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Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War

By hkhenson in Science
Thu Apr 20, 2006 at 08:46:24 AM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)


There is relatively little respected academic work about a science of social prediction, but in the late 1940s to early 1950s science fiction authors Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov (who were often ahead of their time) wrote speculative stories about the concept, Heinlein referring to "social psychodynamics" (Heinlein 1941, 1953) and Asimov calling it "Psychohistory" (Asimov 1951, 1952, 1953). ("Psychohistory" has a more recent use that has nothing to do with social prediction.)

In "Memetics and the Modular Mind" (Henson 1987) I wrote about memetics as a path to social prediction, but while memetics provided an epidemic model for the spread of memes (that is, elements of culture), it didn't develop as a science of social prediction. In retrospect, the focus was too narrow. The scope had to be widened to include the evolved psychology of a meme's host in order to predict--given particular environmental circumstances--which memes would flourish and which would die out.

The present article proposes an evolutionary psychology based model of social prediction, particularly for wars and related social disruption such as riots and suicide bombers.

"All wars arise from population pressure." (Heinlein 1959 p. 145)

Major Reid (Heinlein's character in Starship Troopers)was on the mark if you take "population pressure" to mean a falling ratio of resources to population (roughly income per capita in modern terms). There are sound evolutionary reasons why falling resources per capita (or the prospect of same) usually drives human populations into war. Wars and related social disruptions are here seen to be the outcome of a behavioral switch activated by particular environmental situations and mediated by xenophobic memes.[1]

Behavioral switches

Even ants engage in "wars"--that is, organized fighting between groups of social animals. But--like humans--they don't do it all the time. Some combination of environmental factors that probably includes time of the year, temperature, and presence of ants from another nest turns on ant "war mode behavior."

Modern evolutionary theory states that all physical characteristics and species-typical behaviors (including behavioral switches for wars) are the direct or indirect outcome of evolution.

The world is full of examples of behavioral switches. Drop a rat in water and it swims. Bears hibernate during the winter. Birds fly south or north depending on the season. It is easy to see how behavioral switches evolved. Birds that flew the wrong direction didn't leave many descendants. Perhaps the most spectacular behavioral switch in the animal kingdom causes certain solitary grasshoppers to become gregarious migratory locusts.

"At low population densities, these insects behave like typical grasshoppers, to which they are closely related. But when crowded, this insectan Dr. Jekyll transforms into Mr. Hyde. Chemical cues from their feces and frequent disturbance of tiny hairs on their hind legs set off the changes. The changelings aggregate in unruly mobs, feed in preference to mating, grow longer wings and a darkened body, and irrupt into rapacious swarms." (Lockwood 2003)

This switch has such profound effects on body shape and behavior that for a long time the different forms were thought to be different species.

Humans have behavioral switches too. Ones we understand include maternal behavior (switched on by a flood of oxytocin during birth), and Stockholm syndrome, where the brain chemicals released by fear, abuse and minor acts of kindness cause rapid social reorienting to captors. Robert Cialdini discusses a number of such behavior switches (Cialdini 1984). For example, humans are hardwired to reciprocate after being given something, even a flower. This was used with huge success by the Krishna cult while begging in airports (p. 33).

Evolutionary Psychology

My contention, simply put, is that the evolutionary approach is the only approach in the social and behavioral sciences that deals with why, in an ultimate sense, people behave as they do. As such, it often unmasks the universal hypocrisies of our species, peering behind self-serving notions about our moral and social values to reveal the darker side of human nature. (Silverman 2003)

The understanding that emerges from applying the profoundly powerful tool of evolutionary psychology to strange human behavior is often so obvious that one marvels why it has not been known for ages.

Consider the mysterious behavior of Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City in 2003 or that of Patty Hearst when she was abducted in 1974. In both cases the victims bonded to their captors and resisted leaving them. The evolutionary origin of this psychological trait, known as the Stockholm syndrome [2] (or more descriptively as capture-bonding), almost certainly comes from millions of years of evolutionary selection where our ancestors--usually our female ancestors--were being violently captured from one tribe by another. Those who had the psychological traits (ultimately gene-based brain mechanisms) to socially reorient after a few days (i.e., bond) to their captors often became our ancestors and passed on the trait. Those who didn't have this trait all too often became breakfast. (Or were just killed.)

Being captured was a relatively common event among our ancestors if their history is anything like the recent history of the few remaining primitive tribes. [3] In some of those tribes (Yanomamö, for instance) practically everyone in the tribe is descended from a captive within the last three generations. Perhaps as high as one in ten of our ancestors were abducted and incorporated into the tribe that captured them. Once you understand the evolutionary origin of this trait and its critical nature in genetic survival and reproduction in the ancestral human environment, related mysterious human psychological traits fall into place. Battered-wife syndrome is an example of activating the capture-bonding psychological mechanism, as are military basic training, fraternity bonding by hazing, and sex practices such as sadism/masochism or bondage/discipline.[4]

Another evolved psychological trait is the drug-like reward many people get from intense attention. The evolutionary origin of the attention-reward pathway is due to the way social primates measure status. A certain amount of status is required before a hominid male becomes attractive to females. (Status is approximately attention integrated over time.) Perversion of this reward mechanism explains why the behavior of cult members has many similarities to that of drug addicts.[5] It also explains the origin of drug addiction. (If you think about it, susceptibility to drug addiction has to be a side effect of otherwise useful brain chemicals--it's hardly something that could be directly selected.) I developed this theme in depth in "Sex, Drugs and Cults" [Henson (2002)].

Species-typical Behaviors

Species-typical behaviors evolved by natural selection to maximize "inclusive reproductive success" in the EEA, that is the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. For humans the EEA existed during the million of years our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers on savannas, on seashores, and in forests. It's a weighted composite of all the places our hominid line lived and all their social environments back to before we parted ways with the line that led to chimpanzees and bonobos.

Species-typical behavior is generally good for survival and "inclusive reproductive success" in the EEA. This is no longer a radical viewpoint. See for example Gray's 2001 edition of his psychology textbook, in which he discusses "Genetic and Evolutionary Foundations of Behavior" in Chapter 3 (Gray 2001).

Except for a few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes, we don't live in an environment resembling the EEA. Thus our behavior may be a long way from optimal in other environments, as you will see from the story below of the Southwest corn farmers.

In addition to the above-mentioned psychological traits or mechanisms, evolution has left us with many others, from our aesthetic preference for open parks with mowed lawns to the ease with which we learn to fear snakes. Though the number is substantial, exactly how many other traits we have is hard to determine. For one thing, some of them may be called forth in the modern world even less often than capture-bonding.

Hamilton's Inclusive Fitness

An example of such a trait is suicidal self-sacrifice, particularly in war situations. For over a century after Darwin formulated the first understanding of evolution, this and related "altruistic" behaviors were hotly debated with next to no progress. Then, in 1964, William Hamilton (in one of those jumps that seems so obvious in retrospect) formulated the concept of "inclusive fitness." His conceptual work started with bees. Because of the way sex is determined in these insects, bees are particularly closely related, but the principle works for any relative [Hamilton (1964a, 1964b), Haldane (1955), Smith, Maynard. (1995)].

Paraphrasing Hamilton, genes for psychological mechanisms that make a person willing to die to save relatives should do better than alternative genes under certain circumstances. As Hamilton put it,[6] we should be willing to die if in doing so we save more than two brothers, more than 4 half siblings or more than 8 cousins. Why? Because genes for this behavior would do better over generations than the alternative since more copies of the genes would be saved than are lost in the sacrificing individual.[7] (Statistically, 2 brothers, 4 half sibs, 8 cousins, etc., would share a copy of a gene for suicidal self-sacrifice.) A milder statement of inclusive fitness is that we should have evolved psychological traits to take life-threatening risks in proportion to the number and relatedness of those we are risking our lives for.

