On the Origin of Specious Arguments

Hugh Gusterson reviews Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, edited by Raphael D. Sagarin and Terence Taylor, in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_02 Feb. 17 12.51 I mainly learned from this volume that evolutionary theory can have a strangely narcotic effect on the brains of otherwise intelligent people, leading them to take quite bizarre positions. Take, for example, Bradley A. Thayer’s argument in chapter 8 that “Islamic fundamentalist terrorism may be considered a male mating strategy.” Thayer, a senior analyst in international and national security affairs at the National Institute for Public Policy, does acknowledge that there are a wide variety of causes for such terrorism. But he also argues that it is no coincidence that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis, because Saudi Arabia practices polygamy, leaving many young males desperate for mates. According to Thayer, the 9/11 hijackers killed themselves in a spectacular effort to “increase their attractiveness as mates.” Leaving aside the question of why he would expect the murdering of thousands of innocent civilians to make someone sexually attractive, one might reasonably object that killing oneself is not a very promising reproductive strategy.

But Thayer has already thought of this: He points out that the hijackers were promised 70 virgins in the afterlife. He does not tell us whether the laws of natural selection also apply in heaven. He does, however, opine that the hijackers’ siblings, with whom they share genes, will also be rendered more attractive as mates. Like so much in this book, this is stated as self-evident fact, with no supporting evidence required. Did anyone check to see whether the hijackers’ siblings found themselves fighting off marriage proposals?

More here.