Tuesday, September 18, 2012

TC Darwin

I'm always sort of amazed when I run into people who "don't believe" in evolution as the method of the origin of species.

First, because most of these people are "conservative". And, second, because if they would just look around, they'd see a wonderful metaphor for evolution at work in one of their (typically) favorite things; weapons.

I thought about this again because of my son's current favorite on-line game "World of Tanks".
The magilla behind this MMO game is that there's this imaginary world full of World War 2 tanks. It includes every possible permutation and variation of the breed, including tanks that were no more than prototypes or never fired a shot in anger between 1939 and 1945. Oh, and it includes self-propelled artillery, for some odd reason.

But they're all there, and you "buy" a tank or tanks and then you get tossed into battles where you drive around, shoot other people, and get shot. There's no infantry, or mines, or civilians, or politics, or messy wounds or deaths - it's WW2 in a pasteurized bottle, but it's big fun for nine years old.
But here's the catch; you have to start out with a light tank; the VK-31 Leichttraktor for Germany, the Soviet MS-1, or the U.S. T1 "Cunningham".

But you get pitched into battles with much bigger tanks, everything from mid-war mediums to 1945 superheavies. The Boy spends a lot of time getting shot into Swiss cheese, at which time I remind him that there are two types of light tanks; ones that hang around after the Big Kids show up to play, and live ones.

Which brings me back to evolution.

Because typically we can't "see" things evolve. Natural selection requires environmental change to occur, and that usually occurs over millenia. A type of critter produces several genotypes, and then some change occurs - temperature, salinity, rainfall, vegetation - where one genotype is more successful than the others. But the replacement of one with another often takes lifetimes, typically many lifetimes, to complete.

But in the World of Tanks, the real world of tanks, we've seen a process that neatly duplicates what happens in the evolution of species through natural selection in a single long human lifespan.

The major nations typically went to war in the late Thirties or early Forties with a full suite of armored vehicles;
Light tanks, for scouting,
Medium tanks, for general combat, and mobile action, and
Heavy tanks, for static defense or breaking through an enemy's defense.
(The only exceptions I can think of were the Chinese, who flat-out couldn't afford anything more than a rag-tag and bobtail, and the Japanese, whose armored force was as crude and unsophisticated as the rest of Japanese tactical doctrine.
I should really do a post about them - Japanese armor truly sucked pipe, kind of shocking for a nation whose ambitions were so great...)
Where are they now?

I'll tell you where; they're here, but the tank has evolved.
The deadly natural selection of combat was unpleasant to the light tanks; they were too small and too slow to fight through an enemy's screen of medium tanks, mines, and hand-held antitank rockets (the bazooka and the Panzerfaust were the small mammals that ate the light tank eggs...) and reconnaissance duties increasingly became the province of the aircraft.

And the heavies were just that; too damn heavy. Too slow, too expensive, too few. I don't agree with the old Soviet saying about "quantity has a quality of it's own" but it was true that unless the terrain was ideal the combination of infantry, artillery, tac air, and medium tanks could winkle out a platoon or so of heavies with a little effort.

The light and heavy versions of the species a. tankus converged on the medium to produce the "main battle tank". This vehicle has roughly the speed of a WW2 medium tank (or better) with composite armor and the main cannon of roughly a WW2 heavy tank. The current U.S. M1A1 has a 120mm cannon; the German Panzerjäger Tiger Ausf. B mounted the 12.8 cm PaK 44 L/55. The armor of the Soviet T-80 is comparable to the late-WW2 IS models or the German superheavies.
Modern tanks are clearly an evolution of the WW2 types, an evolution that converged on the medium tank at the expense of the heavy and light types.

Ground reconnaissance duties have now been delegated to other vehicles; light wheeled scout cars such as the U.S. M1126 Stryker or the Russian BRDM/BTR-types, or the tracked carriers such as the U.S. M3 CFV.

Even on the theatre scale the U.S. Army concluded after WW2 that reconnaissance and screening are the province of specialized units (armored cavalry regiments, or ACRs) but armed them with standard main battle tanks and infantry/cavalry carriers. Since the Third Gulf War in 1991 most of these ACRs have been converted to use the Stryker light wheeled AFVs.

Only the British insist that the light tank still has a place on the battlefield.
Their Scimitar AFV is the last of the Great Power lights, and I have a sneaking suspicion that its persistence owes more to the reluctance of the British cavalry to accept that in armored war a modern cavalryman in a light tank is as dead as their horse cavalry forebears were when they met the original armored columns in 1939.

(Oh, and I should note here that the Poles weren't really that stupid; it's a military urban legend...)

For the rest of the world experience has concluded that using a small tank to scout is expensive and unproductive; it is too small to outfight an MBT and too slow to outrun one. Its light armor cannot withstand modern artillery or infantry antitank weaponry. A wheeled vehicle can do the job just as well, and it's loss can be afforded better. Sorry, scouts; it's just not worth training you up to be a tanker.

The natural selection of battle has not chosen the light tanker and his little tank.