Life seldom offers a clear choice in such stark mathematical terms, but the psychological traits are there, honed by evolution over millions of years. If you have ever wondered where humans get the capacity to be suicide bombers, this is it.


Ants and chimpanzees engage in behavior similar to human wars. Bees sacrifice themselves in the face of an immediate attack. Mammal parents will take serious risks to save offspring, but again only for immediate threats. In a time when birds and other primates are found to be toolmakers, perhaps only the capacity for suicidal self-sacrifice without an immediate threat sets humans apart from any other animal. Why did we evolve it? And what turns on the mechanism?

Answering the last first, memes. Memes are replicating information patterns: ways to do things, learned elements of culture, beliefs or ideas. The songs of whales and birds and a number of primate skills such as cracking nuts or fishing for termites fit the definition of memes, so they are not unique to humans. But the influence of memes on humans is unique. People often die due to the influence of memes. Of course the human susceptibility to memes is itself a genetically evolved trait.

Going back to the question of why humans evolved the capacity for meme-driven suicidal self-sacrifice, it is obviously because the genes for such behavior did better in the EAA than alternate genes due to Hamilton's inclusive fitness. But how?


1. War behavior in humans is not active all the time so a behavioral switch is involved.

2. War is a species-typical behavior for humans.

3. Evolution is the way war became a species-typical behavior for humans

4. Evolution is a very slow process; thus the influence of the last 10,000 years (since agriculture started) is relatively small.

5. The psychological mechanisms behind war behavior evolved during the several million years when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers (in the EEA).

6. The driver for the behavioral switch to war mode resulted from recurrent conditions in the EEA.

Evolutionary Origin of War

There is little doubt that human or human-line groups have been making war on neighboring groups as far back as history and archaeology can determine, probably before the common ancestor of human and chimpanzees at least six million years ago.

"Through the years her work continued to yield surprising insights, such as the unsettling discovery that chimpanzees engage in primitive and brutal warfare. In early 1974, a "four-year war" began at Gombe, the first record of long-term "warfare" in nonhuman primates. Members of the Kasakela group systematically annihilated members of the "Kahama" splinter group." (Goodall bio) [8]

"It was both fascinating and appalling to learn that chimpanzees were capable of hostile and territorial behavior that was not unlike certain forms of primitive human warfare. War had always seemed to me to be a purely human behavior. Accounts of warlike behavior date back to the very first written records of human history; it seemed to be an almost universal characteristic of human groups. [Wars] have functioned, at least ecologically, to secure living space and adequate resources for the victors. To some extent too, they have served to reduce population levels, thus conserving natural resources." Goodall (1999 Chapter 9, "Precursors to War")

The (often unstated) assumption is that behavior found in two related species was probably present in the ancestor species, though the possibility cannot be ignored that the behavior evolved independently in both sibling species. [9]

With respect to humans and our immediate ancestors species, the question is what recurrent conditions in the EEA caused a behavioral switch and the psychological trait(s) to evolve that resulted in war's being a species-typical behavior for humans?

We have to be extremely careful in translating from the modern world to that of hunter-gatherer tribes or the reverse direction. Still, we can look at modern human behaviors and see if they have logical support to have evolved in the EEA.

The most obvious way for a modern group of humans to get into a state of war with another group is to be attacked. Nothing unites a tribe or extended tribe (a nation) for war like being attacked. Pearl Harbor or more recently 9/11 are prime examples, as are other examples from tribes such as the Yanomamö.

It is easy to understand the evolutionary origins of tribal responses to attack by predators--be they human or carnivores. People with a (gene-based) tendency to viciously fight back as a group when their group was attacked would be more likely to survive and pass on those genes than ones who didn't respond and allowed themselves and their relatives (with the same genes) to be slaughtered. Genes for retaliation would continue to be favored in an environment where groups were being attacked from time to time.

Defending from attack is easier to account for than "unprovoked" attacks. Even if there are obvious resource gains to be considered such as territory or food, if other people fight back, there is risk to you and your genes of being hurt or killed while attacking. To balance the genetic "accounts," the statistical risk to a representative hominid's genes in going to war with a neighboring tribe must have been less than the alternatives. William Calvin goes to the root of this problem when he discusses Mama Bear and her cubs (Calvin 1990 chapter 3 .) Following a Disney-like sequence of Mama Bear raising twin bear cubs every two years:

"Unfortunately, a little arithmetic shows that this story doesn't have a happy ending. How many bears can the environment feed? Obviously, that's the average bear population. And that means, on average, only two babies per mother get to grow up and become a parent, out of the dozen or two that she produces. The maximum population level is not set by the birth rate but by the number of job slots afforded by the environmental niche occupied by bears . . .."

"That means the average Mama Bear is raising five-to-ten times more baby bears than can possibly survive, absent, of course, miracles -- . . . "

Calvin goes on to point out that the extra bears provide the substrate upon which evolution works, but they also cause the population to periodically expand beyond resources for animals with few or no predators. Sometime in the last several million years, perhaps as far back as the time hominids started making sharp rocks, but certainly by the time Homo Erectus had fire, the big cats were no longer effective at keeping hominid numbers in check.

From what we know of primitive human mothers, they were not as productive as bears--a well provisioned prehistoric human mother probably produced a child every 4-5 years for 20-25 years as the !Kung do (or at least did recently). But the end result was the same, the environment was slowly filled to carrying capacity and beyond with humans. With rare short-term exceptions, like the "miracle" 13,000 years ago of tribes finding the American continents full of game and empty of people, humans have always lived close to the ecological limit. For the last 6 million years hominid groups competed against other hominid groups for the same game, roots, fruits and berries.

On top of the growth of human populations, the productivity of the environment has never been stable. Several times in a generation the rains fail or there is an exceptionally cold winter, or a fire sweeps through. Such events disrupt human food supplies, abruptly doubling (or worse) the harvesting area needed to feed a tribe.

When the population increases over what the ecosystem can support, or some glitch in the weather reduces the number who can be supported by it, fighting the tribe in the next valley for resources is better for your genes than starving. (Almost anything is). Tribes did not mathematically model the various outcomes, but our genes have been selected to build brains that make such "genetic cost-benefit" calculations on the basis of average expected outcome without conscious awareness. (Capture-bonding does not involve conscious awareness either--see Hearst's account. [10] )

"Looming" privation

In fact, our genes would have been selected to go to war with the neighbors not when we are weak from starvation, but when we anticipate hard times a-coming. Further, like most psychological responses, this one is almost certainly tripped by relative changes, here in income per capita, (originally game and berries), especially by sharp downturns after a long ramp up (Cialdini 1984, p 249, quoting J. C. Davies).

A million years ago tribes didn't have much choice of whom they fought--they had to be in walking distance--though there is a historical case (Kroeber 1986) where warriors walked over a hundred miles to fight. If you fought to a draw, some of the mouths were no longer in a condition to eat and maybe that got you though the lean times. If you won, you killed the males of the opposing tribe and took their resources and women to the benefit of your genes.

If you lost, the males in your tribe were usually killed, but because the winners normally took your tribe's female children, your genes through these copies were still better off in the "inclusive fitness" sense than starving. The Old Testament stories of the Israelites may not be entirely accurate history, but they do provide typical accounts of wars in a time closer to hunter-gatherer culture, when war was a serious element of population control.[11] For a recent historical example of population reduction by war, in 1864 Paraguay went to war with 3 of its neighbors. They were--needless to say--defeated.

