Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Us and Others: The Familial Roots of Ethnonationalism

From Indoctrinability, Ideology, and Warfare

Excerpts from ‘Us and Others: The Familial Roots of Ethnonationalism’
by Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

Us and Others: The Familial Roots of Ethnonationalism
by Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

Ever since the transition of face-to-face communities into larger anonymous societies, human beings have been confronted with the problem of developing loyalties towards people unknown to them. Since then human beings have experimented with ways to deal with this situation, which in evolutionary terms is new to our species. For most of their existence, humans have lived in small, individualized communities, an arrangement to which they seem fairly well adapted.

I will argue that familial dispositions are the basis of humankind’s prosociality. Furthermore, I will discuss the phylogenetic origin of our nurturant motivations and behaviors, including the propensity to become fixated on symbols and values with a permanence that resembles imprinting. And I shall argue that this propensity is the basis of our indoctrinability. In summary, familial adaptations constitute preadaptations for living in certain larger anonymous communities, such as ethnicities, nation-states, and multinational federations. But these preadaptations had to be welded by cultural experiments -- deliberate attempts at adaptation. The ultimate goal of these attempts was the formation of larger communities capable of self-defence and relatively free of internal strife, the members identifying with or at least obeying their rulers and communicating among themselves in a cooperative way not limited to the family and kinship ties.


The variety of social techniques employed in these cultural experiments ranges from repressive and nurturant dominance to nurturant leadership and the various combinations of the three. These techniques tap into existing social dispositions, which in part derive from our species’ vertebrate heritage. However, not all of our predispositions serve as preadaptations for large group formation. Some, at least in certain contexts, also act as obstacles.

Us and the Others

All over the world a resurgence of tribalism and ethnic conflict is evident. We are confronted with worldwide manifestations of ethnocentrism and xenophobia. One might define ethnicity as a mere construct to be deconstructed, but that in practice will not do away with the problem. Kurds will nonetheless define themselves as Kurds. Armenians as Armenians, Bosniaks as Bosniaks, and Serbs as Serbs. And many indeed are ready to sacrifice their lives to preserve their identity. They are misled, one might argue. But this invites at least the question: Why are people all over the world so easily misled?

Us against them -- this certainly constitutes one of our major problems. How did this distinction come into the world? There are turning points in evolution: Sternstunden, to borrow a term coined by Stephan Zweig. They are events that switch the rails in new directions. The evolution of nurturant maternal care constitutes such a turning point in the evolution of the land vertebrates.

In January 1954 I had a ‘key experience’ on the remote Galapagoan island of Narborough. Stepping ashore I found the surfbeaten rocks literally covered with hundreds of marine iguanas. They were tightly packed side by side and evidently seemed gregarious, but in contrast to the mammals and birds, which I had studied so far, they did not interact in any prosocial way. There was no mutual grooming to be seen, no mutual feeding, nor the bonding rituals derived from those nurturant activities. The social interactions of these large iguanas consisted in patterns of ritualized fighting with dominance displays, headbutting, and submissive postures of the loser. Even their courtship behavior consisted of dominance displays by the males. Females ready for copulation accepted these overtures by assuming a submissive posture, lying flat on their bellies. I realized that there was a basic


difference in the social behavior of reptiles on the one hand and birds and mammals on the other. Reptilian social behavior is based upon dominance and submission. Furthermore, reptiles do not form groups bonded by individual acquaintance. They aggregate but do not discriminate between individuals on the basis of ‘us’ and ‘others.’

In contrast mammals and birds often live in pairs or even in larger groups of bonded individuals that clearly distinguish group members from others. Furthermore, in addition to patterns of dominance and submission, a rich repertory of affiliative nurturant behaviors can be observed.


We may thus say that the evolution of nurturant individualized broodcare constitutes a turning point in the evolution of vertebrate social behavior, since it paved the way for long-lasting, truly affiliative friendly interaction and love between individuals.
In humans, the capacity for individualized bonding is also familial in origin. Patterns expressing affection, such as caressing,


are clearly derived from maternal behaviors, as are embracing, kissing and baby talk in a voice raised by one octave.


