Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Though I don't particularly like to comment on current events, it seems appropriate to say something about the terrorist attacks in Paris of November 13. There is a general consensus in developed nations that ISIL (or ISIS or Da'ish or Daesh) is an unfathomable organization whose destruction must be stopped by a coordinated international effort. That much is clear, but from a political and journalistic standpoint I haven't seen the events described in the same way that I think about them, namely, as a biological phenomenon. No doubt this is a highly complex situation, but I think the best way to look at it is through the lens of science.

What seems to stump commentators is the brutality of ISIL in conjunction with what looks like the absence of a coherent ideology. ISIL is wreaking havoc in the name of Islam when no one can see the teachings of Mohammed in its behavior. World leaders and journalists are at a loss to explain it in the familiar language of religious conflict. From my point of view this is a perfect opportunity to drop comfortable Western ideology and look at ISIL as a Malthusian phenomenon with the help of modern science. Although ISIL exists in real time, it can be studied in the same way that archaeologists, for example, are studying the collapse of Pueblo society in Mesa Verde, Colorado during the late 1200's.

Broadly speaking, what is occurring probably has to do with overpopulation, political instability, environmental change, in-group and out-group conflict and instinctive male behavior. It would appear that ISIL was conceived and is being operated by out-group male Muslims whose life prospects, for multiple reasons, whether they live in the Middle East or Europe, are inadequate. In a situation like this, religion is at best a pretext for violence and it may be a waste of time to look for coherent ideology. ISIL is following an ancient survival model that can be found throughout human history and has nothing to do with the contemporary templates that we use to describe the world.

What is different this time is the high population levels in the Middle East, where disruption has implications thousands of miles away and potentially throughout the world. Obviously this is an enormous topic that I can barely touch here. I'll just mention a couple of aspects that relate to some of my earlier posts. First, I think it is important to see beyond ideology such as political correctness in situations such as this. As I said earlier, the PEN protesters who didn't want Charlie Hebdo to receive a free speech award could not have had a good conception of the underlying causes of the January, 2015 attacks in Paris. They were probably thinking along politically correct lines something to the effect that the satirical magazine made Muslims feel insulted. If these Muslims had been students in America, perhaps they would feel "unsafe." No trigger warnings were provided! Is that how we ought to interpret these events? No, it isn't. Second, this is an opportunity to see how inadequate the arts and religion can be for dealing with occurrences like this. I am thinking specifically about Michel Houellebecq's novel, Submission, which I just reviewed. Although Houellebecq gets some credit for concocting an imaginative outcome for France in light of its growing Muslim population, the novel is actually rather inadequate if you are looking for an understanding of why so many Muslims live in France today or why the Middle East is in turmoil. The point here is that even if it isn't the responsibility of novelists to solve world problems, Houellebecq should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt and certainly should not be magnified to the status of a major thinker on the basis of his work. Similarly, if you regard Marilynne Robinson as a serious author, consider here that it is biology, not religion, that is driving these events. Religious traditions are malleable, and there is little to prevent outlier groups from diverting them to serve their purposes. If religions were static ideologies there would be far fewer varieties of them in the world than presently exist.

It is a mistake to think that our current social norms such as political correctness are going to be broadly applicable to other cultures on different continents. As humans, we have a very long history of resorting to religion and art to assuage the stresses of life, and it can be difficult for us to think beyond them. Admittedly there is an unsatisfying, counterintuitive aspect to modern science, and we tend to resist it even when it is our best option for understanding life's complexities. However, we stand a better chance of comprehending ISIL by studying disintegrating societies of the past than we do by falling back on the comforts of our cultural perspective, including religion and art.

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