Evolutionary analyses of ethnic solidarity: an overview.

Author:Salter, Frank

The author presents an overview of the contribution that evolutionary theory has made, and can make, to studies of ethnically based social cohesion in the social sciences.


Evolutionary approaches have a minor though persistent place in the study of ethnicity and nationalism, probably due to the social sciences' generally slow uptake of biological ideas. Nevertheless it is worth tracking those approaches because they bridge the gap between ethnic studies and the life sciences. That bridge is under construction but the rickety spans now in place already support a weighty traffic in empirical findings.

The definition of an ethnic group should attract the attention of evolutionary social scientists. Ethnic groups are populations with proper names whose members share a belief in common descent, a common history, a distinctive shared culture, a shared attachment to a homeland, and some degree of solidarity. (1) The elements of this definition of obvious relevance to Darwinian theory are descent from common ancestors, territoriality and solidarity. Shared history and culture also bear on social cohesion.

Evolutionary studies belong to the much larger field of behavioural biology which studies animal behaviour. This is sometimes referred to as ethology, the study of behaviour using biological methods and concepts. Ethologists can devote entire careers to untangling aspects of behaviour without thinking much about evolution. When such thoughts do occur they usually run along neo-Darwinian lines, an approach that takes a gene-eyed view. A subset of neo-Darwinian theories related to social behaviour became known as sociobiology.

It is easy to recognise evolutionary analyses of ethnicity and other social phenomena because they pay attention to such themes as human nature, behavioural genetics, population genetics, molecular phylogenetics, behavioural ecology, dominance, brain imaging, individual and population differences, primate models, fitness outcomes, hormones, development stages, etcetera. The field has grown to such an extent that this review can only hope to delineate the main approaches and comment briefly on history, theories and findings.

One trend to observe in the following account is the growing use of evolutionary ideas as heuristics. Until the 1990s evolutionary thinking about ethnicity was devoted largely to explaining origins, the selection pressures and ecology that produced ethnic behaviours. Empirical work was left to the social sciences, which after the 1930s were overwhelmingly non-biological. Explanation is still the province of much evolutionary thought. However the growing sophistication and elegance of evolutionary theory from the 1970s-- especially sociobiology--prompted some social scientists to begin using such theory to generate hypotheses with enough plausibility to justify testing. This has been a common route followed by non-biologists who apply evolutionary ideas to ethnicity.


Modem ethological studies of ethnicity were initiated by Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt beginning in 1972. (2) From cross-cultural observations of social behaviour he concludes that ethnic identity and national solidarity are based on the extension of motivations adapted for the family to larger communities. All human altruism, he argues, evolved from the parent-child bond, an analysis since named ethnic nepotism theory. The underpinnings of this theory were criticised by neo-Darwinists in general and sociobiologists in particular. At a popular level likely to influence social scientists Richard Dawkins criticised the assumption that natural selection operates at the species level. (3) The notion of species-selection was received wisdom and as such poorly examined. Its abandonment by Eibl-Eibesfeldt did not affect his analysis.

From the mid 1970s Eibl-Eibesfeldt paid more attention to units of selection. He adopted the neo-Darwinian definition of adaptiveness according to which a behaviour is adaptive if it tends to spread the genes of the actor. (4) He added to this the argument that ethnic solidarity has also been adaptive at the community leve--hunter-gatherer clans and tribes. By this he meant that cohesive groups have been more successful at spreading their genes by reproducing faster than other groups. This resembles the position advanced by Darwin without knowledge of genes. (5) But Eibl-Eibesfeldt could go much further by taking into account information on genetics and his own cross-cultural observations.

He argued that individual sacrifice for the community can be adaptive because members are related genetically. The kinship bond ties individuals into solidary groups the members of which monitor each other to prevent free-riding. Eibl-Eibesfeldt argued that these groups then became units of selection such that more successful groups fissioned and replaced others. (6) The resulting process selected for indoctrinability, the predisposition to identify with groups larger than the family. (7) This group selection explanation for ethnic solidarity runs counter to sociobiology's insistence that genes and individuals are the sole units of selection. (8) Eibl-Eibesfeldt's position is an example of 'multi-level selection theory' (9) which has been formalised and used to interpret ethno-religious communities and the solidarity they muster. (10)

Following is a selective review of some recent ethological research. Because ethology is an integrative field it also bears the marks of other evolutionary theories to be discussed in subsequent sections.

A 1998 symposium took up Eibl-Eibesfeldt's ideas about indoctrinability. The concept originated with social psychologist D. T. Campbell (11) and was taken up by E. O. Wilson to help explain the evolution of group cohesion among humans. (12) The concept is compatible with psychological research on social identity mechanisms. (13) Eibl-Eibesfeldt deployed the concept to explain anthropological observations of how culture and ritual shape concepts of' us' and 'the other'.

A 2002 symposium drew on several disciplines to examine the role of kinship and ethnic networks in establishing trust among those conducting risky transactions. Chapters tested a hypothesis formulated from the theories of Eibl-Eibesfeldt discussed above and van den Berghe to be discussed below. Examples studied were organised crime, long-range exchange networks within a hunter-gather culture, traders lacking the protection of contract law, U.S. Supreme Court proceedings, dissenters from totalitarian societies, tourists, and nationalist freedom fighters. The studies indicate that ethnic solidarity is a pervasive weak tie sensitive to rituals and ideology. It is usually intermediate in strength between strong kinship bonds and interactions between non-ethnics. (14) Non-evolutionary research also finds that trust is higher in ethnically homogeneous societies. (15)

Butovskaya et al.'s observational study of street beggars in Moscow tested a hypothesis based on ethnic nepotism (see below). Beggars received the largest gifts from fellow ethnics, the next largest from a genetically similar ethnic group, and least from a relatively distant ethnic group. (16)

Contributors to a 2004 symposium tested the ethnic-nepotism hypothesis that ethnic heterogeneity depresses the willingness of citizens to contribute to public goods. The hypothesis was generally confirmed. Examples included charitable giving in the United States (more homogeneous locations give more), a global comparison of welfare states (ethnic heterogeneity correlates negatively with welfare rights), foreign aid (more homogeneous states give more), economic growth (among the poorest 90 per cent of countries heterogeneity is negatively correlated with economic growth), the effect of Quebec separatism on the allocation of Canadian welfare (it increases it), and affirmative action (it tends to strengthen ethnic identification). (17)

All of these studies were conducted by social scientists using ethological theory, concepts or methods in addition to conventional approaches. Prominent among these were political scientists. Indeed, much of the above research, though ethological, was directed at political themes. The field of 'politics and the life sciences' is a quarter century old and combines all the evolutionary approaches discussed in this review. (18)

In these examples ethology complements non-biological social science. It does not pretend to replace it. True, there are some genuine zero-sum differences where one side or the other must triumph. (19) The reality of behavioural sex differences and of genetic contributions to many individual differences are now beyond all but quantitative dispute. But usually social facts fit into a web of explanations and are not explained by only one approach. For example social identity mechanisms surely contribute to patterns of giving to beggars...

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