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The War of Cultures: An Evolutionary Analysis

| 13/11/2014

At the Schechter MA graduation ceremony in Jerusalem a few months ago, the master of ceremonies, Jacky Levy, a well-known Israeli media personality, asked a poignant question in the context of the awarding of the Rabbi Marc and Dr. Henia Leibhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance in Israel, of which he himself is a recipient. The Liebhaber Prize was established 18 years ago in the wake of the political/religiously motivated assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Why are there no foundations supporting religious fanaticism by granting yearly awards at universities throughout the world?” asked Jacky in his comical yet sardonic fashion. In a more somber tone he continued, “Why do people even need to be rewarded for what we all perceive to be the norm: moral and ethical behavior?”

The sad truth is that billions of dollars are given not only to reward but to encourage religious extremism. Countries go out of their way to fight vicarious battles in lands far removed from their own backyards.  Tycoons do indeed send money to train terrorists to do their bidding – all the while sitting or hiding out in some luxurious protected haven far from the “action” they seed.

What we are seeing is not simply a battle of who can throw more money at their values, but rather, a much more complicated behavioral process worthy of analysis. Let me attempt to provide a context based on evolutionary principles to explain this modern Western phenomenon.

We are, indeed, biological beings, given to biological, environmental pressures like our non-human relatives.  If we ignore biology, we will likely find ourselves fighting against it; a truly impossible task.  I cannot convince anyone in a short article of the importance of biology. If you are convinced already, then read on.  If you are not, suspend judgment and… read on.

What we are seeing today on the geopolitical landscape is the on-going biological evolutionary battle between the strategies of extreme “in” and “out-group” cooperation. “Out-group” actions adopt an evolutionary-behavioral strategy that dictates that I cooperate with everyone – those who are part of my societal group AND with those who are not part of my group as opposed to “in-group” behavior which demands cooperation only with my own societal group while advocating competition with the “out-group”; in other words, cooperating with my societal group while competing with others for evolutionary/economic resources.

Cooperation, or its biological underlying characteristic—“altruism,” as a strategy has been adopted by western culture and the cooperation-competition mix as adopted by other cultures.  Let me say at the outset, that neither strategy is “better” than the other.  Indeed they both have their foibles, and when we look at humanity over evolutionary time, each has succeeded as the dominant strategy during different eras.  I believe that taking an evolutionary view can help inform both cultures in ways that can prevent the collapse of the very fragile world’s systems that have evolved.

The tendency to cooperate or to compete exists in all species, including humans
How can evolutionary theory help us understand this phenomenon?  We must first accept the following maxim: that the tendency to cooperate, that is, to act altruistically; or to compete, that is to act selfishly, exists in every member of every species, including the species we call human.  We all know people who are overly and overtly competitive.  And there are those who can be classified as overly cooperative – even to a fault. Most of us are located somewhere on this spectrum.  As a result, both of these attributes can be assumed to be distributed evenly among the population of humans (homo sapiens).

Enter societal norms.  Long ago, the United States made a societal decision to be a cooperative-altruistic group.  Indeed, when compared to the European efforts,America’s success to maintain a society of more than 350,000,000 individuals and fifty sovereign states in a mode of cooperation is not an easy feat.  From an evolutionary standpoint the US is a stellar example of the success that can be achieved with the strategy of cooperation.  We may be seeing a drop in the strategy as partisan politics resurge, but overall, the success is unparalleled in world evolutionary history;  so successful that the result may have intoxicated its followers.  The system is imperfect, agreed. And injustices are perpetuated in the name of the “cooperative”. There are competitors who break through and take economic advantage at the expense of the cooperators.

Remember that when we say an altruistic group, we mean that the group has made a decision (perhaps below awareness) to behave cooperatively.  But the individual members of the group still maintain some of the competitive tendencies.  When this is the case, selfish individuals tend to excel. As long as the homeostasis of the society keeps the competitive individuals in check, then the competition can be tolerated. This is how Western society can produce Bill Gates, Apple Inc., Warren Buffet and even Bernie Madoff.

To some degree the US has tried to export this strategy, attempting to convince other cultures to join a world-wide altruistic cooperative strategy.  However, a strategy cannot simply be infused into a society the way sugars and salts can be put into the body.  Some societies have been resistant to cooperative strategies, but it is important to note that it has been possible to identify certain cooperative strategies even among the leaders of non-western cultures and societies. But it is a false assumption that I can treat the world as I can treat even a mega-society like the US: the laws of large numbers just don’t apply to really large numbers.  The US strategy was born at a time before mass communication and the thirteen original colonies numbered far fewer than 350 million.

As a result of this societal decision to cooperate, western society and culture has left itself open to the pitfall of smaller altruistic groups who are often taken advantage of by competitive groups.  Not because the world population behaves like a tribe on the savanna, but because the scale is different. When trying to understand the problem, we are again playing with small numbers.  The number of cultures that play the cooperation-competition game on a geo-political level is not really that big.  We have the US-European axis on one side and, for the sake of argument, the Iran-Qatar-ISIS-Hamas axis on the other.  It is true that similar patterns can be seen between the US-Europe and eastern Asia constellations, but with the exception of North Korea, the war in the Far East is over economics and minimal bloodshed is a value held by both sides.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of the former.

