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War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection | Evolutionary logic pt.II

“the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly”

If anyone managed to come away from Part I: Humans: not just selfish with an overly sentimental view of human nature, this post will rob you of that delusion.  Yes, we humans have a remarkably developed faculty for cooperation and group-oriented behavior, in comparison to most other species.  That’s an encouraging thing to know.  And it may even become useful, if you start to identify the conditions that tend to set us up for cooperation.  However, as Charles Darwin, David Sloan Wilson, and many others have suggested, the processes of group selection that helped us evolve to be cooperative within our groups probably also encouraged competition (to put it mildly) between groups.

Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson explain in their book, Unto Others:

…our goal … is not to paint a rosy picture of universal benevolence. Group selection does provide a setting in which helping behavior directed at members of one’s own group can evolve; however, it equally provides a context in which hurting individuals in other groups can be selectively advantageous. Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness. Group selection theory does not abandon the idea of competition that forms the core of the theory of natural selection…

And here’s Wilson again in The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest:

[Multilevel selection theory] has the capacity to explain the behavior of individuals who demonically work to undermine their groups (within-group selection), individuals who angelically work on behalf of their groups (the bright side of among-group selection) and avenging angels who work on behalf of their groups to destroy other groups (the dark side of among-group selection). We might not like the dark sides of animal and human nature, but they exist and require a theory to explain them. …multilevel selection theory has the potential to explain the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

Why do you build me up, buttercup, just to let me down and mess me around?  Seriously though, this just underscores that the purpose of this series is to use the lens of evolutionary theory not to idealize but to examine and better understand how humans and groups work, particularly in relation to collective action – and hopefully make practical use of that understanding.

Clearly we’re not the first ones to wrestle with this very long-term problem.  And while the evolutionary lens is novel and may explain much, others have through observation come to similar analyses about humankind’s immense capacity for ruthlessness toward other groups.  Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the most astute observers of this phenomenon.  The title of his 1932 classic Moral Man & Immoral Society suggests that human beings tend to behave morally toward each other within small groups, but that our moral code rarely extends, at least as fully, to the societal (between-group) level.  He laments how “…group relations can never be as ethical as those which characterise individual relations.” The book is a comprehensive treatise on the subject:

As individuals, men [sic] believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.

(Disclaimer: Niebuhr is a fascinatingly complicated figure, who went from leading the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation and running for Congress as a Socialist to advocating for some US military interventions and lending intellectual support for the Cold War.  I’m quoting Moral Man & Immoral Society throughout this article on the merits and relevancy of its content, not because of Niebuhr’s specific politics.)

So whether you explain it through evolution and group selection, or, like Niebuhr, you just observe human behavior and notice the pattern, it seems that we humans tend to struggle to extend the circle of compassion beyond our more proximate relations. And this fact sets us up to be all-to-easily manipulated to fear the bogeymen and barbarians. (The word barbarian, by the way, originated in Greece.  It meant “anyone who is not Greek.” Along similar lines, David Sloan Wilson laments in Evolution for Everyone how, “In many indigenous cultures, the word for ‘our people’ is ‘human’ and outsiders are classified as a type of animal.”)

war & civilization

George W. Bush declared after 9/11, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” and proceeded to lead the nation into two major wars (which are both still happening, by the way).

For anyone who thought rationally about it at the time, this was transparently preposterous framing.  “Okay, okay, I got it.  Anyone who says anything that I don’t like, is a… is a… a TERRORIST!!! Yeah! That’s the ticket!” Anyone who might consider disagreeing with the President’s agenda was preemptively depicted as being in league with the people who had just attacked the nation.

It worked though, because enough people weren’t thinking rationally.  Glued to our television sets, watching repeating loops of passenger jets destroying national symbols and killing thousands of our fellow citizens, most of us felt some combination of terror and outrage.  Fear is a powerful primal motivator that tends to shut down our rational faculties.  When “the group” is threatened or attacked, we instinctively band together.  And we are primed for a counter-attack from “our side.”  While this may in some senses be a perfectly rational reaction, it is not the rational part of the brain that is driving the car.

The good news here is that, in the absence of a perceived threat, most people are generally not eager for their nations to go to war.  The theory of group selection in humans may predict an evolved faculty for group against group fighting, but it would still only make sense for groups to fight with each other if there were something compelling enough to fight for.  War and fighting are costly. Head-on collisions don’t usually benefit the passengers in either vehicle, so we damn well should have evolved to avoid at least some of them.  On the other hand, it would also make evolutionary sense for human groups to have evolved to defend themselves against aggressive groups.  Moreover, extending the automobile metaphor, not all vehicles are equal in terms of size or power.  What’s to stop a monster truck from running a compact off the road?  Isn’t that, after all, kind of the whole story of agricultural civilization?

