The Greek Philosophers Did It

Tennis, with which I have a little experience, demands extreme concentration. On the opponent, on the ball, on what one is about to do next. And next. And perhaps, next. No player who could not concentrate has ever been good at the game. Such is the focus it demands that it leaves little room for anything else. Presumably the same applies to football, soccer, basketball, and every kind of similar sport that demands strategy and/or teamwork.

32-germany-afpgtRunning does not require that sort of concentration. In my experience it can be very relaxing. Once one has got into one’s stride, to feel one’s body functioning like a machine, floating through the air as it were, is to come as near to heaven as any ordinary person can be. There are, however, two problems. One is that running is easily carried to the point where one’s lungs are close to bursting. No better way to each one what determination is; however, such is the effort required as to make thought almost impossible. The other is that it may very well end up by ruining one’s knees. Especially if you run on hard surfaces, as most people do. And especially if you are no longer so young. Having done it for thirty-five years, I came close to that point. Thus I know what I am talking about in this respect.

Many people I know have taken up membership in a fitness club. I can understand their motives. Not everyone has the good fortune of living relatively close to nature as I do. In fact most of us live in megacities with all their congestion, all their traffic, and all their pollution. Fitness clubs enable one to work every muscle in one’s body in what is usually a safe and clean environment. For those who are inclined in this direction they present many opportunities for socializing as well.

To me, though, the machines always look like a cross between torture engines and gynecological chairs. I can think of nothing more boring, more humiliating even, than spending my time in a room huffing and puffing away on them. So monotonous, so dumb! Besides, back in Israel I have a lady acquaintance who runs a clinic with a staff consisting of several trained physiotherapists. She always says that she is very happy with the nearby gym, given that it presents her with a never-ending supply of patients.

I am not going to list all the remaining sport forms, their advantages and their disadvantages. Instead I am going to focus on walking, the most natural activity in the world. The Greek philosophers did it, going round and round (“going round” is what the term “peripatetic” means). Thomas Hobbes did it. Frederick the Great did it. He used to complain that, he more he got to know about men, the more he preferred walking with his dogs! Immanuel Kant did it. Friedrich Nietzsche did it, talking to himself and writing down his thoughts on little scraps of paper. So do millions of other people. Day by day, hour by day.

I mean walking as form of exercise, not of the kind one does at home or in the office. Ordinary walking, not “speed walking,” one of the strangest forms of locomotion ever invented. And walking without music being pumped through one’s head as, nowadays, it so often is. Simply walking.

Such walking has the great advantage that it can be done almost anywhere. Either alone or in the company of others; as to the nature of those others, a dog will do as well as any human. For those of you who care about such matters, walking is also the least costly of all forms of exercise. All one needs is a pair of good shoes.

It was during a walk here in Potsdam that I thought of writing about walking. It was a beautiful evening of a long summer day. I left our lodgings, turned right, and walked about one and a half miles to the Autobahn. Then I turned around and walked back the way I had come. The whole thing took about 45 minutes. Fast enough to require a little effort by someone of my age. Not so fast as to leave one out of breath or tired.

Both sides of the road are lined by trees. On both sides there are also beautiful gardens, many with flowers. Inside many gardens there are single family houses. Not posh ones—this is a lower middle class neighborhood whose population consists of mostly of retired people. But such as are carefully maintained and clearly beloved by their owners.

It was fairly late and there were few people on the bicycle path besides the road. On the way I was greeted by a couple of small white schnauzers behind a garden gate. They started by barking at me but took only a moment to calm down and become quite friendly. One even permitted me to stroke its head.

Another attraction was a used car lot. Those on display, mostly Opels, looked tadeloss (perfect, in German). The details of each were printed on a card that was displayed in the window. The year they were made, the technical specifications, the price. Not a big deal. But interesting enough, I thought, to spend a couple of minutes comparing and calculating.

Walking, walking. Thinking of everything and of nothing. Funny: it is often when one is thinking about nothing that the best ideas come to one. From everywhere, from nowhere, from God knows where. As, for example, happened to James Watt. He always said that the idea as to how to improve the Newcomen atmospheric engine came to him one Sunday in May 1765 during a walk on Edinburgh Common. That idea made him famous as well as rich.

