Adaptability isn’t just important to evolutionary biology, said Dominic Johnson on Monday; it is important consider in political science, too.
History becomes more predictable when it’s viewed through the scope of evolution, according to Johnson, a fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton University.
Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in biology and zoology, argued that biology — especially evolutionary biology — can be applied to political science.
“Biologists have their own way of doing things. Political scientists have their way of doing things. What are the insights missed if they don’t work together?” he asked.
Johnson said that in an era of new security threats — nuclear weapons, cyber warfare, climate change — political and military leaders need to be able to rapidly adapt.
“Evolutionary theory is perhaps the best, most complete process of adaptation,” he said. “Evolution provides a novel way of thinking about security, especially in the era of novel threats.”
Johnson said that the United States military adapted very little during the war in Iraq. When compared with the Iraqi insurgents, the U.S. military had little variation as a result of the U.S. military’s tight standard operating procedures and relatively few U.S. casualties when compared to Iraqi casualties.
“The smaller, weaker side is actually likely to adapt faster,” he said.
Another reason why the U.S. was less adaptive, Johnson said, was that soldiers served short tours, so they had little time to adapt and improve, while Iraqi insurgents fought for the duration of the conflict. According to Johnson, adaptability is as critical as the adaptation itself.
Johnson used the War in Iraq as an example of poor adaptability. Improvised explosive devices accounted for a large number of U.S. casualties during the war, he said, but the U.S. military did not deploy the appropriate mine resistant armored vehicles until 2007 — three years after the need was identified.
Johnson also uses biology to study the causes of war because he believes that humans are not entirely rational beings.
“The more we understand about human nature the more we can understand about human behavior in the modern environment,” Johnson said.
Overconfidence, Johnson said, is a big component of human nature.
“Ninety percent of people think they are above-average drivers,” he said. “And 94 percent of college professors think they are doing above-average work.”
With collaborators at Harvard University, Johnson conducted a study to determine the correlation between confidence and aggression, in which 200 test subjects were given fake conflicts and told to either come to a resolution with each other or attack each other.
“As their confidence in their chosen policy increased, they turned out to be more aggressive,” Johnson said.
The study also found that Republicans were more aggressive than Democrats or independent voters.
“But perhaps overconfidence is not a mistake,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to be advantageous everywhere. It depends on the costs and benefits. Human aggression though, contrary to what many political scientists like to believe, is very predictable.”
Indy Li, a junior majoring in integrative neuroscience, said that science talks often leave out the evolutionary perspective, but he believed Johnson did a good job integrating the core principles of evolution.
“I liked the whole model of overconfidence,” Li said. “The idea that it’s an evolved adaptation to be overconfident might be a reason why the U.S. has been so successful as we are very over confident in a lot of the decisions we make.”