It also holds true for humans that individual acquaintance creates a relationship of trust, whereas a stranger is met with distrust. The first manifestation of distrust of strangers appears early in life and is well known as the phenomenon of ‘stranger awareness’ or ‘fear of strangers.’ Every healthy baby demonstrates during its first months of life basic trust: any approaching human


being will be greeted with a smile. From approximately the age of six months onwards, the baby then distinguishes between persons it knows and strangers, the latter releasing now ambivalent responses. The baby may smile at a stranger, but usually after a few seconds it will turn toward its mother and hide its face. It will fluctuate between approach and withdrawal responses or show superpositions of these two behaviors. Should the stranger be insensitive to the baby’s fear and continue to approach, the baby usually shows strong fear and clings to its mother in clear avoidance. This is a universal pattern and does not depend on prior bad experiences with strangers. It persists throughout life as stranger awareness, and it finds its clear expression in ambivalent behaviors. It can be regarded as the first manifestation of an ‘us two’ versus perceived ‘others.’ It evolved to secure the mother-child bond in a species dependent on particularly long child care, but it also provided new potential


for larger group formation. By ‘familiarization’ with others, behavior shifts along a continuum from mistrust to trust.

Extended families and small individualized groups, in which everybody knows each other, were then formed. They demarcated themselves from other similarly organized ‘in-groups.’ Behavior patterns of bonding thus spread by kin selection and proved so effective that members of the individualized groups not directly belonging to a family were able to bond by means of additional cultural institutions in such a way that the group could, in certain situations, such as war, act as a unity. Arguably, this allowed hunter-gatherer groups to become a unit of selection. Bonding at all levels in humans is reinforced by relationships of mutual sharing and reciprocity, often called reciprocal altruism. The literature on the evolution of reciprocal altruism in ethology and its current expressions in anthropology is vast and beyond the scope of this chapter. Social networks based on delayed reciprocal altruism, which serve the function of social security, certainly constitute one of the most important cultural inventions in the social evolution of our species. […] When larger societies emerged, the networks became elaborated in order to integrate expanded populations into solidarity groups.


The ability to form such networks is based upon a number of universal predispositions, such as the motivation and affiliative behavior patterns evolved in the service of bonding, the ability to symbolize, and in the special case of giving, the norm of possession, the ability for delayed reciprocity, and the ability to extend familial behaviors to distant relatives and nonrelatives -- in particular, to establish fictive-kinship relationships by marriage.

One striking characteristic of human social organization concerns male group solidarity, a phenomenon discussed by Tiger. An interesting precondition for the evolution of this male group solidarity might have been virilocality. In the majority of kin-based societies males usually stay within their local group and territory, while females migrate. A similar pattern is found with chimpanzees, where males stay within the territory in which they were born. Only females migrate during their first rut to other groups, and in doing so change their affiliation group. Males of one local chimpanzee group are therefore closely related by blood, and male solidarity thus enhances inclusive fitness. In early man the situation might have been similar. Even today human males tend to stick to their natal group, while females more often than not change location on marrying. However, the solidarity that persists in humans between females and their natal groups allows for the instrumental use of female kinship ties to establish reciprocal relations with members of other groups. Such alliances, which frequently serve to reduce a wide variety of risks in the natural and social environment, are an important precondition for the establishment of intragroup alliances.

With the distinction of ‘us’ versus ‘others,’ a new quality of social behavior came into the world as well as a potential for further evolution. Members of the same species became distinguished according to their relatedness as friend or foe. Agonistic behavior is certainly old. In reptiles, rivals fight each other, the latter being mainly members of the same sex. But reptiles know only ‘others,’ such as potential mates or rivals. The capacity to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘others’ developed in the societies of birds and mammals. This new ability found a variety of expressions in the pair-bond, the family, in human individualized groups, and even in anonymous mass societies such as nations. The nurturant affiliative behaviors of bonding and the exclusivity coupled with it established a new evolutionary potential.