Trust no thought that was not born in the free air, said Nietzsche. In the age when most people spend endless hours in artificially-lightened, air-conditioned offices in front of computer screens that never seem to go out, is anyone listening?

“Emancipated Women”

Potsdam, 17.7.2015. Yesterday my wife and I visited a wonderful exhibition at the Old Gallery in Berlin. It was titled, “Impressionism versus Expressionism” and covered the period from about 1880 to 1914. Some 160 paintings by Lieberman, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Touluse-Lautreq, Dix, Heckel, Kirchner, Klee, Macke, Munch, Nolde, Pechstein. And, to top it all, a couple of van Gochs. A greater feast to the eyes can hardly be imagined. Personally I like impressionism better than I do expressionism. Each time I see these beautiful works they make me want to weep with happiness. But that is not what I want to write about here.

What I do want to write about is a short text posted on one of the walls by way of telling visitors what they are seeing. One of the things the two movements had in common, it said, was the fact that, at the time, “women’s emancipation was still far away.” Supposedly that explained why so many of the paintings showed women in “domestic settings.” Meaning, presumably, anything that does not involve a “career.” Women bathing. Women buying flowers. Women dancing. Women reading. Women rowing a boat. Women talking to each other. Women teaching children to do this or that. Women walking. Women flirting, perhaps considering whether or not to have sex with their avid-looking male partners. Women, women. Almost all of them doing what women have always done and almost of them exciting, good looking, and, judging by their looks, self-conscious and intelligent.

22_mediumIt made me think of my late grandmother, Francien Wijler, née Landsberg. She was born in Rotterdam in 1893. At the age of 25 she married my grandfather, Louis Wijler. She was the daughter of a middle class family, had taken a degree in French literature, and knew Greek as well as Latin. Her favorites were the scene in the Iliad where Hector takes leave of his wife and baby son as well as Napoleon’s love letters to Josephine. He, three years older than she, was a young, tough, somewhat prosaic man from the boondoggles who had never gone beyond “extended elementary school” (nine classes). She remained in her parents’ home until they wed. He was apprenticed to a chicken-feed dealer when he was just sixteen years old. By the time they met he had gone into business for himself and was well on the way to making himself rich.

The combination was, and is, not unusual. Young men used to leave school so they could earn their keep. Young women of good family had the privilege of studying so they could make eligible brides for successful young men. Or else, should they fail to catch one, earn their livelihood by teaching. Before finally going on pension my grandfather spent most of his time in the office or at the stock exchange where, to quote his memoirs, there was no end to “worry and stress.” His wife, by contrast, never worked outside the home. Instead she oversaw the household with an iron hand, (she had help, of course) and raised six children. At one point she had sufficient leisure to continue her studies. Eventually she took an MA. At home she had the upper hand in everything.

Though she could easily have afforded it, she never had a “room of her own.” She did not need one. With my grandfather at work and the children spending much of the day in kindergarten or at school, the entire house was at her disposal. Everything in it was hers. She could go out or stay in just as she pleased. It was she who spent practically all the money they did. It was he, not she, who used to grumble, only half in jest, that he was a kettinghond (dog on a chain).

In 1973 she forced him, much against his will, to move from the Netherlands to Israel where all her daughters and most of her grandchildren, some with children of their own, were living. She loved it and learnt Hebrew fairly well. He hated it and did not. Within four years of the move he was dead. Briefly, she was the most “emancipated” woman I ever knew. And so she remained until her death, which took place nine years after his. She used to tell me how, as a widow, she regularly visited his grave to find peace in the shade of the trees.

No, she never did heavy outdoor work as men did and do. No, she did not sweat her skin off in a steel factory as men did and do. No, she did not work in an office. The dienstmeisjes (servant girls) apart, she never had anyone to order around. And she did not envy women who had a “career.” At the time she grew up, and in fact until 1960 or so, it was taken for granted that a proper man should support his wife and family as they deserved to be. Briefly, assisted by a large open account she had at Rotterdam’s largest department store, the Bijenkorf, she spent her time doing exactly as she pleased.

