Co-evolution Of Human And Technlogical Evolution: To What End?

A recent conversion with my friend, Joe, got me pondering the links between human evolution and technology evolution* which led me down a few rabbit holes to an evolutionary cul-de-sac from which I see no path forward. 

The Beginning

Earth came late to the cosmic party, roughly two-thirds into the 13.7 billion year history of the universe. Shortly after the earth was formed, life made a modest entrance evidenced in recently discovered microfossils. In time more advanced forms of life acquired and exploited the resources necessary to survive, reproduce, and adapt to the ever-changing environment (99.9% of all species we know once lived failed to persist largely due to five mass extinctions).

To put that timeline in perspective, imagine compressing the entire history of the earth into one year beginning on the first day of January.

Life first appears at the end of April. Plants didn't appear until the beginning of November. Dinosaurs arrive mid-December and are extinct days later. Humans begin to evolve three million years ago -- that’s a 15-second tail tagged to the end of the imaginary year. And that's where we enter the first rabbit hole.

Evolution Of Technology

Most people are familiar with the evolution of hominins transforming into upright primates employing their brains to overcome the threats and protect themselves from exposure to ever-changing environmental conditions.

Humans survived because their brains evolved to solve problems related to daily needs; technological evolution and hominin evolution joined to co-evolve.

But technology is not exclusively a human invention. Many animals employ technology. For example, New Caledonian crows in their natural environment manufacture tools to retrieve food in inaccessible places. 

For most of history, the evolution of both animals and technology progressed in harmony. Hominids initially used tools to do what most surviving species do: create shelter, camouflage their location, find and prepare food, and manipulate objects.

Three million years ago the human brain 
began growing bigger and smarter, eventually tripling in size. The first species of the Homo genus, Homo Habilis, began to create new technologies including flaked stones which expanded the ability to harvest more nutrients. 

A million years later Homo Erectus evolved larger bodies proportioned similarly to modern humans but shorter. Their brains were 50% larger than Homo Habilis and were fueled by better nutrition.  Primitive tools such as hand axes and other cutting implements helped them develop better technologies, efficiently scavenge and prepare meat, and perhaps use primitive weapons to hunt. They could walk and run longer distances than their predecessors exposing them to nutrients and become the first human species to migrate out of Africa. Most importantly, Homo Erectus may have mastered fire, a feat with enormous consequences.

The Beginning Of The End Of Lockstep Co-evolution 

At this point in history, technology primarily had aided in tasks that provided daily needs to acquire food, shelter from the elements, and avoid predators. Evolution had remained lockstep with the capabilities and needs of hominins. Then things began to change.

Starting and controlling fire was one of the more profound early technological discoveries that influenced human evolution. Embers of natural fires were collected and nurtured to cook, stay warm, and stay active after dark. More importantly, it promoted the development of the human brain. All life on earth is constrained by an energy budget. Humans are powered by calories extracted from food. Before mastering fire, most of the calories humans could scrape together were used to chew and digest food. The remainder was largely used to perform the activities needed to survive -- until we discovered how to cook with fire.

Prior to cooking food the majority of raw starch and protein that moved through humans' small intestines remained undigested and passed into the large intestine which housed microbes that consumed most of the calories to dismantle food into accessible nutritional components.

Cooked food breaks down the connective tissue in meat and softens the cells in plants. As a result, cooked food is mostly digested in the small intestine making it readily available to the body's cells. Harvard biologists Richard Wrangham (author of Catching Fire) and Rachel Carmody theorize that fire freed up the calories necessary to allow human brains to develop and conceive the technological advancements we presently employ.

Technology Outpaces Human Evolution

In 1965 Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, phrased what famously has become known as Moore’s Law: the number of microchips on a transistor doubles every two years, yet the cost of computers is halved. This exponential growth pattern applies to most advanced technologies in addition to microchips and computers. By comparison, human evolution is linear.

Technological evolution is accelerating because humans repurpose and recombine an exponentially growing number tools, materials and knowledge to extend existing capabilities. 

Human evolution occurs through natural selection in response to changes in environmental stresses. But the very existence of advanced technology limits, and could even eliminate, environmental stress. In addition, human evolution depended on higher reproductive rates among individuals most capable of surviving environmental stress and lower reproductive rates of those less capable of surviving. Technology buffers these forces, in essence, removing "natural selection" from the evolutionary process. In addition humans, unlike fruit flies, have long life expectancies and low reproductive rates which slows evolution. 

None of this argues that humans have stopped evolving. It does explain why technology is evolving exponentially while humans are evolving linearly, at best. 

Unchecked Consequences

I began this discourse by describing a time when hominins were inconsequential animals struggling to survive in the jungles of what is now Africa. Technology affected our ancestors’ lives a day at a time and affected the future only as far as preparing for a weather event or a seasonal change. After all, hominins needed only to understand the effects of their actions on their ability to eat, stay hydrated, sleep safely, adapt to pending seasonal changes, and reproduce. Primitive technology helped them succeed sufficiently to evolve and conceive more complex technologies.

