Archive for February 25th, 2006

Iraq outcome?

John Kifner, in today’s NY Times (well, today on the web, tomorrow in print) notes that sometimes a there’s a turning point in history with two possible outcomes. After a dramatic event, things can continue to escalate, or they may reach a point of disruption such that affected parties are willing to agree to a stand-off. On Friday, religious leaders in Iraq sought to restore calm, but, as Kifner asks, will it last?

Bear with me….

About 15 years ago, Richard D. Alexander* argued that the cognitive abilities that distinguish modern Homo sapiens from other creatures, including other hominins, developed to allow us increased social problem-solving, especially during periods of accelerated competition. The result was improved cooperation. Language is part of this evolutionary adaptive package that resulted in larger brains and the behavioral changes that distinguish us from other creatures.

Peter Turchin*, using cross-cultural analysis, notes that there’s a pattern to human population cycling, at least through history where we have the data, of this sequence: political instability leads to population decline (both lower birth rates and rising mortality rates from increases in crime and/or warfare), followed by emigration from hostile areas. All this is happening now in Iraq—and other beleaguered nations and regions.

Turchin’s patterns are at a different scale than those described by Alexander. Nevertheless, it seems that our development of weaponry has outdistanced our social cognitive abilities, and technology is triumphing over our intellects. Is a modern HAL 9000 next?

* References

Alexander, R.D. (1989). Evolution of the human psyche. In P. Mellars, & C. Stringer (Eds.), The human revolution: behavioural and biological perspectives on the origins of modern humans (pp. 455–513). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

——— (1990a). How did humans evolve? Reflections on the uniquely unique species. Museum of Zoology Special Publication No. 1. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

——— (1990b). Epigenetic rules and Darwinian algorithms: the adaptive study of learning and development. Ethology and Sociobiology 11:1–63.

Turchin, Peter (2003). Complex Population Dynamics: A Theoretical/Empirical Synthesis. Monographs in Population Biology No. 35.

——— (2003). Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

——— and Thomas D. Hall (2003). Spatial Synchrony among and within World-Systems: Insights from Theoretical Ecology. Journal of World Systems Research 9:37–64. (Download here.)