In search of a darwinian ratchet: the ANC, the PLO, and the RAF

Evolution is the change in frequency of variations over time. The evolution of species by means of natural selection was first described by Charles Darwin.

With this in mind, Fabius Maximus’s tak of a “Darwinian ratchet” makes no sense:

the success of Israel’s counter-insurgency strikes against Hamas and Hezbollah have resulted in a “Darwinian ratchet”.

Israel’s security services cull the ranks of the insurgency. This eliminates the slow and stupid, clearing space for the “best” to rise in authority. “Best” in the sense of those most able to survive, recruit, and train new ranks of insurgents. The more severe Israel’s efforts at exterminating the insurrection, the more ruthless the survivors.

Back to evolution. In terms of nature, evolution has no purpose, goal, or direction. Pace to the Nazis and the Stalinists, to the Social Darwinists and the Creationists, evolution is not directed toward rewarding the strong, the social, the smart, or the sinful. Evolution is merely the change in the frequency of variations of some aspect of things.

Evolution happens in the context of an environment. If the environment rewards those with high general intelligence with more offspring than those less gifted, one might see general intelligence vary upward in the next generation (perhaps at the cost of something else, such as short term memory). If the environment rewards those who are cautious and nervous, then presumably frequencies of neuroticisms might change.

Fabius appears to have a different notion of evolution. A “ratchet,” of course, is a tool that turns only one way. A “Darwinian ratchet” implies that evolution is determined to maximize some quality or trait, so that each new generation possesses more of it than the one preceding. One assumes that Fabius is looking to evolution to maximize, again and again, effective violence against Western societies..

But of course, evolution does not work this way, because the environment is not static. Even if the outside world remains the same, the population subjected to evolutionary forces will change, and as the population is part of the evolutionary landscape, the environment thus changes.

Fabius is concerned that Western violence against enemies of the West will ratchet up the fitness of our enemies, giving us more and more effective enemies. But of course, all that happens is that our activities alter their fitness landscape, leading to different proportions of different types of them. Take three examples of anti-Western forces subjected to continuous Western assault

  • The African National Congress

    The ANC began as a cookie-cutter Communist terrorist organization located in South Africa, aiming to bring down an economically productive yet antidemocratic ruling class. The South African government fought back, imprisoning the ANCs leaders, turning natural ANC allies against it, and generally engaging in Systems Administration duties. Fabius’s “Darwinian ratchet” would lead us to expect that the ANC became more and more virulent, but what actually happened was that the removal of ANC members capable of conducting guerrilla campaigns morphed the ANC into a peaceful democratic movement. The fall of Apartheid and the ANC victory brought something completely unlike what the ANC founders envisioned, and ushered in a new South African regime roughly as compatible with Western goals as the Afrikaner state that preceded it.

  • The Palestine Liberation Organization
  • “At first, we were refugees. Harmless. Now, we become fighters. Freedom fighters.” So Yasser Arafat rallied his troops, aiming to liberate the Palestinian people from Jewish and Hashemite occupation in Israel and Jordan. Once again, the West responded, offering hostility and partnership to the PLO in a bewildering series of deadly assaults. Again, the concept of a “darwinian ratchet” would lead us to believe that the PLO is now on the verge of achieving its objectives. But by the late 1990s the PLO had evolved into a corrupt rentier syndicate, completely unable to wage war on either of its historic enemies. When it tried in the Second Intifada it lost what freedom of maneuvered it had. The PLO is now protected by its old enemies from a reform movement (Hamas), in a divide-and-conquer strategy that makes true Palestinian statehood farther away than ever.

  • The Red Army Faction (Japan)

    But what if an enemy population adjusts to an increasingly hostile fitness landscape not by becoming soft and effective (the ANC), or soft and impotent (the PLO), but harsh and deadly? What if those reformists and crooks can be kept out, and the true believers are able to maintain power? Surely a “darwinian ratchet” will kick in then.

The radical wing of the RAF tried such a strategy, killing off the less radical half in a blood bath designed to weed out the disloyal. How it ends is predictable.

This is not to say that our enemies can’t win. Of course they can. But pseudo-scientific talk of darwinian ratchets and other mechanisms that guarantee us ten-foot-tall enemies do not help matters. They do not clarify the strategic environment or accurately capture reality. They are tools for myopic, conceited schools of analysis which imagines that we are so important that our enemies very thought and desire is for our harm (rather than their benefit).

Also in the blogsophere: A.E. defends his take, while Sean ponders a law of evolution.

11 thoughts on “In search of a darwinian ratchet: the ANC, the PLO, and the RAF”

  1. Thanks for the analysis! You raise some interesting points. Here are a few notes, in no particular order. Hopefully this clarifys the brief comments about the ratchet in my articles.

    1. Perhaps you are taking this too literally! It’s just a metaphor. Not as if I said that insurgents’ gene pools actually change. As TE Lawrence said before using one, “analogy in human things was fudge.”

