U.S. Policy Toward Iran: Reading Iranian Notes but Not Hearing the Music

I confess to indulging, perhaps too often, in the easy sport of sarcastically evaluating the behavior of our irrational, illogical, “pick up a rock to drop it on my own feet,” “cut off my nose to spite my face” leaders. Today, briefly, a more serious leaf shall flutter: consideration of the practical implications for nuclear policy toward Iran of viewing Iran as a complex system.

Evolutionary microbiologist Carl Woese has given a brilliant description of complexity in biology in a landmark review of the evolution of both the science of biology and life on earth. The part of Woese’s article that concerns me here deals with the dangers of reducing a complex problem (in his case, evolution; in my case, achieving a stable peace with Iran) to (artificial but comprehensible) components. He distinguishes “empirical” reductionism, i.e., the use of reductionism as a research technique, from “fundamentalist” reductionism, i.e., the belief that you are actually dealing with a simple reality in which the sum of the parts equals the whole. His essential message for all scientists is that:

  1. “Empirical” reductionism is a perfectly reasonable crutch for understanding limited parts of a system;
  2. “Fundamentalist” reductionism is a intellectually disastrous set of blinders precluding understanding of the whole system.

The relevant quote of Woese is at the end of this article. It deserves careful reading, as does his whole masterful review of the origins of life and modern biological science. His bottom line is that falling into the trap of believing in reductionism as the road to understanding results in reading the notes in the score without hearing the music. Listen to an eager seven-year-old trying the notes of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto #1: that is how U.S. policy on the Iranian nuclear issue is being formulated – one note at a time without any sense of the music being played by a profound and ancient society trying to emerge into the modern world.

As U.S. decision makers wrestle with how to fit Iran into the international political system, they read the notes quite well – seeing a missile system here, an insult there, a political trend in the background. Sadly, they are tone deaf to the Iranian orchestra, with its complex interweaving of the themes of historical pride, patriotism, dedication to religion and culture, fully warranted security concerns, desire for modernity but not necessarily Westernization, desire for integration but not subordination to Israel, desire to see Iran once again assume its historical role as key regional player.

It is OK for decision makers to make practical use of reductionism to enhance their understanding of components of the international political system as long as they avoid falling into the trap of assuming that such an intellectual exercise will enable them to understand the real system. Obsessive fixation on the Iranian-Israeli nuclear dispute or the presumed attitudes of “mullahs,” or the self-serving rhetoric of an individual politician is not OK.

What is Iran?

Where is it going?

What is the likelihood of its presenting a threat in the future?

To answer these questions, it is OK to reduce it temporarily in our minds to “the clergy” and “the security apparatus.” This useful crutch will enable some to become specialists on the former and others specialists on the latter. The specialists studying the clergy will immediately discover that “the clergy” is actually composed of bitterly contending factions split by such issues as the source of governmental legitimacy (Allah or elections or military force) and the morality of torture before trial and whether or not clerical corruption is acceptable. The specialists studying the security apparatus will immediately discover that “the security apparatus” is actually composed of bitterly contending factions split by such issues as the acceptability of corruption as long as it is corruption for the benefit of the IRGC and the rationality of a non-nuclear state pursuing a rhetorically aggressive foreign policy against nuclear-armed, arrogant, but highly insecure enemies.

Hence, the specialists will be forced to reduce further, visualizing a clerical component believing in the electoral legitimization of government and a security apparatus faction dedicated to international arms control. This momentarily pleasing step in the direction of greater realism unfortunately reveals a whole new layer of difficulty: every time one visualizes a group in hopes that it can be defined as a real, stable component of “Iran,” upon examination, it turns out that the group must be subdivided. The whole idea of reduction was to simplify, but things just keep getting more difficult.

Fortunately, there is an end point in this reductionist process in international affairs (perhaps not for our unfortunate biologist colleagues who smoothly move right past the organism to the cell and then the nucleus and then the genes and then the DNA and then…). In international affairs, the end point is the individual. That does not mean we need to understand everyone all the time, because most of the time, almost everyone is going about his or her life. There remains a large group of individuals we need to track, but the real problem is that these individuals refuse to stay in their boxes! Conservative clerics sometimes support the IRGC, which is undermining their control of the revolution. Conservative clerics also sometimes emerge (pardon my language) as champions of the people.

