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North Korea's Fake Missiles Prove It Has a Biological Need to Bluff

North Korea threatening the world with indiscriminate destruction is nothing new. The Kim family business is based solely on the interplay between making threats and eventually capitulating in trade for food aid for the country's starving populace...

After North Korea’s latest spectacular failure of a rocket launch — which it claimed was ‘nothing but a satellite’ loudly enough to convince most of the world that it was anything but — the schoolyard bully of a prison state decided to double down on the scare tactics by waving a bunch of giant new KN-08 ICBMs around to back up claims that the country would annihilate Seoul in mere minutes. Alas, it turns out that the missiles are fake, nothing more than an embarrassing mishmash of random parts Legoed together on massive launchers.

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North Korea threatening the world with indiscriminate destruction is nothing new. The Kim family business is based solely on the interplay between making threats and eventually capitulating in trade for food aid for the country’s starving populace, from which the royal family skims a healthy portion off the top. (That’s not to mention the country’s healthy appetite for insurance scams.)

This cycle of posturing, embarrassment, and further posturing has gone on for ages. North Korea is certainly a credible military danger, especially if you happen to be anywhere near the DMZ. But it keeps making wild claims and threats that nearly always prove unfounded. It’s no surprise for a military power built largely on smoke and mirrors, but when continual blunders put the country (and its international aid) at risk, it raises an important question: Why do we bet it all on bluffs?

North Korea is basically the opposite of Disneyland.

Bluffing is different than simply faking something, it’s behavior aimed at projecting a position of power when one has no advantage. We see faking in nature all the time. Mimicry — especially the Batesian form — seems particularly relevant: one harmless species evolves to look like a poisonous species, thanks to predators learning to avoid eating anything with that appearance.

But while I suppose you could stretch and say that North Korea’s tin can missiles were rather Batesian in their goal of looking like the real deal, the country’s whole shtick is rather more complicated. Perhaps surprisingly, bluffing behavior isn’t limited to humans.

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Bluffing is an inherent part of any contest, including territorial disputes, which are really the oldest game in nature. As Susan Riechert notes in an article in the seminal Game Theory and Animal Behavior, a surprising number of contests between animals competing for the same resource — let’s say two males fighting for territory — doesn’t involve actual fighting. Instead, they tend to compete through highly ritualized displays. Even the violent headbutting of bighorn sheep doesn’t actually cause that much physical harm. In really simple terms, this type of behavior is designed so that two individuals show off their muscles, and the one that looks stronger (and thus likely is) wins.

It was previously posited that the reason this happens — animals deciding who owns valuable resources without fighting — was because of some “survival of the species” instinct. That’s patently false; natural selection works by focusing on individual success, not that of the group. Instead, the behavior is described as being an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS).

In this context, ESS are modes of behavior that approximate one’s worth if it actually came down to a fight. So whether or not I’m weak or strong, I somehow show it when faced with a contest. This is advantageous for both sides: If I’m weak, I’ll dance and flex to the best of my abilities, and if I’m outmatched, I save myself the trouble of getting my ass kicked. If I’m strong, buying into the posturing saves a fight (no one gets out of a fight unscathed) and the risk, however minute, of a weaker opponent getting lucky.

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The reason these types of non-violent displays persist is that, strong or not, individuals that don’t fight live longer (and thus can reproduce more) than individuals who do. There’s only one issue with this system: If no one’s willing to fight, then there’s more reason to run a high-risk bluffing strategy.

These cocks-of-the-rock are dance-battling rather than real fighting so no one gets injured (other than your ears).

Gardner and Morris explain how this works in a 1988 paper discussing sabre rattling in the animal world. They treat animal contests like a chess match, and emphasize that a weaker individual gains an advantage by making the first move. If I’m defending my territory against a stronger intruder, projecting an image of strength forces the other individual to assess if it’s worth it to call the bluff. Because actual fighting is the least-attractive option, bluffs get tested less than they’re accepted.

This models the current state of international politics ever since the Cold War. With intelligence and satellite imagery so great these days, wars are often won before they’re even started. It’s just like two birds puffing their feathers at each other: One country starts beef with another, they both flex their military and economic might, and often times (at least with the world superpowers) the issue is settled diplomatically. But because war is blessedly a last option, there’s space for risk-lovers like North Korea to keep on bluffing.

Evolution Explains is a periodical investigation into the human-animal (humanimal?) condition through the powerful scientific lenses of ecology and evolution. Previously on Evolution Explains: Why Moustaches Impress Women.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @drderekmead.