"Few defeated nations in the world's military history exhibited such a degree of devastation as the Paraguay of 1870. Its population, now estimated at only 221,000, had suffered war casualties of at least 220,000 people. Among the survivors there were only 28,000 men; women over fifteen were said to outnumber men at a ratio of more than four to one." [Kolinski (1965) p. 198].

Going to war is obviously a chancy business for genes. Unfortunately at times in our collective past it was the only alternative to starving. In an evolutionary-psychology model, the costs and payoffs of countless ecological crises and little tribal wars have been statistically sampled over the last few million years and recorded in human gene frequencies.

So how do you get from falling income per capita or running out of game to a war? I can't point to the exact parts of the brain that become activated when people are anticipating future privation, but I expect the areas could be located using functional MRI if some researcher were to go looking for them.

War Memes

How do memes fit into this picture? Chimpanzees, as Jane Goodall first discovered, can exterminate a neighboring group without speech; their xenophobia seems to be wired in and active all the time. Human groups, though, seem to require xenophobic memes that dehumanize the target tribe to circulate among the attacking group for weeks to months to work the warriors up to an attack. The model incorporates amplifying xenophobic memes as a step in the causal chain leading to wars. This is also part of the response to being attacked.

I suspect without being able to show it directly that conditions of looming privation operate on brain modules to "turn up the gain" (making an amplifying feedback loop) for xenophobic memes propagating in a group. The connection between economic uncertainty or hardship and aggressive, xenophobic or dehumanizing memes has been noted for a long time, with the rise of the Nazi party in pre-war Germany as a typical example. A mild example is that economic downturns are correlated with a rise in neo-nazi and similar activity in the US. (Snap privation as happened in the Irish potato famine or natural disasters occurs too fast to set up the memetic amplification leading to war.)

Being attacked shortens the xenophobic meme amplification process to almost nothing--sometimes with tragic consequences. After 9/11 there were a number of cases in the US where xenophobic attacks and killings occurred, often against people who were not even Arab, but had features that their attackers identified as making them part of the "attacking tribe."

Bad fit to non hunter-gatherer environments

We evolved the psychological traits leading to war while living in tribes as hunter-gatherers, not in industrialized nations, not even as primitive farmers. So it should come as no surprise that psychological adaptations suited to limiting tribal populations don't work well with more recent modes of life (technologies).

Steve LeBlanc (LeBlanc 1999) relates that after expanding in a warm wet period, the corn-farming culture of the American Southwest hit bad weather about 1260 CE. As expected from the model, the tribes started warring with each other. The response they made of moving into forts (pueblos) made them safer, but at the same time put much of their farming areas out of reach.

This trapped the tribes in the feedback loop of continuing privation and war mode for hundreds of years. LeBlanc states that 23 of 27 groups of tribes vanished, died out or were absorbed into other tribes. The few surviving groups (Zuni, Laguna, Hopi, Acoma) were still at war with each other when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s.

War in complex urban societies is even worse. War results in population crashes when the infrastructure that keeps large populations alive is destroyed.

War mode impairs rational thinking

In the EEA tribes were limited in size by how far people could walk to collect food in a day. Because of this, the upper limit in the most productive ecosystem was probably under 100 adults. A growing tribe simply had to split when it reached a certain size depending on the productivity of the ecosystem. (Tribe members didn't understand this fact of life. Evolved social friction mechanisms overcame the relationship ties and split the tribe as it approached the limit where it had to split.)

Thus for a given ecosystem tribes tended to be about the same size. Making war on a tribe of roughly the same size was a very risky business--if somewhat less risky for genes because they might exist in the next generation even if the tribe didn't. Rational thinking would not be in the interests of genes in such a situation. For this reason, psychological mechanisms have evolved to switch human thinking patterns--depressing rational thinking when xenophobic war memes start to circulate or the tribe is attacked. This is the origin of the long list of irrational acts and poor judgment that we see so often in the history of wars.

The same depression in the ability to think rationally lies behind suicidal self-sacrifice. [12] Related irrational thinking occurs when a tribe gets too large for efficient food gathering and social friction mechanisms to split the tribe are being turned on. [13]

It is apparent in interviews of baffled Rwanda machete killers that they cannot explain why or how they entered the mental state in which they did the killing.

As Bradley Thayer (Thayer 2004) points out the genetic object of tribal wars was resources. One of the most spectacular resource based wars in history was on Easter Island, famous for the Moai statues. About 20 people settled Easter Island, a paradise of large trees and vast numbers of sea birds. A few hundred years later the population had grown a thousand fold, the last birds had been eaten, the last tree had been cut down, and the population no longer was able to fish from boats they had made from the trees. With the forest gone the soil nutrients leached into the sea and the crops failed. (Diamond 2005 pp 79-119)

Such oral history as has come down (backed up by a lot of field work) indicates that the highly related population split up into the "long ears" and the "short ears." (Further indication that any meme in the class that whips up warriors into "jumpin' up and down, yellin' `KILL! KILL!'" will do. [14] ) The Easter Islanders went at each other with sharp rocks for two or three generations. [15] Eventually the population was reduced to 5-10% of the peak. With much lower demands the environment recovered to some extent and the rising income per capita shut off "war mode." When Europeans arrived population had perhaps doubled from the low point.

In short, humans go into war either because (1) "war memes" build up in a population looking at bleak prospects or (2) they are attacked. The two modes are additive and there are nasty feedback paths, as we saw with the Southwest corn farmers.

Avoiding war

Assuming we don't want war, what do we do to keep it from happening?

Population growth lower than economic growth keeps the mechanism that builds up "war memes" from being activated. So how does that come about?

"When [globalization] comes into traditional societies, which are pretty much defined by male control over females, it suddenly alters the character of some of our most important relationships and decisions: marriage, sex, births, family economics, the whole shebang. And globalization has proven itself time and time again to empower women disproportionately over men. That is a direct threat to the nature of traditional societies."

(Barnett 2004) [16]

Empowering women and other factors such as reliable birth control methods that go with the globalized high-tech life style has the effect of lowering the birth rate to near or even below replacement. Why isn't entirely obvious. The usual response of a species finding itself in a rich, well-fed environment is to have lots of offspring. Sarah Hrdy (Hrdy 1999) has given this topic a lot of thought without reaching a firm conclusion.

There is no obvious evolutionary reason wealth above a certain level should result in the demographic transition to a lower human birth rate. Certainly the rationalizations for small families, such as being able to send the children to college, didn't exist in the EEA. It's a subject that deserves more study in the light of evolutionary psychology. Perhaps it is an unrecognized side effect of a psychological trait such as status seeking. In any case, as E. O. Wilson says, we are very lucky.

What happens with lower birth rates in the modern world is that after a 25-30 year delay economic growth can sometimes get ahead of population growth. The effect of rising income per capita is to turn off the psychological traits that give rise to wars or related social disruption. As an example, the IRA has about gone out of business in Northern Ireland. The reason is that the birthrate there declined by about half a generation ago.

In short:

The psychological traits that lead to wars evolved over the millions of years human ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer tribes. War was the way populations stayed in balance with the ability of the ecosystem to feed them. Typically populations built up and were periodically reduced by wars.

In the modern world if a group does not have the pressure of population growth in excess of economic growth, that group won't start wars. It is the effect of low birth rates and relatively high economic growth that has kept the democracies from starting wars. (At least prior to 9/11.)

