Saturday, October 25, 2008

William Grassie - Nationalism, Terrorism, and Religion: A Bio-Historical Approach

This is an interesting lecture on nationalism, terrorism, and religion, given under the context of understanding the political situation in Sri Lanka. Grassie takes a bio-historical, evolutionary perspective in his lecture, which allows us to extrapolate his ideas into a broader context.
Nationalism, Terrorism, and Religion: A Bio-Historical Approach
By William Grassie

There were three different versions of this talk and after some consultation I have decided to go back to the basic outline of the original, which is a lecture that I gave in February at the Subodhi Institute and again in April at the University of Peradeniya. The original lecture was under the title “Nationalism, Terrorism, and Religion: A Bio-Historical Approach”. The lecture ends with a discussion of the advertised topic, “Creating a Best Case Scenario for Sri Lanka”, but I will do so by first discussing the phenomena of nationalism, terrorism, and religion. I take a bio-historical, evolutionary perspective, because I think this will help us best understand and transform this conflict in Sri Lanka and others throughout the world.

I am inspired to take this evolutionary approach in part through my encounters with the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit Paleontologist who died in 1955. He writes:

For our age, to have become conscious of evolution means something very different and much more than having discovered one further fact...

Blind indeed are those who do not see the sweep of a movement whose orb infinitely transcends the natural sciences and has successfully invaded and conquered the surrounding territory – chemistry, physics, sociology, and even mathematics and the history of religions. One after the other all the fields of human knowledge have been shaken and carried away by the same under-water current in the direction of some development. Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.

By taking this broad evolutionary approach, we gain the most leverage in both understanding and transforming this country and the world. To paraphrase Dwight Eisenhower, if a problem cannot be solved, then enlarge it. So I begin globally and end locally here in Sri Lanka.

1. Nationalism

Nationalism can be understood as an evolutionary outgrowth of our natural tribal passions and rationalities, which were imprinted in the human psyche and genome over millions of years. Humans are profoundly social animals with a highly evolved capacity to engage in symbolic thought. One of the fundamental challenges in social species is how to ensure cooperation within the group and sacrifice on behalf of the group. The wellbeing and survival of the group depends on this cooperation and sacrifice. In humans, this is accomplished by a mix of evolved primate behaviors, as well as, newer cultural adaptations in the realm of religions, ideologies, and cultures.

It is no simple evolutionary trick to get individuals to cooperate and to sacrifice their own wellbeing, or that of their immediate offspring, for the benefit of the group. And yet, we cannot imagine that a human society would long endure if it could not 1) organize its members to cooperate and 2) in extreme instances, ask individuals to sacrifice their wellbeing for the benefit of the group. The latter is particularly troublesome to evolutionary biologists, because true altruism would contradict Darwin’s theory of natural selection. There are various theories within evolutionary biology that try to explain other-regarding behavior. They go by names like kin selection and reciprocal altruism. At this stage, we need only consider a few of the proximate mechanism, rather than their ultimate explanations, and think about how these scale up from the level of the tribe to the dynamics of a nation state.

Remember that the dark side of this in-group altruism is that it is often employed in the most brutal manner against outsiders. Humans are clearly capable of great evil, as manifested in warfare, massacres, pillaging, raping, and enslavement, which have been the norm for most of human history and presumably much of our pre-history. This evil is partly a function of our evolved nature.

Of course, humans have natural dispositions towards living in groups. It hardly needs to be said, but no human is self-created. There is no such thing as a fully autonomous individual human. We speak languages we did not invent; we use tools that we did not design; we benefit from a vast library of knowledge that we did not discover; and we are nurtured as infants and children into “individuality” by families and societies that we did not choose.

We note in many species of primates, including humans, there is the phenomenon of the dominant male and occasionally a dominant female, which role also helps to hold the tribe together. This Alpha-Factor is replicated in a number of mammalian species, including wolves, horses, and elephants. This institution of social hierarchy within the group helps provide for cohesiveness. The maintenance of social hierarchy is generally achieved through displays of aggression and displays of altruism. Members of the group appease the BigMan out of fear, but also out of hoped for benefits. The BigMan doles out rewards and punishments in order to reinforce this social hierarchy. He passes on his kingdom to one of his children, thus increasing his “reproductive fitness”, but does so in part at the expense of the community from which he extracts surplus production and surplus reproduction as his “sovereign right”. The Alpha-Factor is not the only form of social organization that humans use to maintain solidarity, and it is certainly supplemented by many other social tools as well, but I believe it is the predominant outward structure of societies for most of human history, especially societies that grow in size and complexity.

As humans moved from small, intimate hunter-gatherer tribes into larger social groups and spanning numerous settlements and geographical regions, it was largely the BigMan model of social organization that succeeded and prevailed. In this form of social organization a dominant human, typically a male, would serve as the leader of the group, extracting surplus production from others, while ensuring social harmony and organizing common defense, as well as, waging wars against neighbors in order to expand the territory, wealth, and population of the tribe, city-state, kingdom, or empire. The dictator-king would hand out favors to followers and ruthlessly punish transgressors. Machiavelli recognizes as much in The Prince. “Is it better to be loved than feared, or vice versa” asks Machiavelli. He answers both, but if you cannot have both, then “it is much safer to be feared than loved” (XVII, p. 59). In all of this, we can see many parallels between human social relations and our chimpanzee cousins (though less so with our bonobo relatives, who would rather “make love, not war”). Note that in studies of chimpanzee bands and contemporary hunter-gather societies, some 25 to 30 percent of males die a violent death in competition with outsiders (Dyer, 2004, 71-79).

