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.
Group W and George Mason University