Back to the paintings. With the exception of peasant women, poor creatures who share in the misery of their menfolk, very few of the women shown are at work. Of those who are, all without exception are young, low class, presumably not too well educated, and probably unmarried. Most are employed as servants, waitresses, vaudeville dancers, etc. That explains why the only ones shown wearing anything like pants are the ones dancing the Can Can. The rest seem to have leisure on their hands. None is doing physical work out of doors as men did. None are shown sweating their skin off in steel factories. None are shown sitting in offices and filling in forms, which is what office workers usually do. Or putting on a soldier’s uniform.

Since then things have changed. Unless a woman does exactly as men do, she is hardly considered human. Least of all by her “emancipated” sisters. Had my grandmother been a generation or two younger, indeed, feminists would have kept pestering her by asking why “she did not do anything with her life.” As, incidentally, they did pester my mother in law, another highly intelligent woman who spent most of her life looking after, read dominating, her husband, her family, and her home.

By the feminist gospel, “emancipated” women must wear pants (although, recently, that demand seems to have been relaxed a little; a topic for another post, perhaps?) They must imitate men and have a “career.” They must imitate men by working out of doors in trades that demand physical effort. On the rare occasions one of them does so, usually only for a brief time, the media go ape in admiration. They must imitate men and work in factories. They must imitate men and work in offices. But that is still not enough. Women must imitate men by driving trucks, buses, and taxis as well as heavy earthmoving equipment. Women must do sports just like men (all sorts of sports, without exception, have been invented by men).

To top it all, to “enrich the concept of citizenship,” as one feminist put it, women must put on military uniform. They must go to war, participate in combat and get themselves killed in nice, friendly places such as Afghanistan. If they have children, well that is just too bad (for the children, of course). Let relatives, or hired personnel, take care of them! No doubt if men started jumping from roofs, “emancipated” women would follow their example. As, in the case of bungee-jumping, they already do.

A hundred percent pure penis envy, if you ask me.

Back to Eden?

evolveMy friend and former student Yuval Harari, I am proud to say, needs no introduction from me. His book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind has sold more copies than any other non-fiction work in the entire history of Israel. It occasioned a special exhibition—not a very good one, incidentally—at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It has also been translated into thirty different languages, becoming a best-seller in many of them. That is why I want to discuss it here.

Harari is not alone. Sapiens is one of several similar volumes that have done well in the last decade or so. Some were written by historians, others not. Regardless, all belong to the genre known as “big” history. Meaning that the authors do not pay attention to trivia such as individual people, places, dates, and events. At least one considers himself equal to Newton. So great are his intellectual powers that he is able to span, not to say scan, tens of thousands, millions, sometimes even billions of years.

All also have this in common that they try to place the history of man—talking it for granted that the term covers women too, I am sufficiently old fashioned to use it—within a wider context. One that consists of paleontology, biology, chemistry, physics, cosmology and what not. Had doing so been possible, surely they would have gone back not only to the big bang, as some of them actually do, but beyond it too.

Another thing they have in common is the idea that our species has been going steadily downhill. In this they differ from previous efforts such as Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973). Once upon a time, so the new story goes, we humans—there were very few of us then—were in Eden. We lived in small bands of 30-40 people all of whom were related by blood or marriage. The bands wandered around in unspoiled nature, gathering food and hunting such small animals as came their way. Evenings were spent relaxing, telling stories around the campfire, and making love. From time to time they joined some other bands similar to themselves. On those occasions they would have a big feast with much singing, dancing, and worshipping their necessarily primitive gods. Food was shared, marriages were concluded, and some simple presents exchanged.

All the individuals who made up each group were more or less equal. There was no accumulation of property and no government to oppress people and extract resources from them against their will. Cain had not yet killed Abel, so that violence and war were unknown. Men, those cruel, heartless beings who are always intent on one thing only, did not lord it over poor, defenseless women. How women can be both poor and defenseless and lay claim to important positions in society, incidentally, has always been a mystery to me. There was no work to be done, no deadlines to be met, no stress. No traffic jams. No pollution and no unwholesome food (all food was “natural”).

Right? Dead wrong. Food may indeed have been “natural.” Whatever that may mean; did anyone ever see food that was un- or supernatural? However, since it could not be preserved for very long its quality was often dubious and its supply always uncertain. The outcome were alternating periods of boom and bust that could decimate entire populations and even finish them off. If there was no pollution, then only because the energy at people’s disposal consisted almost exclusively of what their own muscles could produce. What that meant was nicely illustrated the other day when a French student hooked a toaster to a pedal-operated dynamo. Only to discover that, in the entire world, there are perhaps two or three people sufficiently fit to produce enough power to toast a single slice of bread. Having succeeded in doing so, more or less, they were far too exhausted to even try toasting another.