Of course they can still be attacked, which is why the well being of other tribes (now nations) is important to your tribe (nation).

Even today this model might account for most if not all wars.

Mathematical Predictions

"Social psychodynamics" and "psychohistory" were mathematical models. They were fictional, but a real science of social prediction based on evolutionary psychology will require mathematical treatment. A mathematical/computer model is unlikely to provide exact long-range predictions, there obviously being an element of chaos in reality. It still could be of considerable use to governments if the model could put numbers on the likelihood of a minor disturbance growing into nationwide riots as recently happened in France. Models on the readiness of a population to support a war, such as the Argentina and British populations before the Falklands War, would also be of considerable interest.

Putting historically derived constants on the factors leading to war is a project for the next paper--though it might take a book.

There are other models for predicting wars. One of them is that wars are caused (somehow) when the percentage of young men with poor prospects for reproduction exceeds some percentage of the population. (Hudson 2004)

The Chinese have inadvertently provided a test case. As a result of selective abortion favouring male children the excess male population is well into the range where these theories predict war. The EP model presented here predicts that the Chinese will not start wars in spite of the excess males as long as their income per capita is rising. Since the Chinese have done an astonishing job of getting the birth rate down, that's a lot easier for their society to accomplish. Of course the Chinese could still go into war mode by being attacked.

Going down the list of countries it is possible to rate them for future problems just by looking at the direction of their income per capita and future prospects.

To avoid wars in the long term, all cultures (including Islamic cultures) will have to either empower women or figure out some other way to reduce their population growth to levels consistent with long-term economic growth.

Current events

Does the current mess the US is in fit this model?

Prior to the US attacking Iraq, it had been a long time since a country in the developed world started a war. The 1982 Falklands War might have been the last time. The conditions under which that war started and the way it was escalated by the British are consistent with the model.

For various reasons, the Islamic world's income per capita has been falling, partly because the culture is not particularly accepting of western technology--including modern birth control--that empowers women. The worst place in the world for falling income per capita before the recent run up in oil prices was, of all places, Saudi Arabia, which saw a nearly 75% fall in income per capita about equally due to falling oil prices and rising population from a high birthrate. Saudi Arabia was the source of most of the 9/11 suicide hijackers. Significantly birth control is outlawed there.

Saudi Arabia is not the only problem. Stable or rising income per capita is rare in Islamic-Arab countries, and every one of those is from resource extraction. The response to falling income per capita in the modern world probably isn't nearly as deterministic as it was in hunter-gatherer times; likely being influenced the particular memes already circulating and the people who obtain "war chief" status (i.e., bin Laden and Co.). Modern transport makes any "tribe" in the world a possible target, with the largest "tribes" being the most likely targets.

So falling income per capita provided the conditions where the Al Queda meme set and related xenophobic memes motivate warriors, and provide them support from the populations.

That's the origin of the 9/11 attacks.

Stupid, of course, but we evolved in little tribes where it made sense for genes to build brains with the psychological trait of irrational thought in war mode. If you were in a small tribe facing starvation, an insane attack on a larger tribe where all the males of the little tribe were almost certain to be killed was better for their genes than starving. Why? Because most of the time the tribe's young women were booty and became wives (or second wives) in the victorious tribe. And against the odds they might win.

At the rational level Osama bin Laden and his followers had no idea why they were attacking, but what the underlying evolved psychological mechanisms were "expecting" (if he lost) was for him and all of his male relatives to be put to death and his sisters and daughters to be absorbed as wives or extra wives into the tribe he had attacked (which for genes--as we have seen--beats starving). But the mechanisms were cheated out of their "expectation." It just isn't politically correct to deal with enemy tribes today the way they did in biblical times. (I speculate that "biblical treatment" has fallen out of favor as a meta effect of wars in the advanced countries becoming rare due to long periods of rising income per capita.)

One of my reviewers pointed out that bin Laden and most of his terrorists were not facing personal privation nor were their families. Many of them are college educated with good socio-economic backgrounds and prospects. This is where xenophobic memes spilling over from the rest of the culture have their effect. In those long ago tribal days, even well fed warriors had to get caught up in the madness if they were going to successfully attack a neighboring tribe for resources.

So the huge US "tribe" was attacked on 9/11 by OBL's tiny "Al Qaeda tribe" and went into war mode due to being attacked.

Additionally, though the US has not suffered a lot in total income, in the last few decades there has been a massive internal shift in income with a large fraction of the population facing bleak times. (Few starve in the US, but the war-meme behavioral switch mechanism needs only a relative drop to be activated.) To the extent a substantial fraction of the population faces reduced prospects or thinks they are, they are that much more willing to support war and/or circulate xenophobic memes such as the rapture/Armageddon and fulfillment of biblical prophesy.

How did the US get into this Iraq mess?

Once a tribe is attacked (and goes into war mode) rationality really suffers. It's not different from the damage to rationality that comes from the build-up of war memes in a tribe with bleak prospects but it happens much faster. Under those circumstances, tribes follow leaders who are often less rational than their supporters. In this case the US had the misfortune of a leader who had a preconceived notion of which country he wanted to attack. Also perceptions of being under attack are more important than reality in activating behavior switches. "All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked." [17] In the months leading up to the attack on Iraq, the message put out by the US administration was "be afraid, be very afraid, we are about to be attacked with Saddam's weapons of mass destruction!"

So the US military overran Iraq with high support from the US population. Of course other than being Muslims (and not even very radical ones at that), the Iraqi tribes had nothing to do with 9/11. Still, had the US been able to restore electricity and bring up the economic prospects in Iraq in a few months, they might have gotten away with it since a fair fraction of the population didn't care for the former leader.

But the US failed to improve or even restore the Iraq economy to the depressed pre-war levels. Now the bad economy in Iraq is a powerful psychological mechanism supporting war memes, plus the fact that Iraq was attacked which turns on war mode in the population and wrecks their rationality just like the 9/11 attack did in the US. The ongoing upheaval, especially the meme-driven suicide attacks, makes the economic improvements needed to shut off war mode next to impossible. Of course in a generation the people get used to the low economic level and some minor economic up-trend could shut off war mode. That is what happened in Lebanon and probably will happen in Iraq for those willing to wait 25 years.

And getting out?

Unfortunately understanding the evolutionary psychology mechanisms behind wars hasn't (so far) led to an acceptable proposal for what might be done about the current situation.

An unacceptable--even mad proposal--would be to swap out the whole Iraqi population with Texans and rapture believers. It's not impossible from a logistics point of view (the US moves 25 million people through its airports in about a month). The Iraqis would get a place where the power was on all day-- which would improve their "income per capita" perception enough to shut off support for war and related disruption. The Texans would have oil, which would certainly make them happy, and with no fighting they could patch the country up in a year or two. If there really are as many people looking for the rapture as the polls show and some rapture leader got the idea that being closer to the Holy Land was a good idea, a voluntary population swap might be oversubscribed.

But then what would you do? The US doesn't need a 51st state in the Mid East full of people looking for the rapture no matter how much oil it has.


Subsequent to finishing this article, I found Azar Gat's excellent paper "The Human Motivational Complex: Evolutionary Theory And The Causes Of Hunter-Gatherer Fighting." I consider it entirely supportive.

Even more recently, January 2006, is the work of Westen, D., Kilts, C., Blagov, P., Harenski, K., & Hamann, S. "The neural basis of motivated reasoning: An fMRI study of emotional constraints on political judgment during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004." It is still, as of April 17, 2006 an unpublished manuscript in revision. It is (from the press release) a demonstration of the mechanism proposed in this article where partisan mode (war mode) disrupts rational thinking.