So my poor little man and his light tank are trying to fight against not just larger and stronger tanks, but forces that mimic the incredible power of natural selection and species evolution.

No wonder it's such a hard fight.

But he has an excuse; he's nine years old. And we've talked about "evolution" and he's seen the simulacrum happening in the World of Tanks. I tell him; if the tanks were "intelligently designed" the M1 would have been invented in 1916.

Instead, the tank "evolved" as the world's tank designers responded to the natural selection of battle by altering the phenotype of the tank over the course of the 20th Century. The analogy isn't perfect, of course...but it makes the point; "species" can change, do change, as the result of natural selection, and end up resembling something very different from the starting point.

I wonder; what the flamin' hell is the excuse for the "conservatives" who don't "believe in evolution"..? Can't they SEE?

So, all together now:

(For those of you non-German speakers, that's the Panzerleid, the "Tank Song" of the German Army of WW2. Interestingly, for all that the modern Bundeswehr has discarded almost all the old Wehrmacht trappings, the Wiki entry says that the German tankers still sing this song.)

(And I want to tip my hat to commentor "gruff", whose cogent arguments regarding tanks and evolution caused me to revise this post)


gruff said...

That's not evolution, that's intelligent design.

Leon said...

Chief, don't just focus on Japanese armour - look at the Imperial Japanese Army's weaponry as a whole. It is mind-boggling any nation with this much of a mess conquered so much (which says how messed up China was at the time). I mean who starts a major war while you're in the process of switching rifle calibers.

FDChief said...

Gruff: Good point. But what forced that design?

Natural selection; the environment changed, and selected against the type of organism that fared poorly in that environment.

In my opinion the survival of the Scimitar is an indicator that this wasn't "design" in the sense that an Almighty Tank Designer changed things up Just Because, but an artifact that some "designers" didn't want to adapt to the pressure.

Just as certain biological elements reflect the remnants of the former genotypes - muscles around our ears or the appendix, for example - IMO the Scimitar reflects the randomness of Nature more than the Certainty of Design.

But the essence of the Intelligent Design theory is that the Great Architect plans all those different critters differently for His own reasons to do their "jobs" according to his design. Instead, I see the MBT as a perfect example of "convergent evolution"; different species responding to similar environmental pressures by moving closer to a similar phenotype.

Leon: Yep. The Japanese Army really was a mess in 1941; if they hadn't been so badly bitten by victory disease they might have seen that. I mean, when you think about it, the only big successes they scored against the Western Allies were in Malaya, where the Commonwealth forces were just overwhelmed by speed and mass (and loss of almost all their air and naval forces within days of Pearl Harbor) and the Philippines. Both theatres were considered distant and relatively unimportant and were undermanned and undersupported.

Credit where credit is due; Yamashita seems to have had some decent tactical ideas. But the typical Japanese general seems to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from the Russo-Japanese War.

I should write up the Battle of Khalkhin Gol some day. Georgy Zhukov goes through the Japanese 6th Army like a dose of salts, and, as the Wiki entry says, they learned not a goddamn thing: "The Japanese, however, made no major strategic changes. They continued to underestimate their adversaries, deploying piecemeal units instead of mass units, emphasizing the courage and determination of the individual soldier to make up for the lack of firepower, protection, or overwhelming numbers. The problems that faced them at Khalkhin Gol, most importantly, their deployment of only two light infantry divisions, and two tank regiments, would plague them again when the Americans and British recovered from their defeats of late 1941 and early 1942 and turned to the conquest of the Japanese Empire."

Ael said...

hmm, how much "natural selection" has there *actually* been since 1945? We have been at war for more than a decade and the MRAP is the shining example of evolutionary vehicle design.

Podunk Paul said...

Interesting post. You might say that evolution worked against the Japanese, since the China theater, where 85% of the army was posted, required that tanks serve as infantry support. They were not intended to fight other armored vehicles. And they were diesel powered, often with advanced air-cooled engines.

As for infantry weapons, the Nambu light machine gun was probably superior to the BAR and certainly was easier to manufacture. The pros and cons of infantry rifles count for little, since few soldiers in any army have the skill to use these weapons to the limits of their design capabilities.

gruff said...


I grant that evolution is a lovely metaphor for changes in tank design, but as an exact analogy it cannot be sustained.

I write this only because I object to your drawing a political point. Creationism is an odious doctrine and must be vigorously opposed; but it must be opposed with truth, and the truth is that tanks do not evolve, in the Darwinian sense of that word.

I can demonstrate this exhaustively if you like. For example, the fact that some tank designers can choose not to adapt to environmental pressures shows that natural selection is not the mechanism involved.

Ael: And the MRAP is ultimately from Rhodesia. Plus ça change.

FDChief said...

Grff: You convinced me, and I've edited the post to reflect your observations. Thank you!

