The Drone Debate – What’s Wrong with Objections to “the Dignity Objection”

Some of the ethical chat surrounding lethal autonomous weapon systems is morally bankrupt. I’m sorry, but it is.

Specifically, I’m referring to the arguments of those that would have us remove “human dignity” from the debate.

“Dignity” of course – wound up as it is in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – is that which deals with the inalienable worth of a person.

What’s more, as a concept that has informed the wording of the Geneva Conventions in definite ways – say, in prohibitions against torture and corpse desecration – the codification of “dignity” into the laws of war has served as an excellent barrier against the worst of war’s excesses.

Even though war, as organized murder, is probably the best illustration of institutionalized indignity-dealing one can think of, it’s not hard to see why deifying the concept is a good stop-gap against the worst war can deliver.

Without an acknowledgment for the enemy’s dignity – the intrinsic worth derived from his humanity – then the enemy is just the enemy, his corpse is just his corpse and his children just his progeny.

“May as well gas him with sarin, piss on his corpse, and neuter his children – just for good measure,” a soldier lacking an appreciation for basic human dignity might conclude.

As applied to the drone debate, the “dignity objection” is prefaced on the assumption that only a human being is capable of seeing the intrinsic worth of another human being. A drone, meanwhile, sees only a “target” – ones and zeros.

Indeed, that lethal autonomous weapons could one day be deployed on a future battlefield to make life-and-death decisions without a human in the loop is worrying almost solely because that machine lacks the ability to compute dignity.

And yet, here we are, on the cusp of a paradigm shift in war, and some would have dignity stripped away from the regulations – the government of China most notably.

As Pop, a Swiss government diplomat, asks:

“… What is it about AWS [autonomous weapon systems] that renders them particularly reprehensible from the point of view of human dignity? I fail to see what the relevant argument could look like and have also not found any satisfactory explanation in the literature.”

Or take the view of Dean-Peter Baker – who sits on the International Panel on the Regulation of Autonomous Weapons.

In Baker’s view, “human dignity” is a malleable, new-ish concept – only as old as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, he argues, it is “awkward” and we shouldn’t really worry about it when crafting “rugged and realistic rules by which self-interested states might actually abide”.

“Exquisite ideals are anomalous” to the ethics of war, Baker proposes. As such: “they inevitably end up in a position of pacifism”. Though I suppose this is Baker’s way of suggesting we omit “exquisite ideals” from our efforts to regulate war, it’s not entirely clear why exquisite ideals “inevitably” end up in pacifism (I for one know plenty of idealistic warfighters). But these views are what they are.

On the whole then, the moral gymnastics flowing like liquid mercury through the discourse is breathtaking. All of these philosophers are capable, well-mannered people, I assume. And yet… Gyrating between consequentialist approaches and deontological approaches – dazzling each other with jargon and the names of various Enlightenment luminaries, the arcana of the academy – at the end of all this we are left, finally, with something like: “we don’t really need to think about human dignity when regulating lethal autonomous weapons”.

Ummm wot? The absurdity of it is astounding.

More specifically, it immediately summons Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem***. The banality of evil, and so on. How could it not, when a basic value like “dignity” – the inherent worth of a person – is under assault?




Eichmann, of course, was the Nazi bureaucrat tried and hanged for his role in the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps in the East. For the most part however, Eichmann was removed, both physically and emotionally, from the killing taking place – not unlike the remoteness of most of us from what is taking place in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan et al.

Neither did Eichmann have an overriding hatred of the Jews – his role was simply that of facilitator and logistician – a lifelong mid-ranker for whom, as Arendt puts it:

“… the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution”.

Eichmann’s mediocrity aside, the most interesting part in all this is the awful philosophical method by which “the group” (and therefore Eichmann) arrived at the Final Solution.

As Horkheimer and Adorno have pointed out, the Nazis rationalized increasing levels of wrong-doing with the progressive logic of a syllogism. First came the confiscation of property. Then came the evacuation. Then came the concentration.

For the average Nazi, once human dignity was taken out of the equation and the basic worth of a person was removed from strictures of how to act – the final step, extermination, logically followed.

Thus, the Final Solution.

This is not to say, of course, that the philosophical discourse surrounding autonomous drones is identical to the method followed by the Nazis. Even if the theme of “progressive levels of bad ideas” is the same, the actual content is different.

Nor is this to say that inhuman rationalization of the unthinkable always leads to evil. A disinterest in “human dignity” does not “inevitably” lead to genocide in the same way that an interest in “exquisite ideals” does not “inevitably” lead to pacifism. The evolution from bad logic to mass killing is not an orthogenesis with an inevitable end-point. As Charles Darwin showed us, from a common ancestor there are infinite possible outcomes.

Secondly, before deciding if we should discard “human dignity” from the debate, it’s worth stewing on Eichmann’s claim that he lived his life according to Kant’s categorical imperative. Eichmann’s “approximately correct” description of the imperative was as follows:

“… the principal of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws”.

Which is to say that Eichmann believed that Man must act in accordance with what makes the most sense as a “general law” for acting.