Far from leading a relaxed life our ancestors, spreading out from Africa, had to cope with many kinds of wild animals. Quite a few of which were both very dangerous and much stronger than themselves. To say nothing of enduring the weather in what makeshift shelters they were able to dig or erect; how many of you readers would really want to live in a cave or some kind of shed? As far back as we can look, even the simplest, most backward, societies have always been run predominantly by men, not women. Violence and war, far from being unknown, were endemic. If you have any doubt about that, I suggest you read Napoleone Chagnon’s The Fierce People.

Government, in the sense that some individuals had priority over others and were entitled to consume resources they did not produce, has always existed. As is clear from the fact that, even among chimps, alpha males regularly take what they need from their weaker neighbors, both male and female. Equality only existed to the extent that it did not interfere with the pecking order, i.e. hardly at all. And the pecking order itself was absolutely essential to prevent every minor conflict from degenerating into violence. People also suffered from a permanent shortage of animal protein. Indeed the fact that it was men, not women, who hunted was one reason why the former were able to dominate the latter.

If there was no overpopulation, then one very important reason for this was that a great many infants died soon after they were born. So did a great many newly-delivered women; by the best available figures, so-called perinatal death was perhaps two hundred times as prevalent then as it is in today’s most advanced societies. Only fifty percent or so of infants ever reached adulthood. As a result, life expectancy at birth was probably not much more than thirty years. Person of fifty was considered very old and looked and acted the part. For lack of proper care people’s teeth fell out at an early age. Festering wounds and infectious diseases, which today can easily be cured by means of antibiotics, could and did kill people of all ages. For anatomical reasons that I do not have to explain, many of these problems affected women more than they did men. With the result that, in marked contrast to the situation as it has developed over the last two centuries, the latter tended to outlive the former by a considerable margin.

Life, to quote Thomas Hobbes, was nasty, brutish, and short. Or why else were all those nefarious inventions Harari and others tell us about made? But suppose the story they tell were true. If so, what would it take to take mankind back to Eden? The answer is simple. It has been calculated that, had we still been hunters and gatherers as we used to be until about twelve thousand years ago, the earth could only have supported about eight million of us. In other words, out of every thousand people alive today nine-hundred-ninety-nine would have to die.

And that I respectfully submit to Harari, his fellow authors and their countless followers, is too high a price to pay for returning to Eden. The more so because, in all probability, it has never existed.

Killing insurgents drives the Darwinian ratchet & making them more effective

By the Editor of the Fabius Maximus website


Summary: During the past decade we have deployed our most skilled warriors and most advanced technology in an assassination program with few precedents in history. Result: the Middle East in flames and our foes resurgent. I and others predicted this, the natural result of putting the force of evolution to work for our foes. It’s called the Darwinian Ratchet. It’s an old and familiar concept, but we prefer not to see it. Victory remains impossible until we overcome our inability to learn this and other basics of modern warfare.

“What does not kill him, makes him stronger.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche in Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888).


  1. Our learning disability
  2. Biologists explain the Darwinian Ratchet.
  3. The Darwinian Ratchet at work in war.
  4. Conclusions
  5. For More Information.
  6. An insurgent’s theme song.

(1) Our learning disability

The great mystery of our post-9/11 wars is our inability to learn from history and our own experience. My previous post discussed one aspect of this: our blindness to the consistent failure since WWII of foreign armies fighting insurgents. Another aspect is what Martin van Creveld calls the “power of weakness”. This essay discusses a third aspect, how an insurgency brings into play a “Darwinian ratchet” in which our efforts empower an insurgency.

This post shows the origin and history of the “ratchet” concept and its slow recognition by American geopolitical and military leaders. But there are no answers to our inability to adapt our tactics to the ratchet, just as there are none for our failure to learn from the history of insurgencies.

(2) Biologists Explain the Darwinian Ratchet

CharlesDarwinIt’s an old concept in biology, first developed by Herman Muller in his famous 1932 article “Some genetic aspects of sex”. We’re personally experience the Darwinian ratchet when we take antibiotics in too-low doses or for too short a time, creating a colony of slightly drug-resistant bacteria. When done by a society we breed superbugs, as Nathan Taylor explains in “What are the risks of a global pandemic?“ (Praxtime, 23 March 2013).

