Some have suggested that societies or states  can usefully be thought of as a superorganism, rather like a beehive.  States respond, semi-intelligently, to opportunities and threats. They defend themselves.  They store and make use of information. We may believe that they’re not ‘real’ entities, but then maybe our neurons and our gut flora think the same of us.

This perspective might help us understand United States foreign policy, which generally seems totally gormless.   We seem determined to do expensive and useless things. But there may be a biological analogy.  Maybe the Iraq War, or our government’s  immigration policies, are the equivalent of the peacock’s tail – a case of Zahavi’s handicap principle.  Only a true superpower could get away with acting this stupid.  Of course, this usually applies to sexual selection. No country would want to mate with an inferior nation that can’t afford to produce such wastefully extravagant signals.

All of this implies that mating is on the superorganism’s mind.  I think that this line of analysis has one clear implication: stay the hell out of Florida.

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42 Responses to Fatherland

  1. redzengenoist says:

    Perhaps a very important distinction between a superorganism and a state is that everyone in the superorganism has been selected for some time to have a baseline benevolence to the success of the host superorganism, because thus their own propagation. While the people making the decisions in fx. the US state generally have a large component of people actively and powerfully malignant to the other parts of the super organism, and whose success depends on the super-organism doing things which are detrimental to it.

    In this sense, the Iraq war is less like a peacocks tail, which is in the interest of the genes of everyone in the organism, and more like a festering boil, designed to help a subset of the inhabitants at the explicit expense of everyone else in the organism. When operating on analogies like Iraq, the state is not even like a cancer, and more like a foreign infestation, whose success depends on causing the host to behave self-destructively…

  2. Wes says:

    How about this: To what extent is the US a “nation’ in the normal sense? We are now a wildly disparate collection of races, religions and ethnicities that don’t have much in common. So, one part of this “nation” gets control and runs things for a while, to the detriment of all rest of the “nation”. Or maybe it is better to say, the US is a collection of nations, which, one almost hopes, won’t hold together much longer.

  3. typal says:

    Either the US has a surfeit of immunocompetence, or the opposite

    Rumsfeld: Israel Shouldn’t Notify US of Iran Attack
    Rummie seems to have boned up on the Middle East since 2005 when you wrote ‘Bush’s Napoleon Complex’: “The Bush administration can always plead ignorance. Certainly few of the players knew much about Iraq, the Middle East, or Islam. Judging from their frequent confused historical references, it seems as if Condi and Rummie really don’t know any history at all. But the administration didn’t check with anyone who did know”

    Iraq was smashed because it backed the Palestinians in holding out for a substantial state. Not because it was any kind of a military threat. Iran is going to suffer the same fate for the same reason.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Since Iraq couldn’t do anything about that issue, why would anyone have cared?

      • Ben Atlas says:

        It regret to see this vile antisemitic inference (killer parasite) in the comments to this great blog. Never mind the 1st gulf war that was triggered by the Kuwait invasion and nevertheless put Israelis in the gas masks. To my mind such cowardly anonymous comments should be deleted.

        PS All anonymous comments should be deleted.

      • redzengenoist says:

        1) For the record, my original post isn’t about your particular ethnicity.
        2) Typal is critiquing the Israel lobby, which is indeed disgusting. That’s not antisemitic, any more than critiquing nazis is anti-german, or critiquing mafia is anti-Italian.
        3) Your calls for censorship based on a strawman are more odious than antisemitism, real or imagined. You don’t represent Jews, you represent the type of people Typal was critiquing.

      • Ben Atlas says:

        I didn’t read your ordinal comment nor am I interested in what you have to say after reading your comment to me. As a matter of fact anonymity and free speech are not compatible. I believe there should not be anonymous participants in a discussion, especially online.

        I represent myself and my own opinions only.

      • Ben Atlas says:

        Greg’s silence about this is personally very disappointing. The man that I admired till now. This blog can use less nerds and more mensches.