In humans, ties of friendship and belonging bind members of the individualized group together in an atmosphere of basic trust. By contrast, strangers are met with suspicion. It is well known that xenophobia is a universal phenomenon, but I want to emphasize that fear of strangers is not to be confused with hatred of strangers, which is a result of indoctrination. We should be aware, however, that due to the basic mistrust of strangers our perception is biased in such a way that one negative experience usually has greater impact than a multitude of positive experiences. Another characteristic of the relationship with members of other groups is that the human inclination to establish a dominance-submission relationship is accentuated. Ethics toward strangers is certainly different from ethics toward own-group members.

Human social behavior is thus characterized by a fundamental ambivalence toward conspecifics. Agonistic and affiliative behaviors are simultaneously aroused. The former are the older vertebrate heritage, which control dominance and submissive sociality. The reptilian brain still forms a structure in the human brain as large as a fist. The old dominance-submission mechanism continues to operate in humans, and the achievement of repressive dominance in fight and competition is rewarded, as in other mammals, by a hormonal reflex. Tennis and chess players experience an increase in the blood testosterone level after victory and a drop after defeat. The winner thus experiences an ego boost. This disposition is not without problems, since success rewarded at every step is positive feedback and can lead to escalation of competitiveness.

Tendencies toward repressive dominance are ever present. Within bonded face-to-face communities they are, however, tabooed, and group pressure among others acts against them. Affiliative behaviors predominate, and leaders are chosen according to their ability to act in a socially integrative way. Individuals who are able to protect the weak, who comfort the distressed, who share -- in short, who have nurturant dispositions and who in addition demonstrate special skills, such as spokesmen, war leaders, horticulturists, healers -- individuals with these characteristics become leaders. The others approach them for help, seeking protection and advice. If people lose their social and special skills competence, they lose their status. Interestingly enough, children choose their playgroup leaders according to the same criteria.


Repressive dominance, however, is a pattern often observed in use by individuals or groups toward strangers, which in traditional societies means nongroup members. Members of other groups not bonded by alliance contracts or other reciprocal ties may be exploited, robbed, driven away, and even killed, if this can be done without endangering the security of one’s own group members. The ruthless rivalry between groups over scarce resources, such as land, constituted one of the factors that drove the evolution of modern humans. For a while it was thought that war came into the world with horticulture and animal husbandry, but there is substantial evidence of warfare in the Paleolithic and among contemporary hunter-gatherers prior to European contact. Warfare, unfortunately, is a long-standing cultural achievement.


With humans we can observe competing groups in trade and war and gauge the results of winning and losing on populations large and small. We can examine how populations are spaced or even driven to dispersion or extinction. Losing certainly does not enhance fitness. Through individual and kin selection, characteristics evolved that allowed groups to bond so effectively that further cultural evolution could tap into these adaptations to bond very large anonymous groups, such as ethnic nations, which in turn acted as units in situations of group competition such as war.
Perhaps it is politically undesirable to face such facts. But blinding ourselves to reality will not contribute to solving the problem of maintaining the peace in an ever more crowded and rapidly changing world. In human phylogeny, warfare has worked in a group-selective way. We owe a part of what we are -- patterns of affiliation as much as of aggression -- to this activity. But we are not bound to follow primordial dictates. War is a culturally elaborated form of destructive group aggression open to cultural con-


trol, provided we find alternate means for fulfilling functions so far performed by warring -- competition and the protection of one's land, identity, and other resources.

Indoctrinability and Anonymous Societies

With the cultural evolution of animal husbandry and agriculture, higher population densities became possible and competition over land, property, and other resources became better organized and thus more destructive, as history teaches us. Groups able to recruit more manpower for attack and defence had an advantage over smaller groups. Of course, there were other factors involved, such as technological advantage, but from this stage onward there was a definite tendency for the formation of larger anonymous societies.

Among the cultural mechanisms that enhance the biologically given predispositions for kinship affiliation and reciprocity, ideology is of paramount importance. Our indoctrinability, in this context, plays an important role. Through indoctrination a fixation to culture-specific standards of behavior, ethical concepts, values, symbols, and other characteristics takes place, seemingly similar to the learning processes called ‘imprinting’ by ethologists. Like imprinting, indoctrination proves to be quite resistant to therapy. Again, a predisposition for the evolution of this capacity first appeared in the mother-child relation where it served to strengthen the bond by mutual fixation of both mother and child on individual characteristics of the other. This trait proved to be preadapted to bonding kin and then distant kin and finally other group members.


