Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Neocons And The Dinosaurs

[Artist's rendering of the asteroid impact that is believed to have brought about the end of the dinosaurs. Image credit: Fredrik via Wikipedia.]

Patrick Lang, former special forces officer turned military consultant, made an interesting observation about how our effort to turn Afghanistan into a nation is going, and why we're on the course we're on:

[Political science] sells the idea that human society is evolving towards higher forms. The creed in this secular religion holds that human behavior is universal in nature in all important aspects and that apparent differences are fated to disappear as mankind and its societies develop toward higher and more general forms. The form sought by the more practical is that of national states. Some of the more visionary seek the emergence of a globalized world culture and state. PS is an idea system, that originated in the age of cultural, literary and scholarly romanticism of the 19th Century. European scholars like Durkheim and Weber reflected the same set of ideas that created romantic nationalism, marxism (a very romantic idea), belief in the "Golden Ages" of various peoples, Germans, Italians, Jews, etc.

The US Government and "Afghan Man."

Here I must digress for a moment to object to the way the term "political science" is used here. Political science is about the study of political systems. What Lang refers to here, I think, is a philosophy that's associated with it. The philosophy of "the Ascent of Man", is similarly associated with actual Darwinism, evolution. The implications that this philosophy, that evolution is some sort of force that creates ever more "advanced" forms, drew from the way evolution works led them to their conclusions about how intelligence should naturally evolve. There are few biologists today, I think, who agree with that premise. So let's not conflate the science with the philosophies it may have engendered among its practitioners or students.

Lang goes on to observe:

There is no "Afghan Man." There will not be an "Afghan Man" in any time frame relevant to the US armed forces' efforts to pacify Afghanistan. Afghanistan was created by the Russian Empire and the British Indian Empire in an effort to build a buffer zone in a wild, high, incredibly diverse region in Central Asia that happened to be both ungovernable and located between their respective holdings. There IS NO AFGHAN PEOPLE. There are half a dozen peoples within the borders of the STATE OF AFGHANISTAN. They have never blended into one people and will not do so unless such a thing occurs at a glacial rate of evolutionary change.

Bottom Line: The US armed forces should say, YES, YES to whatever nonsense political "scientists" say about Afghanistan. At the same time, apply what you have learned about the uses of diversity.

The US Government and "Afghan Man."

It's too bad that a true picture of evolution isn't taught generally in our public schools, because anyone who understands its true implications wouldn't make this mistake. Much as the philosophy of the political scientists can lead to the incorrect conclusion that societies must inevitably evolve into the more complex forms that appeared later in their history, Darwinism led many to think that the path life must take is to inevitably become more "advanced". Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed this out in his book Full House, which Andreas Ramos reviews:

Gould uses bacteria to illustrates his point that there is neither progress nor zenith in evolution. Those who point to the complexity of man are refuted by Gould who points out that this argument arbitrarily focuses on a minor, recent lifeform. Bacteria have been here longer and there's more of them. Bacteria live in odd places, including possibly up to 2 miles under the earth. By weight, bacteria make up most of the biological mass of the earth. They've been here forever, and they're not leaving. Since bacteria are able to live under the earth and get energy from the planetary core, it's possible that bacteria may live on other planets as well, protected underground from solar radiation, space chill, etc. Thus bacteria may be the dominant form of life in the universe. To think that mammals are proof of progress in evolution is mere mammal-centricity which silences the voices of bacteria.

Stephen Jay Gould's Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

[It should be pointed out that Ramos takes some issue with Gould.]

Gould also observed, in the theory of "punctuated equilibrium" that he helped to develope, that cataclysmic events like asteroid strikes, extreme climate changes, and other large-scale disasters could speed up the rate of change by changing the conditions to which the existing biological forms must adapt. Such cataclysms caused the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the trilobites.

The lessons we should learn from evolution are that "more advanced" doesn't always mean "superior". Marsupials survived in Australia by being isolated for millions of years. Bacteria, despite being the earliest, or "least advanced" form of life still in existence, flourish because their short "gestation cycles" make them able to adapt more quickly than the species they compete with and depend on. What life exists in a particular ecological niche or physical location is the result of its ability to adapt to those conditions better than any competitive forms of life.

Thanks partly to their determination to remain ignorant of all forms of science that disprove or dispute their point of view, neocons are no doubt unaware of this irony. Thanks to theocrats' efforts to keep Americans ignorant of evolution, so are most Americans. It's too bad not only for them, but for the rest of us.

What does this have to do with "Afghan Man", and the idea that social structures must inevitably evolve to become nations? Like their biological constituents, political structures do evolve. But like biological organisms, the more advanced forms won't necessarily work best in particular regions. While it's difficult to prove (or disprove) that thesis, it's certainly a possibility that anyone who understands how evolution works would be aware of. As Darwin pointed out:

Many species when once formed never undergo any further change but become extinct without leaving modified descendants; and the periods, during which species have undergone modification, though long as measured by years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which they retained the same form.

On the Origin of Species, 6th edition, page 408-409

Isolated pockets of humans can retain the structure of their societies as long as no other societies can compete with and overwhelm them. Despite numerous tries, no society has yet managed to do that in Afghanistan.

The neocons, in essence, tried to create their own cataclysmic event to make Afghanistan a nation-state in the modern sense. That this was at best a task that would require much more patience than we as an individual country are likely to have, and at worst a fool's errand is something that both the history of the region and the lessons of evolution should have told them. The problem with cataclysms is that you never know what they'll end up affecting.

I can't help imagining that at the end of the Cretaceous period that there were some dinosaurs watching that asteroid strike and thinking that this was the thing that would finally get rid of those pesky little mammals.

UPDATE: Over at FireDogLake, Christy brings us another example of how we have failed to learn from the past and from science when it comes to how we deal with Afghanistan.


Dana Hunter said...

Your last line brings the whole point together to perfection. I just had an image of a lot of dinos with the faces of Limbaugh, Gingrich, O'Reilly, Bush, McCain, et all looking up with sheer joy at the flaming asteroid that is the answer to all their prayers.

Could go both ways, o' course, but I like to think that progressives, being the trampled-underfoot minority voice we are, will be the ones to emerge and spread.

One thing these morons never have seemed to learn is what my conservative father learned way back when he worked for the Evil Coal Mine: if you have to work in an area filled with people who think differently from you, then in order to get the job done to the benefit of both parties, you learn to think like them. And his bosses always wondered why he could get through to the tribe when the high-powered, promise-making upstairs men never could.

International relations would be a lot better off if pols realized what my dad did: you sometimes just have to swallow your pride, immerse yourself in an alien culture, and figure out enough about each of you to decide what's going to satisfy both sides' needs to a reasonable degree. And this is how lasting progress is made.

Here endeth the rant.

Cujo359 said...

I suppose we might do better, Dana, but you never know. The cautionary tale about the K-T boundary is that there were many winners and losers there. I was actually thinking of Islamists and their ilk when I wrote that sentence. In the end, the neocons' foolishness in this war may have cost us more than we can imagine, or it could be a fresh beginning.

Cataclysm is like that.