Security theory from an evolutionary perspective

The human mind has increased in sophistication by evolving to the demands of survival over tens of thousands of years. Yet the big brains we have now retain many of the elements and processes of our pre-neolithic ancestors. Examples include Dunbar’s number, the way people reflexively crouch when they hear gunshots, and evolutionary explanations for altruism. Topics such as these are covered in the field of study known as evolutionary psychology.

Jamais Cascio’s article in The Atlantic argues that we no longer have to wait for evolution to augment our intelligence. Cascio’s article is about tackling the big issues: “Pandemics. Global warming. Food shortages. No more fossil fuels.” Issues like climate change obviously affect the livelihood of every human being, but are notoriously difficult to bring about the required action necessary for a solution. Cascio writes:

… as good as our brains have become at planning ahead, we’re still biased toward looking for near-term, simple threats. Subtle, long-term risks, particularly those involving complex, global processes, remain devilishly hard for us to manage.

This reminded me of a concept in international relations theory: securitization. I have introduced the concept before. As put forth by Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver and Japp de Wilde in Security: A New Framework for Analysis, security is defined as survival in the face of existential threats. Issues that are considered to be existential threats constitute an emergency and justify the use of special measures. The process by which an issue is elevated to the level of an existential threat is called “securitization.” However, as the definition of security widens to environmental, economic, societal and political sectors, the sense of existential threat tends to wane.

Buzan et al. show that environmental security is difficult to securitize. Their perspective is constructivist — purely sociocultural. Cascio, on the other hand, argues the same point from an evolutionary perspective. This prompts me to ask the questions: How does our evolutionary psychology influence our concepts of security, strategic planning and military thinking in general? What sort of prehistoric bias do we retain today that blinds us to more nuanced solutions to security problems?

Note that I am not talking about examining evolutionary psychology and the act of warfare. Hoplology does a fine job of that. I am more interested in our mental capacities for long-term strategic planning and sense of security. I think this is a viable field and would be grateful if anyone has any material on this and would be willing to share in the comments.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
This entry was posted in General and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Security theory from an evolutionary perspective

  1. tdaxp says:

    I issued a friendly attack against evolutionary psychology late last month, that relates here. [1]


  2. dj says:

    Where did the New Guinea post go?

  3. Thomas says:

    The problem is not so much about the ability for the species as a whole to predict and handle it’s long-term threats as it is about the disconnect between what powerful and wealthy people deem to be in their best interests versus what is best for the world.

    Jared Diamond makes a number of good points regarding this idea here:

  4. feeblemind says:

    OT: In case you guys missed it, the blog Strange Maps (Post # 400) has a Japanese drawn map of the world c 1850. Thought you might be interested.

  5. zenpundit says:

    I doubt our paleolithic ancestors lived long enough or had an environment where “long term planning” was a meaningful variable in either a positive or negative sense.

    Studies of the remaining hunter-gatherers, like the Kung! San! show that they need to “work” relatively few hours per week to meet their rudimentary needs and the remainder of their time is given to rest, recreation, social activities and the like. This makes sense as the hunter-gather stone age slasted an enormously long time relative to a very modest degree of cultural evolution. Other variables must have been more important in shaping evolution.

  6. tdaxp says:

    Zenpundit’s write that in a low-population-density environment (either because of few humans total, as during the rise of the first city, or an insanely murderous environment, such as the kungsan) there is little need to work.

    That said, the evolutionary push towards long-term planning probably arose much latter. Greg Clarke argued that it occurs in settled, peaceful, agricultural society which are at the Malthusian limit, where thsoe who do not get wealthy starve to death.

  7. Younghusband says:

    @tdaxp wrt your first comment: I had seen your post, and coming from a CogSci background, which is heavily influenced by EP, I don’t agree with your assessment that EP is “small, marginal, [and] not particularly useful.” For instance, EP has been extremely useful in studying human language acquisition.

    @Thomas: Are you making a Marxist argument? (That is by no means a criticism, for the reactionaries in the crowd)

    @zenpundit: I agree with your point about planning and agriculture. However, I am thinking in more general terms. For example, I could see the roots of the Seer-Sucker Theory based in early human group dynamics. Or take Dawkin’s Middle World theory, which is an off-topic example. I am sure there must be EP analyses of risk and decision-making models.

    It is difficult to discover one’s biases without knowing what one’s biases are.

  8. tdaxp says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    ” For instance, EP has been extremely useful in studying human language acquisition. ”

    I think here we’re running into terminology. Language acquisition is of course the crowning achievement of “nativists.” I don’t think Evolutionary Psychology has added much here. Chomsky’s work was about 30 or so years before EP, while the linguistic EP studies I have seen (attempting to determine whether its easier to learn the names of objects in foreign language if those objects would have been pleasant in the EEA, for instance) have been inconclusive.

    Likewise, I don’t think CogSci is influenced by EP, though the reverse may be true. Cognitive science strikes me as an attempt to apply behaviorist principles to observable cognitive reactions.