Today technology has made humans the most consequential thing that ever happened to our planet. Our actions now can affect the future of all life on earth, for better or for worse. We use our technologies to plan our finances, choose a vacation, or even consider a future career or retirement village. We also use technology to improve the environment and search for cures for the ailments that plague mankind, or mitigate risks to the next generation’s comfort and safety. 

The potential consequences of our present technologies extend far beyond the time frames that motivate our political, educational, economic, and religious institutions to act. Evolution has not embedded in us an instinct akin to fight-or-flight that floods our bodies with adrenalin as we comprehend the long term consequences of the technologies that have evolved; adrenaline still flows in response to modern forms of threats that launched the co-evolution of hominins and technology. 

The pressures on humans to evolve are rapidly disappearing. We use technology to create comforts that increasingly isolate ourselves from the very forces of nature that once required technological solutions. 

The co-evolution of humans and technology has come to a cul-de-sac with no obvious way path forward.  Perhaps co-evolution will create a descendent version of GPS or a human brain to allow us to exit alive.

*I use the term evolution in both the technical definition and the more recent general definition (see definitions 1 and 2).

How Time Flies!

When I was a kid, summer vacations lasted forever followed by a very long school year. I could pack a lot of fun into a 15-minute recess. Exploring a creek and woods behind my house had no crisp beginning or end. Time stretched to accommodate whatever I set out to do. 

So why does January suddenly become July in my 75th year? Why do the days between placing the trash curbside evaporate so quickly now? Researchers have answers thanks to recent investigations using technologies and techniques that explore the bodies and minds of people and animals. And the research suggests we can dilate our perceptions of time at any age. I can't enjoy a grade-school-long summer again but I can stretch time a bit -- from time to time.

Time Is An Illusion

We don’t experience reality directly. Instead, our brains evolved to selectively display and highlight whatever was required to stay alive and reproduce. Our experiences are generated by electrical signals oscillating between millions of coordinated groups of neurons in the dark recesses of our skull. Physical time passes with the precision of a ticking clock but we only perceive time and events manufactured by our neurons. 

There are occasions when time stands still. Before we were born, time, as we know it, didn't exist. If you have been in a medically-induced coma during general anesthesia, time likely passed unnoticed; you awakened with no idea how long your medical procedure lasted.

During sleep, unlike general anesthesia, we have a subliminal awareness of time and sensory input. We process and prioritize words according to one sleep study. In one ear subjects wearing headphones heard unfamiliar “Jabberwocky” (nonsense that sounds like french but has no translation). Familiar English words were played in the other ear. Using a technique called stimulus reconstruction, brainwaves were monitored to determine which set of words attracted the majority of subliminal attention. When both sets of words were played simultaneously, familiar words stimulated significantly more neural activity than did jabberwocky. When only Jabberwocky was played, all the subliminal attention was devoted to Jabberwocky. Even in sleep, we are alert to familiar sounds.

The level of subliminal awareness and recall during sleep varies from person to person. An insomnia study determined that insomniacs perceive nights to last longer compared to sound sleepers; insomniacs substantially underestimated sleep time and overestimated waketime.

Follow on studies confirm that insomniacs and sound sleepers differ less due to time asleep than due to the perception of time asleep. Ongoing research is exploring the relationship between retroactive memory upon waking and states of mentation while sleeping. 

Biological Clocks

The master clock in humans resides in a portion of the brain called the SCN near where optic nerves coordinate impulses arriving from each of our two eyes.  The SCN is like an orchestra conductor coordinating all the instruments to produce a symphony; almost every cell in our bodies has its own timekeepers that work together to regulate our bodily cravings and functions. Our biological clocks determine when we get hungry and sleepy, our body temperature, our metabolism, and the release of energy into our bloodstream. Without specialized proteins called "clock proteins", our organs would not coordinate with one another to keep us alive. And the entire orchestra affects our subjective perception of time.

An experiment with mice demonstrated how time can seem to flow faster or slower when our biological clocks are altered. Mice were rewarded when they correctly distinguished between two intervals of time: intervals greater than, and less than, 15 seconds. Knowing that people with Parkinson's disease often have a hampered ability to perceive time due to degenerating dopamine-releasing neurons, the researchers developed a technique to use light to stimulate the dopamine-releasing neurons in the trained mice.

The scientists were able to design light stimulations to cause mice to either underestimate or overestimate the 15-second time intervals they previously knew well. Dopamine-releasing neurons were thus confirmed to play a central role in short-term time perception.

Using cleverly constructed experiments and advanced technologies scientists have determined that other animals have biological differences in time perception due to differences in sensory organs, brain function, physical size, metabolic rates, reaction time, and other factors. For example, flies appear to experience time passing nearly seven times slower than the human experience (a fly would perceive one second as if it lasted 6.8 seconds -- this gives them plenty of time to avoid a swat). The chart to the right shows how humans compare to other animals regarding time perception.

Evolution provided us with biological clocks consisting of dozens of electrical and chemical processes combining to help us eat, sleep and otherwise survive and reproduce. In evolutionary processes, physical time per se was less important than the cycles of the sun and moon, seasons, hormones, and electrical oscillations that allow us to extract useful information from the past and to predict the future. The perception of time varies throughout our lives for good reasons. For example, over time unimportant information is discarded or largely concealed in shortened time segments giving priority to more consequential experiences. 