For Arendt, Eichmann’s absurd suggestion that participation in genocide would make for a good general law was “outrageous, on the face of it, and also incomprehensible”. Still, as she worked her way through Eichmann’s stupidity she realized there was something resembling a “household” logic to it.

For Eichmann, the most sensical “general law” was the same as “Führer’s law” so Eichmann’s decision-making was, in fact, rational – at least insofar as it followed on from an initial (mis)interpretation of the word “general”.

But returning to drones, let’s work the categorical imperative into a thought experiment and apply it to our own actions – the act of actually having this debate about “dignity” and drones. Meta, I know.

If we are bound to act as if the action makes for a good “general law”, then imagine for a moment we are not only the ones having the debate about drones but also the ones who are on the receiving consequential end of the debate about drones.

Imagine, for instance, that rather than blogging this blog and reading this blog and producing criteria for the International Panel on the Regulation of Autonomous Weapons, there was a reasonable chance that we could be on the receiving end of one of these lethal autonomous weapons – a drone whose existence is, in part, the consequence of the laws this debate will produce.

Imagine, for example, that we are Yemeni villagers in Abyan Governorate listening to the BBC disseminate news about what kinds of weapons might be headed our way. How would we feel, for example, if in the process of regulating autonomous lethal killing objects, the relevant panel had decided that the “dignity objection” was irrelevant?

“Why,” the panel had decided, “is it important that a human pilot knows that another human should be ‘valued and respected for their own sake’ but a drone does not?”

“Killing itself is an indignity,” said the panel. “So we may as well discard human dignity altogether. Dignity is just too ‘awkward’ to be worth paying much attention to.”

As a Yemeni villager soon to receive the thermobaric consequences of this debate, we’d probably feel like our dignity had already been taken from us.

But I digress. Philosophical debates and momentary empathy with the Other aside, let’s think about some actual case studies. Case studies which show why “dignity” is important to the debate about drones – especially when it comes to the unique human capacity to exercise that intangible thing called “discretion”. The International Committee for the Red Cross, for one, has offered that many of the ethical concerns about dignity “are about process as well as results“.  So let’s have a look at this process.

Case Study #1 – Counterinsurgency Operations

Imagine for a moment, that a 5-strong reconnaissance patrol is posted in a mountain layup point overlooking a village in, say, Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province.

In Scenario #1, the patrol is manned entirely by humans – fully bombed up with a double load and ready to break contact in the event that the position is compromised.

Presently, a juvenile is seen ascending the hill beneath the position. Clearly moving with purpose, the juvenile walks over to a pile of boulders, reaches between the rocky gaps and procures a small bundle. Inside the bundle is a military-style bandolier, a high-powered spotting scope and a walkie-talkie. Although not armed, the child is quite clearly a “spotter” for the enemy. Therefore, by most interpretations of international humanitarian law, he is “directly participating in hostilities” and can legally be shot.

Then, something unfortunate happens. The boy spots the patrol. The patrol now has two options. Option #1 – they can legally kill the boy. Option #2 – they can peel-back with a “tunnel of love” back to a previously-designated rally point.

For a patrol manned entirely by human beings this is something of a moral dilemma. Killing the boy could easily be justified before a court of law. Still, some in the patrol might object to killing the boy on the basis of his age or the fact that the boy’s reasons for directly participating in hostilities may be unknown. The boy could be the victim of coercion. And, the boy is a human being with inherent dignity – taking away his life is something that should be stewed on before pulling the trigger.  More yet, killing an unarmed juvenile could lead to moral injury for the shooter – undermining the tactical health and well-being of the patrol for future operations.

There may also be another tactical reason not to shoot the boy. The muzzle flash could compromise the patrol’s position. Thus, regardless of the option chosen, the patrol might be doomed for “a compromise” anyway. In any case, legally the decision is the patrol’s but it is up to the humans on the ground to decide what is the rational and-or humane thing to do.

In Scenario #2, the reconnaissance patrol is manned entirely by ground combat drones. As soon as the walkie-talkie and spotting scope are seen, the boy is marked for death. There is no dignity objection here for lethal autonomous weapons. No discretion awarded either.

Lights out, see you later, someone down in the valley below lost their son today.

Case Study #2 – Violent Protest

Changing scenes now, let’s move to a civil disturbance scenario – say, a violent protest at the Gaza-Israeli border fence.

In Scenario #1, after receiving information that a specific telephone number is linked to a recently-stitched suicide vest, a team of electronic warfare (EW) operators triangulates the position of the bomber among the crowd.

The EW operators, in turn, pass the information onto a sniper in an overwatch position. The sniper, in turn, locates the bomber with his telescopic sight and sees that the bomber is a woman. The woman is also carrying a radio, a backpack and looks terrified. The woman is an imminent threat. But then… she’s a woman with inherent human worth. What does she know about the local terror networks? Perhaps she might defect. Is there some way the sniper could spare her, in order to glean information from her?

The sniper has two options here. Option #1: he can legally shoot the woman – she is a suicide bomber after all. Or, Option #2: he can request that the EW team jam the signal, which, they assure him, is technically possible. Then, once she reaches the border fence, authorities can pick her up and learn something from her.