So nationalism is a synthesis of primordial passions and modernity. As local communities decline from the 1800s on, nationalism fills the gap. This was enabled in large part because of new modes of communication, transportation, and production, as well as a race for military superiority over ones’ neighbors. Today, there are many forms of nationalism, but they all involve concepts of a homeland, sacred centers, shared language, common customs, a hostile surrounding, memories of battles, and historical thinking. These combine to create a common motivating mythology that united “the whole people”. Nationalisms are invented traditions and almost always have an ethnic component. There is a Romantic side to nationalism, typically projecting an essentialist organic or “blood” bond between the people.

In modern history, nationalism became a global phenomenon with growing opposition to multi-ethnic empires – rebelling against the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, the Russian empire, the British empire, among others. Nationalism spreads the world round in opposition to colonialism and takes on new forms today in opposition to globalization. Nationalism seeks the preservation of the Vaterland and the Muttersprache. It confers political legitimacy on leaders and imposes obligations on citizens to the state.

While much harm has been done in the name of nationalism, I want to emphasize that group identity is a normal, natural, and necessary part of being human. One can be a nationalist without being xenophobic and chauvinistic. Liberal forms of nationalism offer people meaningful lives in integrated societies, a sense of belonging and pride, which need not be exaggerated and jingoistic. Note that World Cup Football and the Olympic Games are organized around national teams and are in themselves quite wholesome. Competition, including competition between nations, can be a good thing. The dialectic between competition and cooperation helps to move humanity and evolution forward.

One of the more destructive forms of nationalism is when it is combined with BigMan governance. In these instances, the BigMan and his cronies use nationalism as a form of political legitimation and control. By controlling the power of the State, they are able to manipulate rewards and punishments to entrench themselves through the Alpha-Factor. And like little chimpanzees that we are, most humans are only too happy to fall in line. Big-Man governance, however, disrupts the dialectic of competition and cooperation, so the society stagnates, becomes inefficient, and at war with itself or the outside world.

The only alternative to BigMan governance that humans have invented is in some form of limited government with checks and balances built into the structure of government to restrict the power of the State and the Alpha leaders who would grab control of state power. Remember that the modern concept of national sovereignty, as opposed to the BigMan concept of the sovereign’s rights, is derived from the concept of individual sovereignty. In other words, each individual is ultimately the king or queen of his or her own personhood. Government in this view is a social contract entered into to enhance individual freedoms – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as stated for instance in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Implied in this social contract theory of legitimate government is the notion that economic activity is not the primary responsibility of the State, but of individuals. The state is to maintain a level playing field for economic interests to compete and cooperate, enforcing laws equally, protecting private property, enforcing contracts, providing for national defense, and when efficient, promoting public goods like transportation or education. Thus, the concept of limited government liberates economic markets and human ingenuity to create a rich ecology of production and innovation within a society. This non-zero sum dynamic is the magic of economic development. New wealth is created.

Note that I used the term “limited government” and not “democracy” per se. Democracy, as Plato already pointed out in The Republic, is simply the tyranny of the majority. The majority is not likely to be virtuous or just. In Socrates’ words, the majority will be governed by base “appetites” and “passions” and not noble virtues and wisdom. In democracies, Socrates argues, the minorities will rebel against the tyranny of the majority. Civil war will ensue. And before you know it, democracy will end in chaos followed by dictatorship (Plato). Universal suffrage may be an important part of limited government, but in itself is only one piece of the puzzle.

I have already argued that the concept of individual sovereignty as formulated by John Locke and others is a fiction that we have invented. Humans are never independent, autonomous individuals – sovereign nations unto themselves. We are always dependent on a web of social relations that form our identities and enhance our survival. Let us think of individual sovereignty as a useful fiction, one that has productively spawned a discourse about human rights, legitimacy, and justice. This discourse helps make the world a better place. Even if it is not ontologically true, it is pragmatically useful. Let us call this the dialectic between individual rights and social obligations, the dialectic between individualism and communalism, which we can add to the dialectic of competition and cooperation.

In her book, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities (2006), Nira Wickramasinghe ends up arguing for just such an understanding of citizenship and sovereignty and against the identity politics that has destroyed this country. In her chapter “Citizens, Communities, Rights, Constitutions, 1947-2000”, she concludes:

The curse of multiculturalism is that while providing for more freedom and recognition to the group or community it is a closure in that it denies the contingency and ambiguity of every identity. Multiculturalism cannot help but essentialise the fragment. Turning towards the citizen is a possible way out of the impasse. The citizen is not only a legal subject; s/he is also the part owner of political sovereignty...(Wickramasinghe 2006)

By the way, nation-states are not really independent either, though national sovereignty is regularly invoked against interference in the internal affairs of others. Say what you will to justify what you may, but in the end neither the large and powerful, nor the small and less powerful nations of the world can escape what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the inescapable web of mutuality”(King 1963) in which all of us our entangled today through global markets and global communications.

Go read the whole, long, but interesting article.

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