Short-Term Time Perception

We experience time slowing down under specific circumstances. I had an auto accident nearly ten years ago. The windshield appeared to crack in slow motion. There is no shortage of anecdotes about others experiencing time slowing during an intense experience: a near-death experience ("My life flashed before my eyes"), or a spectacular sports feat ("I was in the zone").

David Eagleman, an adjunct professor at Stanford University, determined that during an ominous situation we don't actually experience events in slow motion but we perceive the events as if they occur in slow motion. To test whether threatening encounters slow our sensory abilities, our perception of time, or both, Eagleman dropped 15 research subjects into an adrenaline-fueled freefall on an amusement park ride and showed them rapidly changing images as they fell. 

Contrary to Eagleman's initial hypothesis the subjects did not see the images in slow motion any more than in a normal situation. But in retrospect, they recalled the experience as if the images were displayed in slow motion. Physical time marches on but our perception of time shrinks and stretches according to circumstances.

It is well established that specialized areas of the brain turn on and off as our attention fluctuates. For example, in a prior post, I explained that fMRI studies identify separate areas of the brain that activate and deactivate as one's attention shifts from science to religion. This explains how individuals look to logic and science to understand and predict physical phenomenon yet turn to religion for comfort when stressful situations are out of their control.
Electrophysiological measurements show that when someone is taking orders, their brain devotes fewer mental resources to, and spends much less time considering, the outcome of their actions; people will do things under orders that they would never do voluntarily. When people are ordered by an authority to torture or administer punishment to another person most will act against their morals and principles and comply. 

People also devote fewer mental resources to performing routine activities out of habit. Such activities barely register in one's brain and they may minimize or not remember the activity thereby compressing perceived time. By contrast, mindfulness practice stretches time, it intensifies and focuses attention making time seem to pass more slowly. 

Try an exercise used in a mindfulness class I attended. While you are focused on a routine activity (e.g., doing dishes or mowing the lawn) eat two raisins one at a time. Later when you are relaxed and can devote your attention to one task eat them one at a time paying close attention to details like taste, texture, the tactile sensations on your tongue, and your jaw muscles chewing. You will experience time slowing and sensations in your mouth will intensify as your brain devotes more resources to the activity.  The difference in time perception will be evident. 

Long-Term Time Perception

Short-term time perception embodies a continuous flow of experiences stored in short-term memory. Long-term time perception is formed from fragmented memories that are not necessarily sequentially organized; there are big gaps between memorable episodes that are unreliably organized along a timeline. 

As we age, we recall things that happened a handful of years ago only to realize a "handful" has become a double-digit number. Our cute young relatives rapidly became middle-aged. Our memory of each school year condenses into a few remnants of noteworthy experiences.

Over time we tend to remember past events by association rather than by time of occurrence. An odor reminds of an event, we recall a vacation when we encounter memorabilia acquired during a trip, we remember when something occurred because it coincided with an important date like a graduation or a special anniversary. Our perception of time as a whole becomes vague and dispersed over time. But none of this entirely explains why time seems to pass more quickly when we get older. There is more to long term time perception than how memories are stored.

If time perception were simply proportional to time, a six-year-old child would double his or her perceived time by age 12. In that same six-year period I would experience only 12% more time. But long term time perception is not proportional to the above chart, it is more proportional to unique experiences. Our brain is more heavily engaged in the more meaningful situations; survival and security demand we assess a new situation in terms of past experiences and predictions of its consequences. 

It is well established that time perception is greatly influenced by the amount of energy and mental resources devoted to comprehending and reacting to a particular experience; the more critical and engaging the event, the more prominent will be its place in our long-term memory and time perception. 

A child is constantly having unfamiliar experiences and must devote enormous mental resources to understanding and prioritizing the importance of each moment; almost no segment of time is unimportant enough to disregard. Young minds are constantly evaluating how the present relates to the past, how the future might relate to the present, and what the present has in common with other experiences. External time becomes relevant when you are called in for dinner or the sun has set.

As an older adult, a large proportion of our experiences are repetitive, habitual, and have predictable consequences, we can safely discard them. The excess baggage is dropped from our long-term perception of time and life feels like it is passing quickly. But research on time perception provides a few ways to stretch and therefore capture that which otherwise might be lost.

Slowing Perceptions Of Time

The first two suggestions temporarily dilate time, the remainder affect longer-term time perception

1. Be afraid. I don't recommend having an auto accident but "safe fear" like rock climbing with ropes, skydiving, or even reading or watching a suspenseful episode can slow the passage of time. But it is fear more than excitement that has the greatest effect -- perhaps because of all emotions that we have evolved to experience, fear has been throughout human evolution most important to our ability to survive. We "create" the time needed to survive the threat. A classic study sent 60 people skydiving for the first time. Each participant rated their level of fear and, separately, their excitement as they embarked on the plane. Those who rated fear higher than excitement reported the longest time estimates of the dive.