By contrast, in Scenario #2, a future variant of today’s IAI Harop – a so-called “loitering munition” – has been loitering in the skies above the protest. As soon as the suspect telephone number is input into the drone’s system it geo-locates the number and flies into the woman, self-destructing with a high-explosive warhead.

An avoidable death probably, but with the drone set free to do whatever it will do, the call to end that life was only the drone’s to make.

Case Study #3 – Conventional War

Now, finally, let’s move away from so-called “low-intensity conflict” and look at a hypothetical large-scale conventional war between two states – let’s say between a Western country and Donovia.

In Scenario #1, a helicopter gunship has been dispatched to destroy an enemy command and control position in support of an advancing infantry company. Taking out the central nervous system will leave the enemy nodes situationally blind. After the Hellfire is fired and the command post destroyed, the human pilot sees someone crawling away from the position. It is unclear who the individual is. The individual might, for example, be an enemy intelligence officer or, even the commanding officer – a possible treasury of information.

It is also unclear if the person is still armed. He may, for example, still have his sidearm on him.

Per Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention the person would be deemed hors de combat if (i) he’s detained; (ii) he’s surrendering; or (iii) he’s incapacitated by his injury.

Because of the pilot’s physical remoteness from the gruesome scene, the level of incapacitation of the wounded man is unclear. It is also unclear if the wounded man has surrendered. To whom would the man have surrendered to? There is no one on-scene (another ethical problem offered by remote warfare).

Anyway, with the available information, the wounded man who might still be armed is probably not quite “out of combat” per se – killing him could probably be justified before a court of a law.  The pilot then has two options. Option #1 – the pilot could legally kill the man. Option #2 – the pilot could spare him, with the full knowledge that the man is a human being with inherent dignity and the infantry company down the road will probably be able to pick him up for tactical questioning.

Discretion. The main job was to wipe out the CP anyway.

In Scenario #2, there is no helicopter but a lethal autonomous weapon. The dignity of a human doesn’t get a say here so the drone deems the wounded person a combatant and double-taps him.

Thanks for playing but you lost the war. All that time you spent reading Clausewitz doesn’t mean much anymore, champ.

The point of these case studies is that every single option chosen would have been lawful according to the Geneva Convention. But would the decision to kill have been ethical? Maybe or maybe not. Depends on the moral code of the individual. Either way though, it seems like a good idea to have a human make that call.

Additionally, all of these case studies involve physical distance between the killer and the victim – the patrolman from the juvenile spotter, the sniper from the suicide bomber, the helicopter pilot from the enemy commander. In some ways, the remoteness – the physical separation between targeter and target – is part of the problem. If the spotter, the suicide bomber or the enemy commander were in close enough proximity that they could be bear-hugged and put in handcuffs, then there would be no moral dilemma.

In the last case study, it’s quite clear that remoteness was particularly problematic for defogging “the fog of war” for the pilot. Remember, it was unknown whether the wounded enemy was still armed – though it could be reasonably presumed.

It follows then, that on some level, making war more and more remote will also make war more and more “grey” – exponentially increasing the amount of unknowns when determining the morality of an action. But “remoteness” is not the silver bullet for lethal autonomous weapons that many anti-drone activists imagine it is. The advent of the bow and arrow, after all, has already made “remoteness” possible.

Indeed, as seen in the above case studies, the real problem here isn’t the drone’s “remoteness” per se but rather the drone’s “lack of humanness” – the drone’s inability to ask the big questions about the worth of a human, factoring in the inherent dignity of Man.

As a collective action that involves the deliberate killing of individuals by other individuals, war is the most intimately-violent act of social behaviour observed in humans. Why one would wish not only to maximize the remoteness of warfighting but also to vest a silicon-based life-form with the in-built autonomous capacity to kill a living breathing human without asking permission first is beyond me. More yet, why one would think it a good idea to remove “dignity” from the discussion altogether – to nullify human discretion and to treat humans simply as another carbon-based life form with no inherent worth – seems even more alien to me.

But such is the moral bankruptcy of the philosophical discourse surrounding drones – a demiurgic piling-on of increasingly bad ideas.

No doubt, in some distant, future battlefield, a soldier will be lying on his back, machinegun just out of reach, with blood and viscera slopping from his stomach cavity onto the ground. The drone bearing down on him has not determined that the soldier is hors de combat. A mere momentary glitch.

“Have you no dignity?” the wounded man will ask the machine as a gun barrel is levelled at his head. “And what about my dignity?”

But the word will not register with the machine. The “dignity objection” , after all, was struck off during the proceedings of the International Panel for the Regulation of Autonomous Weapons. The machine knows nothing of human dignity.

Then, echoing Baker’s words perhaps, the machine will reply: “an invisible dignity violation is an uncomfortably ethereal basis for regulating as crude and base a practice as the use of violence in war”.