Asimov, Isaac (1951) Foundation. New York: Gnome Press

Asimov, Isaac (1952) Foundation and Empire. New York: Gnome Press

Asimov, Isaac (1953) Second Foundation New York: Gnome Press

Barnett, Thomas P.M (2004) in The Worldchanging Interview December 21, 2004 (Alex Steffen interviewer)

Blakeslee, Sandra (2002) Hijacking the Brain Circuits With a Nickel Slot Machine New York Times, February 19, 2002

Calvin, William (1990) The Ascent of Mind: Ice Age Climates and the Evolution of Intelligence. New York: Bantam

Cialdini, Robert B. (1984). Influence: the new psychology of modern persuasion. New York: Wm. Morrow

Diamond, Jared (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books

Goodall, Jane (1999) Reason For Hope; A Spiritual Journey (with Phillip Berman). New York: Warner Books, Inc

Goodall, Jane (1988) In The Shadow of Man Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Gray, Peter O. (2001) Psychology (4th ed.) New York: Worth Publishers

Haldane, J. B. S. (1955). Population genetics. New Biology, 18, 34-51.

Hamilton, W. D. (1964a). The genetical evolution of social behavior: I. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 1-16.

Hamilton, W. D. (1964b). The genetical evolution of social behavior: II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 17-52.

Hearst, Patricia Campbell (1982) (with Alvin Moscow). Every Secret Thing. New York: Doubleday.

Heinlein, Robert A. (1959). Starship Troopers. New York: Putnam

Heinlein, Robert A. (1941). Methuselah's Children. New York: Street and Smith

Heinlein, Robert A. (1953) Revolt in 2100 Chicago: Shasta

Henson, H. Keith (1987) "Memetics and the Modular Mind--Modeling the Development of Social Movements" Analog, Aug 1987

Henson, H. Keith. (2002) Sex, Drugs, and Cults. Human Nature Review. 2: 343-355

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. (1999). Mother Nature: a history of mothers, infants, and natural selection. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hudson, Valerie M. Andrea M. den Boer (2004) Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population Cambridge: M.I.T. Press)

Kolinski, Charles J. (1965) Independence or Death! The Story of the Paraguayan War. Gainesville: University of Florida Press,

Kroeber Clifton B., Fontana Bernard L (1986). Massacre on the Gila: An Account of the Last Major Battle Between American Indians, With Reflections on the Origin of War Tucson: University of Arizona Press

LeBlanc, Steven A. (1999) Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press.

Lockwood, Jeffrey A. The death of the Super Hopper High Country News Vol. 35 No. 2 February 3, 2003

Available at http://www.hcn.org/servlets/hcn.Article?article_id=13695

Silverman, Irwin (2003) Confessions of a Closet Sociobiologist: Personal Perspectives on the Darwinian Movement in Psychology. Evolutionary Psychology 1: 1- 9 Available at http://human-nature.com/ep/articles/ep0119.html

Smith, Maynard J. (1995). The theory of evolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thayer, Bradley A. (2004) Darwin and International Relations. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky


Abstract: Evolutionary psychology and memetics are used to propose a model of war. Population growth leads to a resource crisis. An impending resource crisis activates a behavioral switch in humans allowing the build up of xenophobic or dehumanizing memes, which synchronizes attacks on neighboring tribes. Hamilton's criterion of inclusive fitness is invoked to account for the evolution of this species typical behavior. War as an evolved species typical behavior in the EEA for humans is discussed, first as an attack response and second as unprovoked attacks. Unprovoked attacks are proposed to require the build up of xenophobic or dehumanizing memes. Evolved brain mechanisms are proposed to cause these memes to become more common when the subject population anticipates "looming privation." The well-known reduction in the ability of humans to think rationally in war situations is explained in evolutionary terms as a divergence in interest between the individual and his genes. The problem of avoiding wars is examined in terms of these mechanisms. Population growth at a higher rate than economic growth is proposed as the causal factor for wars in the modern world. This model and the "excess males" model make different predictions about where future wars will start. The model is then applied to analyze current events.

Keywords: Evolutionary psychology, memetics, war, behavioral switches, xenophobic memes, dehumanizing memes, Stockholm syndrome, capture-bonding, impaired rational thinking, inclusive fitness, rapture, Iraq.

[1] Bradley A. Thayer has written a substantial book, (Thayer 2004), where he explores arguments for an evolutionary origin for wars and ethnic conflicts. I didn't find his book till this article was nearly complete. Roughly 1/3 of the book is notes and references. Anyone who finds this article inadequately referenced is advised to read Dr. Thayer's book. His research into the literature is entirely supportive of this paper--though he does not take the final step of proposing particular evolved mechanisms leading to wars.

[2] The syndrome is named after the famous Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm which lasted from August 23 to August 28, 1973. In this case, the victims kept on defending their captors even after their six-days physical detention was over. They showed a reticent behaviour in the following legal procedures. The term was coined by the criminologist and psychologist Nils Bejerot, who assisted the police during the robbery, and referred to the syndrome in news broadcast. It was then picked up by many psychologists worldwide.

Other famous cases include those of airplane hostages and kidnapped people, such as Patty Hearst. After having been a hostage of a politically engaged military organisation (the Symbionese Liberation Army), Patty Hearst joined the group several months after she was freed. The syndrome is related to bride capture and similar topics in cultural anthropology.

[3] "Bride capture" was socially acceptable in England as late as the 15th century and still is in a few remote corners of the world

[4] This is speculative, but genes for intensely rewarding sex that induced rapid social reorienting and bonding would be favored in capture-bonding situations.

[5] It is also the reason certain drugs--chemicals that happen to fit the endorphin and dopamine receptors--are addicting. It makes no sense that humans would have evolved the ability to become addicted. It does make sense that humans would have chemically--mediated reward circuits that encourage behavior that aids reproduction. The capacity to become drug-addicted is a by-product of the attention-reward pathway. See also Blakesley (2002)

[6] "To express the matter more vividly, in the world of our model organisms, whose behavior is determined strictly by genotype, we expect to find that no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person but that everyone will sacrifice it when he can thereby save more than two brothers, or four half-brothers, or eight first cousins...." (Hamilton 1964a p. 16)

[7] The evolutionary biologist J. S. B. Haldane made similar statements. I am not sure who has precedence.

[8] http://www.janegoodall.ca/jane/jane_bio_gombe.html

[9] The problem with this argument applied to chimpanzees/bonobos/humans is that bonobos have not been observed to make war on neighboring groups and humans are as closely related to bonobos as we are to chimpanzees. Presumptively bonobos are capable of population growth to press the limits of their environment to support them. If wars are not a factor limiting bonobo numbers, it would be of great interest to find out what are the limiting factors?]

[10] Patricia Hearst's interview with Larry King on CNN: "And, you know, I had no free will. I had virtually no free will until I was separated from them for about two weeks. And then it suddenly, you know, slowly began to dawn that they just weren't there any more. I could actually think my own thoughts." From http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0201/22/lkl.00.html

[11] Book of Numbers, from The holy Bible, King James version Chapter 31

7: They warred against Mid'ian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and slew every male.

8: They slew the kings of Mid'ian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Mid'ian; and they also slew Balaam the son of Be'or with the sword.

9: And the people of Israel took captive the women of Mid'ian and their little ones; and they took as booty all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods.

10: All their cities in the places where they dwelt, and all their encampments, they burned with fire,

11: and took all the spoil and all the booty, both of man and of beast.

12: Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses, and to Elea'zar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

13: Moses, and Elea'zar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation, went forth to meet them outside the camp.