    2. Second, the ratchet is not “the” factor, just “a” factor – one of many 4GW dynamics. It is one of 6 I describe in “Fate of Israel”, and that was not a complete list.

    3. You describe the ratchet in 2 ways. Correctly as “giving us more effective enemies.” No so as “maximizing … effective violence against western societies.” 4GW is largely (not exclusively) a struggle for the moral high ground; violence is only one tool in the 4GW toolbox. Nor are 4GW insurgents a threat only to western societies.

    4. I find your 3 examples puzzling.

    ANC: Their goal was to take power; guerilla war was only one of the means. They won. How does this disprove the ratchet?

    PLO: The PLO is not the Palestinian people, nor did my article mention the PLO. Nor did I say that the “PLO was on the verge of statehood” — the 6 factors I described are all long-term in nature. Over the past 30 years the Palestinians have grown stronger, which is my point. Your forecast might be correct, but I don’t understand how your comments apply to what I said.

    Red Army Faction: You’re kidding right? The Japanese Communist League – Red Army Factor and the Japanese Red Army were both tiny. The JRA, despite its many successful ops, claimed 40 members. There are 127 million people in Japan. 4GW does not guarantee victory to every tiny group of whackos. Many factors determine if an insurgent group grows to critical mass.

    Your conclusions: Some are a burlesque of my views. Like “guarantee us ten-foot-tall enemies.” I've never said that.

    The historical record is pretty clear that there is a strong home-court advantage in 4GW, which works strongly against our overseas expeditions. On the other hand, defense is the stronger position in 4GW – which might prove important for us, eventually.

    Some seem to describe someone else’s writings, like “which imagines that we are so important that our enemies very thought and desire is for our harm” Poetry, although I have no idea what it means.

  2. Wiggins,

    Thanks for the great comment! I opined over at your blog.


    Wow! Detailed!

    “Perhaps you are taking this too literally! It’s just a metaphor. Not as if I said that insurgents’ gene pools actually change. As TE Lawrence said before using one, “analogy in human things was fudge.””

    Evolution is change in variation of frequencies. In the context of 4GW, evolution refers to change in the variation of frequency of insurgent styles. (In other words, that we're not dealing with genetic evolution just doesn't matter.)

    To the extent that evolution is darwinian, the change is driven by selection. There is no requirement that the “selection” be in the direction of anything.

    Viewing darwinian selection of insurgents as acting to give us more effective enemies is a teleological, egocentric, pre-scientific view of evolution.

    As to examples…

    a) ANC probably depends on the perspective you take. From the perspective of the Afrikaners, certainly they are facing a soft ethnic cleansing and paying the price for defeat. From the perspective of the developed world, a closed-socialist has transformed into an open-democratic one. From the perspective of the Nationalist government, the ANC was victorious. From the perspective of the West, the ANC was coopted beyond all recognition.

    b) Viewing “peoples” as actors in 4GW analysis is mystical and romantic. Why not races? Or mitochondrial colonies? Both are just as (in)capable of purposeful political action as a “people.”

    Wars are fought by institutions, whether large-scale and long-lasting (the US government, etc.) or small-scale and transient (al Qaeda in Iraq, etc.). “Peoples” are the seas in which institutions swim, but they have no political will of their own.

    c) Certainly the list of ANC, PLO, and RAF is not complete. However, if you're claiming that darwinian evolution selects maximizes for this or that trait, you need some way to show it. It seems you can claim that either the darwinian ratchet always exists or exists most of the time. Clearly, the list of ANC, PLO, and RAF shows that it does not always exist. Therefore, how do you demonstrate that it tends to exist? Or is it merely some fluke, that may exist in this or that minority of cases?

    “Some seem to describe someone else’s writings, like “which imagines that we are so important that our enemies very thought and desire is for our harm” Poetry, although I have no idea what it means.”

    This is merely aimed at the conviction that darwinian selection wrt warfighting maximizes for success in overcoming ideological foes, which appears to be how you describe the “darwinian ratchet.”

    Very thought provoking comment!

  3. All interesting comments. I don't believe I've quite communicated the nature of the thing, and I don't understand your replies. I think you're making this simple dynamic more complex than it need be.

    One evolutionary analogy is treating bacteria with non-lethal doses of drugs. The bacteria develop resistence to the drug. Similarly effective security services cull the herd of insurgents, so that the most resistent survive and and recruit/train.

    This is nothing profound or deep about this.

    Perhaps the analogy gets in the way, which I've seen happen before (perhaps I'm not a good analogizer!).

    Skip the evolution analogy, which does not seem to work for you. In many insurgencies, against both domestic and foreign foes, we see this. Israel's opponents have learned to more effectively fight, resisting its security forces. Even more strongly we see this in Iraq.

    Unfortunately these communication difficulties are common on the leading edge of theory, in any field.