*** = Side note: you’ll be hearing more about Eichmann in Jerusalem from me shortly.

(Review) Why We Fight: The Cognitive Basis of War

The following appeared in Canadian Military Journal, Volume 19, Issue 1

Martin, M. 2018. Why We Fight: The Cognitive Basis of War. London: Hurst & Company. 224 pages (HC), $25.78. ISBN-10: 9781849048897


Scholarly attempts to understand aggression in homo sapiens are probably as old as the human sciences themselves. From the labors of IR scholars studying interstate conflict at the level of whole political systems, to micro-level examinations of the psychological structures that impel individuals towards violence, the existing literature on the subject is fatiguing even to summarize. The story of Cain the farmer and Abel the herdsman can convincingly be read as a retelling of a land war between agriculturalists and pastoralists at the dawn of civilization. Later, in ancient Greece, Thucydides surmised that the Peloponnesian Wars were explicable by three thematic motives: fear, honor, and interest. Looking inwardly, Sigmund Freud imagined aggression as a death instinct which arose in direct opposition to the creative, life-producing drive exemplified by sex.

Continuing unto the present, others, from Konrad Lorenz, with On Aggression, to Azar Gat, with War in Human Civilization, have also tried to answer the fundamental question – why do humans set out, purposefully, to kill each other? In the same scholarly tradition is Mike Martin’s Why We Fight. From the outset, and writing as a war studies scholar with expertise in biology and social psychology, Martin’s thesis is bold and clear. “Status and belonging are the two main drivers of human conflict,” he contends – a claim evidenced by examining the neurological and evolutionary impulses that steer all homo sapiens in analogous directions.

Central to the study of violence, Martin argues, should be a mutual agreement that humans, as animals, are subject to the fundamental laws of natural selection – a biological fact that frames his status-and-belonging model. In then rejecting “group selection” – a Darwinian theory which posits that evolution can also occur at the level of the group – Martin adopts the gene-centred view of evolution, whereby selfish genes are replicated across generations by the vehicle of status-seeking individuals.

An organism’s primary prerogative, Martin argues, is to propagate its genetic material. This means that in a state of natural competition, humans will seek first to maximize two important quantities: status (which helps one to secure mates and resources) and belonging (which helps one to form war coalitions in order to stave off the violent ambitions of aggressors). At a neurochemical level, Martin asserts, status and belonging are underpinned by the release of two hormones – testosterone, the hormone which spurs intraspecific competition and hierarchy-climbing; and oxytocin, the bonding hormone which strengthens in-group impulses and generates hostility towards out-groups.

In also examining wartime self-sacrifice, Martin argues that combat altruism in early hunter-gatherer bands originally evolved because of “inclusive fitness” – the notion that genetically-related kin were included, consciously or otherwise, into an individual organism’s survival calculus. By this reasoning, a warrior should be willing to die for two brothers or eight cousins because kin persistence would guarantee his genes’ survival. As societies then grew larger, the kin identification-and-preferencing mechanism came to apply to non-kin such that modern soldierly “bands of brothers” now resemble “imagined” or “fictive kin.” In-group-out-group divisions meanwhile, continue to cause wars, while the risk of dying in battle is seen, in biological terms, as a soldier’s membership price for belonging to the group.

Implicitly, the group is understood here as a mere marriage of convenience for the individual’s genes – an obstinate rejection of the group selectionist view, which would see self-sacrificial war service as a group-level survival adaptation. As a neurological, psychosocial and genetic account of warlike behaviour from the perspective of the individual, Martin’s thesis is comprehensive – intuitively sound, tested empirically, and with anecdotes from his own experiences serving in the British Army on operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, his distilment of individual motivations for fighting down to “status” and “belonging” is nigh-on as good as we can ask for with currently-available research.

Full disclosure though… Mike Martin is currently co-supervising my doctoral studies at King’s College London. As such, and to put his theory into practice for a moment, there are both “status and belonging” considerations at play here which, all things being equal, will probably influence how I review Why We Fight. Having said that, it might surprise the reader to learn that although I see Martin’s book as an important addition to the sociobiological study of conflict, he and I furiously disagree on the role played by group selection (and by extension, ideology) in how and why conflict occurs.

Indeed, where Martin’s grappling with human aggression seems most inadequate is in his discussion of the role of ideology – here defined as the normative beliefs and values which adhere groups and which individuals within the group are socialized into holding as self-evident.

We know, of course, that ideology can be a potent shaper of behaviour in wartime. It was bushido which drove Japanese kamikazes to fly aircraft into Allied ships during the Second World War. It was the mere thought of having dishonoured the Führer which drove Hans Langsdorff, captain of the pocket battleship Graf Spee, to shoot himself after defeat at the battle of the River Plate. It is the utopian phantasm of a global “caliphate” which inspires a jihadist suicide bomber to blow himself up at a roadside checkpoint. And it is the esprit de corps – the spirit of the [group] body – generated by recruit training at Parris Island which, over the years, has propelled more than one US Marine to dive on a grenade for his friends.

When influenced by deeply-embedded ideological structures, humans in the midst of fighting frequently put aside their own interests for those of the group. This seems obvious. Such frameworks of “moral sense,” as Darwin described them, can be weaponized to ensure that individual organisms are willing to serve the group, even to the detriment of genetic longevity. This is group selection at work. If not, then how could it be better or more parsimoniously explained?