14: And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war.

15: Moses said to them, "Have you let all the women live?

16: Behold, these caused the people of Israel, by the counsel of Balaam, to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Pe'or, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.

17: Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.

18: But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

[12] There are cases in post-agricultural history where suicidal self-sacrifice made a major difference. For example in 480 BCE Leonidas king of Sparta commanded 300 Greeks in one of the pivotal events in modern human history: the battle of Thermopylae. A small force (eventually wiped out to the last man) held up over 100,000 Persians in a narrow pass for six days while the Greeks mustered the forces that eventually defeated the Persians. The achievements of Greece lie at the root of western culture. Without this sacrifice the world would be very different.

[13] Cialdini (1984). p. 256: "It is easy enough to feel properly warned against scarcity pressures; but it is substantially more difficult to act on that warning. Part of the problem is that our typical reaction to scarcity hinders our ability to think.

[14] From the song "Alice's Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie, 1966.

[15] "Islanders for protein turned to the biggest animal left on the island for food, namely humans. The island society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism....The worst insult that an Easter Islander could say to another Easter Islander was `the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.'" http://wwics.si.edu/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.item&news_id=55747 (The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars)

[16] http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/001778.html

[17] "Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, 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 tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger."


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Related Links
o [Abstract/ Keywords]
o Memetics and the Modular Mind
o [1]
o Lockwood 2003
o [2]
o capture-bo nding
o [3]
o [4]
o [5]
o Sex, Drugs and Cults
o [6]
o [7]
o Goodall bio
o [8]
o [9]
o chapter 3
o account
o [10]
o [11]
o [12]
o [13]
o [14]
o [15]
o Barnett 2004
o [16]
o [17]
o paper
o press release
o [1]
o [1] [2]
o [2]
o [3]
o [4]
o [5]
o [6]
o [7]
o [8]
o http://www .janegoodall.ca/jane/jane_bio_gombe.html
o [9]
o [10]
o http://tra nscripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0201/22/lkl.00.html
o [11]
o [12]
o [13]
o [14]
o [15]
o http://wwi cs.si.edu/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.item&news_id=55747
o [16]
o http://www .worldchanging.com/archives/001778.html
o [17]
o Also by hkhenson

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Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War | 192 comments (120 topical, 72 editorial, 0 hidden)
again. (1.25 / 4) (#1)
by wampswillion on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 07:49:20 PM EST

geez.  again.  i really think this should go straight to the front page.  

i said it before but then the article disappeared.  thank you for putting it back.  i had wanted to read it again.  

Oh wow (2.12 / 8) (#4)
by gumbo on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 08:45:37 PM EST

Memes and Evolutionary Psychology. Or historicism for physicists, in other words.

I love it when you nerds try this sort of thing. It's really very endearing. Not to mention hilarious.

-1, pseudo-science (2.25 / 8) (#7)
by nostalgiphile on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 09:05:41 PM EST

Could you perhaps quote yourself some more? Are you just crap-flooding your stuff to boost your name-recognition/ooze-level in the "meme-pool"? If that's the case, there might be better ways to do it: e.g., BUY A FUCKING AD.

PS: what other journals rejected this besides the "Human Nature Review"?

"Depending on your perspective you are an optimist or a pessimist[,] and a hopeless one too." --trhurler
Ummm.....No...../nt (2.50 / 2) (#11)
by terryfunk on Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 09:40:24 PM EST

I like you, I'll kill you last. - Killer Clown
The ScuttledMonkey: A Story Collection

-1, apologist for war (1.16 / 6) (#23)
by United Fools on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 12:54:32 AM EST

You try to legitimatize war with some theory?

We are united, we are fools, and we are America!
Why bother swapping? (2.83 / 6) (#29)
by BJH on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 03:12:10 AM EST

Just send all the Texans to Iraq and leave them there.

Starting with GWB, of course.
Roses are red, violets are blue.
I'm schizophrenic, and so am I.
-- Oscar Levant

Quantitative models and falsifiability (2.92 / 14) (#30)
by Scrymarch on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 03:15:33 AM EST

I'm personally not a real fan of evolutionary psychology, particularly on the behaviour trigger front. It's too easy to use as a stalking horse for one ideology or another. It's also prone to massive argumentative overstretch, which is exactly what you do here, with the Iraq or IRA examples just adding the ridiculously large nose to the caricature. Here you argue from a selective sample of evolution for globalisation, prosperity, etc; over there Baldrson argues from a different selective sample that particular races are parasites much like a breed of thorax bursting worm. To echo a trollish response of the time, help Mr Henson, there's a Jewish Starbucks franchise in my belly.

Although resource privation is certainly one motivation for war, it's far from clear that it's the only motivation. Here you propose it is the only motivation, with the caveat that a drop in living standards or the anticipation of such is sufficient. You then assert that people can be fooled into the anticipation of resource deprivation through memes. Well, perhaps; or you could consider that there are less direct reasons for waging war, eg to perpetuate certain social institutions. Memes themselves are a promising metaphor which have resolutely gone absolutely nowhere as a scientific theory, and in the absence of such, "memes" becomes little more than a synonym for "words", and your description becomes "words can convince people to go to war". Well gosh, looks like you've cracked that one wide open. So while you had a plausible argument for war as species-typical human behaviour explained by Hamilton's inclusive fitness, beyond that point your argument is a big waving hand.

Serious, if not strictly mainstream, work is being done on quantitative models of history. Ecologist Peter Turchin's book War and Peace and War describes mathematical models for empire formation and destruction. The theory he proposes consists of three different cycles of different periodicity. The longest, asabiya, cycle, is based on relative living standards. Check out his cliodynamics page. Turchin is acutely aware of the burden of scientific proof, which is why he proposes falsifiable models, and also suggests ways they would be supported or shot down by further historical evidence.

Interesting if slightly more distant work is done in the field of Economic History. Eg, check out this paper, the Colonial Origins of Comparative Development. They use records of sailor and bishop deaths to find a striking correlation between mortality rates in colonies and future national success.

go look at a class of kindergarterners (1.64 / 14) (#31)
by circletimessquare on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 03:16:50 AM EST

for 30 minutes

now you understand war

it's really not that complicated

by oververbalizing the obvious, you actually make yourself sound dimwitted, not smart

whenever you encounter someone overintellectualizing a simple subject matter, you realize they are overcompensating for a shortcoming

for you, i would guess that shortcoming is some sort of lack of life experience

real life doesn't resemble a text book

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

A missed opportunity (2.25 / 4) (#36)
by A Bore on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 07:15:53 AM EST

It is sad that you do not subject the 11-9 "conspiracy theory" to a scientific, rigorous analysis, but rather accept prima facie that radical Islamic 'terrorists' (who were so utterly radical that they wished to martyr themselves, yet spent their last night on earth drinking alcohol in strip clubs) flew 747s into the Trade Towers. 747's, moreover, not fueled by conventional aircraft jet fuel, but by some impact-driven homing smart explosives that somehow legged it to the structural supports of the buildings they were ejected into, and simultaneously and neatly destroyed them at a preordained time, allowing the buildings to gracefully near- freefall into their own footprint.


-1, Scientologists are morons (1.00 / 7) (#37)
by Egil Skallagrimson on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 07:17:37 AM EST


Enterobacteria phage T2 is a virulent bacteriophage of the T4-like viruses genus, in the family Myoviridae. It infects E. coli and is the best known of the T-even phages. Its virion contains linear double-stranded DNA, terminally redundant and circularly permuted.

