Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War

Article excerpt

Evolutionary psychology and memetics are used here 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 memes (i.e., learned elements of culture), which lead to synchronized attacks on neighboring tribes. Hamilton's criterion of inclusive fitness is invoked to account for the evolution of this species typical behavior. War, as a species typical behavior in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness (EEA) of humans is discussed, first as a response to an attack and then as an unprovoked attack. Unprovoked attacks are more common when the aggressor 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. Population growth at a higher rate than economic growth is seen as a major causal factor for wars.

Key Words: Evolutionary psychology, memetics, war, altruism behavioral switches, Stockholm syndrome, capture-bonding, impaired rational thinking, inclusive fitness.

"All wars arise from population pressure."

(Heinlein 1959 p. 145)


There is relatively little respected academic work relating to 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.

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 equivalent to 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. War and related social disruptions are here seen to be a common behavioral response to a resource crisis such as may result from overpopulation.1

Behavioral Switches

Contemporary evolutionary theory states that all physical characteristics and species-typical behavior (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 into water and it swims. Bears hibernate during the winter. Birds fly south or north depending on the season. Birds that flew the wrong direction didn't leave many descendants! Perhaps the most spectacular behavioral switch in the animal kingdom is that which causes certain solitary grasshoppers to become gregarious migratory locusts.

Swarms like this - albeit usually on a smaller scale - are part of the life cycle of locusts around the world. 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. …

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