“The genetics of disease resistance are worth discussing here. We can think of resistance to disease as an arms race. As a population gets exposed to more and more diseases, a darwinian ratchet effect occurs, and only those with stronger immune systems survive.”

The literature of biology and medicine has many articles about the Darwinian ratchet, ranging from complex (Alexander Riegler’s “The Ratchet Effect as a Fundamental Principle in Evolution and Cognition”, Cybernetics and Systems, 2001) to the incomprehensible. The concept has spread to other fields, as in William H. Calvin’s The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996).

“We know that the Darwinian Ratchet can create advanced capabilities in stages — it’s a process that gradually creates quality — and gets around the usual presumption that fancy things require an even fancier designer.”

Some scientists have extended the concept to humanity as a whole, as Ruth DeFries did in The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis (2014): “In every cycle, new obstacles emerge. And in every cycle, millennium after millennium, humanity as a whole has muddled through.”

(3) The Darwinian Ratchet at work in war

Never engage the same enemy for too long … or he will adapt to your tactics.
— Falsely attributed to Clausewitz but still insightful. From Lions for Lambs (2007).

My first posts about the Iraq War in Sept 2003 and Oct 2003 discussed the ratchet (possibly its first mention in military theory). We killed the insurgents, but in effect recruited even more while alienating the local population (a pattern that we now understand but we still repeat). I showed an even worse effect: we culled the pack of insurgents — eliminating the slow and stupid while clearing space for the more fit insurgents to rise in authority. Hence the by now familiar pattern of a rising sine wave of insurgent activity: successes by the security forces, a pause in activity, followed by another wave of activity – but larger and more effective. To which we reply with more killing.

We lock ourselves into a “Red Queen’s race” in which we must run ever faster just to stay abreast of our enemies in the Long War. Since they learn faster and try harder (it’s their land), we tend to fall behind. This help accounts for our inexplicable (to us) defeats in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. Richard Dawkins explains its effects: “As the generations unfold, ratcheting takes the cumulative improbability up to levels that — in the absence of the ratcheting — would exceed all sensible credence”. In 2006, after 5 years of war, some awareness of this the ratchet bean to appear in official reports, such as the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States.״ It said…

“We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives … The Iraq conflict has become the “cause célèbre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

By 2008 the best among the COINistas spoke about the ratchet, such as David Kilcullen in his presentation “Dinosaurs versus Mammals: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Adaptation in Iraq“(RAND Insurgency Board, 8 May 2008). Like all of Kilcullen’s serious work, it is a brilliant and subtle presentation that deserves close attention. (Red emphasis added in these excerpts.)

An unforgiving environment that punishes error — Leading to Darwinian pressure on both sides…

Slide 16:  Hypothesis: counterinsurgents adapt slowly, insurgents evolve quickly?

Slide 17:  Hypothesis: mechanisms for insurgent evolution: General evolutionary effect, Leadership evolution (destruction-replenishment cycle), Bell Curve effect.

Slide 52:  Conclusions: In a counterinsurgency, insurgent groups and security forces appear to engage in time- and resource-competitive processes of adaptation, driven by the Darwinian pressure imposed by a complex, hostile “conflict ecosystem” that operates on the edge of chaos. Counterinsurgents appear mainly to adapt, insurgents to evolve – but insurgent groups whose network and organizational structure is tighter may behave in a more purposeful adaptive manner (e.g. JAM).

By 2009 some academics were writing about it, such as “Darwinian selection in asymmetric warfare: the natural advantage of insurgents and terrorists” by Dominic Johnson (Reader, Dept of Politics & International Relations, U of Edinburgh; bio here) in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Fall 2009.

“Models of human conflict tend to focus on military power, predicting that — all else equal — the stronger side will prevail. This overlooks a key insight from the evolutionary dynamics of competing populations: the process of adaptation by natural selection.  Darwinian selection weeds out poor performers and propagates good performers, thus leading to a cumulative increase in effective adaptations over time.  The logic of selection applies not only to biological organisms but to any competing entities, whether strategies, technologies, or machines — as long as three conditions are in place: variation, selection, and replication.