-1 Adequacy-style troll (2.50 / 10) (#38)
by The Diary Section on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 08:08:10 AM EST

Spend 10 minutes in the company of an American and you end up feeling like a Keats or a Shelley: Thin, brilliant, suave, and desperate for industrial-scale quantities of opium.
A couple of problems I have with this.... (2.44 / 9) (#39)
by terryfunk on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 08:09:11 AM EST

First it is too frigging long

Second, this article arrives at what I believe to be faulty conclusions. Pick something you don't like, build a hypothesis around it, cite odd off-the-wall references. Sheesh...

Third, more tired anti-bush anti-oil anti whatever, that has been posted or put in the queue 1000 times since 9/11.

Dump this.

I like you, I'll kill you last. - Killer Clown
The ScuttledMonkey: A Story Collection

A scientific test (2.66 / 3) (#47)
by jimrandomh on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 01:11:15 PM EST

The most important claim in the article seems to be this one:
"I suspect without being able to show it directly that conditions of looming privation operate on brain modules to "turn up the gain" (making an amplifying feedback loop) for xenophobic memes propagating in a group."

This can be tested. Find an experimental group of communities with falling income per capita, and a control group of culturally-similar communities with slowly rising income per capita. Give each group a fictional story about a tribe being attacked, and ask how they should respond. The theory predicts a correlation between falling income and warlike suggestions.

The hard part, of course, is finding experimental/control group pairs where there isn't some other factor around to muck up the results, like political orientation, family size, or population density. How to do that is left as an exercise to the funded reader.
CalcRogue: TI-89, 92+, PalmOS, Windows and Linux.

The model is bad. (3.00 / 15) (#65)
by Polverone on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 07:10:48 PM EST

Here is real US GDP per capita from 1790 to 2005. Look at those numbers and simultaneously look at the years of wars that the US either started a war or entered into one without first suffering military attack on its own territory. The Mexican-American War started in 1844. Real per-capita GDP rose slightly in the two years before the war. The US Civil War started in 1860. Real per-capita GDP rose in the two years before the war. The Spanish-American War started in 1898. Real per-capita GDP in the two years before the war. The US entered WW I in 1917. Real per-capita GDP rose sharply in the two years before entering the war. The Korean War started in 1950. Real  per-capita GDP fell in the two years before the war -- finally, a case that matches the theory! The US escalated its involvement in the Vietnam with the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Real per-capita GDP rose in the two years before the escalation. The US invaded Panama in 1989. Real per-capita GDP rose in the two years befoe the invasion. NATO, under the leadership of the US, inserted itself in the Kosovo war in 1999. Real per-capita GDP rose in the two years before US involvement.

Even more damning for the model, the US did not behave more aggressively in the years immediately following a decrease in real per-capita GDP. Remember the US invasion of Mexico in 1933 and its forcible annexation of Canada in 1947? Neither do I. It's not just the US that fails to fit either. Are you familiar with all the terrorists coming from sub-Saharan Africa in the years since AIDS began devastating the region? Neither am I. Britain, France, Spain, Japan, and many other colonial powers became more aggressive soon after they gained the wealth/power to project force outside their own borders.

You claim that your model can account for most wars, but the claim is thinly supported as it is presented here. I do not think that the majority of wars start in pursuit of greater material prosperity or in reaction to other nations already seeking prosperity through war. In fact the notion of "prosperity through war" is monumentally stupid, like "health through disease," which doesn't mean that some people might not believe it anyway I suppose. But I would expect leaders to known better. War might make some people richer, but it can very rarely enrich an entire nation to the extent that equivalent resources expended peacefully could enrich the nation. Tribal resource-seeking motivations for war fall apart if (is as usually the case) most of the tribe or nation does not benefit. I suppose you could say that people are manipulated through various means to believe that they will benefit, but this seems to stray pretty far from the idea that a real decrease in material prosperity is the main cause of wars.
It's not a just, good idea; it's the law.

If this were any good... (2.58 / 12) (#66)
by originalbigj on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 07:27:32 PM EST

you would submit it to respectable journals through the proper channels. The fact that you put it on here implies that you just wanted cheap vindication from easily fascinated stoners. I notice also that you like publishing your theories in other less than respectable outlets. Now you clearly have some sort of training, which brings up some questions.

If I may, I'd like to posit that you perhaps you don't like doing real research and would prefer supporting your wide-ranging, ultimately untestable theories with other wide-ranging untestable theories? May I also assume that you convince yourself that real scientists are too blind to appreciate these theories, rather than admit that there are thousands of amateur philosophers that write similar theories, and that you are no better than they?

According to me (2.33 / 3) (#75)
by originalbigj on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 08:04:28 PM EST

most of the information on his wikipedia page has indirectly, or maybe directly, come from Keith Hanson himself. Now I know Scientology does some sketchy stuff, but after reading Hanson's story a couple times in various places, I'm having a hard time believing that it's all how he says. Hanson is a weird guy, who does weird things and has weird explanations for the things he does, and I don't trust any of it. And I'm not even a Scientologist.

one can't meaningfully (2.33 / 9) (#101)
by guidoreichstadter on Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 11:10:29 PM EST

attempt to explain the origin of modern warfare without a single use of the word capitalism

you are human:
no masters,
no slaves.
+1 fp (2.00 / 4) (#117)
by circletimessquare on Wed Apr 19, 2006 at 11:00:19 AM EST

and i'll tell you why:

this story is crap, it's overwrought

but this dude has been bankrupted from fighting scientology

follow the link on his name, and look his name up on wikipedia

based on that alone, this dude is +1 fp from me no matter what he writes, forever

anyone who has laid it on the line like this dude fighting those wackjob asshole scientologists is +1 fp in my book, no matter what the subject

dude: you rule, thank you, thank you, thank you. your efforts at fighting those asshole scientologists is very much appreciated

you have earned carte blanche from me forever. really, many thanks. you can do no wrong in my book, ever. you're made of gold, you walk on water

i heart u, have my baby


The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

+1FP - The darker side of memes. (2.66 / 3) (#129)
by Mylakovich on Wed Apr 19, 2006 at 01:44:02 PM EST

Who knew that the O RLY owl could cause outbreaks of war?

Also, this was exactly the type of article I'd been hoping would show up on K5 for a while.

The Lucifer Principle (none / 0) (#135)
by Valdrax on Wed Apr 19, 2006 at 02:48:52 PM EST

How did you manage to research all the information needed for a long-winded article like this without encountering "The Lucifer Principle?"  It basically goes over everything you've covered in better detail (except for the Iraq rant at the end) and in a much more conversational writing style.

Some thoughts. (3.00 / 6) (#149)
by Kasreyn on Wed Apr 19, 2006 at 05:37:00 PM EST

Regarding Islamic per capita income: you mention Saudi Arabia. Other examples are UAE and Kuwait. It's true, per capita income is low. But these countries have some of the richest men in the world, multibillionaires, all rich from oil.

The problem of the Muslim world is not that it is low-tech and cannot make the best use of its limited resources. The problem of the Muslim world is that its resources are being used for the advantage of only a very small privileged class. (The same could be said about America, but the privileged class is far, far smaller in the Middle East.) If you don't deal with this issue, then your entire argument has a gaping hole in it. You can't write off the Muslim world's ability to adapt to modern times until you first determine how they could adapt if they weren't so busy shooting themselves in the foot. Their chief problem is a culture in which acceptance of despotism, both secular and sectarian, is so deeply ingrained that the people seek outside targets upon which to place the blame for their poor quality of life.

I'd say your article suffers from trying to do too much and be too many things. Your focus is rather vague and your point suffers from it. I'd recommend ditching all the current events material, or focusing solely on it. It feels more like two articles lashed together than a whole.