A scenario that allows for the competitors to gain the upper hand, at least a short-lived upper hand is definitely a possibility today. The “cooperators” at first tend to “cooperate themselves towards extinction”.  But then, their own selfish, or at least self-preserving instinct kicks in.  On small or even medium scale societies this tends to preserve the long term balance; a time frame varying in length and dependent upon the size of the populations.  Smaller groups can react faster than larger groups for reasons that seem obvious.  It’s simpler to coordinate 10 or 15 or even 70 individuals than it is millions.  And when we are talking about the small number of world leaders we must realize that they have millions at stake when they choose either competition or cooperation as a strategy.

So if we look at the world-wide allegory and take the globe as the village it has, in some sense become, we essentially see a village that has decided to cooperate. But like in the local village, the global village has its competitors and cooperators.  The cooperative discourse has become so intoxicating that it has left a wide opening for the competitors to play their evolutionary role.  The competitors will take advantage of this hole and the cooperators will scratch their heads saying, “Why can’t they just play nicely – why can’t they just cooperate with us?  After all, they do cooperate with themselves.”

And the competitors smile, letting their cooperative façade confuse the trusting cooperators – trust being the mode of operation of the cooperation – while out competing with them for the resources of popular support.  In fact, it’s even more insidious than that.  As the Cooperating West notes, the competitors such as ISIS, Iranto name just two, know how to cooperate with themselves.  So the West assumes that all they have to do is find the right key to unlock the cooperative drive and turn the in-group cooperation towards the out-group as well.  Evolutionary models teach us that the competitors don’t just turn into cooperators.  No matter how hard the cooperators try.

Ultimately evolutionary theory predicts that the cooperators fight back. The damage along the way may be great. And, in the words of evolutionary biologist DS Wilson…”Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary”.  It just takes time, resolve and action.

The ideas above come from my own synthesis of Evolutionary Psychology literature. For those interested in further reading, I have collected a list of articles below. They are all available online.

Notes and Bibliography for Further Reading

Richard Sosis has a few articles that can help us understand what we are fighting. His perspective is one that informs much of my teaching. See his website for more articles like these:


Sosis, Richard (2011) Why Sacred Lands are not Indivisible: The Cognitive Foundations of Sacralizing Land. Journal of Terrorism Research 2:17-44.

Sacrifice and Sacred Values: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religious Terrorism   

Abstract: Evolutionary theories of religion and sacred values are essential for understanding current trends in terrorist activity. We clarify religion’s role in facilitating terror and outline recent theoretical developments that focus on four cross-culturally recurrent features of religion: communal participation in costly ritual, belief in supernatural agents and counterintuitive concepts, separation of the sacred and the profane, and adolescence as the critical life phase for the transmission of religious beliefs and values. These four characteristics constitute an adaptive complex that evolved to solve problems of group cooperation and commitment, problems faced by all terrorist organizations. We examine how terrorists employ these features of religion to achieve their goals and describe how terrorists utilize costly rituals to conditionally associate emotions with sanctified symbols and signal group commitments. These sanctified symbols are emotionally evocative and motivationally powerful, fostering in-group solidarity, trust, and cooperation. Religious beliefs, including promised rewards in the afterlife, further serve to facilitate cooperation by altering the perceived payoffs of costly actions, including suicide terrorism. Patterns of brain development unique to adolescence render this the ideal developmental stage to attract recruits, inculcate sacred beliefs, and enlist them in high-risk behaviors. We conclude by offering insights, based on our evolutionary analysis, concerning conflict resolution when sacred values are in dispute. Key Words: cooperation, religion, ritual, sacred values, terrorism

Alcorta, Candace S. and Sosis, Richard (2013) “Ritual, Religion, and Violence: an Evolutionary Perspective” in the Handbook of Religion and Violence, eds. M. Juergensmeyer, M. Kitts, M. Jerryson, pp. 571-596.New York:OxfordUniversity Press.

Burt, A., and Trivers, R.  (2006)  Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements.Cambridge,HarvardUniversity Press

Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior.Cambridge,MA:HarvardUniversity Press.

Alcorta,Candace S, Phillips, Erika J. and Sosis, Richard (2012) “Sacrifice and Sacred Values: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religious Terrorism” in Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War, eds. T. Shackelford & V. Weeks-Schackelford, pp. 233-253.New York:OxfordUniversity Press.

Bulbulia, Joseph and Sosis, Richard (2011) “The Behavioral Ecology of Religion: The Benefits and Costs of One Evolutionary Approach” in Religion 41:3, 341-362

Sosis, Richard, “Why Sacred Lands are not Indivisible: The Cognitive Foundations of Sacralizing Land” (2011) in Journal of Terrorism Research 2:17-44.

Trivers, R. (2004) “Mutual benefits at all levels of life” in Science, 304: 964-965.

Trivers, R. (2009). “Genetic conflict within the individual” in  Sonderdruck der Berliner-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschschaften, Berlin: 14: 149-199.

Wilson, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. (2008). “Evolution ‘For the Good of the Group’” inAmerican Scientist, 96, 380-389

Wilson, D.S. and E.O. Wilson (2007). “Survival of the Selfless” in New Scientist, Nov. 3 pp 42-46.

Rabbi Paul Shrell-Fox, Lecturer, Coordinator of Family and Community Studies, received his PhD in psychology from The New School University and rabbinic ordination from Schechter. His research interests include Judaism in Evolutionary perspective, the evolution of altruism and the interface between science & religion. 

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