      • typal says:

        At Camp David in 2000 Israel negotiated with the Palestinians about a final settlement. Israel made an offer, a serious offer, which the Palestinians rejected. I think currently the Palestinians might well settle for what they rejected in 2000, but it’s off the table. What has changed?

    • Ben Atlas says:

      It is especially insulting because the metaphor used in this post referred to the great Israeli scientist Amotz Zahavi, perhaps he still tell you on his gas mask experience during the 1st gulf war.

      • Wes says:

        I think in a free, open society (assuming we are one), we need to examine the role that various lobbies play in our foreign policy. Surely, we have been tilted toward England in the past, and there is nothing “anti-English” in pointing that out. These days, US foreign policy seems to be influenced heavily by Israel and Saudi Arabia, ironically enough. On opposite sides (usually) but they are the number one and number two lobbies in foreign affairs. How are we to be informed citizens if discussion is not allowed?

        However, I would agree that Iraq’s support for Palestine (which was largely for show) had nothing to do with out attack. I think we honestly thought we could knock off a tyrant and a Western middle class democracy would flourish. It was based on an ignorant and naive worldview.

      • Ben Atlas says:

        I guess there are more idiots here than I thought. The vile anonymous coward compared Jews to a killing parasite. This crap should be beyond the pale and has nothing to do with the freedom of speech regardless of the fact that the Saudi kings had a far more decisive role in these wars that any “lobby”.


        • gcochran9 says:

          I don’t think the Saudis lobbied for the 2003 war. Nothing I have seen supports that idea. I think that they would have been happy to see Saddam dead, but feared the outcome, particularly Shiite majority rule next door.

      • redzengenoist says:

        “The vile anonymous coward compared Jews to a killing parasite”.

        No. He compared hostile interests of a foreign nation to a killing parasite. Not “Jews”.

        You seek only to characterize Gregs excellent blog as being at risk of being characterized as full of antisemites by… oh right, by yourself… unless Greg implements your agenda of censorship on a valid and conscientious comment. I hope Greg has the good sense to be annoyed by this crap.

      • Ben Atlas says:

        @ redzengenoist The only infestation here is the ancient bug of antisemitism that under diffident disguises keeps finding a fertile ground. It’s Jews, or the Zionist lobby, if not Zionist lobby than the Jewish bankers, there is always a stand in for this bile.

      • Difference Maker says:

        Cease your histrionics and watch your tone.

      • Ben Atlas says:

        @ “Difference Maker”
        I put my name under the tone. Unlike the retched anonymity that allows all the real parasites and cockroaches work in the sanctioned dark of this blog.

      • typal says:

        No need to kick sand in my face, no slur on the Jewish people was intended. I just stuck with the metaphor and disagreed with an implication that odd behaviour is a sign of resistance to infection. Parasites are just the ticket for someone with a surfeit of immunocompetence, as in helminth therapy for example.

      • Juan L. Cobarde says:

        ** To my mind such cowardly anonymous comments should be deleted. PS All anonymous comments should be deleted… As a matter of fact anonymity and free speech are not compatible. I believe there should not be anonymous participants in a discussion, especially online. **

        Hear, hear! Anonymity is not only cowardly and incompatible with free speech: it’s stupidly self-defeating. Suppose you’re employed by a government anywhere in the West. You post a heterodox opinion on a scientific topic, say on WestHunt. If you do so anonymously, you’re a) a coward; b) doing great harm to your karma, as all Buddhists would recognize. If, however, you’re a mensch and post under your real name, your free-speech-loving employers will be able to reward you for your heterodoxy. Pay-rise, promotion, bigger office, two-year sabbaticals on full pay in sunny tropical locations — the list of benefits they’ll shower on you is endless. And if you’re important enough, the media will celebrate your heterodoxy too, to demonstrate to the public how important they think free speech is for science. To all those cowards and nerds who disagree, I have only one thing to say: James D. Watson.

        PS Free speech is also incompatible with disobedience.