And your observations of the MRAP make a nice point on a simile for "convergent evolution" - similar environmental pressures produce similar phenotypes. The MRAP circa 2012 is the cousin of the SADF "Buffel" of the Eighties. What's frustrating for me as a citizen is that we could have bought a pantsload of these mine-protected vehicles off-the-shelf from the current South African government - they still produce them - but had to produce our own for a bucket of cash. Talk about reinventing the wheel...

Ael: Almost none, but the selective pressure has been removed - we haven't had a genuinely major land war since '45. The one interesting development has been the effect of the "little wars" Israel has fought with its neighbors and the development of the Merkava.

Paul: Hmmm. Good point.

Podunk Paul said...

On the subject of tank design, one of the minor mysteries is why no (as far as I know) German tanks used diesel engines. The compression-ignition engine had a special place in German techo-mythology – it was invented by a German (who was as comfortable living in France) and much of its early development took place in Germany. Technical magazines of the 1920’s frequently published articles, some of them by academics, bemoaning foreign innovations that diluted the German-ness of the engine. Indirect-injection and Vickers-style “solid” injectors were the main culprits. The first M.A.N. diesel trucks followed Rudolf Diesel’s example with direct injection and compressed air injection. It was a commercial failure. Daimler was not so puritanical and incorporated the latest technology, regardless of its origins. This effort resulted in a series of diesel trucks and the first practical diesel automobile, a machine that could go three hundred thousand miles or more between overhauls.

The enthusiasm for the diesel engine was, in great part, responsible for the Junkers Jumo aircraft engines that set fuel-efficiency records during trans-Atlantic flights. These remarkable power plants found some use in long-distance patrol aircraft during the war.

FDChief said...

Paul: Good question. I know that the U.S. tankmen disliked the gasoline engine in the M4-series tanks because of their tendency to torch up when hit. I've never heard a similar tale about the German tankers, though, and I wonder why. The idea of putting highly flammable gasoline under armor seems like a genuinely bad idea.

I guess my thought was that perhaps because the diesels of the era had fairly low horsepower-to-weight ratios that the Maybach petrol engines gave the earlier models the pep that the creators of the Panzerwaffe wanted?

Anonymous said...


I would love to see a post on the Imperial Japanese Army.

Lisa said...

Thank you -- I found this provocative and enjoyed your biological analog re. "altering the phenotype of the tank".

Anonymous said...


Perhaps you could clarify this; why is this more an example of 'evolution' than say, Hegel's dialectic?

It seems as though this idea that outside forces mold people/machine/animals is completely expressible in a number of forms. Hegel had the idea that in the course of human events the thesis and antithesis would duke it out and create the synthesis.

Light tanks met heavy tanks and the MBT emerged as a result. Maybe not evolution so much as synthesis?

FDChief said...


The Hegelian paradigm isn't a bad metaphor, either; I was specifically looking for a mechanistic way to model evolution for people who "don't believe" in evolution. The problem with real-world natural selection is the time involved, and because it can be very difficult to interpret the fossil record. Here was a metaphor, a model, that had occurred over a human lifetime for which we had a pictoral record.

I guess the other reason would be because I don't see the process of convergence on the MBT as an either/or; there wasn't a "light tank versus heavy tank" schism. The WW2 combatants entered the war with the idea that you needed different types of tanks for different jobs - probably the hangover from the WW1 "whippet-and-infantry-tank" formula. Experience proved that the "successful" species of tank was one that combined the attributes of the heaviest mediums and the lightest heavies, though...and the poor light tanks were just out in the cold.

So I guess the real answer is that there's no ironclad reason NOT to use the adaptation of the tank as an example of Hegelian synthesis - I simply made a different choice and since I get to write the posts, that's how it played...

Lisa said...

And BTB:

ISTM that epigenetics is allowing for the possibility of alteration in the genome within a lifetime, and so, Lamarck may be redeemed (somewhat.)

Science is so quick to arrive at the synthesis, yet maybe both may exist at the same time. Bell's Theorem had something to say about this.

To analogize it to your tank observation, perhaps there is also a borrowing and mutation, concomitant with extinction of certain varieties.

Dr. Doob said...

No. Chinese CAN INDEED afford tanks, it was just that to them, it wasn't serious enough. Just as when the japs came and started butchering the Chinese using tanks, then they thought about tanks. And the jap tanks wern't bad, but was very bad compared to other nations, like Nazi Germany or the USA or the Soviet Union. That was because the tank threat in CHINA wasn't as serious as the other places such as the jap islands or when fighting the soviet union. Get your facts fucking write you dickfuck. I'm not the only tank fan you've pissed off.

Dr. Doob said...

No. Chinese CAN INDEED afford tanks, it was just that to them, it wasn't serious enough. Just as when the japs came and started butchering the Chinese using tanks, then they thought about tanks. And the jap tanks wern't bad, but was very bad compared to other nations, like Nazi Germany or the USA or the Soviet Union. That was because the tank threat in CHINA wasn't as serious as the other places such as the jap islands or when fighting the soviet union. Get your facts fucking write you dickfuck. I'm not the only tank fan you've pissed off.