The short answer is that most bona fide cases of combat altruism which result in the death of the individual probably cannot be explained in terms of individual, kin or “fictive kin” selection because when one’s comrades are not one’s relatives, there is no genetic advantage selecting in favour of self-sacrifice.

This applies especially to expeditionary wars, where the violence threshold is well below that of total war – i.e., where the survival benefit for one’s family back home is negligible. In these instances, social norms override the organism’s in-built gene propagation drive. Thus, the group and not the individual is the vehicle by which natural selection occurs. Although Martin’s individualist rationale probably holds true for many or even most explanations of conflict, the existence and persistence of combat altruism presents a puzzling outlier, as the earlier examples show. This is where recent research in the domain of “multilevel selection” – which posits that clusters of organisms can sometimes behave like a “superorganism” and that the process of natural selection can “toggle” between individuals and groups – might fill the gaps left by Martin. Individually-disadvantageous, group-advantageous behaviours among non-genetically-related kin are observed across the animal kingdom – from parasites living in the stomachs of cattle, to leaf-cutter ants, through to forest chimpanzees, and finally, to humans.

As such, and although Martin’s well-articulated status and belonging theory may explain many things about the ethological history of conflict in homo sapiens (and animalia, more broadly) the significant exceptions to the rule where altruistic ‘groupishness’ does exist requires more serious consideration. ‘Zooming out’ from the individual allows us to look in on the system-as-whole – allotting for holism and curiously, given the scale, greater detail. The question of ‘why we fight,’ it appears, will never be answered until we learn to see a war-band of humans, not just as a collection of individuals, but also as an occasional functional collective.

Books I read in 2018 (some of which you should go and read as well)

As 2018 comes to a tinsel-wrapped close, tis the season once again for lovers of the written word to share the contents of their year’s reading lists. I wouldn’t recommend all of the below books for my dear readers but I’m happy to report that I found something of value in each and every one of them.

Sometimes, I disagreed with the author’s conclusions. On occasion, I found the writing shit. Often though, I found myself nodding and acceding – awed by a particular turn of phrase and wishing I’d written it first.

I scribbled enough notes in side columns (connected with bedlamite arrows) to create a lengthy Word document – which I did, for scholarly purposes. The resulting annotated bibliography currently runs at 67 pages – which seems impressive but is not even enough words to passably analyse a Roman Quaedvlieg Tweet.

Some of these yellowing piles of paper were even re-reads, plucked and dusted from the bookshelf. The books that were “second-time-rounds” now bear the graffiti of two different pen nibs.

For better or worse, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut was the only novel I read this year (I confess I only did so upon learning that Vonnegut was a trained anthropologist).

That said, my better half informs me that we’re celebrating Christmas this year Icelandic-style with a tradition called Jólabókaflóð. Preliminary research indicates that it basically consists of drinking lots of hot cocoa and reading books. This I can live with. Perhaps the Jólasveinn will leave a novel or two in my stocking.

Here it is. The list of 2018.

Politics & Society:

  • We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Democratization in the Maghreb, JNC Hill
  • Bandits, Eric Hobsbawm
  • On Anarchy, Noam Chomsky
  • On Kings, David Graeber & Marshall Sahlins
  • The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan
  • Earning the Rockies, Robert Kaplan
  • Algerian Sketches, Pierre Bourdieu
  • The Line Becomes A River, Francisco Cantu
  • Tribe, Sebastian Junger


  • The War is in the Mountains, Judith Matloff
  • War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States & Indigenous Warfare, R. Brian Ferguson & Neil Whitehead
  • Why We Fight: The Cognitive Basis for War, Mike Martin
  • On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz
  • On Violence, Hannah Arendt
  • On Killing, Lt. Col. David Grossman
  • Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger
  • Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves

Biology & Evolution:

  • Unto Others: The Evolution & Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour, Elliott Sober & David Sloan Wilson
  • The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
  • The Theory of Island Biogeography, David McArthur & E.O Wilson
  • The Social System, Talcott Parsons
  • The Social Conquest of the Earth, E.O Wilson
  • Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, Peter Kropotkin

Novels & Sports Writing:

  • Barbarian Days, William Finnegan
  • True Story, Michael Finkel
  • The Art of Freedom, Bernadette McDonald
  • The Push, Tommy Caldwell
  • Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Lessons from North Sentinel Island

The Sentinelese are in the headlines again. As per the norm though, when a prefer-to-mind-their-own-business indigenous tribe is making headlines, the news is rarely positive – be it for the native people in question or their encroachers.

This time, in a remarkably naive example of proselyte adventurism, a young American Christian missionary figured it was a good idea to breach the Indian naval cordon around North Sentinel in order to spread the word of Jesus.

Predictably, and in keeping with the history of North Sentinel – where trespassers are usually greeted with lethal violence – John Allen Chau, 26 years old, was tragically murdered by the Sentinelese.

Also predictably, some of the media commentary surrounding the murder is almost as awful as the murder itself.

News organizations, for one, seem to be unsure of how to describe the Sentinelese.

