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 a well-known concept in science, but one we prefer not to see. Victory remains impossible until we overcome our inability to learn this and other basics of modern warfare. This is cross-posted on Martin van Creveld’s website; he described this as “absolutely fascinating.”
“What does not kill him, makes him stronger.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche in Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888).
- Our learning disability
- Biologists explain the Darwinian Ratchet.
- The Darwinian Ratchet at work in war.
- For More Information.
- 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 (as explained in Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win).
(2) Biologists Explain the Darwinian Ratchet
It’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).