The indoctrinability of our species seems to be a special learning disposition to form an affective attachment to symbols and


values characterizing the quasi-familial we-group. Again, this learning is characterized by affective attachment and resistance to therapy. Once acquired, individuals seem substantially fixated to their religious, political, and other values and to the symbols typical for the we-group. The readiness to attach and adhere to such values takes place during the juvenile period, and I hypothesize that the physiological mechanisms (brain chemistry) involved with symbol identification are derived from those that secure familial attachment of the child. Humans follow a flag like an experimentally imprinted duckling, a ball.

It seems, however, that humans’ indoctrinability is nursed from several roots and that the process of cultural indoctrination taps into several genetic predispositions. Besides those securing family solidarity, those underlying sex identification seem of paramount importance since they enhance male bonding. Boys identify themselves with their fathers and other males, and girls with female models -- in many cultures apparently without cultural pressure. A bias in perception enhances this preference. Given the choice between schematized drawings of male and female frontal view body contours (which do not show any other sex characteristics), prepuberal boys and girls alike show a clear preference for the same-sex body schema. With puberty, a dramatic reversal of preference takes place. Now the shape of the other sex is preferred. The prepuberal preference guides attention to the appropriate model. Boys gang up in same-sex groups, and there is little doubt that male bonding, which becomes culturally reinforced by symbols of identification and by shared ideologies, is of paramount importance for group identity and group defense. At political rallies when people are identifying with the ‘sacred’ symbols and hymns of their religious or political community, altered states of mind are induced. People experience these as trance-like states that come upon them somehow beyond their control, as described by the terms ‘zeal’ and the German Begeisterung. It is as if God or the spirits have taken possession of them. At the same time people often experience the shudder of being deeply touched. This feeling is caused by the contraction of the muscles that raise the hair on the back, shoulders, and arms, an archaic response of social defense, which in our primate ancestors caused the fur to stand on end. It would be worthwhile to investigate the ethophysiology of this response.

Humans’ indoctrinability as a specific learning disposition was enhanced by the advantage it brought about in cementing existing


bonds and cultural institutions, thus supporting the social, economic, and political institutions necessary for preserving harmony within the group (conflict management, rules for sharing, and the like). This was accomplished by strengthening a sense of togetherness, building up loyalties, and emphasizing contrasts to others often by creating images of enemies. Such bonding was to the advantage of both the individual and the group, for in the face of fierce intergroup competition an individual had few chances outside of a strong group. Indoctrinability is a special learning disposition that allows acceptance and identification with group characteristics and thus serves we-group demarcation. Once learned, these aspects of group identity seem to be resistant to eradication.


Characteristics of group tradition are acquired early. Dialect stands out in this context, since the intonation and melody of voice remains for a lifetime and allows insiders to distinguish us- and other-group membership. It is very difficult to acquire such characteristics later in life. Identification with one’s own family during childhood lies at the roots of human indoctrinability -- small local groups acting as quasi-family units. But this is certainly not the whole story.

The bond to a native land is another affective disposition contributing to humans’ indoctrinability. This bonding to our home country is a type of ‘imprinting’ that may well be rooted in territoriality. Whether the affective bonding to home and country are of different origin and quality than the affective bonding to family and group, however, needs further investigation. In Western culture, people who grow up in a certain stable environment get ‘homesick’ when moving for longer periods, which is a highly peculiar state of affection. We found evidence for homesickness also in traditional societies, such as in the Trobrianders. People who change their home repeatedly in childhood seem not to form this attachment, thus achieving a certain ability to be mobile. The matter of a critical period for territorial attachment needs investigation. Cultural indoctrination imprints group identity and love of one’s native land in principle by the same means in tribal societies as in our Western culture.