2. Have an awe-inspiring experience. As we experience or witness awe-inspiring activities time feels more abundant. For example, watch a video of an extraordinary feat (climbing Mount Everest, helping children in a primitive village, or saving a baby elephant's life). Research suggests you may feel more "in-the-moment" and perceive time to slow.

3. Spend more time in Nature. Some research subjects were taken for walks in nature while others took walks in an urban setting. Each subject was then asked to estimate the duration of the walk. Those walking in nature felt more relaxed and consistently overestimated time walking while those in urban settings consistently underestimated time spent walking. 

Recall dogs experience two minutes for each human one minute

4. Alter your routines. Take a different route to work, experiment with new restaurants or meals. Change the times and ways you perform daily activities. Volunteer to help others. Explore places you otherwise might never see. Change where you perform daily tasks (exercise in a park, write letters in a coffee shop, or make your grocery list in your patio or yard). There are endless ways to transform habits, routines, and behavior patterns into physical and mental activities that activate more mental resources. Novel experiences and deviations from mundane behaviors are effective ways to add bonus time to your life. The more drastic the change in routine, the more time seems to slow down. People moving to a different country, for example, report time to pass very slowly for weeks after the move.

5. Practice mindfulness meditation. Don't expect overnight results, however. In one experiment, people who meditated every day for weeks experienced the most dramatic slowing of perceived time. A likely explanation is that mindfulness training focuses attention on the present. To get a glimpse of the effect without waiting weeks, during a daily routine (driving, walking in public, etc.) pay attention to as much of your surroundings as possible. Sustain awareness of the plants, structures, activities, clouds, -- every detail large and small -- for as long as you can. Reject distracting thoughts.

6. Avoid multitasking, it is the antithesis of mindfulness. We multitask thinking it saves time but over time it can have the opposite effect.

7. Make daily recollection a habit. Pay extra attention to a couple of situations you want to recall later. At the end of each day recall one or two particularly salient events including as much detail as possible. With practice, you may find yourself becoming more attentive to the present moment throughout the day. You will find time passing more leisurely and generally feel more relaxed.

I don't include drugs as a recommended way to manage time perception but one can't research time perceptions without encountering many studies about the effects of drugs. Both recreational and medicinal drugs can significantly affect time perception. Drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and alcohol appear to make time speed up, whereas haloperidol, LSD, and marijuana appear to slow time down. Other drugs used in medical treatments such as dopamine and serotonin affect time perceptions.

Small Things Matter

Small Things Matter

Throughout my life, I have been fascinated by the thought that I have the good fortune to exist; if eons ago a chance encounter between one man and one woman had not occurred, I would never have been born. Behind all the consequential things that we observe in our lives, are the tiniest contributing details that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

A small act of kindness can lead to a marriage followed by uncountable generations of offspring, A discarded cigarette can destroy a large forest or an entire town. As in the movie, Sliding Doors, if at any moment we could rewind time and change the tiniest thing in the course of past events, the consequences would be unimaginable. The most entertaining among my random musings often are found as I trace back in time a current event or a new discovery in search of its tiny beginning. Here are the three most recent examples. The title of each section is the small thing that mattered. 

Bonobos Foraging For Lilies And Rushes
I am able to sit here writing a blog post because long ago iodine found its way into the diets of our early ancestors. A couple weeks ago scientists published a discovery that bonobos, ranking next to humans in intelligence, search the muddy bottoms of swamps in the Solanga National Park for water lilies and rushes to eat. These plants contain iodine, a nutrient essential to brain development. Without iodine in our diets, we could not have evolved to invent tools or laptop computers. Humans first evolved in Africa far from the coast where iodine is prevalent in seafood and where the bonobos evolved. Scientists have been perplexed by the fact that the natural food sources existing in the area don’t contain enough iodine to explain the evolution of the human brain.
Over time our evolution continued as we migrated to coastal lands that produce an abundance of iodine-rich foods. Today, we can be thankful that iodized salt helps us continue to "live by our wits."   Were it not for the plants in the swamps of Africa, I and my fellow humans would not be smart enough to invent all the stuff needed for me to write this blog post.

Amazon Rain Forest
Small things don’t just matter over time. They also matter in space. A molecule of water is a very small thing. By itself it would be incapable of having a noticeable impact on anything; it needs lots of company. It takes sextillion molecules (a million multiplied by itself six times in US terminology) to form a single raindrop. Water loves the company of its own kind. Water’s hydrogen atoms create strong bonds which provide water the cohesion to act as a whole rather than as independent molecules.
Gravity pulls raindrops from the sky into the Amazon basin then guides them to Brazil’s shores where 20% of the freshwater entering the world’s oceans mixes with the salty water that propels surfers everywhere. While the Amazon River is the largest body of flowing fresh water in the world, there is a larger “river” of freshwater flowing in the air above the Amazon basin.
In stark contrast to the world's largest body of fresh water collected in a river or lake, the largest freshwater water flow on earth begins with water fragments so tiny they can defy gravity working their way up xylem microtubes barely larger than a human hair and rise to the top of plants and trees two hundred feet tall. Transpiration (the process by which water moves from roots to pores in leaves to evaporate) puts water back into the air completing a cycle that circulates water from raindrops to groundwater to raindrops. 