The boundary between a rubber gasket and a radiator is clear; the boundary between a clerical faction and a national security faction is not. Members change sides and sometimes stand on both sides simultaneously. The individual decisions about where to stand result from unique, individual calculations. One is reduced (again, pardon my language) to making, with physicists, general statements about the “average tendency” of individuals (molecules) under some specific conditions. For physicists, the specific conditions may simply be pressure and temperature. They do not know how lucky they are.

For students of international affairs, not only is the set of relevant conditions somewhat larger, but the set is not constant, nor, of course, does anyone know how to measure the state of the conditions with any precision. And I won’t even get into the absence of linearity. But this analytical cloud contains a silver lining: the more complex the structure, the more opportunities for influencing its behavior. All you have to do is figure out how it will react when you poke it.

Woese observed that “organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow.” He could have said the same about cells and DNA strands. The remark also applies to societies and states and factions. All three try to maintain themselves in the face of constant dissipative flows of turbulence. It is fine to reduce Iran momentarily to the regime or the national security apparatus or the Ahmadinejad faction as long as you remember that those are all patterns with resilience, i.e., the ability to modify themselves (whether or not successfully) in response to their environment. We are not talking about fixed targets.

Even if Faction X at this instant plans a devious nuclear breakout and suicidal attack on Israel, Faction X could evolve. Or, if destroyed, it could be replaced by Faction Y, which would learn some lesson from the experience of having watched the destruction of Faction X.

Policies that assume rigidity on the part of a society or state or regime or faction create a pressure (in the turbulent flow) that inhibits the evolution of that entity; acting as though your adversary will inevitably engage in “evil” behavior is a self-fulfilling proposition and thus irrational. It is not in one’s interest to force an adversary to engage in the behavior one dislikes.

I realize full well that all of the dedicated decision makers who took the time to read this far will by now give up. They got the message: this is just too complicated! My theoretical argument may be correct, but they don’t have time to engage in the meticulous, delicate, ever-so-cautious poking of the system to see how it will react that my argument mandates. Folks, nuclear war is serious. There is another alternative. As for you decision makers, if you don’t have the time or energy or dedication to lay out a rational foreign policy, then retire and write a spy novel.

APPENDIX: Woese on Reductionism

We cannot proceed further without clarifying and discussing what is meant by reductionism. The stakes here are high because the concept is deeply woven into the fabric of modern biology, and biology today has hit the wall of biocomplexity, reductionism’s nemesis. Thus, a topic that previously had been left for the philosophers and scientific dilettantes has suddenly become a very real and global issue for the practicing biologist. “Reductionism” is a confused and cathected issue at the moment, in large measure because biologists use the term in two senses, usually without distinguishing them. This we now have to do. We need to distinguish what can be called “empirical reductionism” from “fundamentalist reductionism.” Empirical reductionism is in essence methodological; it is simply a mode of analysis, the dissection of a biological entity or system into its constituent parts in order better to understand it. Empirical reductionism makes no assumptions about the fundamental nature, an ultimate understanding, of living things. Fundamentalist reductionism (the reductionism of 19th century classical physics), on the other hand, is in essence metaphysical. It is ipso facto a statement about the nature of the world: living systems (like all else) can be completely understood in terms of the properties of their constituent parts. This is a view that flies in the face of what classically trained biologists tended to take for granted, the notion of emergent properties. Whereas emergence seems to be required to explain numerous biological phenomena, fundamentalist reductionism flatly denies its existence: in all cases the whole is no more than the sum of its parts. Thus, biology of the 20th century was in the strange position of having to contort itself to conform to a world view (fundamentalist reductionism) that 20th century physics was simultaneously in the process of rejecting. In a metaphysical sense, molecular biology was outdated from the onset! What makes this curious period in biology’s history doubly bizarre is that a fundamentalist reductionist perspective wasn’t even needed in the first place in order to study biology on the molecular level. The simple empirical reductionist outlook would have done just fine, and technology was moving us in that direction anyway! It will be interesting to see what history has to say about the biology of the 20th century….

molecular biology could read notes in the score, but it couldn’t hear the music. The molecular cup is now empty. The time has come to replace the purely reductionist “eyes-down” molecular perspective with a new and genuinely holistic, “eyes-up,” view of the living world, one whose primary focus is on evolution, emergence, and biology’s innate complexity.


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