“Applied to asymmetric warfare, Darwinian selection predicts that, counter-intuitively, stronger sides may suffer a disadvantage across all three conditions:

  • Variation — weaker sides are often composed of a larger diversity of combatants, representing a larger trait-pool and a potentially higher rate of “mutation” (innovation).
  • Selection — stronger sides apply a greater selection pressure on weaker sides than the other way around, resulting in faster adaptation by the weaker side.
  • Replication — weaker sides are exposed to combat for longer (fighting on the same home territory for years at a time), promoting experience and learning, while stronger sides rotate soldiers on short combat tours to different regions.

“In recent years, many civilian and military leaders have noted that US counterinsurgency and counterterrorism forces are adapting too slowly to match the insurgents in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or Al Qaeda worldwide. A Darwinian approach suggests that this is exactly what we might predict: Weaker sides adapt faster and more effectively. Understanding the causes and consequences of Darwinian selection offers insights for how to thwart enemy adaptation and improve our own.”

A concept has become mainstream when Stratfor mentions it, as they did in “Pakistan: The South Waziristan Migration” (14 October 2009).

“All this experience in designing and manufacturing IEDs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan means that the jihadist bombmakers of today are more highly skilled than ever, and they have been sharing their experience with foreign students at training camps in places like South Waziristan. Furthermore, the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided a great laboratory in which jihadists can perfect their terrorist tradecraft.

“A form of tactical Darwinism has occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan as coalition firepower has weeded out most of the inept jihadist operatives.   Only the strong and cunning have survived, leaving a core of hardened, competent militants. These survivors have created new tactics and have learned to manufacture new types of highly effective IEDs — technology that has already shown up in places like Algeria and Somalia. They have been permitted to impart the knowledge they have gained to another generation of young aspiring militants through training camps in places like South Waziristan.

“As these foreign militants scatter to the four winds, they will be taking their skills with them. Judging from past waves of jihadist fighters, they will probably be found participating in future plots in many different parts of the world. And also judging from past cases, they will likely not participate in these plots alone.”

A stronger sign of mainstream acceptance is its appearance in the writings of military professionals, such as “Insurgent career planning or insurgency darwinism, J. J. Malevich (Lt Colonel, Canadian Army; COIN Branch Chief), USA and USMC Counterinsurgency Center Blog, 4 March 2010 — No longer online.

“In our war in Afghanistan we seem to be doing a lot of leadership targeting by UAV. But, are we doing leadership targeting because it is a worthwhile war winner or because we can? I think is it more the latter than the former. There is no doubt that the capture/kill of an insurgent leader deals a blow to the insurgency and creates an IO opportunity for the home team. But, how much of an effect remains to be seen. Obviously we’ve been going after insurgent leaders for a while and what has happened? The insurgency got stronger. In fact, some had mused that the amateurs were cleaned out and the professionals took over.

“When I think of leadership targeting I am reminded of the Jominni inspired doctrine “shock and awe theory.” In our doctrine, we constantly try to recreate those for 42 days of the battle of France in 1940 where the Germans got inside the OODA loop of the French Command, overwhelmed it and defeated it. Although targeting leadership can be useful in the heat of battle where HQs need to make rapid decisions and direct troops and fires to the critical point of the battle, I don’t think it applies to insurgency situations.

“Leadership in an insurgency is a slower, less controlled event. Taking out a leader will not have an immediate tangible effect on the battlefield as insurgents are not normally sitting around waiting for orders. What I think it does cause is collateral damage while at the same time giving the younger more aggressive insurgent leadership an opportunity to come to the fore.  I think we do it because we can. It reminds me of the British Bomber offensive in WW II between 1940 and 1941. The British could not come to grips with Nazis after the fall of France, but they could bomb targets in Germany and that made them feel good regardless of the effect.

“Does leadership targeting fall into an overall strategic plan or is it just something we are doing because we can?”

Eventually even journalists learned about the ratchet, although in an unsystematic way. For example, The Economist explains how our military technology has forced the jihadist to become more sophisticated technologically in “Bombs away“ (4 March 2010).