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá seem to think something along these lines. While the central thesis of their recent book Sex at Dawn is that the advent of agriculture dramatically changed human reproductive strategies and sexual behavior-seriously a must read for all you sexual libertines who want to arm your desire with a scientific theory!-they also discuss major non-sexual behavior shifts that came along with agriculture:

It makes perfect Darwinian sense to suppose that prehistoric humans would choose the path that offered the best chance of survival-even if that path required egalitarian sharing of resources rather than the self-interested hoarding of resources many contemporary Western societies insist is basic human nature.

The advent of agriculture is really a pretty recent phenomenon, in terms of the whole scope of human evolution.  There are still pre-agricultural groups among us; there were a lot more just a hundred years ago, and a lot more a hundred years before that, and so on.  Genetically, we haven’t changed a whole lot – we’re still the same species. So we’re a highly complex accumulation of genes that took millions and millions of years to evolve and then suddenly started to behave dramatically differently – just a moment ago in evolutionary time. What happened?

What agriculture changed, Ryan and Jethá argue (and they’re certainly not the first ones), was the ability to store and accumulate resources, to concentrate wealth, and to consolidate power.  This is the X factor that changed the whole equation of human social behavior, both within groups and among groups.

give us the bananas!

Now there was something substantial to fight about: storehouses and accumulated treasure, as well as control of arable land, water access, and more.  There’s evidence to suggest that the ability to systematically store food is enough by itself to radically change behavior – or at least that’s the case with some of our primate cousins.  Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham observed that wild chimpanzees in Tanzania-which, like human forager societies, are fiercely egalitarian with food when foraging in the wild-became remarkably aggressive when humans started providing a regular supply of bananas.  Franz de Waal describes in Chimpanzee Politics how Jan van Hooff observed similar aggression in a chimpanzee colony in captivity: “Violent fights broke out at every meal because some of the apes tried to monopolize the food.  The tension began to build up long before feeding time.”

Ryan and Jethá say that the same is true of us:

Human groups tend to respond to food surplus and storage with behavior like that observed in chimps: heightened hierarchical social organization, intergroup violence, territorial perimeter defense, and Machiavellian alliances.  In other words, humans-like chimps-tend to fight when there’s something worth fighting over.  But for most of prehistory, there was no food surplus to win or lose and no home base to defend.

In yesterday’s post, I asserted that our “primal switches” are “being flipped about every which way all the time. Human beings in modern society are like fish out of water. Our primal brains (including our pro-social strategies) evolved under different conditions than the ones we now know.” Shit gets weird when somebody’s controlling all the bananas.

But again, our genetics shouldn’t have changed significantly in such a short time. Our environment changed dramatically, but our adaptations have so far been mostly behavioral, cultural and psychological. The encouraging thing here is that underneath all the confusion of modern life-yeah, sure, we got issues, but-we should have a strong underlying preference for cooperation and pro-social behavior. Again, group selection can help explain our evolved faculty for highly cooperative behavior within our social groups. It can also explain why a faculty for aggression would be somewhere in our repertoire (as one tactic for among-group competition), but it would still make sense for groups to evolve to be wary of war and conflict; because, with all else equal in pre-agricultural life, groups that avoided costly conflict should have done better than groups that didn’t.  

So, unless I’m missing something, this helps explain what I’ve known since I was a kid – that most people I meet, under most circumstances, are not jumping at the opportunity to kill or get into a fight with others, even people outside of their group. And it would explain why, even with a lot of resources at their disposal, it is still at least somewhat of a challenge for political leaders to lead a people to war.  The warmongers have to bang on those drums for a while to get us in the rhythm.  The bad news is that they have a lot of knowledge about how to do that.

Hermann Wilhelm Göring, a notorious leading member of the Nazi party, candidly explained:

Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. …voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country. [my emphasis]

Just look at those phrases!

“tell them they are being attacked”

“lack of patriotism”

“exposing the country to danger”

These phrases aren’t just about frightening people, they’re also about framing their fear in particular group-oriented terms.  There is a dangerous enemy threatening us (the nation), and you, “Mr. Commie Internationalist,” don’t seem to care that much about us… you selfish, indulgent traitor.  You lack patriotism (identity with the group), and as such you’re as much of a threat to us as the menacing enemy.

Fear has the power to activate the most aggressive aspects of our among-group competition instincts.  Hermann Wilhelm Göring wrote a handy guide for nation states of all stripes for how to stoke fear to accomplish precisely that.

power of identity

Rosa Luxenburg understood the powerful “evil magic” of this formula well before Göring did, but she couldn’t stop it despite her best efforts.  She pleaded passionately with the unionists and the German Social Democrats to not get pulled into World War I.  This from her essay Either Or (1916):

On August 4th, 1914, official German Social Democracy, and with it the Inter-national, collapsed miserably. Everything that, during the preceding fifty years, we had preached to the people, that we had declared to be our sacred principles, that we had proclaimed countless times in speeches, in brochures, in newspapers, in leaflets – all at once all that proved to be empty clap-trap.Suddenly,  as though by evil magic, the party of the proletarian international class struggle has become a national liberal party … In other countries, socialism has fallen more or less deeply and the proud old cry, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite! ‘ has been transformed on the battlefields into the command, ‘Proletarians of all countries, cut each other’s throats!’…

The world war has decimated the results of forty years’ work of European socialism by: devaluing the significance of the revolutionary working class as a factor of political power, destroying the prestige of socialism, breaking up the proletarian International, leading its sections into a fratricidal war against each other and chaining the desires and hopes of the masses in the most important capitalist countries to the course of imperialism… [my emphasis]

…and chained to the cognitive frame of nationalism – meaning that the nation state was the “group” with which the Germans of 1914 were pressured to cast their lot and identity. How we define our identity is how we label some pretty important folders in the filing cabinets of our brains.  Sorry for the filing cabinet metaphor – that’s not actually how brains work.  How they work is a lot more interesting.  We don’t “file” information.  We associate and cluster new information and experiences with dynamic memories-they change a little with each remembering-of old information and experiences, and with the feelings these memories evoke. Rosa Luxenberg could have almost been a lay neuroscientist with her phrase “chaining the desires and hopes of the masses … to the course of imperialism.” That is exactly how the process of cognitive frames works. We are evolutionarily and neurologically predisposed as human beings to “chain our desires and hopes” to the groups we identify with, because we evolved in a context where our survival as individuals was highly dependent on the survival and health of the group.

Thus the rallying cry of the Industrial Workers of the World: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Within the cognitive frame of class consciousness, the members of a worker’s economic class constitute the “group” with which she casts her lot and identity.  Her hopes and desires are chained to her fellow workers – including the ones on the other side of the border and on the other side of the ocean. The threat that she perceives and mobilizes with her group to overcome is the threat of a social system that concentrates into the hands of a few the wealth produced by the many; a system that turns a blind eye to the poverty, misery and degradation of her fellow human beings.

If this language seems overly glorious, naive, or outdated to you, I encourage you to think again. Perhaps it’s not the exact wording to fit our times, but we do desperately need a highly moral and moralizing progressive narrative and framework. We need to be willing to step boldly out of our resignation, to hope, and to inspire hope in others. Reinhold Niebuhr encouraged approaching social justice struggles with the tools of science, but also admonished that “cool objectivity” cannot meet the moral and emotional demands of collective mobilization:

Contending factions in a social struggle require morale; and morale is created by the right dogmas, symbols and emotionally potent oversimplifications. These are at least as necessary as the scientific spirit of tentatively. …[Industrial workers] will have to believe rather more firmly in the justice and in the probable triumph of their cause, than any impartial science would give them the right to believe, if they are to have enough energy to contest the power of the strong. They may be very scientific in projecting their social goal and in choosing the most effective instruments for its attainment, but a motive force will be required to nerve them for their task which is not easily derived from the cool objectivity of science. …The world of history, particularly man’s collective behavior, will never be conquered by reason, unless reason uses tools, and is itself driven by forces which are not rational.

Dear reader, it is nearly 3:00AM and I have stayed up too late and kept you reading too long. In another post I will return to the subject of fear, and discuss strategies for “inoculating” against fearmongering.  I’ll explore cognition and culture as extensions of the human immune system and of evolution itself. And I’ll resume this discussion of how group-oriented behavior, identity, cognitive frames, a moral and moralizing hegemonic progressive narrative, and collective action all fit together.

For tonight, I’ll sign off with this thought… We have a lot of “space” in our brains that evolved to deal with threats. The impulse to collectively mobilize to overcome a genuine common threat is not an inherently negative thing. Indeed, evolutionarily, it’s an impulse to which we owe our very survival as a species… so far.  If we are to continue to survive as a species on planet earth, we humans will have to make sure that this impulse is cognitively connected-in enough people’s brains-to the huge looming threats we face. We can’t afford to keep being duped into fearing the wrong things, and into waging wars of aggression and scapegoating immigrants and people who appear different than ourselves.  The trick is to wire our primal switches to the right lightbulbs! This is what grassroots organizing is all about: building relationships and feeding pro-social identities that are broad enough, strong enough, and instructive enough to tilt us toward investing together in our collective interest.

1 Comment

  1. I know that fear has been a standard focus when it comes to group conflicts for some time. It is an established paradigm. It is also just not right. Clearly if we were to become too afraid of another group then we might trigger our flight response instead of our fight response, something obviously to be avoided. It is, however, important to portray the intended enemy as a “threat;” one which we must bravely and altruistically go and wipe out. It is also important that we have a firm belief in our own supremacy, that we are sure to win. Several books go into detail about the amazing amounts of overconfidence that have encouraged all sorts of military folly.
    So depicting the other group as a “threat” does not mean that we are encouraged to fear them, even though of course it is obvious why many leap to this connection. The out-group is depicted as a threat animal, as a disease, as criminal, or as mentally unbalanced. Sometimes a combination of several or all of the above. These may bring up some feelings of fear, but also revulsion, righteous anger, or the altruistic urge to “help save” your fellow in-group members. But all inherently work on our altruism to motivate us to be pro-social by killing people who are in that specific out-group.

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