some 15 years ago – with the objective to understand the origin of this puzzling and frightening phenomenon of intrahuman, intergroup killing – little did I suspect that some ten years later that subject would be very much alive and kicking in disciplines as diverse as cultural anthropology, ethology, evolutionary biology and sociobiology, and the socio-ecological branch of primatology, generating an abundance of novel and intriguing theories, engendering new waves of empirical (cross-cultural) research, and lots and lots of controversies.

    At that time, the question of the origin and evolution (if any) of human warfare was a totally marginal and neglected domain of investigation. Among polemologists (or peace researchers as they are known in the Anglosaxon language area), there seemed to be an unshakable consensus that war was a cultural invention and social institution, which had originated somewhere in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago (It actually was, and still is, a curious blend of the credos of the Margaret Mead school of anthropology, the simplistic dogmas of behaviorist psychology, and a historicist sociology – all consenting to the tabula rasa model of human behavior, i.e., the assumption of infinite plasticity and sociocultural determinism – inexplicably mixed with assumptions of a static Human Nature derived from the Realist school of political science). Such a conception precluded any evolutionary questions:  war had a history and development, but no evolution in the Darwinian sense.

    He’s right, as anyone who was around at the time and happened to take an interest in the behavioral sciences is aware.  It seems almost incredible that whole branches of what were charitably referred to as “sciences” could have listened to the doctrine that “war was a cultural invention and social institution, which had originated somewhere in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago” without breaking out into peals of laughter, but so it was.  They not only listened to it without cracking a smile, but most of them actually believed it.  One would think the idea that a phenomenon that has been ubiquitous across human cultures on every continent since time immemorial was just a “cultural invention” must seem palpably stupid to any ten year old.  It was, nevertheless swallowed without a murmur by the high priests of the behavioral sciences, just as the dogmas of the trinity and transubstantiation in the Eucharist are swallowed by the high priests of more traditional religions.

    The Blank Slate is now dead, or at least hibernating, and the behavioral sciences have made the startling discovery that there is such a thing as human nature, but there is still a remarkable reticence to talk about warfare.  It’s not surprising, given the political proclivities of the average university professor, but dangerous, nonetheless.  In a world full of nuclear weapons, it seems that a serious investigation into the innate origins of warfare might be a profitable use of their time.  With self-understanding might come insight into how we might give ourselves a fighting chance of avoiding the worst.  Instead, the learned doctors feed us bromides about the gradual decline of violence.  A general nuclear exchange is likely to provide them with a data point that will somewhat disarrange their theories.

    Perhaps it would be best if they started by taking a good look in the mirror, and then explaining to us how so many so-called experts could have been delusional for so long.  What were the actual mechanisms that allowed secular religious dogmas to hijack the behavioral sciences?  The Blank Slate is not “archaic science.”  It was alive and well less than two decades ago.  Why is it that we are now supposed to trust as “scientists” people who were so wrong for so long, shouting down anyone who disagreed with them with vile ad hominem attacks?  Instead of seeking to understand this past debacle and thereby at least reducing the chances of stumbling into similar debacles in the future, they invent a few self-serving yarns about it, and just keep plodding on as if nothing had happened.

    Perhaps we should be counting our blessings.  After all, the idea that war is a mere “cultural innovation” is no longer in fashion.  Occasionally, it is actually mentioned as a manifestation of certain unfortunate innate predispositions, usually along with comforting words about the decline in violence noted above, expanding our “ingroups” to include all mankind, etc.  Given the ferocity with which the spokespersons of the “progressive” end of the political spectrum generally favored by professors of the behavioral sciences attack anyone who disagrees with them, I personally am not particularly sanguine about that possibility.

    Well, perhaps if a nuclear war does come, they will finally get serious and come up with some sound advice for avoiding the next one.  Unfortunately, finding publishers to spread the good news might be a problem at that point.