How Ethnocentrism Could Evolve

Everyone can agree that ethnocentrism exists. Is it a natural, evolved feeling? Was it selected for in the past? Gregory Cochran says no. In 2012 he wrote a blog post titled “Your country’s not your blood.” He wrote:

I have to disagree with Henry: I don’t think there’s been selection for ethnic nepotism. I somewhat suspect that there may have been recent selection for more accurate altruism, in some populations.

Imagine that in much of history, people lived in small groups that often fought with their neighbors.  In that sort of situation,  selection for group altruism is at least possible, since the group is full of close relatives, while the opponents are less  closely related.  Both sides are probably members of the same broad ethnic group or race, but that doesn’t matter : only the kinship coefficients matter.

Suppose that many people emerge on to the stage of history with this impulse to fight for their side: in the past, this always meant closely related people.  Now, with the emergence of states, they find themselves fighting in armies, which feel like their side, but are no longer closely related – not a bunch of cousins and such.  It could well be that many  individuals are actually willing to risk themselves for that state.  They’re willing to die for truth, justice and the Assyrian Way.  It’s not genetically smart, but their adaptations  are wired for past circumstances. In the same way, you might eat saccharin instead of sugar, or date a replicant instead of an actual human female , especially if the replicant looks like Sean Young in Bladerunner.

Over time, this misfiring of altruism should decrease.  Patriotism burns itself out. Dying for Assyria doesn’t do your close relatives any good at all.  Some people will be more prone to this, some less, and that tendency will be heritable. Those with a tendency to volunteer (in the service of anything other than close relatives) should dwindle away over time.  But states are older in some places than others, and some have made greater demands than others. Imagine a region where states have been around longer,  a place in which the locals have lived through empire after empire after empire.  They should have had the patriotism bred clean out of them. They should feel altruistic about their families, maybe their clan – and nothing else.(Cochran, 2012)

This doesn’t seem to fit with what we see in the world today, ethnocentrism seems most intense in the Middle East, one of the first areas to develop large states and empires. What happened?

My hypothesis is that a soldier who fought especially bravely for Assyria would have been rewarded, given more money and mating opportunities than other soldiers. While a coward would have stood a good chance of getting lynched and his brother would have had a harder time finding a wife due to his family’s bad reputation. In this way individuals who expressed high levels of group altruism would have been selected for.

This is not merely selection for “reciprocal altruism.” Humans can tell the difference between the ‘mercenary,’ who fights for you because you pay him, and the ‘patriot,’ who fights for you because he identifies strongly with the group. The latter would have been given greater rewards for his loyalty than the former.

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One Response to How Ethnocentrism Could Evolve

  1. Ilya says:


    What we know today as Assyrian, or more correctly Neo-Assyrian (just like Babylonian) society is a direct descendant of the Eastern leg of the first wave of pastoral Amoreans. The Western leg, ancestral to the Israelite/Judean/Shasu/Habiru/Hyksos tribes of a few centuries later, was going into Canaan during 23 century BC, destroying many Canaanite settlements and overwhelming Ebla. Amoreans started pulsing from Northwest Mesopotamia (think area of Haran), probably due to the 4.2 kiloyear event. They consisted mainly of pastoralists, although there were possibly some allied tribes of agrarians who came along (think tribes/clans like the Jebusites, in the Eastern leg of the invasion into the greater Canaan area).

    “Assyria” before around 2200 was mainly a bunch of Akkadian-Sumerian agrarian settlements/”city-states” (think Akkad of Sargon’s time as their apogee), but the area was mostly vacated after the stupendous Mesopotamian drought of ~2200 BC. After the Amorites arrived and the drought passed, the territory slowly started coalescing and evolving into the Neo-Assyrian state/empire.

    Similarly, with Babylon during Old Babylonian period, whose ruling kings were obviously Amorites. Although what we know as Babylonian Empire today is a product of Chaldeans, a people from second mega-wave of semi-nomadic, pastoralist Amorites: which consisted of Chaldeans and Arameans (the latter torturing Israel). Clearly, they semi-nomadic Chaldean pastoralists were much more strong (and cohesive!) than the previously settled and agrarian-assimilated Amorite elite of the Old Babylonian period!

    Anyway, the crux here is that not unlike the situation with Proto-Indo-Europeans (“Yamnaya” people), the Tukic tribes, the Tatar, the Mongols, etc., the cohesion was due to the nomadic pastoralists’ evolved tribal cohesion that always was *tested* and *strengthened* in tribal conflicts between the nomads/semi-nomads. In particular, in the Levant, this cohesion had been evolving for millennia: possibly, all the way since the Shepherd Neolithic.

    In fact, nomads/semi-nomads figure hugely in Prof. Turchin’s work. One can argue that once the Amorites settled among the agriculturalists, slowly assimilating into and adopting their lifestyle, their asabiya started evaporating over the centuries that followed. And over millennia, almost nothing remains.

    Keep in mind also, that Islamic Arabs were hugely successful due to 2 factors: 1) the kernel of Islamic faith arose in Arabia, a very nomadic warring place of huge in-tribal cohesion (Bedouins have been warring till very recently, and many still don’t like even being called “Arabs” — as they consider the latter as settlers, distinct culturally; in fact, some of them have much more cultural affinity with the Turkic nomads of Northern Iraq!); 2) the subsequent global expansion was fueled and executed by slave soldiers from *other* tribes/nations (see Patricia Crone of IAS and Daniel Pipes).

    If you still doubt, Greg Cochran put it quite eloquently: “As for Arabs being great suicidal warriors, that’s balderdash. You have no sense of scale. The stream of foreign fighters entering Iraq (other than Americans, natch) was something like a thousand a year, out of the entire Arab world (pop around 250 million). Peanuts. Tennessee could produce 30,000 volunteers out of a population of about one million, in the Mexican War. Or compare the Japanese, in World War Two? What fraction was willing to fight to the death? Virtually all of them.”


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