This cycle not only moves water around but the process helps maintain conditions that continue to support all life on earth. We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. The Amazon rainforest does the reverse; it 'inhales" carbon dioxide and “exhales” oxygen. About 25% of the world’s carbon emissions are absorbed by the Amazon rainforest.

World's Largest River Flows In The Air
Each typical sunny day in the Amazon, 20 billion metric tons of water flow upward through the trees and pour into the air, forming an invisible atmospheric river that flows above the Amazon through the sky. 

“This river of vapor that comes up from the forest and goes into the atmosphere is greater than the Amazon river,” says Antonio Donato Nobre (TED Talk). the Amazon atmospheric river transports twice as much water as the river below. We can thank the perpetual motion of tiny molecules of water for sustaining life on our planet.

Time Zones
On April 15, 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched a military offensive to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro. Eight American B-26 bombers painted to appear as stolen Cuban planes were dispatched from Nicaragua to destroy Castro’s air force. However, Castro had been informed and secretly moved the planes to safety. Although the Cuban airbases were bombed, the raid was ineffective. On April 16, one-thousand four hundred US paramilitary proxies trained and funded by the CIA invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. News of the invasion spread around the world turning public opinion against the initiative causing President Kennedy to hold off further air support. As a result, the invading forces were overwhelmed.
The morning of April 19 Kennedy authorized a final attempt to try to salvage the operation and approve air support for the last-ditch operation. A secret mission using five B-26 bombers departed from Nicaragua at 3:55 AM and flew to Cuba. The aircraft squadron to be supported by a US aircraft carrier. The planning team including the CIA and military strategists failed to note one small detail: there was a one-hour time zone difference between Nicaragua and Cuba The last-ditch effort to defend more than one thousand invaders at the Bay of Pigs failed when the bombers arrived an hour before the aircraft carrier was in a position to provide cover.

Two US planes were shot down killing four Americans from the Alabama Air National Guard despite the fact that there was to be no American military involvement in the mission (public reports of the death of American personnel were kept secret for more than 18 years). As a result, 100 invaders were killed and 1100 were captured ending the attempted invasion. This event was one of President Kennedy's biggest foreign policy failures.

Butterfly effect

Tightly packed between a small thing and its outsized consequence is an uncountable number of unpredictable chaotic events explained mathematically by "chaos theory." The theory shows by simulation that in a complex non-linear system, a small change in initial conditions can cause unpredictable large changes in the final result. A simple example is seen in the movement of a pendulum that has a second pendulum attached as in the illustration to the left. A tiny imperceptible change in the initial swing of the pendulum will lead to an unpredictable difference in the pendulum movement over time.  

More frequently, chaos theory is summarized by asserting that a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on earth could result in a major weather event (e.g., a hurricane) at some distant time and place.

However, the earliest appearance of the term is found in a 1952 science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury. The story is about time travel whereby a wealthy man (Eckels)  joins a hunting party to travel back in time to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Before departing on the time travel, a presidential election is won by a moderate candidate over an authoritarian nationalist opponent. The hunters are warned not to disturb anything that might affect the future.

When Eckels returns to his present time, he discovers that virtually everything (culture, language, etc.) has changed including the fact that the authoritarian ultranationalist candidate has won the election. Eckels sees a trampled butterfly stuck to his boot and realizes that stepping on the butterfly has warped the course of events everywhere on earth. He begs to go back and correct the transgression. The travel guide explains that he cannot make a second trip to the same point in time. The book closes with the sound of thunder indicating that Eckels either committed suicide or shot the travel guide.

If time such travel ever becomes a reality, there will be yet another reason I might not be able to write this blog post.

Iran vs. US: A Look Behind The Curtain

Iran vs. the US: A Look Behind The Curtain

Image result for oil tanker attacked
Saudi Oil Tanker Attacked In The Red Sea

The US and Iran are locked in an escalating dispute that has roots in conflicting economic, religious, and political interests in the Middle East. The current Iranian crisis began in 1979 with the abrupt disintegration of a close relation between Iran and the US. I try to untangle the post-1979 history of the knotty relationships the US and Iran have had within the Middle East region in order to understand the likely state of affairs that will exist when we enter the coming election year.

This story is more lengthy and complicated than my usual postings so proceed if you have time, patience, and interest in the subject, and are confused (like I was) about the prospects of war and its likely participants.

Background: The Evolving Conflict Between The US And Iran

Following the death of the prophet Mohammad in 632CE, Muslims became deeply divided on who should be the leader of Islam. Violent disagreements about who should lead Islam persisted for the next few decades. A minority of Muslims worldwide (10%) belong to the Shia denomination, believed the leaders of Islamic states should be chosen from among Mohammad's family. The majority (90%) of Muslims worldwide belong to the Sunni denomination which opted to believe the leader of an Islamic state need not be a descendant of Mohammad. In Iran, the proportions are reversed; today, roughly 90% of Muslims in Iran belong to the Shia denomination. Picking a fight with Iran is de facto taking on Iran plus militant Shia scattered throughout the Middle East who are armed and supported by Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini led the Iranian Revolution and established the Islamic Republic of Iran in late 1979 after disposing of the American-backed leader of Iran. Relations prior to 1979 were friendly and mutually advantageous. The current conflict between Iran and the US began in 1979 when Iranian students took 52 embassy employees hostage for more than a year. The US responded by imposing economic sanctions on Iran.

