August 13th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Belyaev and the Islamists?

I still can't get Belyaev's rats out of my head, can't stop thinking about them. At least, as we approach the 3 weeks since I first heard of them, I'm learning to think about them more calmly and rationally, with less deep-seated fear, and the improved concentration is making it easier for me to discard some of the most outrageous thoughts that went through my mind after finding out that (for those of you coming in late) a scientist proved that, with at least two species he studied, that 40 generations of breeding only the least-aggressive members of a mammal species with each other is sufficient to produce not merely a new domesticated species, one that is not only tamer and easier for humans to handle, not only more open to contact with and to cues from other species, but physically different looking in all the ways we associated with domesticated species. That doing the opposite, at least with rats, bred an entirely new species of rat that is so psychotic that each time they see a human being (or presumably a new member of another species) they go into such a frenzied rage that they will physically injure themselves trying to attack it. And Belyaev's last conjecture, now being tested via gene sequencing, that the gene for domestication explains the speciation of human beings from our primate ancestors.

I was talking this over with some friends over dinner, and one of them made an off-hand conjecture about this that's caught my fancy. Let me elaborate on their idea -- with the clear point, in your head, that nearly all of this is my own, that if you find any of this repulsive you should blame me, not the person who first started me down this path. Because all they said was a snarky, probably not meant to be taken literally, sarcastic question: "Does this explain the Middle East?" After thinking about that for 24 hours, I can actually see that, gods help us, it might. As my friend pointed out, it has been more than 40 generations since the Hejira. And while it's less true the farther you get from the Arabian penninsula, from its very beginning the prophet and his followers have taught that he most heroic, most desirable, most rewarded men are those that are the greatest warriors -- although you can find similar cultures of fawning over the most aggressive warriors in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan/Pakistan border and in Somalia. By heaping the greatest rewards on those showing the most aggression, especially towards outsiders, is it entirely possible that Arabs, Pashtuns, and Somalis have bred themselves for psychotic levels of aggression, for inability to show empathy towards others? When Belyaev's aggressive species of rats showed an overwhelming willingness to injure themselves in even plainly futile attempts to injure another, were they prefiguring the suicide bomber?

The cult of the suicide bomber, particular one that strikes not at hardened military and political targets but just at the other side's random civilians, evokes a special note of disgust in the rest of the human race. It is incomprehensible to us that Islamists are able to find such a steady stream of people for whom its less important that their attack actually succeed than that they try. Remember, a "martyrdom operation" (and what a sick lie that is, even by the standards of the Koran) is scored as a success if the suicide bomber just manages to detonate his explosives, regardless of whether or not he (or even she) reaches the intended target zone, even though the Koran condemns suicide in the strongest terms of any religion on Earth. We've been struggling to understand this for a very long time, and every time we think we understand what it is that makes this kind of attack possible, we get proven wrong. That is, after all, how the September 11th, 2001 attacks succeeded. We knew that al Qaeda allies had tried to fly a long-distance jetliner into a national landmark before, when Algerian terrorists tried to force the pilot of a commercial airliner on the Algeria to England route to crash the plane into the Eiffel Tower. But we weren't worried about them trying it again. We had concluded that suicidal attackers could only be those who placed no value on their own lives because their lives were so awful, and had so few prospects for improvement, that they were so depressed that they felt they had nothing to lose. And by definition, anybody capable of living a better life, like anyone capable of flying a commercial jetliner, obviously had too much to lose to be a suicide attacker. It wasn't true, as we all saw on that day, but we still don't have a better theory. Bush's hypothesis that it's just because they "hate our freedom" that much is moronic, but it has one virtue -- at least he's still trying to form a hypothesis, rather than just throwing up his hands and declaring it unknowable.

So I can't help but wondering if slavish, cultic devotion to the "ideals" of warrior "virtues" has, in roughly 40 generations, bred up several Arab, Pashtun, and Somali tribes that are no longer the same species that us? Did Belyaev and his rats, way back in 1985, explain the cult of the suicide bomber?
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