Saddam’s bioterrorism is rational from a evolutionary psychology point of view

A view on the conflict from the standpoint of cognitive science/social science



  • Steven Pinker (“How the mind works”): People may use “doomsday machines” (strategies that are both harmful to themselves and an agressor) to deter agressors.

  • Hernando de Soto (“The Mystery of Capital”) An important reason a society with big differences are more prone to violence is that the underprivileged do not have any bargaining power.

  • Personal opinion: In a conflict with two countries that are dramatically unevenly matched, we should expect the underprivileged to resort to “doomsday machine” strategies.

  • Extending the argument from psychology to global politics is not supported by these data, but


    • Iraq is controlled by a small number of people, which makes it more likely to act in accordance with the personal feelings of these people.

    • The “doomsday machine” strategy was first used to analyse global politics and was there called “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD). (Pinker)

In the war, this is some practical predictions:



  • Saddam’s forces will set the oil fields on fire

  • Saddam’s forces will draw fighting into residential areas to cause massive civilian casualties

  • Saddam’s forces will attempt to use civilians as human shields

  • Saddam will attempt to enrage his neighbours to escalate the war

  • Saddam will attempt any dirty trick to get back at the US (like terrorism)

At this point, Saddam is a man with nothing at the bargaining table. And as the saying goes: “If you have got nothing, you have got nothing to lose”.


Disclaimer: Modern “Darwinian ethics” are very clear on separating between explaining and defending behaviour. The stance of “Darwinian ethics” is that if we want as people to behave better, we need to have an understanding of the darker impulses within us all.

Copyright © 2003 Johannes Brodwall. All Rights Reserved.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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