The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Biology of conflict

September 22, 2005

Over at Coming Anarchy, Curzon links to an MA paper by the very well credentialed Steven Huybrechts (“Biology of Conflict: Ruling Out World Government”). Curzon writes,

I adhere to a Kaplanesque version of pessimistic realism and fundamentally believe that human beings are hardwired to be violent. Steven Huybrechts agrees in his recent paper Biology of Conflict: Ruling Out World Government, arguing that people naturally divide into tribe-like subgroups destined for conflict. Conclusion: no world government will ever be able to wholly eradicate war, and thinking otherwise will actually make the world more dangerous.

In the comments section, I wrote that I’m hesitant to infer too much from the sociobiological or evolutionary psychology literatures on the question of world government. There are a host of reasons why world government is unlikely without resorting to claims about the hardwired nature of human conflict groups.

Moreover, one of the lessons of Social Identity Theory, the Minimal Group Paradigm, and similar insights about in-group bias is that the definition of human in-groups can be pretty plastic. Consider national groups, which are pretty “artificial,” or the success of some universal empires, such as the Roman and Han, at forging relatively integrated cultures among groups that one would never expect, prior to imperialization, to share common collective identities.

There’s also the example of federative polities (think about the US before and after the Civil War). In both political forms, it is possible to “nest” local differences within an aggregate polity. Conflictual urges, in-group bias, and so forth can be channelled into non-violent competition… or can be suppressed to nuisance levels that don’t threaten the aggregate stability of the political order.

Never say “never.”

Curzon’s post, and the paper he links to, raises larger issues about the relationship between findings in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology for international-relations theory. Brad Thayer, for example, has argued – along similar lines – that the evidence from these approaches vindicates realist theory. John Mercer identified in-group bias as a reason why constructivist claims about the transformative potential of international collective identification need to be heavily qualified. Jennifer Sterling-Folker has deployed similar arguments in the context of trying to find the appropriate relationship between realism and constructivism. (Jennifer’s one of the principle figures in the ongoing “realism and constructivism: from debate to dialog” project I’m co-investigating).

In response to Thayer, Duncan Bell and Paul MacDonald wrote an extremely probing criticism of applications of evolutionary theory to international politics. Their core arguments would warm P.Z. Meyer’s heart:

First, we disagree that evolutionary theory “offers a widely accepted scienti c explanation” of human behavior (p. 138). Instead, we argue that sociobiology remains the object of considerable scienti c and ethical controversy, and that sociobiological approaches contain numerous methodological aws. Second, we contend that even if sociobiology could overcome its inherent limitations, the microfoundations that a sociobiologically informed theory of international politics produces are indeterminate and contradictory. For this reason, sociobiological microfoundations provide no additional analytical leverage in explaining and understanding international politics. Finally, we contend that current microfoundations in the social sciences, including structural realist and rational actor approaches, can be just as “scientifi c” from the perspective of philosophy of science without importing sociobiological hypotheses. Taken together, these three criticisms strongly suggest against using sociobiology as a panacea for realism or for international relations theory in general.

Annette Freyberg-Inan has a book out, What Moves Man: The Realist Theory of International Relations and Its Judgment of Human Nature which makes the opposite argument: evidence about human nature and human psychology is inconsistent with realism. I gave the book a luke-warm review in Perspectives on Politics, largely because I disagree with some of Freyberg-Inan’s claims about the realist tradition, but it is well worth a look.

Richard Ned Lebow (a co-investigator in the aforementioned project) has written a really thoughtful book which is relevant here. The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders takes up classical-realist insights into the motives of human political interaction with very interesting results.

Steffano Guzzini’s collected an interesting group of articles for his journal, The Journal of International Relations and Development, on the issue of human nature in international-relations theory. I promised him a short piece on evolutionary psychology, but I never had time to adequately research the topic and so I had to bow out (much to my dismay).

Filed as:, , and

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.