  4. bob sykes says:

    I have to disagree. US foreign policy, including the Iraq War, makes good sense. We are a world empire and we have world-wide interests. If you realize this, our (and they are OUR not some mythical US) policies make good sense.

    It has been American strategy for a very long time (at least WWII) to control access to the Middle East oil fields and to control both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean sea lanes. We also have an interest in supporting our allies, nowadays Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Hence the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, which while tactical defeats were strategic victories. If you think these were defeats, just look at whom South Korea is allied with and whom Vietnam is cozying up to. Even the Philippines want us back

    Yes, we support Israel in part because the Jews are a very powerful domestic constituency but also because it gives us a foothold in the Middle East. A large prepositioned military force that would be of extreme us if push came to shove.

    • typal says:

      Brent Scowcroft didn’t think Iraq made sense, but what does he know about grand strategy?
      What if realists were in charge of U.S. foreign policy? ” Realists like Brent Scowcroft played key roles in the first Bush administration, which declined to “go to Baghdad” in 1991 because they understood what a costly quagmire it would be. Realists were in the forefront of opposition to the war in 2003, and our warnings look strikingly prescient, especially when compared to the neocons’ confident pre-war forecasts. If realists had been in charge, more than 4,500 Americans would be alive today, more than 30,000 soldiers would not have been wounded, and the country would have saved more than a trillion dollars, which would come in handy these days. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive too, and the balance of power in the Gulf would be more compatible with U.S. interests.”

    • gcochran9 says:

      National interests today mostly exist only in the minds of crazy people. They have little to do with practical advantages or payoffs. That has not always been the case – the upper class in Rome made money off the empire, the Brits made some money off of India – but strategic silliness is fairly common. I mean, does anything think that France’s colonial empire in Africa – controlling Timbuktu and all that – made France stronger or wealthier?

      The scramble for Africa was a fad: there was no advantage in it. Saying that somebody made money on it, maybe the owners of the company that made the Zouave uniforms, is not much of an explanation: that would explain everything useless, no matter how obvious, including a massive effort at digging holes in the ground and filling them up again.

      If you’re looking for some kind of logical strategic reason for invading and occupying Iraq – you look in vain.

      Of course lots of times people’s odd internet comments are explained by them coming from an alternate history – say, one in which the US lost in Korea, instead of a draw, which is what actually happened. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a paratimer.

      • typal says:

        If there is no logical strategic reason for invading and occupying Iraq, then that is a logical strategic reason for not invading and occupying Iraq. It seems the post is seriously arguing that logic does not apply to the Iraq war at all.

      • redzengenoist says:

        I interpret Cochrans comment such that there is no logical strategic reason, in reference to US national interests. The US might perfectly well have done something that was self-destructive to national interests.

        The individuals within the US who facilitated the invasion might at the same time have perfectly logical reasons to do so, which are at variance with the national interests of the US. “The upper class in Rome made money off the empire” is different from the broader population of Rome being served by the actions of empire.

      • typal says:

        The motivation for the North Korean attack on the south is not contingent on the result of the attack.

      • redzengenoist says:


    • Pincher Martin says:

      “Yes, we support Israel in part because the Jews are a very powerful domestic constituency but also because it gives us a foothold in the Middle East. A large prepositioned military force that would be of extreme us[e] if push came to shove.”

      Your general point about U.S. foreign policy might have some validity, but you’re very poorly informed about global issues and so your specific points don’t illustrate it.

      You mention Israel’s value to the United States as a “foothold” in the Middle East, and then speak in the next sentence of a “large prepositioned military force” if “push came to shove.” While you’re vague about who’s pushing and who’s shoving and why Israel would come to be a necessary military staging ground to settle the issue, it should be pointed out that the U.S. military already has several footholds in the Middle East that have proven of immense importance for recent military goals. Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm were staged out of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Operation Iraqi Freedom was staged out of Kuwait. To expand the traditional definition of the Middle East for a moment, even Pakistan was coerced by the United States into providing (temporarily) a staging ground for taking out the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan in 2001 when — as you might put it — push came to shove. The U.S. military has several small bases in the Middle East which can be expanded in a jiffy should a local need arise. Israel, which is perfectly capable of taking care of itself, is not among them.