You also seem to subscribe to a rather suspect notion that there is only one environment for which humans are perfectly adapted - the so-called birthplace of our species, likely the serengeti of Africa - and that for no other environment could we be considered "adapted". But our staggering success as a species proves you wrong quite thoroughly. Our ability to survive in a great variety of environments proves our adaptability. The fact that we survive using tools (such as protective clothing, ventilation, air conditioning, pressure suits) is nothing special. We are not the only tool-using or tool-adapting species, merely the most inventive. There is nothing special about a tool-using behavior that somehow makes it "less natural" than throwing spears at antelopes. It's all human behavior, and it's all eligible for consideration. The secret of our species is that the entire Earth is now our "EEA" (a meaningless term devised by anthros with their heads up their asses, if you ask me).

Oh, and Thermopylae may have been seen as pivotal once, but if Themistocles hadn't put the finish on Xerxes's ambitions at "Divine Salamis", Thermopylae would have just been another in the hagiography of noble last stands of defeated peoples. Greece, and the culture we have today, would have been eradicated. In the end, it wasn't Spartan military heroism that saved the day, but forward-thinking Athenian defense spending.

For more reading, I suggest Marvin Harris's excellent "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches" and also "Cannibal Kings". Also, as I mentioned, Desmond Morris's "The Naked Ape". Finally, Carl Sagan's "The Dragons of Eden" may prove useful. All these books are somewhat dated, but their theories still provide excellent food for thought on how our evolution may have shaped our behavior.

"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
Swapping, Ha Ha. (none / 1) (#169)
by Thought Assassin on Thu Apr 20, 2006 at 11:23:55 AM EST

Hilarious parody of Israel.

Make Symbiosis, Not Virulence (none / 1) (#174)
by Baldrson on Thu Apr 20, 2006 at 06:45:03 PM EST

I think the focus on war as a problem to solve is misguided. That's sort of like focusing on inflamation as a problem to solve.

The problem is virulence.

In this respect, memes, like their nucleic acid analogues, evolve greater virulence with horizontal transmission and greater symbiosis with vertical transmission.

The most accessible, competent treatment of the evolution of virulence is "Plague Time: How Stealth Infections Cause Cancers, Heart Disease, and Other Deadly Ailments", by Paul W. Ewald. It's interesting that Dawkins has high praise for the book on the jacket, and even sees an analogy between the immune system and brain, but doesn't seem to get the applicability to memetic virulence:

Quite apart from its main thesis, which I am not qualified to judge but which sounds to me frightenngly plausible, this book has gems of insight and imagery which mark out its author as a master explainer. The chapter comparing the immune system witht he brain is a tour de force. -- Richard Dawkins
I'm not going to get into my ideas about resolving what "the protean nature of this dilemma" between group and individual replicators except to say that:
  1. Mutually consenting association with
  2. Subsistence territorial allocation based on "best practice" cultivation
Needs to be considered as part of the foundation of any approach to containment of virulence.

PS: "Plague Time" is now very affordable. I just picked up a hardback copy from Powells for $5.

-------- Empty the Cities --------

Median income (none / 1) (#175)
by vectro on Thu Apr 20, 2006 at 07:19:03 PM EST

You say:
Additionally, though the US has not suffered a lot in total income, in the last few decades there has been a massive internal shift in income with a large fraction of the population facing bleak times.
Which is, in fact, totally wrong. See the raw numbers, or a happy openoffice chart with graphs. Those at the bottom are hardly sharing in the prosperity of the last 50 years, but neither are they any worse off.

“The problem with that definition is just that it's bullshit.” -- localroger
The dominance multiplier principle (2.50 / 2) (#177)
by Highlander on Sat Apr 22, 2006 at 01:48:52 PM EST

You put forward "why war comes from evolution" very nicely, especially the initial triggers. I suspect all this was already known, but it is still nice thinking on how to change it.

If you want to get better predictions, you need to consider the effects of religions, leaders and dominance.

Most of the big monotheistic religions encourage big families. Factoring out the resource scarceness business caused by population growth, this means there is still an effect here pushing for war, which is that big families also mean a sizeable offspring per man, an effect which can been seen in magnification in arabic social artifacts such as harems.

In such a society, because when a male reaches a dominant position, he will have a plentiful offspring, while he will be an ass if he is of low rank, then there is a need for the individual to assert his position. This means the males will tend to reach the state of what you might call "irrational drive for war" or "fighting for survival" much earlier. It could be conjectured then that most leaders of even affluent nations will be ready to start a war even before their populace does, which ironically will also increase their ability to be a leader because they act more pro-actively.

I said about monotheism that "most of the big monotheistic religions encourage big families". However, the christian notion of single marriage, if practiced, also lessens the stress on the male to achieve dominance. It can be guessed therefore that long-term, the single marriage was an important element in the development of larger social entities, and might have favored the development of societies over the development of the individual.

Finally, building on this, it could be conjectured that eventually the american christian movement, which also appears to be endorsed by Bush, will lead to wars and even civil wars, which according to your theory would happen when resources stop coming in. As oil appears to be a driving motive in the states, maybe because of the long distances and the big cities, it could be said that the observable interest of the states in oil and Irak thus is actually a rational motive, although it will end up being just a patch that will delay the change that has to come when fossile oil not only gets scarce, but rare.

Moderation in moderation is a good thing.

the problem (none / 1) (#178)
by trane on Sat Apr 22, 2006 at 07:49:38 PM EST

in this LONG article (which I didn't read fully) is that you seem to neglect the power of the will to overcome what you call "hardwired" behavior. For example, why would I choose to eschew status-building behavior and therefore decrease my evolutionary fitness? My answer is that I have overcome the hardwiring. Another answer might be that I am hardwired to do the opposite of what most people do - but you don't deal with that at all (as far as I read anyhow) in your article. Maybe you're only concerned with the majority, in which case, oh well, I guess you aren't concerned about me and my problems in the least. Another possibility (the one I tend to support) is that I have overcome my hardwired instincts, and that this ability to overcome biological urges is the real key to humanity. We achieve immortality now by spreading memes, not genes.

4. Evolution is a very FAST process (none / 1) (#179)
by oscarwp on Sat Apr 22, 2006 at 08:12:19 PM EST

Dude says: "4. Evolution is a very slow process; thus the influence of the last 10,000 years (since agriculture started) is relatively small." I don't think evolution is slow, especially now. It seems to me that every thing we create (technologically or otherwise) that helps us survive is evolution. Since the last 200 years has seen an amazing amount of created thingies I think we've evolved quite a bit and very, very quickly.

Does the author think..... (none / 0) (#186)
by tomuchsoup on Thu Aug 10, 2006 at 03:52:18 PM EST

..... that a more mature understanding of memes and better methods to 'map' them, are to be found outside of the EP literature and it's tools?

Or... (none / 0) (#189)
by Yojimbo on Fri Sep 08, 2006 at 04:46:29 AM EST

Moslem dislike of western culture could be to do with the dominant males getting feeling that their dominance is threatenened by a powerful foreign meme that says people should do and think what they like, and not blindly follow orders from the Imam 'alphas'. This especially applies to the emancipation of women. It hits right at the heart of the Moslom memes reproductive strategy if women get hold of contraception, or control of their own sexuality. They might pick a non-Moslem mate, and the offspring probably wouldn't reproduce the meme. Or they would use contraception, and lessen the number of Moslem meme cariers in the next generation.


Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War | 192 comments (120 topical, 72 editorial, 0 hidden)
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