Commentary by Armando Geller on Blumstein et al. (The Peacock’s Tale)

By Peter Turchin March 6, 2012 One Comment

Students of international relations have applied signaling models to a variety of problems: decision to go to war (Morrow 1992), dispute resolution (Holler and Lindner 2004), foreign policy (Fearon 1997) and crisis bargaining (Tarar and Leventoglu 2008), to name a few. The eminent authors, Daniel T. Blumstein, Scott Atran, Scott Field, Michael E. Hochberg, Dominic D. P. Johnson, Raphael Sagarin, Richard Sosis, and Bradley Thayer, argue that studying signaling in nature reveals much about the underlying mechanisms of signaling in international politics. I remain skeptical: Humans use language purposively not only to formulate thoughts, but also thoughts about thoughts, knowingly distinguishing themselves from peacocks or deer. Consequently, signaling systems along with their associated behavior have emerged as outcomes of purposive interactions among human entities. For example, diplomatic behaviors such as trust building, deception and escalation have come about not as merely evolutionarily superior behaviors, but as products of groups of humans reflecting on their own and on one another’s thoughts that are assumed to represent, express, and reason about behaviors.

Do we find signaling systems with equally high-dimensional reflection in nature? I believe not. The degree of human cognitive capability and organizational machineries required for signaling in international politics render the evolutionary concepts in Blumstein et al. weak candidates for explaining international political behavior. For example, comparing escalation mechanisms among deer with the escalation ladder described by Kahn (1965) quickly turns into a futile exercise. Some evidence may point to “notional” similarities between mechanisms of signaling in international politics and those in nature. However, relying on such evidence to prescribe certain policies and specific behaviors is ill-advised.

Call me conventional, but I have a hard time believing that a negotiator must communicate honestly in order to be effective as dictated by the peacock’s tail. I also find it difficult to derive policy from signaling systems in nature that can answer questions such as when should states apologize, individuals commit suicide terrorism, and Al-Qaeda kill a hostage; at least at this stage of scientific inquiry. So lessons from evolution (for example for signaling) should be underpinned empirically and perhaps even experimentally if they are to evolve into more than a catch phrase for military-industrial circles, as was “complexity”.

As an undergraduate student I was once rebuked by a professor for using a scene from an Asterix and Obelix comic book to illustrate cultural variation in the usage of time in the High Middle Ages. He thought it was a bad analogy because it lacked contextual correspondence. So what to take away from the article? That some evolutionary signaling mechanisms appear relevant for explaining signaling in international politics? That may be true. Yet, far more evidence should be brought to the fore to link signaling in nature with that in international politics empirically. Beginning with the differences between the two phenomena is perhaps a way forward.


Fearon, James D. (1997) Signaling Foreign Policy Interests. Tying Hands versus Sinking Costs. Journal of Conflict Resolution 41(1):68-90.

Holler Manfred J. and Ines Lindner (2004) Mediation as Signal. European Journal of Law and Economics 17(2):165-173.

Kahn, Herman (1965) On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios. New York: Praeger.

Morrow, James D. (1992) Signaling Difficulties with Linkage in Crisis Bargaining. International Studies Quarterly 36(2):153-172.

Tarar, Ahmed and Bahar Leventoğlu (2008) Bargaining and Signaling in International Crises. Unpublished paper.

Armando Geller

Group W and George Mason University

Published On: March 6, 2012

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

One Comment

  • Puzzled Vulture says:

    Using “oldfashioned” instead of “conventional” would sound much better in this context. Regardless, before you provide the reference to Asterix and Obelix scene you mentioned, it is hard to judge the merit of this commentary.

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