Re: groupthink gauntlet: MacArthur's ill-fated drive toward the Yalu

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sat 31 Jan 2004 - 15:48:27 GMT

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    [Sent yesterday and it failed. Virus clogging the net perhaps.]

    At 12:45 AM 30/01/04 -0500, Scott wrote:
    >I'd love to see the resident memeticists stop jawboning about the
    >isolationism of the SSSM and take up the gauntlet of explaining an event
    >in history (a field probably too soft for memeticists) better than a
    >social psychologist named Irving Janis.


    >Now I wonder if memetics and evolutionary psychology can effectively
    >compete with Janis's groupthink suggestion or if they can put forward
    >any viable theses regarding this historical event during the Korean War.

    I don't think memetics is the right model to apply here. It's useful in considering some of the details, but war and the psychological traits that lead to war and war decisions should be analyzed from the ground up using evolutionary psychology.

    Of course, the psychological traits that are activated in wars were evolved when we lived as hunter gatherers. So chances are that they are not particularly adaptive in the current world.

    Bad judgment of groups making decisions about wars is *to be expected.* The conditions that led to wars, resource shortages, in primitive tribes did not select for rational behavior. The genes of people who went to war did well, especially considering the alternative--that's what evolution is about, but the *people* whose psychological traits were constructed by those genes got killed an awful lot of the time.

    The argument is that under conditions of incipient starvation genes in people in a weaker tribe would be better off if the genes built carriers who would work themselves up to a killing frenzy and attack a stronger tribe (if that was their only available target). Perhaps with luck they would prevail, but even getting the men wiped out is better from the
    *gene's* viewpoint than starving. Why? Because the stronger winning tribe would almost always absorb the young women--who carried the losers genes. This is a particularly perverse application of Hamilton's notion of
    "inclusive fitness."

    So there is *no limit* on the psychological trait for wishful thinking in situations of wars. I.e., evolution has *favored* genes leading to impaired thinking in war situations.

    Of course, the psychological traits that are activated in wars were evolved when we lived as hunter gatherers. So chances are that they are not particularly adaptive in the current world. (Repeat disclaimer.)

    >For some reason this social science hating isolationism of the universal
    >Darwinists threatens to translate into a typical Procrustean bed when
    >applied to a topic so complex as this one. Were are the memes and the
    >genes selected in the EEA when you need them?

    There you go.

    I find this logic for gene selection leading to bad judgment in war situations persuasive, distasteful and very upsetting. I would welcome someone finding a flaw in it, but it is too damn simple for me to have much hope. And *way* too much history, including your Yalu river example supports it to the hilt.

    >At best someone could argue that the prevailing mindset of
    >anti-communism played *a* role in this mess, but to rely on this
    >expanation exclisively would be to greatly oversimplify a complex

    Completely agree. Memetics only deals with the specifics of a particular example, not the general case which only predicts that people are likely to be carried away by *some* bad judgment meme circulating in their group.

    >What would the biologists say that historians and social scientists
    >should listen to?

    Darned if I know. This is such a straightforward application of EP that I can't imagine the big name thinkers in the field have not understood it for decades. John Tooby figured out capture-bonding when he was in graduate school, nearly 20 years before I wrote about it. I have no idea why he never published on the subject. Maybe they just have enough trouble with what they are doing without stirring up historians too.

    Perhaps more important would be widespread public realization that humans have behavioral switches. This would not be a new observation in animals. One of the most spectacular is the migratory locust
    (grasshopper). Under good weather conditions where grasshoppers experience a population boom and can be expected to eat all sources of food and starve, the grasshoppers change their development program and take an alternate development pathway leading to the gregarious form. That form has shorter legs, longer wings, even a different color. (For a while they were thought to be a different species.) When they eat up the local vegetation they fly on the wind in masses of billions and when they come down they eat everything, even the wool off sheep.

    Humans undergo behavioral switches depending on conditions. Some like capture-bonding (or Stockholm Syndrome) are fairly obvious in origin and effect. We know of others like the tendency to strongly bond with neighbors and fight back when attacked (Pearl Harbor effect). Others such as the evolved psychological traits leading to impaired judgment in war situations are more subtile.

    Staying out of behavioral modes that result bad judgment seems like an extremely good idea. I make the case that falling per capita income causes such a behavioral switch, turning up the gain on xenophobic memes and the resultant "tribe wide" groupthink induces a people to go to war. Being attacked switches on related behavioral all out attack back "stupid" modes.

    The only way to keep the fight-back mode from being activate is not to be attacked! The only way I can see to avoid looming privation leading to attacks is to keep the per capita income from falling. The last is impossible unless the population is growing slower than the economy. That implies low birth rates, and eventually we get to the need for women to have the power and technology to limit family sizes.

    Which is not exactly on the agenda of the current US administration.

    Keith Henson

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