      But your mindset reveals a deeper set of problems than mere historical ignorance. First, there is geography. Israel is a small littoral state in the eastern Mediterranean. It’s highly urbanized and already well-armed to deal with local threats. It borders Egypt (Sinai), Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Of what use is a large prepositioned U.S. military force to dealing with any of these states? The conventional military threat from all of them combined — even including Egypt in that estimate — is negligible, one which Israel itself has proven to be up to the challenge of handling. Yet you treat them as if they are the potential equivalent of the Warsaw Pact. And those are just the states which border Israel. The rest of the Middle East is rather distant from the Jewish state. Of what use is a large prepositioned U.S. military force in Israel for, say, dealing with distant Yemen or Pakistan or Tunisia, even if you could ever imagine a scenario requiring such a force to be used against those countries?

      Second, there are your military assumption. No conventional military threat exists in the entire Middle East that the U.S. could not handle with surprising ease. What the U.S. military did to Iraq’s army in 1991 and 2003 could just as easily be performed on any other Arab army. Yet you still consider Cold War industrial-sized military solutions to potential threats as a rationale for our foreign policy. But staging tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel in Israel is not a solution to a conceivable military threat any rational and well-informed strategist could ever imagine the U.S. facing in the Middle East.

      I think the terrorist and nuclear threats to the United States from parts of the Middle East are both real and ongoing. But there’s no serious argument that a large prepositioned U.S. military force in Israel is or ever will be the solution to them.

      Third, when you call the Vietnam War a “strategic victory” because ultimately the U.S. was victorious in the Cold War, I recall King Pyrrhus’s rather cold-eyed view of some of his own victories.

  5. HobGoblin says:

    “the peacock’s tail”

    I don’t know if that’s the best example of a visibly superfluous ornament meant only to communicate one’s ability to survive while producing visibly superfluous ornaments. It has a more specific adaptive purpose.

    “Moller’s theory was that these ornaments signal different aspects of the male’s quality to a female.
    Indeed, the results from the study seem to support his hypothesis. He and Petrie discovered that the condition and length of the peacock’s tail was related to the production of B-cells, and the size of the eye spots to T-cell production.
    “Our main finding is that females are looking at different aspects of a male’s immune competence,” said Moller. Males, in effect, are walking billboards advertising their health and status.”

    Face shape in humans may have a similar role.

    • ziel says:

      “It has a more specific adaptive purpose.” – No, it’s still just signaling, however complex and specific it might be. All other mammals can produce B-cells and T-cells without massive, colorful tails – unless you’re saying the feathers themselves produce these cells, which would be news indeed. Just because an ornament is signaling correct information, doesn’t mean it’s not an ornament – if the information were false, the ornament would die away (or at least become considerabley less than fixed in a balancing way).

  6. j says:

    Corporations and other organizations are known to flirt and merge, but nations only enjoy rape. In Iraq the USA experienced a fantastic climax. True, the withdrawal was complicated.

    The affair with Afganistan is unsatisfactory. America is becoming bored and longing for an exciting, pyrotechnical blowup. The North Koreans went to Beijing to beg Chinese protection, so now lonely Iran is being eyed … closely. Those ayatollahs with their chic maxi dresses…walking hand in hand, pinky in pinky…

  7. a very knowing American says:

    A lot of people have made the argument that it may be rational for states (or other actors) to get into costly fights for low stakes, or no stakes, just to show how willing and able they are to fight. The political scientist Thomas Schelling developed this argument in his books “The strategy of conflict” and “Arms and influence” long before Zahavi came along. A whole literature on “cultures of honor” is relevant too.