“For America’s Central Intelligence Agency, the glory days of its “Darwin” patrols in Iraq were short-lived. Following the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the American-led forces faced clever homemade bombs triggered with the remote controls used to open garage doors. So CIA agents drove around transmitting garage-opening signals to blow up any bombmakers who happened to be nearby. This “survival of the fittest” culling, which gave the scheme its nickname, quickly became less effective when the bombers came up with new and better detonators. “We had to keep going back to the drawing board,” says a former senior CIA official.

“And still the battle continues, with each new bombing advance met by a new countermeasure. As insurgents and terrorists have improved their handiwork, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have become their most lethal weapons. In Iraq, IEDs are responsible for two-thirds of coalition deaths. In Afghanistan such attacks have roughly tripled in the past two years.”

US Generals usually talk to us only in terms of winning, but after 14 years of failure a note of realism occasionally slips in. As in this interview by Breaking Defense with Michael Flynn (Lt. General, US Army), retiring chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, on 7 August 2014. He describes the ratchet, but not by name.

“These various groups have learned from fighting the U.S. military for a decade, and they have created adaptive organizations as a means to survive. They write about and share ‘Lessons Learned’ all the time. That was something Bin Laden taught them before he died. These proliferating Islamic terrorist groups have also for years been developing connective tissue to each other and back to al-Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Some of those connections are pretty strong. We’re not talking bits and pieces or nascent connections.

“… when Bin Laden was killed there was a general sense that maybe this threat would go away. We all had those hopes, including me. But I also remembered my many years in Afghanistan and Iraq [fighting insurgents] … We kept decapitating the leadership of these groups, and more leaders would just appear from the ranks to take their place. That’s when I realized that decapitation alone was a failed strategy.”

Andrew Cockburn’s “The Mystique of High-Value Targeting: Why Obama’s Hopes of Decapitating the Islamic State Won’t Work” shows the Darwinian ratchet at work in a non-trinitarian conflict other than war: the DEA’s 1992 “Kingpin Strategy”.

“The explanation, so the analysts concluded, was that dead leaders were invariably and immediately replaced, and almost always by someone (often a relative ready for revenge) younger, more aggressive, and eager to prove himself. The same held true on a wider scale. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi al Qaeda leader widely cited as the source of all our troubles in Iraq, was duly targeted and killed in 2006, only to be succeeded by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who turned out to be an even more deadly opponent. He too was duly killed, and instead we got Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who created the Islamic State, now lord of six million people and an area the size of Great Britain.”


(4) Conclusion

“I’ve killed them by the tens of thousands, scoured their countryside at will, pried their allies away, and humiliated them day after day. I have burned their crops and looted their wealth. I’ve sent a whole generation of their generals into the afterworld … Have I changed nothing? They are stronger now than before. They are more than before. They fight more sensibly than before. They win when they used to lose.”

— Hannibal speaking about Rome in David Anthony Durham’s novel Pride of Carthage (2005).

These examples show that some experts see this basic element of modern war, but our military and geopolitical institutions cannot learn it even from 14 years of experience. Just as they refuse to recognize the dismal record of success by foreign armies fighting insurgencies since WWII. That’s bad news, since slow learning is a weaknesses even our great power cannot easily overcome. Perhaps we should worry less about insurgents in distant nations and worry more about those who lead us so that they gain while hurting America.

Or we can wait until our enemies teach us a lesson we cannot ignore.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
— Upton Sinclair in I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935).

(5) For More Information

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(6) An insurgent’s theme song

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,
Stand a little taller, …
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter.
— Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”.


What Has Not Changed

Currently I am reading Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2005) by David Christian and William H. McNeill. It traces the evolution of the world from the big bang to the moment in which we humans find ourselves today. One of quite a number of recent books of the same kind, and not the worst of the lot.

It made me think. A higher compliment no book can get or should get. However, seen from the authors’ point of view, it made me think about the wrong things. Perhaps that is another compliment to their work. I did not think about how we changed and why we changed and how else we might have changed and where change is taking us a d whether change is good or bad. But about all the ways in which we did not change. In other words, what it means to be human.

