Neil Johnson: "New Laws for New Wars? Universal Patterns in Modern Insurgency, Terrorism and Violent Crime"

Neil Johnson: "New Laws for New Wars? Universal Patterns in Modern Insurgency, Terrorism and Violent Crime"

Teleconferenced lecture to be held on Monday, November 27, 2006, 18:15,
Room D 16.2, Main Building, ETH Zurich. Event broadcast to SHARE / Consulate of Switzerland, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from where our discussant, Professor Bear F. Braumoeller, Harvard University, will speak.


It has become hard for us to watch a nightly news bulletin without hearing phrases such as 'thirty dead in Iraq', 'five wounded in Afghanistan', 'three guerilla attacks in Colombia', or 'ten killed in a terrorist bomb in Indonesia'. Studio experts spend hours interpreting these numbers in terms of the specific details of each conflict. But could these nightly numbers be telling us something more general, and potentially deeper, about the evolution of human conflict itself? In particular, can we make any quantitative sense of the sizes and timings of violent events in modern wars, terrorism, and even crime -- and if we can, what do such patterns mean?

Using concepts which typify the study of Complexity -- in particular, power-laws, non-Markovian processes, multi-agent dynamics, and complex networks -- I will argue that there is now strong evidence to suggest that modern insurgent conflicts, terrorism and violent crime, all exhibit remarkably universal dynamics. I will then provide simple yet realistic models which are able to reproduce this quantitative behavior -- from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia through to homicide figures in Bogota. These findings suggest that the way in which such violence evolves has less to do with geography or ideology, and more to do with the day-to-day mechanics of human insurgency and violence. In short, it is simply the way in which groups of human beings operate when faced with a generally stronger, but more rigid, opponent. Finally, I show how one can reconstruct spatial trails which particular insurgent groups might be following, and hence discuss the multi-species 'spatial ecology' which seems to underlie modern human conflict.

This work is performed as part of a collaboration with Mike Spagat, Sean Gourley, Juan Camilo Bohorquez, Elvira Restrepo, Jorge Restrepo, Alvaro Jose Moreno, Roberto Zarama and Alex Dixon (Universities of Oxford, London and Los Andes in Bogota).

Neil Johnson is a Professor of Physics at Oxford University, where he runs a research group focusing on Complexity Science. His training in theoretical physics included taking his BA at Cambridge University (St John's College) and PhD at Harvard University as a Kennedy Scholar. He was then made a Research Fellow at St John's College, Cambridge University, and a Professor in Physics at the Universidad de Los Andes (Bogota) where he was subsequently made an honorary Professor. Neil presented the U.K. Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on BBC TV in 1999, titled 'Arrows of Time'. He has published more than 160 academic research papers. In addition, many reports of his research have appeared in the media. His interests in Complex Systems touch on applications in biology, medicine, finance and sociology -- in particular, his interest in understanding the dynamical evolution of modern conflicts, organized crime, and terrorism. Apart from their obvious practical interest, these topics are also of great importance from the perspective of basic science since they concern the 'hard' problem of out-of-equilibrium systems containing many interacting objects. Please see 'Financial Market Complexity', (Oxford University Press, 2003) and 'Two's Company, Three is Complexity' (Oneworld Publishing, 2007) for more details of his recent research interests.