Are they a “Stone Age tribe” or a “pre-Neolithic tribe“? The ABC has gone with “pre-Neolithic” (the “last” one, apparently) – an adjectival monicker that is both inaccurate and insulting.

Why? The reasons are obvious. If we agree that the currently-news-breaking Sentinelese are our contemporaries, then it follows that Chau’s killers are members of a modern-day tribe. A hold-out of hunter-gatherers in a weird, whacky world.

Second, using the prefix “pre-” assumes that cultural change is a teleological process – a unilinear progression, from “savage” to “civilized” (as opposed to a process of adaptation and mutation in response to the specifics of an environment, as Darwin intended evolution – both biological and cultural – to be understood).

Neither is there any indication that Sentinelese culture is anything like it was during the pre-Neolithic period. No ethnographic or archaeological studies have been conducted on North Sentinel (in my view, a good thing). There is simply no available data to tell us anything about the history of cultural change. Or lack thereof.

Thus, the Sentinelese are not a “pre-Neolithic” tribe in the same way that they are not a “savage” tribe.

So how do we then describe the Sentinelese? Are they “uncontacted”, as Sky News – following Survival International’s lead – describes them?

Well, no. Apart from Chau’s own sorry contact with the Sentinelese, the islanders have a long history of less-than-fortuitous contact with outsiders. Starting with British naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman’s rape-and-kidnapping rampages during the Victorian period, the Sentinelese have rarely got along well with foreigners.

So they’re not “pre-Neolithic” and they’re not “Stone Age” and they’re not “uncontacted”. So what are they? They are just a tribe of modern-day hunter-gatherers living in elective isolation.

In the commentary sphere, some awful person at The Spectator, in advocating for colonial settlement of North Sentinel (I thought we were past this stuff), has suggested it’s time we “civilized” the Sentinelese. Any other policy move – like, say, leaving them alone – would simply pander to “the eco-leftists and other luvvies”, apparently.

It’s an argument you’d be hard-pressed to come across these days (excluding fictional characters in The Poisonwood Bible or a Rudyard Kipling poetry recital), but there you go.

Even more surprising though, is the response from Pauline Hanson, notable non-friend to indigenous people. Rather than hoisting her sails behind The Spectator’s Kurtzian talking points, she’s taken to praising the Sentinelese for what she sees as their admirable “strict zero gross immigration policy”.

This brings us to the issue of what we can actually learn from this story and from the Sentinelese more generally, because as Jared Diamond and Wade Davis have argued, there is much we can learn from the simple, domestically-focussed modes of living common among hunter-gatherer peoples.

In some respects, Hanson is right about the Sentinelese’s right to isolation. The Sentinelese are vulnerable inhabitants of an island chain which for centuries was subject to the depredations of colonial immigration. They have a right to be left alone. Their palpable isolationism – which they enforce with bow and arrow – is justified when we take into account the longue durée of Andamanese colonial history.

Beyond the coral reef barriers of North Sentinel, the geostrategic maelstrom that is the Indian Ocean makes for a tumultuous neighbourhood – what with India and China competing for primacy and last year’s genocide of an indigenous minority in Myanmar. The Sentinelese are doing well to stay clear of developments in the outside world.

More yet, there is plenty we can learn from the Sentinelese about how to live and be in the world, as I opined for ABC News a few years ago.

A decade and a half of feckless interventionism in the Middle East, rather than improving the lot of those we avowed to help has, in many ways, prolonged and exacerbated the immiseration of local people.

Otherwhere, our patterns of consumption are leading us towards ecological collapse – in contrast to the Sentinelese’s sustainable relationship with their surroundings. In short, we need to be less militarily adventurous and more content with living simply. Less homo geopoliticus, more homeostasis.

Unlike North Sentinel Island and a few pockets of the Amazon rainforest however, the rest of the geopolitical world which we inhabit, as the geographer Halford Mackinder predicted, has become a “closed system” – a highly-networked, deeply-enmeshed mess which can no longer be pried into its separate parts.

This is where the Brexiteers, the wall-building nativists and the Hanson One Nationalists get it wrong. Unlike the Sentinelese, it is too late for the rest of us to disengage completely from the world system. We are now living on the “World-Island”, whether we like it or not.

The ticket therefore, is to embrace a new kind of isolationism – an outlook that sees the world as it is, not as we want it to be. An isolationism that is one part domestically-focussed (so as not to create more Iraqs and Afghanistans), one part selfish (to proffer from the common market), but still one part humanitarian – in order that we can live up to the Enlightenment values we claim to profess.

Where policy-making is concerned, this means honouring a sustainable refugee intake, promoting peace building efforts on the world stage and, where mass atrocity events do occur (as they did in Myanmar last year) doing more to stand up for the most egregious human rights violations.

The humanitarian isolationist must still be willing to be coaxed, tortoise-like, from the shell, supporting the legitimate application of military force where it exists.

Such expeditions though, before launch, should be carefully scrutinized – perhaps with the Powell Doctrine in mind. Fewer “coalitions of the willing”, more “coalitions of the reticent but able”. Canada’s offer of aeromedical airlift capability to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is a good recent case study of this principle in practice.