Human beings are in particular open for value imprinting around puberty when adolescents seek group values with which to identify. Accordingly, it is at this time that initiation combined with indoctrination of group values occurs in most societies.
Since values supporting group interest were advantageous when groups were competing in war, selection favored the disposition for indoctrination. Young males, indeed, often willingly fight and risk death in combat for their group. Nonetheless, the bond to the family usually remains stronger. In our modern nation-states family also comes first, and nepotism is still a problem in society. Attempts to dissolve the family in modern times have failed. It is possible, however, to indoctrinate individuals to such an extent that their loyalty to the extended family is overruled by loyalty to the larger group, as represented by the head of the tribe, the monarch, or by the symbols of a nation. Indoctrination intends to counteract nepotism by putting tribe or state ethos above family ethos in the scale of val-


ues. Loyalty to the symbolic head of state is supposed to come first, particularly in times of emergency.

With the formation of the early state, ideologies as promoted by political and religious leaders took on the additional function as pacemaker of evolution by setting new goals and thus initiating new ways of acting and thinking. Ultimately, though, ideologies are measured against the yardstick of fitness.

Cultural Pseudospeciation

As previously noted, the pressures that selected for large group formation derived from intergroup competition. (Here, amongst other things, sheer manpower counted.) Depending upon the subsistence strategy and the carrying capacity of the land, groups in pre-state societies ranged from a few dozen to a few hundred. In these societies, most groups split when they reach the size of 300 to 600. They usually split along kinship lines, assuming that it is their closest kin whom they would help. Humans show a strong inclination to form such subgroups, which eventually distinguish themselves from others by dialect and other subgroup characteristics and go on to form new cultures. Erikson (1966) aptly spoke of this process as ‘cultural pseudospeciation.’ As a result, the two tendencies are in conflict with each other, fissioning most likely to occur where kin ties are weakest, and fusion where individuals or groups need one another, whether for spreading economic risk or for joint security.


The tendency for cultural pseudospeciation, whereby larger groups tend to split or smaller groups parcel themselves off through custom and dialect, initiates ethnocultural diversification, which in turn can serve as pacemaker for further biological evolution. Large group formation sometimes allows for rapid cultural change but inhibits cultural diversification, as the increasing uniformization of our world civilization shows. It also endangers existing ethnic groupings, which may be one source of increasing unrest on our globe. […]

If we look at the mechanisms employed to bond members or groups who are not close kin, we find that they tap into the existing phylogenetic adaptations already mentioned. In kin-based


societies one common means of bonding is by extending kinship principles (terminology and accompanying behavior) beyond the circle of close kin to more distant kin and in some cases nonkin. This is done by the creation of segmentary lineage systems and other systems of descent: groups can thus trace themselves to a common ancestor. These groups are held together on the basis of both kinship and reciprocity.


Repressive and Nurturant Strategies of Governing Populations

Human sociality is characterized by the conflicting behaviors of dominance and nurturance. The patterns of the former realm are the various forms of aggression (physical violence and the many forms of threat display), as well as the behaviors that serve flight or submission. All these are usually contrasted as agonistic behaviors as opposed to the prosocial behaviors that in mammals and birds are derived from parental nurturance.

Dominance can be achieved in a variety of ways. Repressive dominance is usually achieved by agonistic behaviors such as physical attack or threat, the dominated being subjugated, displaced into lower status or out of a previously held territory, or even killed (see Salter 1995 for a review and observational study of dominance techniques deployed by governments and other organizations).

Interestingly enough, nurturant behaviors can also serve the function of dominating. Giving can be used as a weapon, since reciprocity is felt as an obligation.


Repressive dominance is usually suppressed in individualized, face-to-face communities, where high-ranking individuals are those with prosocial competence. Thus, by means of prosocial behavior individuals can also achieve high-ranking positions, such as community leader. And all gradients from nurturant leadership to nurturant dominance can be found. Children normally submit to the nurturant behaviors of their mothers or caretakers. It is, after all, comforting to be cared for.

The motivation to nurture can be so strong that efforts to that effect are continued against the resistance of the nurtured. Such overcaring can hamper emancipation of the individual and keep it in infantile dependence. Nurturant leadership is primarily a behavior characteristic of small, individualized communities.