Since 1979, conflicts between the countries have increased: Iranian backed groups have attacked and killed hundreds of US troops, the US executed a naval strike,  and a missile fired from the USS Vincennes mistakenly downed a commercial airliner killing all 290 people on board. Iran, in turn, has backed anti-American groups outside Iran such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas.

Ali Khamenei, (commonly referred to as "Ali") succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and hardened Iran's animosity towards the American lifestyle and its people. Ali became the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is the commander-in-chief of Iran's armed forces including the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Within the IRGC is the Quds force, liaisons charged with creating and backing violent external groups that oppose the US and its allies. Ali's attitude towards the US was succinctly summarized when he stated: “Wherever a movement is Islamic, populist, and anti-American, we support it." He also offers to back any external group engaged in hostilities with Israel, a “cancerous tumor” that, he says, must be "cut off".

Iran's Military Proxies

Hezbollah Fighters
The Quds force has effectively helped Iran establish control of many militant groups by arming and backing Shia-dominated militias in adjoining countries. Today, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are substantially controlled by Iran. In addition, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militias in Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan are powerful Iranian allies ready to support Iran's objectives and defend any threat to the middle east region. These geographic areas house the proxy militias that make Iran a formidable potential enemy of the US and its allies in the Middle East. Should a war pitting the US against Iran break out it would be unlike any war the US has previously fought.

It is unlikely Iran would initiate direct combat and invite traditional warfare. However, Shia allies armed and trained by Iran have over decades inflicted serious casualties. It is likely there will be an escalation of assaults launched by proxies against US assets. At the end of May, Houthi forces launched another drone attack on Saudi Arabia and Yemeni drones bombed hangars at Najran airport where Saudi fighter jets are housed. Iran essentially seeks to nurture its allies and proxies to the point where they, and by extension Iran, can take control of other countries.

Countries Encompassing Iran's Most Loyal Proxies

US Middle East Allies

UAE and the US just activated a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) that formally underscores a four-decade close relationship. The agreement pledges to maintain and promote stability in the region. The two countries have excellent financial, political, and military relationships. The Trump administration approved arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Like all relationships between the US and Middle Eastern countries, there are conflicting interests. The UAE fears democracy and the US quietly looks the other way regarding human rights.

Qatar is a strategic ally of the US. The US maintains al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, our most advanced and well-equipped military in the Middle East. It also is the most forward listening post in the region. However, Iran has a significant influence on Qatar. Qatar has close business relations with Iran, and the two countries jointly own the largest natural gas field in the world. More concerning are Qatar's ties with enemies of Israel. Qatar is friendly with the Gaza-based Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), is close to Hezbollah’s leadership, supports the region’s Muslim Brotherhood organizations, hosts a delegation of Taliban officials in a five-star hotel—and has cozy financial and political relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, initiated imposed an economic blockade on the country, and is aggressively lobbying the Trump administration to end friendly relations with Qatar. Iran recently tried to seduce Qatar by providing access to its air, ground, and sea space and send food and other supplies to the country. While Qatar has mixed allegiances in the Iran-US tension, it also has the opportunity to act as a trusted broker to lessen the tension.

Oman has a warm and trusted relationship with Itan but also serves as a reliable backchannel between Iran and the US, and has its own security, geopolitical, and economic interests at stake in the Iran-US dispute should it escalate. It also is in the precarious position of sharing with Iran the Strait of Hormuz. Oman was a key proponent and facilitator of the JCPOA (aka the Iran nuclear deal - now abandoned by President Trump) and could act as a peacemaker in the present Iranian dispute with the US. What Oman’s government would most desire is for the US to return to the JCPOA and for Iran to fulfill its obligations under the accord.

The US considers Saudi Arabia and Israel to be the two strongest allies in the Middle East, however, conflicting goals have complicated those relationships. 

Relations with Saudi Arabia were weakened by Al Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. However, for several years following the World Trade Center attack, the Saudi's remained politically and militarily attached to the US despite many controversial aspects of the relationship that the US overlooks due to the importance of Saudi Arabia's oil production, our need for military security in the region, and financial entanglements.  Relations have been further strained by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. That incident caused Congress to strongly favor sanctions on Saudi Arabia including banning arms sales to the Saudis. Trump, citing the loss of billions of dollars and the security threats posed by Iran declared an emergency to circumvent Congress and approve an 8 billion dollar sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.  In addition, Oil has declined in importance since shale oil production has turned the US into a net oil exporter. Nevertheless, an abrupt halt in oil Saudi oil production would increase world oil prices enough to hurt the US economy.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are both experienced in proxy battles. The two countries have been engaged in a regional cold war using proxies in four countries to do the fighting. Iran backs proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan where US troops are based. Iran also backs proxies in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Yemen (Houthis). Despite uneasy relations, these proxy "wars" ensure the US can count on Saudi Arabia to be an Iranian enemy and a US ally. This month, Saudi Arabia joined the US warning Iran not to engage in any attempts to initiate war against the US or the Saudis.