    An example of sending a costly signal to show what a badass you are: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Emperor of Haiti in the early nineteenth century, would order his soldiers to march off cliffs to demonstrate their loyalty. A waste of good soldiers, but also no doubt impressive, and scary, to potential enemies at home and abroad. On the other hand, Dessalines also thought he couldn’t be killed by regular bullets; only silver ones would do it. He turned out to be wrong about this. So when people or nations do crazy things maybe they’re following a clever strategy. Or maybe they’re just crazy.

  8. dmcallister says:

    I am scarred for life. Now, every time I see US map, Florida will be a dangling appendage.

  9. Greying Wanderer says:

    The federal reserve’s* ability to use the US military to destroy any non-nuclear armed country which drops the dollar as reserve currency is the only thing maintaining the use of the dollar as reserve currence (because Bernanke is inflating the dollar’s value away)(which is why you’re seeing food price problems in various parts of the world like the ones which sparked the Arab spring).

    In theory the threat of attack should be enough but in the current economic climate some country or other needs to be actually attacked every few years or so. So although Iran may be partly about Israeli foreign policy it’s also partly about the interests of the people who control the financial system (who indirectly control the political system).

    (*Obviously not literally the federal reserve but the banking system centered in Wall St and London as a whole.)

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        Russia and China made a non-dollar bilateral trade deal a few years ago and have been making bilateral non-dollar trade deals with smaller countries ever since. China-Japan in June was one of the most recent.


        The US military is only supportable* because the dollar is the reserve currency. If the smaller countries could make the same deals between each other (to escape Bernanke’s devaluation of the dollar) as they’ve been making with China and Russia then it’s game over and the choice becomes guns *or* butter but not both.

        (*Or rather currently there can be guns *and* butter.)

        The constant threat of attack on Iran (but not actually attacking) provides the herding benefits. I think an actual attack would cause a stampede to drop the dollar on the basis of the US being too tied up for a while to do anything.

        Could be wrong but an actual attack would test the proposition so time will tell.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        Greying Wanderer,

        Your additional explanation in defense your original ridiculous claim only made it worse. It might help if you had some rudimentary knowledge of economics, history, and foreign affairs that prevented you from sounding like a global conspiracy nut.

        I half expect you to start blaming the Freemasons next.

  10. JayMan says:

    “All of this implies that mating is on the superorganism’s mind. I think that this line of analysis has one clear implication: stay the hell out of Florida.”

    Couldn’t resist (particularly after 2:40 or so): To Kill a Mockingturd – The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – 05/02/11 – Video Clip | Comedy Central

  11. j says:

    Superorganisms matings are like snails or octopus matings – both partners can be play the male and the female roles, and but the mating has always a clear outcome: the loser will become the female and carry the fertilized eggs and the male will be free to go on mating till it finds his match. That is why some Americans are learning Chinese. Others “Hablamos Español”.

  12. typal says:

    On reflection, I shouldn’t have used the parasite analogy.

    • Wes says:

      Well the truth is, we do have, in effect, many groups within the US, that almost make up mini-nations. And the truth is, some are willing to drag the US into costly boondoggles that don’t necessarily have anything to do with overall national self-interest, How can anyone deny that? This has been true for ages. It’s silly to proceed as if this wasn’t to be expected in a multi-ethnic country.

      I guess on the scale of outrage, using the term “parasite” is way, way down from, say, a bad foreign policy decision that killed over 4,000 Americans and cost a trillion dollars. But, we all have our own scale I suppose.

      • redzengenoist says:

        I’d also say that the reality of policy corruption is far worse than mere “parasitism”.

        If only it were just parasitism! I mean, if this had been about merely embezzling trillions of dollars, that would not be so terrible. But it’s worse. The ethical and legal character of the nation have been subverted into a demoralizing and heinous course of action. Almost everyone in the US wishes we hadn’t gone into Iraq, and understands by now the deceptions which led to it – it’s not just a costly boondoggle, but also a poison in the national soul, whose consequences reach far and deep.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Gobsmacked! I’m really startled that this really went on these days. I am happy in the fact I am not running. I would love to wonder what will happen now?! I need to keep an eye on this situation .

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