To our shame though, last year’s Rohingya genocide was an example of where military force in the form of a peace-enforcement mission could have been positive for the stability of the World-Island. Instead however, we remain mired in our own culture wars (see Hanson talking points for more)… as well as the ongoing, unwinnable forever wars.

Let’s change the way we do stuff.

A Bunch of Incorrect Things Politicians Have Said This Week

So Alexander Downer, Australia’s foreign minister during the Howard years, has become a giant Twitter troll – and I mean this strictly in the pejorative sense of the term. I say this because while the entire world is mourning the death of Jamal Khashoggi and the corresponding implications for press freedom, Downer is spreading disinformation on the Internet masked as “questions”.

From the open source, the answer to both of these questions is “no” and “no” (or at least, “where’s the evidence before you start spouting this bullshit?”). This begs the question – what does Downer want to achieve with such trollery? For now it’s unclear – except that he appears to be going to bat for the Saudis.

Who knows if the stuff we put in our cars has anything to do with it (I don’t have any evidence to suggest it does) but to borrow from the former Foreign Minister’s conspiracy theory-mongering playbook for a moment: “is it true that Alexander Downer has close ties to the petroleum industry and is that also relevant?”

Downer’s ties to Woodside, after all, are currently being dredged up in the public discourse surrounding the Witness K sorry business.

Point is: without presenting actual evidence, asking such questions on the Twitter-machine is a pretty mean-spirited thing to do. Khashoggi, let’s remember, was just cut up into little bits and sent back to Saudi Arabia in diplomatic bags. Seems the era of #FakeNews is all-surrounding.

Elsewhere, Catherine McKenna, the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change came up with this absolute ripper of an explanation for why the Stone Age came to a bronzy conclusion.

Let’s review the operative sentence again (then we can mock it): “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. We got smarter”.

Well no, Cathy. Actually, this is extremely incorrect. Cognitively speaking, there is little difference between the mental faculties of today’s homo sapiens and the anatomically-modern humans who lived in the Stone Age. Of course, there’s a good argument to be made that groups as wholes have improved their capacity to store and transmit information (see, for example, the Internet) but this does not mean that “we” have become “smarter” – certainly not the “we” in terms of us as individuals.

One thing you come to appreciate when you spend a bit of time in the wilderness is just how smart and resourceful our ancestors were – expanding out of Africa; spreading through a multitude of inhospitable climates; using language as a tool for co-ordination during hunting.

Moreover, with all the rubbish that modern sedentary humans now put into their bodies you also have to wonder if there might be some link between the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup in America and, say, Trumpism.

No, the Stone Age did not end because we “got smarter”. It ended because of smelting. And since the collective detritus coughed up by industry is now having a good go at destroying the planet, one could reasonably argue that on a big enough time scale smelting was a bad idea.

There’s one important thing to reflect on when reading McKenna’s little quip about our supposed intellectual superiority over the peoples of the Neolithic. Scientists need to do a better job at out-communicating a few basic and persistent misconceptions about how evolution works. Making bronze did not make humans “smarter” or “better” in the sense of moving towards a utopian superlative. It was a specific adaptation to a niche – one which historically correlates with the development of year-round agriculture (which sedentarised us) and the rise of centralized government in the form of early proto-states (which, I’m sure we agree, has had varying effects on the human condition). A niche adaptation makes an organism “fitter” in the context of its immediate environmental surroundings but when that environment changes those same adaptations may actually reduce the organism’s fitness.

If a nuclear Holocaust does occur in my lifetime, the first thing I will do is log off this blog and set to the task of learning how to be a hunter-gatherer.

Key point to note: that famous “March of Progress” image you still see posted up on the walls of high school biology labs is fundamentally wrong. Evolution is not a process of linear advance.



Elsewhere, Australia’s former Defence minister turned head of the Australian War Memorial is making a fool of himself again. Header for this video could read: “Dr Nelson: head of historical museum insists on putting himself on the wrong side of history”

Having said that, they are pretty tricky these “he said-17 others said” legal cases – so we’d all be well-advised to wait for the allegations to fully have their day in court.

But in the spirit of Downerism, I’ve just got one question for Dr Nelson: “Is it true that Kerry Stokes, owner of Channel Seven, is Chairman of the Australian War Memorial and is that also relevant? I’d like to know.

A More Serene Democracy

When walking the cobblestoned vias of the “Città”– the capital of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino  – you might think you were wandering through an experimental miniature of the perfect society.

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The streets are clean, the food is reasonably priced, the mountain air is fresh and the mood at the Palazzo Publico – the centre of national public life – is one of calm and quiet.

From the walkways of time-preserved castle ramparts to the leafy streets outside the citadel’s main walls, it is difficult to ignore the profound sense of tranquility that irradiates the world’s smallest land-based democracy and oldest extant republic.

Even the Guardia di Rocca – the Guards of the Rock who safekeep the seat of San Marino’s government in red-and-green double-breasted jackets – are all smiles as they act the part of props in the holiday snaps of visiting tourists. Freedom without fear. Security with cheer. All this in a country that has not been to war since the Lords of Urbino laid siege to it in the 15th century.