Israel is a US ally and recipient of US military support. In addition, it receives substantial international aid and political support from the US. In the past, Israel has been engaged in skirmishes with Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Iraq but remains uncharacteristically silent about Iran and the US trading threats; Israel has made no statements from the Israeli security apparatus, government, or prime minister since the US sent additional warships and planes to the Gulf. Israel's position is understandable -- it has the most to lose. Israel is surrounded by Iran's proxies: Iranian forces in Syria, Iran-backed militants in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon which has been reported to have just received sophisticated weapons from Iran.

However, short of war, the present tensions between the US and Iran could have the greatest effect on Israel's and Saudi's concern for free access to shipping lanes that Iran has threatened to block. There is no substitute for these shipping passages (ships passing from the Red Sea into the Gulf of Oman must use the choke point in the map to the right). These shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz is the most important oil "chokepoint" in the world. According to Wikipedia, "35% of the world's seaborne oil shipments and 20% of oil traded worldwide." passes through this chokepoint. The strait is protected by the US Fifth Fleet but the fleet must protect another 2.5 million square miles of sea that includes the Suez Canal which is now owned by Egypt, the recipient of the most financial aid the US gives to any country in the world except Israel.

Potential Paths To War

A war between the US and Iran likely will not be initiated as an unprovoked attack by one or another of the two countries, it is likely to be initiated in one of four ways.

  1. The US will use a pretext already in place or create one in the future, to attack Iran or its proxies. The pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction started the war between the US and Iraq. 
  2. One or more of Iran's proxies and/or a US ally will initiate an incident that will spread much the way the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo started WWI,.
  3. There will be a misunderstanding like when the US and its allies sent proposed conditions for Japan to surrender during the Pacific War and Japan responded ''mokusatsu,'' which was intended to mean in the context that Japan was reserving comment but was mistakenly translated by the US and the UK to say Japan opted to disregard the demands with contempt. The US responded by dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. 
  4. The incentives of the leaders of Iran and/or the US diverge from those of the people they represent. Economists and political scientists call this the "principle-agent problem". (A recent article in Military Review explains why the principle-agent problem leaves the US Army ill-suited to engage in a proxy war because of a bias towards a binary conventional war mindset.)
In each of these cases, an accumulation of hostilities set the stage for an act of war.

The US has suggested several pretexts for attacking Iran or its proxies.  Trump administration Iran hawks have made intentionally ambiguous and broad threats towards Iran and their proxies threatening military action if "U.S. personnel, facilities or interests are attacked by Iran or its proxies". The US has already claimed it is "highly likely" that Iran is behind the explosives attack on four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman but stopped short of retaliating without evidence of what proxies were involved. By making such broad threats, 

Proxy-initiated war
There are several militias in the Middle East on both sides that are itching for war, and there are ongoing attacks that could escalate into war. A little over a week ago,  on May 19, a Katyusha rocket landed less than a half-mile from the US Embassy in Baghdad. Oil tankers and pipelines have been sabotaged and two Saudi oil pumping stations were attacked by a long distant drone - Houthi militia claimed responsibility.

Saudi Arabia appears to be a prime target in Iran's proxy plan. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) is, according to the Trump administration, attempting to establish a permanent base in Lebanon where Hezbollah, the most powerful militia in the world, is more powerful than the Lebanese Army. Today (May 31, 2019) Hezbollah's Secretary General said "...know well that any war on Iran will not remain confined to Iran's borders. The entire region will burn", leading to all US forces and interests in the region being "annihilated". Although this appears to be bluster, it portrays a level of hostility that could easily be ignited.

Fortunately, Russia, an ally of Iran, recognizes the potentially explosive proxy relations surrounding Israel, and Saudi Arabia. In an attempt to subdue tension in the region, Russia rejected an Iranian request to buy S-400 missile defense systems. The S-400 missile system can be equipped with four types of missiles capable of covering from 40 to 400 kilometers.

Israel is struggling to maintain relations with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman while Iran has significant allies in Syria, Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. These are a lot of wild cards in a high stakes game that could turn bluffs into a Middle East war.


Thus far misunderstandings have been sufficiently muted to avoid armed conflict.  The US accused Iran of moving missiles into the Persian Gulf and, believing the missile movement to be in preparation for an offensive strike. The US, believing that the act put US assets in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar at risk, responded by moving an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers into the region. It is not clear if the US reaction was sincere or a potential pretext for military action. Nevertheless, this is the type of misunderstanding that prompted the US to enter the war in Iraq. US military intervention in Iraq was blamed on an erroneous claim that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction.

Principal-agent problem

A principal-agent typically occurs when the agent acts solely in his/her own interests rather than the interest of the principal. The principal is the party that legally appoints the agent to make decisions and take actions on its behalf; in the current context current US-Iran dispute, the motives and incentives of our elected politicians (the agent) and the American public (the principal) could diverge over a dispute with Iran. (Iran may have their own such divergence but I do not have enough information to speculate on that prospect.)

