In the 1960s W. D. Hamilton attempted to solve the “problem of altruism,” in the process developing a formalism that allowed for the elaboration of the concept of inclusive fitness. In concert with this Robert Trivers pushed forward the ideas which led to reciprocal altruism. Finally, John Maynard Smith developed evolutionary game theory. These are the dominant frameworks which biologists depend upon to model the evolution of sociality, as well as its persistence.
But, there is an alternative tradition, which offers up other possibilities besides the big three frameworks. Often this tradition attempts to explain altruistic behavior as a group level fitness optimization problem, rather than an individual level one, as is the case with inclusive fitness, game theory, and reciprocal altruism. David Sloan Wilson has presented this viewpoint in his books Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, and Does Altruism Exist. Wilson’s multi-level selection theory seems particularly apposite for humans, whose baroque social complexity seems to be difficult to derive from elegant individual level theories.
The field of cultural evolution deals in these sorts of complex models of between group competition and interaction, and it serves as a critical aspect of Joe Henrich’s recent The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Meanwhile, in Ultrasociety and War, Peace, and War, Peter Turchin outlines how human group level cohesion, asabiyya, can be the driver for complex social institutions and polities. Another way to conceive of this is esprit de corps.
All this was on my mind as I read Scott Atran’s research groups report, On the Front Line Against ISIS: Who Fights, Who Doesn’t, and Why. I follow Atran’s Facebook, and many of his posts read like what you might expect if Dexter Filkins was a social scientist steeped in evolutionary theory.
This part in particular jumped out at me:
Kurds and Yazidis are fighting for their survival, or rather, as they say, the survival of “Kurdeity” and “Yazideity.” These are core cultural values, sacred and inalienable, which give a sense of “who I am” and “why we are” in a world of ever shifting sands. And the level of commitment to fight and, if necessary die or sacrifice their families in defense of these values, matches or surpasses that of the Islamic State fighters (and al Qaeda’s al Nusra fighters) that we have interviewed and tested with a variety of psychological measurements on “will to fight.”
The Yazidis faced extermination in their ancient homeland. They have no choice but to stand their ground even when faced with the suicidal attacks from ISIS’ North Caucasian fighters, who combine devotion to the cause with military effectiveness. Similarly, the Kurds are fighting for their nationhood, while groups affiliated with the PKK augment that with a utopian Left-wing ideology.
The Sunni Arabs lack such devotion. They have no nation, alienated from the Iraq in which they are an oppressed minority, rather than the ruling caste that they have been habituated to be. They fight for their families, perhaps for their tribe. A neoclassical model of rational actors where clans are “firms” may well model their behavior, which is selfish interested and situational. As Atran’s dispatch makes clear, these were people who were for ISIS before they were against ISIS.
There is some symmetry within ISIS itself, with portions of its collective exhibiting less asabiyya. Local recruits occupy a second class status, and some of them are clearly the marginal or self-interested. Rather, the foreigners, especially units from the Caucasus and the French-speaking West, seem to be the closest that the shiekhs of ISIS have to a praetorian guard. In this way the al-Baghdadi and his inner circle are recapitulating an ancient Muslim pattern, where the rulers rely upon ideologically aligned outsiders to control and prod the populace whom they rule and represent.
Ideology and asabiyya have limits. I believe Atran tends to underestimate the professionalism and cohesion of American fighting units, but even if his judgment was correct (that they lack as much spirit as ISIS), the material advantage would just be too great for ISIS to withstand them. Japan and Germany both were cohesive nation-states, but they were just ground down by the massive industrial power of the United States and the strategic depth of Russia.
Set this against the concerns of the American intellgensia. E.g., White Privilege Conference Attendees Complain Conference Is Too White. What is increasingly normative in elite American circles are positional games, where individuals jockey for money and professional status, as well as ideological infighting which turns on semantic leverage and privilege of identity (where lack of privilege is the privilege in the discourse!).
This way of thinking has bled into the mainstream media. Consider this asinine article on Hillary Clinton and Bill deBlasio, Racially Charged Joke by Hillary Clinton and Bill de Blasio Leaves Some Cringing. I’m not a big fan of Bill de Blasio, who I am fond of calling New York City’s Communist mayor. But, if there is one white person who is not racist, it’s probably de Blasio. The journalists reporting this story must know this, but they still go through with the article. And most of the readers know that de Blasio is married to a black woman and has black children, which is far more integration than most white people achieve in their lifetimes. The journalists know you know that Bill de Blasio is very not racist, but they still have to read about his comments being “racially charged”. It’s a game.
The artifice probably why I found old style economic Leftism of Bernie Sander’s sort much less annoying than new style cultural Leftism steeped in critical theory. I’m very opposed to socialism, and skeptical of big government, but I can see that the proponents of these views are trying to do something for the human race. In contrast, #TeamProblematic seems only to be concerned with tearing down other people through leveraging their accrued victories in the privilege olympics. Rather than sacred values, these are squalid values. It is the intellectual form of going on a shopping spree at a crappy second rate indoor mall.
I’ll leave you with this: Feminists mock Green Party young women’s group for invite to ‘non-men’.