Darwinian Failure in the War on Terror

Much like road rage, a retribution-based foreign policy represents an evolutionary impulse poorly suited to the modern world.
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Question: Does Afghanistan have any remaining strategic value, or is it now a distraction from long-term anti-terror strategy?

Robert Wright: Well, Afghanistan is an example of the damage that can be done by Iraq. And we got distracted from Afghanistan by Iraq and now both that and the Pakistan situation festered. I mean the strategic significance of Afghanistan is that it’s interacting with Pakistan in a way that tends to destabilize Pakistan. And Pakistan does have nuclear weapons. So, you would not want a radical group to take charge of Pakistan. I don’t think that’s on the verge of happening, but it’s the reason that that region matters to America’s national interest in the most kind of concrete sense. 

But I guess I think also, there’s – in a way this gets back to evolutionary psychology. We have to be mindful of what our impulses evolved for. So, the impulse of retribution, why was it designed by natural selection? I mean, now the way you see it played out is, we’ve got to get Osama Bin Laden, or we’ve got to get somebody else because of something they have done to us. And it often, you do like to punish people who have done bad things, that is true. But you have to remember that the retributive impulse itself was designed for a different environment by natural selection, a hunter-gatherer environment. And in a modern environment, it can go awry. I mean, the most obvious example is road rage. I mean driving does something to you and you briefly have this impulse to actually pursue the person and do something that can get you both killed, and there’s like no payoff, when you think about it. The purpose of seeking vengeance in the ancestral environment was to show people that you can’t be trifled with; it was for the demonstration effect. And when you’re on a super highway, there’s nobody you know who is observing you act on your road rage. And that’s just an example of an impulse that can be completely dysfunctional and I just think too much of our foreign policy is governed by impulses like that, that we’re not sufficiently critical of.

Recorded on February 12, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen