I regularly jot down notes to capture questions of intense interest for which I’m currently without significant time to explore. Over a year ago, I jotted done some questions concerning the evolutionary nature of interpersonal and intergroup violence. Specifically, I wanted to know the genetic nature of violence. This question led me to correspond with Oxford anthropologist Vernon Reynolds and to informally propose an independent study with my faculty adviser, Sheldon Solomon. Though my adviser is an expert on the topic of intergroup violence, I never got around to pursuing a sanctioned study on the topic. Dr. Reynolds, however, helped shift my attitude on the matter by cautioning against placing too much emphasis on evolution vs. learned behavior (culture), though he did suggest that evolutionary factors underlie culture. Below is a quote from our email correspondence.
“Of course, you can argue that we are programmed to learn–this is actually more powerful than claiming we have biological tendencies that shortcut our cognitive powers.”
I really should have asked for some elaboration here, but I take his statement to mean that we have a predisposition for what we learn—including a (evolutionary) predisposition for learning violence. If this is what Dr. Reynolds meant then I agree—restated—culture is constrained by evolutionary forces. One point of potential dissonance between Dr. Reynolds’s statement and my own view is that I believe our cognition is regularly short-circuited. For instance, we see in the Asch conformity experiments that the need to conform is so strong that test subjects regularly give the wrong answer to a question when everybody else also gives the wrong answer. This conformity instinct could be explained as an evolutionary adaptation by the fact that humans are a social species that require others to survive; thus, there are social and evolutionary constraints on our individualism.
In considering the need to conform, we have to recognize that culture regulates norms and taboos. Society and culture also dictate the penalties for engaging in taboo behavior or neglecting social norms. A culture can be rather lenient or it can be strict, it can value tradition or innovation; regardless, there will always be some norms of high sanctity. Therefore, even though some cultures may be highly ritualistic other cultures may encourage individualism. Likewise, we
could probably can deduce cultural variance in warlike dispositions.
One theory supporting a genetic cause of war is group selection theory. Group selection has been used to explain the problem of altruism. In evolution, we do what is best for the self—the question of altruism challenges this assumption because people often sacrifice their own betterment to help others. Group selection suggests that evolution occurs at the group level. The most successful groups survive over less successful groups; individuals who support the group the most will have the most chances to pass on their genes. This theory solves the problem of altruism because a successful group requires a cohesive group and intragroup altruism facilitates in-group cohesion. The implication of group selection is that it means that one group prevails over the others, not only in successfully managing resources but also in annihilating competitors—the most vicious gene succeeds.
I’m not against group selection theory in itself. I would not be surprised if some degree of group selection occurs in long spans of time or during population bottlenecks but group selection theory is entirely unnecessary for explaining altruism. Evolution still occurs at the level of the individual specimen, which if successful introduces novelty into the species that the species then selects for; altruism as evolutionary adaptation also occurs at the level of the individual—the solution is simple. Altruism occurs because humans are a social species, if a specimen is antisocial then its chances for survival decrease. As a social species that depends on the group, we’ve learned to give prevalence to the group as an extension ourselves—if we die for the group, we can count on the group to protect our kin, to value our genes.
A number of experiments conducted by social psychologists working with social identity theory demonstrate an instinct to recognize even the most arbitrary social divisions and favor the in-group. Social psychologists working with terror management theory have found ample evidence that mortality salience (reminders of death) increase cultural self-identification and aggression against cultural differences. It appears that there is a universal predisposition to belong, and to protect the group. While the disposition is genetic, I propose that success is largely a matter of culture. The group has a desire to survive, to prevail, as an extension of the individuals whose personal success depends on it.
Success depends on the strength of the group, which culture serves to reinforce through norms and taboos. I’ve always found minority groups interesting, especially those with long histories, because of their prevalence against adversity. Jews, Roma, and Amish are examples. Despite minority status, and sometimes-total aggression, a strong inclusive culture can survive decades, even centuries, in hostile environments. Jewish history is particularly interesting when you consider their origins as a Bronze Age tribe—how many Bronze Age tribes failed cultural survival?
Sure, prehistoric tribes, especially during the rise of civilization, likely had annihilative competitions in the race for supremacy. However, assimilation was probably the prevalent mode of cultural expansion as demonstrated by the postclassical era expansion of Christianity and Muslim faiths—another reason to dismiss the strength of group selection theory. Minority cultures that fail to achieve dominance but succeed despite the dominant group’s discrimination succeed because culture is transmitted as being of supreme importance.
For most of history, a strong in-group preference and out-group bias has served to maintain tribes, clans, communities, and nations. The modern world has succeeded by overcoming some of the traditions and norms that once helped to encourage cohesiveness because they also hindered innovation. Innovation permitted the technological supremacy of the west. Innovation through the pursuit of knowledge requires relaxed norms and disregard for some taboos. I believe the conditions required for innovation present a paradox for both traditional cultures and open cultures. The conditions required for wide spread innovation erode some of the foundations for cohesiveness and vice versa.
With all this said, humans seek safety in numbers by forming groups; other groups present a threat to the strength of one’s own group that must be defended against. The desire to belong to a group, to defend a group, and to act against out-groups is human nature, is genetic. The success of the group is not genetic but cultural.