  4. Fabius,

    Reducing an insurgency to a bacerial-like growth would be a victory for a counter-insurgent force. Bacteria, while seeking rents from the broader organism, are incapable of purposeful political action.

    We see the effect of this darwinian evolution in Iraq. An ideologically hostile opponent (al Qaeda in Iraq) is being swamped by a non-ideological rentier class (the Sunni Arab tribes). The former is an enemy. The latter is a problem to be managed.

    Israel has seen a similar effect. The PLO has been transformed into a revolutionary organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel into a criminal syndicate that exists to enrich its leadership. An enemy is transformed into a problem.

    By referring to evolution, you are not making an analogy. You are making a description. The change in frequencies of insurgent styles in a population is not like evolution, it is evolution. The selection of some frequencies over others is not like darwinian selection, it is darwinian selection.

  5. For some reason blogspirit wigs and won't accept comments. I keep getting a time out message. Dude, this sucks!

    Anyway, on the Fabius Maximus 'evolutionary ratchet' thing, in brief 'cause I already lost two posts, don't agree with Fab.

    1) 'Culling' isn't needed to do this. War games perform the same function. Actual doing performs this function. Attacks may do this, but may not. Luck plays a role. Who flips and provides intel to send a Hellfire may take out a real mover and shaker, or it might leave him alive. The assumption that actions will only leave the 'best', defining best as those who are the most effective and active, alive isn't necessarily true since those could be the ones getting the most attention and most likely to be on the business end of some weapon. It's like saying attrition is irrelevant at some level, and that simply isn't true.

    2) The bacteria analogy also fails. Why? Resistant bacteria aren't invulnerable. With staph, something I know a little about, there's a way to deal with it. They possess an organelle that pumps the anti-biotic out. We know of a class of compounds that can disable said pump, which are in all microbials by the way, and having done so can kill them with ridiculously small amounts of anti-biotic in a cocktail(why hasn't this happened yet? The class of compound that does this is a real doozy to synthesize, that's why.). The environment, as you would say, changes. it's the old measure/counter-measure/count-counter-measure dance, which rarely leaves one side vastly superior since the other side reacts and changes tactics to work against the first agents innovations.

    3) Fab should probably talk to John over at Argghhh!. He's worked/is working on this problem(instilling good SOP in soldiers) before/as we speak. It isn't just theoretical to him, even though he can speak on the purely theoretical arguments as well.

    I'm soooo hating blogspirit right now. I get so many junkmail from your site thanks to your spammers hitting discussions I activated the email me continuances thing for. Sigh.

  6. I think you're missing the point. This is a theory to explain the differential rates of learning, us vs. them.

    The differnce between insurgencies and “war games” is that their slow learners die. Most folks who've run large groups have wondered, at some dark point, how better their group would perform if the slows could be shot. This actually happens in insurgencies. Our far far lower casualty rates render this ineffective on our forces. (that's a good thing, on the whole, of course).

    Note: when I first proposed this in Fall 2003 — that we fought insurgents who would learn and adapt much faster than us — the experts were still talking about the stupid dead-enders, not worthy foes.

    Four years later our “adaptive” enemy is a trendy subject in the literature, and you refer me to the experts to learn all about this. Thank you for the advice, but I'd rather continue to peer ahead thru the fog. What will the experts discover years from now that is visible (if only dimly) today?

  7. ry,

    Arg! Blogspirit ate my comment too!

    Both wargames and insurgencies are imprecise tools that reward behavior that is close to, but not actually, what is needed for victory.

    The bacteria analogy is interesting… It's possible to avoid resistant strains by varying treatment among a committee of methods, rather than using the best standard everywhere.


    Thank you for the continued discussion.

    “The differnce between insurgencies and “war games” is that their slow learners die. “

    Indeed. Another difference is that their true believers are also much more likely to die. Selection, whether in insurgencies are elsewhere, is on the side of survival, not bravery, ideology, fearsomeness, etc.

    If all you wish is to explain greater turnover is knowledge, that's fine. But to use that as a synonym with greater hostility, or better hostility, or whatever misses the point.

    My main criticism is the idea that darwinian selection ratchets in favor of anything. If you don't mean that, and instead merely mean that selection changes populations, then we're on the same page.

  8. Munzenberg,

    Lind can’t have it both ways, arguing that we are seeing the unfolding of a Hegelian ideal and also maintain he’s dealing with population biology. If he would assert both at the same time, he’s making the same mistake that Fabius Maximus did with his “darwinian ratchet.” [1]

    Lind’s theory is not falsifiable as we need to wait until the end of the quality shift untli we can even know what 4GW is, and Robb has never bothered to define his terms. The grades in XGW vary in terms of the dispersel of kinetic violence. Whatever words one use to describe them is only valuable as a standard heuristic.

    XGW is the best of the variants by default. None of the rest show any sense of being useful, in the policy or social science sense.


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