Societies numbering in the many thousands or even millions, such as (ethnic) nations, share history, descent, language, and a set of cultural beliefs and practices. These signs of relatedness, if entrained, help create feelings of solidarity. Nonetheless, the prob-


lem exists that in anonymous societies people are not bonded with equal strength, but rather demonstrate clear preferences along family and kinship lines. In the other direction, the inclination to establish repressive exploitative dominance relations toward persons not known and therefore not bonded in a personal way is less inhibited (Ellbogengesellschaft). It was probably this fact that caused Thomas Hobbes to assume that human beings, due to their egoistic nature, could be induced to live in harmony only by the coercive rule of a supreme sovereign. And in fact, repressive dominance by a king or a ruling caste was and still is a widely employed technique of government. Human beings are prepared to submit to repressive dominance if they cannot resist. However, they remain ready to revolt, vigilant for signs of weakness in the ruling elite, awaiting the chance to rid themselves of their oppressors or even to turn the tables on them.

The readiness to submit to command is strong, as demonstrated by the now classical experiments of Stanley Milgram, but repressive dominance, for reasons just explained, does not secure stability of government. History, however, shows that sometimes it works for generations, in particular if those who rule by intimidation also present themselves as protectors, since fear arouses protection-seeking in the vicinity of the strong, even if fear and protection derive from the same source. Closer examination reveals that infantile behaviors of flight to the parent are activated. It seems that in particular early civilizations, such as those of ancient Europe and Central America (Aztec, Maya), the rulers used repressive dominance to induce fear while at the same time offering protection.


In anonymous societies, internal peace and harmony are constantly threatened by conflicting interest groups. This is particularly the case in multiethnic states where in times of emergency the different ethnic groups tend to compete in their efforts to dominate each other in order to secure access to scarce resources. More attention should be given to this cause of internal conflict. Some well-meaning philanthropists believe they are serving peace and opposing racism by encouraging the development of multicultural societies in formerly fairly homogenous nation-states. ‘Bold experiments’ like this could easily prove disastrous, the results being contrary to expectations, the more so since some proponents even of Caucasian stock seem to act in clear hostility to their own group.

Peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups within one state is certainly possible if none of the groups need fear the domina-


tion of others, more generally if none finds itself in a situation of interethnic competition. This is best achieved when each group owns its own land and enjoys sovereignty over its own affairs as is the case in Switzerland.

At the basis of the liberal laissez faire is often the evolutionary concept of selection. Among others, Friedrich von Hayek expressed the opinion that we should rely on the regulating power of selection. But selection is a crude and certainly not human regulatory device. The prey-predator relationship is a classic example of the corrective principle of nature: if prey is abundant, the predator population increases. Finally, the prey population, suffering from overexploitation, diminishes, and starvation of the predators ensues, leading to an abrupt die-off. This gives the surviving prey population the chance to recover, and, with a delay, predators can start to thrive again and so forth. Certainly, we cannot want selection to shape our fate this way. We can set ourselves goals and plan ahead, and, provided we are ready to correct mistakes in time, this gives our species unique opportunities for rational and human planning. Laissez faire is not enough. At a certain point disorder and chaos may cause the pendulum to swing in an authoritarian direction and endanger liberal democracy. Open society was Karl Popper’s demand. By this he meant open to new ideas regardless from where they come. The Open Society should not be interpreted to mean the complete dismantling of barriers and acceptance of everything and everyone without regard to numbers, with consequent social unrest and environmental degradation.


Ethnocentrism and tribalism are universal phenomena rooted in primordial familial dispositions. The first manifestation of ‘us’ versus ‘others’ is the individualized mother-child dyad. With the evolution of individualized nurturant maternal care, caring motivations, behaviors and mother-child signals evolved and became available for adult bonding. They proved so effective that members of individualized face-to-face groups not directly belonging to a family were able to bond in such a way that the group could, in certain situations, such as war, act as a unit. Intergroup competition selected for large-group formation. If we look at the mechanisms employed to bond members of groups who are not close kin, we


find that they tap into existing phylogenetic adaptations of familial sociality. Culturally developed symbols of identification enhance similarity, and entrained shared values make the behavior of group members predictable for each other. Thus, mistrust of the unfamiliar is counteracted. Indoctrinability is a special learning disposition allowing acceptance and identification with group characteristics, which thus serves bonding and we-group demarcation.

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