Homo Sapiens (skull & lower jaw)

Homo Sapiens (skull & lower jaw) from the Human Evolution Gallery (tracks through time)
Age: 18,000 years old
Locality: Upper Cave, Zhoukoudian near Beijing, China

Before I start, a qualification. We humans are supposed to have evolved from ape-like ancestors who lived several millions of years ago. The question as to just when we became “modern” and “fully human” is very much one of definition. I cannot and will not go into all the different creatures that linked us to the ape in question. The more so because paleontologists themselves never stop quarrelling about their nature, the reasons why they appeared, the time at which they appeared, and the sequence in which they did so. That means I am going to limit myself to the last fifty thousand years or so. To my admittedly limited knowledge, no one has argued that our ancestors of that period were not “fully” human.

So here are a few of our outstanding characteristics.

  1. To be human is to be a land animal (even if, in the future, we succeed in providing ourselves with artificial land-like environments under water, in the sea, and in outer space). That has some very important implications for the way we live.
  2. To be human is to reproduce sexually (as opposed to some other creatures which use different means to the purpose). In other words, a division of roles between males and females, with everything that entails.
  3. To be human is to be a mammalian. That has some very important implications for the way we are fed and raised during our early years.
  4. To be human means that we need our rest and can only do so much within a given time. Are you listening, all you hard-driven, hard-working, Protestants and other go-getters?

So far, I have been listing the things we have in common with a great many other species. Still, they form part of our humanity. Take them away, and God only knows what we become. Fish, perhaps? Or mushrooms? Or reptiles? Or robots? But there are also quite a few things other species do not share with us, of which they share only to a very limited extent. To wit:

  1. Bipedalism. Humans are the only mammalians who walk on two legs instead of four. The outcome has been to free our hands for other kinds of activity. Including a great many such as only humans engage in.
  2. To be human is to be prematurely born. Partly because bipedalism has caused the birth channel to become narrower, partly because the fetus’ head has become enlarged so as to contain the developing brain, human babies are born before their time. The outcome is that they are less independent, and need a longer period of rearing, than the young of any other mammalian species. The implications for family structure are obvious.
  3. To be human is to have language. Not just a smaller or greater number of signs, as many animals also do. But a system of sounds that stand for—symbolize—objects, qualities and actions in ways others of our species who share the same language will understand.
  4. To be human means to produce things. Not just using natural objects, such as sticks or stones, for this purpose or that. But actively modifying them, or even creating them ex novo, for our own purposes. Broadly speaking, the things may be divided into two kinds. Those that serve some kind of useful purpose; and those that provide us with aesthetic enjoyment. Very often the two kinds are combined in the same objects.
  5. Not only do we produce things, but we also exchange them. That is true both inside societies and among them. A group of people so isolated as to be unaware of others of its kind and unable to engage in exchange with them has probably never existed. Had it existed, in all probability it would have come to a relatively rapid end.
  6. Exchange implies contact, and contact implies occasional disagreements. Some disagreements lead to war, or, at any rate, some kind of socially-sanctioned violence between different groups.
  7. To be human is to have self-consciousness, to recognize one’s own existence. As by looking into a mirror and identifying oneself. That is something computers do not have and, perhaps, will never have.
  8. To be human is the ability to look into the future so as to link means with ends. In other words, to understand the meaning of “in order to.” That, again, is something computers do not have and, perhaps, will never have.
  9. To be human means to be able to distinguish between the things we do and those we ought, or ought not, to do. It is, to use Biblical terminology, having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge.
  10. To be human is to have some kind of religion. Even if it is not really a religion, as in the case of Buddhism and Confucianism, or, some would say, animism (which is probably the earliest form of religion of all). To be sure, using a few pieces of bone and some crude stone artifacts to determine this beliefs of our Stone Age ancestors is like trying to recover the text of Hamlet from the rusty remains of the hero’s sword. To the extent that it can be done, though, it would appear that religion has accompanied humanity for as long as the latter has existed. And it does so now. Even if, since many of us think God, is dead, we call it human rights; or the liberation of women; or health consciousness; or environmentalism; or whatever.
  11. Finally, to be human means to be conscious of death, i.e. that our existence here on earth will one day come an end.

The reason why I am listing these points is not simply to look into the past and confirm the unity of mankind, as so many before me have done and are still doing. Rather, it is to peer into the future “far as human eye [can] see” (Lord Tennyson). And my point is that, should the various prophecies concerning “singularities” and the like come true, and we cease to be or do any of the above things, then for good or ill we will no longer be human.

Pay heed, all you gurus, lest in your eagerness for innovation you push us completely off the rails.