The obvious question then to ask is why this is – and how can such “serenità” be imported into Australia’s increasingly toxic political climate?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that San Marino’s calm is simply an accident of history and geography – enclaved as it is as a happy little pebble inside the boot of the Italian peninsula.

All the same, a visit to this tiny country also offers a teachable moment in what makes a political system successful.

Founded by a saint as a communitarian geopolitically-neutral colony during the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Christian persecutions, San Marino is today a “city on the hill” in the truest sense – a white-walled castle republic spilling down the sides of the picturesque Mount Titano.


Aside from its defendable location, shrewd neutrality and ancient egalitarianism, San Marino also tends to a system of government called “diarchy” whereby the country’s main legislative body elects two Captains-Regent to serve as dual heads of state. Modeled off the consuls of Rome who co-ruled as a duumvirate, the Captains-Regent are rotated through every six months – the most recent being just a few weeks ago.

To Australians frustrated with the constant changes of leadership that have undermined recent Parliaments, it may seem anathema that stability can exist amidst such kinglessness.

Indeed, conventional wisdom has long had it that a recognizable face in office is tantamount to a steady hand. Australia’s perennial leadership changes have made it “the coup capital of the democratic world”, declared the BBC’s Nick Bryant. Who are we to label our neighbourhood the “arc of instability” – opined the Lowy Institute’s Shane McLeod – when Papua New Guinea’s Prime Ministerial persistence is 40% longer than Australia?

And yet, as the Sammarinese example shows, perhaps the regularity of leadership changes isn’t really the problem.

Instead of being an exercise in political blood-letting – a kind of ritualized kill-Caesar side-show as it is in Australia – this month’s transition of the Captains-Regent was orderly, mandated and polite – little more than a customary occasion that shied far away from international headlines.

By contrast, Australian changes of leadership are often discussed using violent imagery – the “spilling” of blood; incumbents as suicide bombers; “cycles of violence”; ruminations about who is Cassius and who is Brutus in the latest political subplot; cartoons depicting the sitting Parliament as a Game of Thrones-style “Red Wedding”.

Comparing this untidiness with what the Sammarinese do right, one logical conclusion is that Australia’s unstable politics is less the consequence of frequency of changes and more the correlation of two unfortunate variables – the lack of fixed terms for prime ministers and the obsessive cult of personality this engenders.

Until two weeks ago, San Marino’s Matteo Ciacci, aged 28, was the youngest serving state leader in the world. To most Sammarinese however, this factoid wasn’t remotely interesting because surely enough – as happens every six months – this particular Captain-Regent would soon be gone.

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Compare this with the amount of time Australians spend obsessing over the polling effects of Malcolm Turnbull’s wealth, Kevin Rudd’s managerial style, Julia Gillard’s gender and the religious preferences of Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott. In Australia, the personal oddities and ideological quirks of the incumbent prime minister do matter because – well – technically he or she could stay in office for life. So the media, either feeding or responding to popular interest, deifies the personalities.

Even so, because of cabinet collective responsibility, the real power of a Westminster system’s prime minister is technically denuded – more now today where a toxic combo of salacious media reporting and actual palace intrigue has any Australian Prime Minister constantly looking over his or her shoulder.

But if there is any instability in the system it is not because the office of the Prime Minister is too weak or that leadership changes occur too often, it is because, in the absence of fixed terms, the public and the party are utterly obsessed with the question of who is occupying the seat at the head of the table (and who is ready-set to unseat them).

If the polls are anything to go by (and of course, recent history shows that they perhaps aren’t to be trusted) then Scott Morrison’s Liberals have scored enough own goals to all but guarantee their own immolation at this coming election.

In all likelihood, Australia will shortly experience another change in government – a new occupant in The Lodge. Inevitably, when (and if) Mr Shorten does take office, new rumours will begin to surface about the next intrigue – all of it to the detriment of the smooth efficiency of government.

This state of affairs being what it is then, perhaps the best course of action is to permanently enshrine regular changes of leadership into Australia’s system of government, just as San Marino has.

The Sammarinese model shows that timely and constitutionally-mandated changes of leadership do two things: 1.) ensure that power cannot be concentrated into the hands of any single individual and 2.) redirects the limelight away from the eccentricities of the incumbent and onto the order of the day.

Those are both healthy outcomes.

In peace-loving San Marino, the good life flows as the sun sets in tangerine tints over the Apennines.

Why not have the same in Australia?

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License plate #: “RSM01” and “RSM02”

Procrastination = Meme Creation

I made a meme (am also reading about them again).

Would also maintain that this is the best meme format on the Interwebs. Why?

Because it’s a perfect demonstration of the Socratic method and the importance of dialectical critical thinking. Has good applications for discussions about ethics – including ethical debates outside the silo of working anthropologists.

Maybe now I’ll actually make headway on that paper and that book review and those two half-finished op-eds, not to mention that 100,000 word dissertation.



Footnote: replace “then” with “than” in the second pane. Still haven’t mastered that one…