The Advent of Cryptanalytic Thinking

On page 15 of The Code Book, Singh writes: “Cryptanalysis could not be invented until a civilization had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics, and linguistics.” However, in our first regular class meeting you demonstrated that you were able to cryptanalyze a substitution cipher using a combination of common sense and basic counting. If civilizations had to develop scholarship at such a sophisticated level, why is it that amateurs (such as yourselves) can do cryptanalysis without much training?”

As Singh points out a few pages later, much of the progress the early Arabs made in the art and science of cryptanalysis can be attributed to their faith’s push towards the development of knowledge and understanding in all discipines. Religious scholars, attempting to determine whether the statements attributed to Muhammad in the Hadith, were the first to employ the methods of frequency analysis and patterns of language to identify trends. These skills are the foundations of elementary cryptanalysis as we understand it today.

The question remains as to why, in the present day, even novices (i.e., me) are able to perform these basic cryptanalytic tasks without much planning or forethought. The answer to this is rooted in the culture of our respective societies. Prior to the gains made by early Arab societies in develop cryptanalytic tools, significant intellectual contributions tended to be focused on metaphysics, or answering questions about the nature of reality, such as with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.This notion isn’t intended to discount these sorts of contributions, but the fact of the matter is that the inchoate fields of science and mathematics were not sufficiently developed to permit basic cryptanalysis. There are obvious precursors to this mode of thinking (e.g., the socratic method, with its emphasis on logical and reason), but metaphysical thought simply wasn’t enough.

Jump forward nearly two thousand years, and in modern society, the necessary scientific mode of thinking has become deeply embedded in many aspects of our society, even when we’re not aware of it. Over the course of many centuries (especially since the Enlightenment period), our thought processes have become more analytical and logical. We’ve moved away from our mystical origins to become a more empirical society. We’ve adopted the scientific method for answering even the most basic questions.Whether some folks like to admit it or, our contemporary thought processes are deeply indebted to science.

In his book Nature via Nurture, Matt Ridely argues that human genetic expression is channeled through the cultural milieu within which we are raised. In other words, our genes matter, but so does the larger social context within which these genes are allowed to express themselves. This notion brings us full circle back to our original question: Why can novices break a substitution cipher without any prior training? The answer lies more on the cultural side of the nature vs. nurture debate. Humans have always had the capacity for sophisticated, abstract thinking necessary to break basic cyphers. But, lacking a broader culture with an emphasis on logical and analytical thinking, it would be unlikely that individuals would possess the toolkit to perform these tasks.

Ultimately, it’s not a matter of humans becoming intrinsically more capable, but of our society developing to a point at which nearly every person internalizes the modes of thinking required for basic cryptanalysis, even without extensive training in mathematics, linguistics, or statistics.