The US Senate reintroduced the stalled “Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act,” apparently as a precaution against war hawks like Bolton and Pompeo circumventing Congress to initiate military action against Iran as a diversion from Trump's legal troubles and desire to win reelection. An opinion piece in the Tennessean cited several indications that suggest such motives: "...September 2018 request to the Pentagon for military strike options against Iran; the State Department’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization; Pompeo’s assertion against expert assessments that Iran is connected to al-Qaeda; and the related suggestion that a presidential decision for military action against Iran may be covered under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force." If these motives are behind the Iranian dispute, the Trump administration would be creating a deadly serious principle-agent problem.

The Likelihood Of A War

“The U.S. can destroy the Iranian navy in a day, but it will find it is attacked in six countries by proxy networks,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute think tank. Both Iran and the Trump administration know this and publicly state that they do not want war. Yet the rhetoric persists. In a CBS interview, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke proclaimed "President Trump is escalating tensions, is provoking yet another war in the Middle East..."

Anticipating war
  • At a time when Iran is suffering greatly due to US sanctions, the U.S. took aim at eliminating Iran's access to revenue from oil by effectively ordering countries worldwide to stop buying Tehran’s oil or face sanctions of their own. 
  • Additionally, the U.S. designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Iran responded with threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, where about a third of the world’s oil export vessels pass through.
  • On May 19, Trump tweeted "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!"
  • Iran warned that if Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia don't help Iran circumvent US sanctions and help Iran sell its oil, Tehran would increase its enrichment of uranium, a fuel that can be used for both peaceful nuclear energy and building the world’s deadliest weapon.
Doubting war
  • Despite the Trump Administration’s aggressive stance, there have been no major incidents in the Persian Gulf since an Iranian drone approached the U.S.S. Nimitz in international waters as a F/A-18 was trying to land on the aircraft carrier.
  • Trump adamantly denies he wants a war with Iran.
  • Iran just warned armed groups tied to Iran to refrain from taking any action that could provoke American retaliation.
  • More than 70 retired admirals, generals, and ambassadors wrote in an open letter to President Trump telling him to avoid war with Iran. They pleaded: “As President and Commander-in-Chief, you have considerable power at your disposal to immediately reduce the dangerous levels of regional tension.” The group strongly encouraged Trump to employ "...aggressive diplomacy rather than unnecessary armed conflict." 

Three Likely Outcomes

1. Trump is bluffing. 
In North Korea, when Trump threatened Kim Jong Un labeling him “little rocket man,” and threatened "fire and fury" there were warnings to head to the bomb shelters. There was no fire and no fury. Trump recently called for regime change and threatened military military intervention in Venezuela. Both threats died without significant concessions from either country. Nor did Trump follow through when he promised to shut down the government if he didn't get his money for the border wall. 

Of course, there are many occasions when Trump was thought to be bluffing and wasn't: trade wars were implemented, and he wasn't bluffing when he made it clear that anyone in his administration who disagrees with him gets fired. Nevertheless, Bluffers are successful when they are unpredictable. But Trump has a record of backing down when the stakes are very high; he prefers to let his war hawks, Bolton and Pompeo, bluster on his behalf and later take credit for a "resolution" attributed to his unparalleled negotiating skills. Expect this to play out during next year's presidential campaigns.

2. Oil fuels fire and fury. Production and transport of oil will be sabotaged in the early stages of a larger conflict. Because there is no large-scale substitute for oil, countries will be pressured to form stronger alliances with either Iran or the US allies in the Middle East to maintain access to transportation routes and oil fields. Neutral groups will be forced to choose sides. Both both WWI and WWII were preceded by prewar alliances. If there is a third world war brewing, it is likely that most of the Middle East countries will choose to coalesce around US allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE). Iran will accelerate its efforts to support, arm, and mobilize its proxies. Over time the state-sponsored armed forces will join the Iran alliance in countries where Iran's proxies are dominant. The US and its allies will fight in a conventional force-on-force manner and the Iranian allies will employ guerrilla-style warfare typical of terrorists.

Global disruptions of oil supply will cause countries outside the Middle East (e.g., China, Japan, India)  to align with one or the other alliance. Russia has significant oil reserves and is closely aligned with Iran. Access to Russian and Iranian oil will attract some neutral countries to join that alliance. These dynamics could foster a classic world war and, unlike WWII, both sides will have access to nuclear weapons creating a frightening scenario.
3. Bickering continues. Skirmishes in the Middle East will continue and threats of larger scale military activities will be volleyed by opposing forces and minor violent conflicts will continue without drawing the US or Iran into full-scale binary war. President Trump will encourage the chaos as a diversion from investigations into his alleged misconduct and manipulate it to enhance his reelection prospects. 
The leadership in Iran will grow weary of the economic hardships imposed by US sanctions. Iranian oil exports will continue to drop despite attempts by Russia and China to circumvent the sanctions. Iran's domestic inflation will soar and the economy will show signs of collapsing. Out of desperation, Iran will move closer to abandoning the residual nuclear deal (JCPOA) but will be unable to create nuclear weapons. Iran will remain obstinate hoping Trump will lose reelection thereby opening the door to a diplomatic reconciliation with the US.