Through evolutionary selection we have inherited instincts to fear and hate—and also to cooperate within a group. The sooner we start admitting to this, the betterby Robert Neild / April 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
The bloodshed in and around the Islamic world and the outburst of hostility to refugees and other migrants in Europe and the United States are so horrifying that it is hard to believe what is going on. It is hard to see why the leaders of Islamic State, and indeed leaders like Donald Trump who turn away those fleeing from IS, are being so horrible—and so successful. The principal explanation, I believe, is simple but one that people are reluctant to recognise: ugly human instincts to fear and hate that are normally dormant within in us are being aroused, inflamed and played upon by power-seeking demagogues, including European opponents of migration.
I think one can safely say that through the normal process of evolutionary selection we have inherited instincts to fear and hate. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, like their precursors and many other species, competed in groups, in our case “tribes,” for resources, notably territory but also captives and loot. Those tribes that were ready to fight rival tribes in order to defend or gain resources will have survived at the expense of those that, being passive, were overrun. Consequently, defensive-aggressive instincts will have been passed down to us. Since the historic pace of genetic change has been extremely slow, and it is unlikely yet to have been greatly accelerated by man-made changes to the social environment, one would expect these instincts still to be prevalent within us. And what we see around us today is convincing, horrible evidence that that is so.
We also have inherited instincts to be cooperative and altruistic within our group. These too will have contributed to our survival. In peace they will have made hunting, gathering and nurturing the young more efficient. In war, unity will have contributed to combative strength. Both theory and evidence tell us they too are present within us.
These two sets of instincts which, when in need of brevity, I shall call the combative and the co-operative, have been overlaid by experience and learning, meaning all those habits of mind we derive from our education, secular and religious, and from the customs and values of the society around us: in old-fashioned terms nurture has been mixed with nature. The way this has happened is now a subject of much scientific research. It plainly has differed from society to society.