Vanhanen, Tatu (1999) Ethnic Conflicts Explained by Ethnic
Nepotism. Research in Biopolitics, Vol. 7, Stamford CT: JAI Press,
100 Prospect Street, Stamford CT 06901-1640, USA. ISBN: 0-7623-0583-5, pp.
xix + 370.
Reviewed by Johan M.G. van der Dennen, Center for Peace and Conflict
Studies, University of Groningen, the Netherlands. E-mail:
Ever since biosociologist Van den Berghe (1981) presented his evolutionary
analysis of the 'ethnic phenomenon', the 'primordialists' (who had the nerve to
suggest that ethnicity might be more than an arbitrary sociocultural
construction) have been drawing heavy flak from the social scientists, especially
sociologists and historians, either due to total ignorance or total abhorrence of
the evolutionary approach. Primordialism (versus social
constructivism or instrumentalism: a 'silly' controversy based on an untenable
antinomy, as Van den Berghe never tired of pointing out) was ridiculed,
maligned, and rejected, almost as a matter of course, in most textbooks on
ethnocentrism and nationalism (although, as Vanhanen rightly observes, cultural
and primordial elements are mixed in most definitions of ethnicity). Recently,
however, the tide seems to be turning. Vanhanen's macroquantitative research
on ethnic conflicts, a life-work spanning several decades, is an important
contributing factor in this tide-turning process.
Conflicts are common in all countries of the world where people are divided
into separate groups on the basis of racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, tribal,
religious, caste, or other differences. The central argument of Vanhanen's study
is that a significant part of the universality of ethnic conflicts can be explained
by our evolved predisposition to ethnic nepotism, which is regarded as an
extended form of kin nepotism. Evolutionary theories of inclusive fitness and
kin selection (as first formulated by Hamilton) explain the evolutionary origin
and universality of nepotism. The members of an ethnic group tend to favor
their group members over nonmembers because they are more closely related to
their group members than to outsiders. This disposition to favor kin over nonkin,
and close kin over distant kin, becomes important in social life and politics
when people and groups of people have to compete for scarce resources. Two
basic hypotheses on political consequences of ethnic nepotism are presented: (1)
significant ethnic divisions tend to lead to ethnic interest conflicts in all societies
and (2) the more a society is ethnically divided, the more political and other
interest conflicts tend to become canalized along ethnic lines. These two
hypotheses are tested by empirical evidence covering 148 contemporary states
during the period 1990-1996. Hypothetical concepts, 'ethnic divisions', and
'ethnic conflicts' are operationalized into empirical variables, and data on
variables are analyzed by correlation and regression techniques. According to
the results of statistical analyses, the degree of ethnic conflict is indeed strongly
related to the degree of ethnic divisions.
An important part of the book (pp. 79-203) is dedicated to country profiles of
ethnic cleavages and ethnic conflicts, in which the conflicts in single countries
are examined in greater detail together with the institutional and other situational
factors that could explain large deviations from the overall pattern.
Vanhanen extensively discusses the various cultural explanations of ethnic
conflicts. What the cultural theorists have in common (with a few notable
exceptions) is a reluctance of acknowledging the existence of
ethnic conflicts, and, if the existence of ethnic conflicts
is acknowledged, the denial of any 'primordialism' in
ethnicity and insisting that it is a sociocultural construction.
The evolutionary interpretation of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts is based on
Hamilton's theory of kin selection and the concept of inclusive
Van den Berghe (1981) argued that ethnic sentiments have evolved as an
extension of kin nepotism. Consequently, ethnic sentiments are extensions of
kinship sentiments, and ethnies may be considered to be 'superfamilies', united
by common descent (i.e., the 'myth of common descent' - as proposed by many
social scientists as a prominent ethnic marker - is often no myth at all).
"Ethnicity is defined by common descent and maintained by endogamy" (Van
den Berghe, 1999: 23).
The permanent significance of ethnic boundaries in all types of societies is
based on the fact that the ethnic group is the primordial social group, the
extended kin group, selected through millions of years to maximize the
individual inclusive fitness of its members through the operation of
Rushton (e.g., 1995) complemented the theories of kin selection and ethnic
nepotism by his genetic similarity theory. This theory proposes that "genetically
similar people tend to seek one another out and to provide mutually supportive
environments such as marriage, friendship, and social groups. This may
represent a biological factor underlying ethnocentrism and group selection" (p.
69). It is clear that the existence of innate genetic similarity detectors would
facilitate the formation of ethnic groups and strengthen their cohesiveness.
Ethnic groups can thus be perceived as extended kin groups. The members of an
ethnic group tend to favor their group members over nonmembers because they
are more related to their group members than to the remainder of the population.
People belonging to the same ethnic group tend to support each other in conflict
situations. Van den Berghe (1987) noted that "the degree of cooperation
between organisms can be expected to be a direct function of the proportion of
the genes they share; conversely, the degree of conflict between them is an
inverse function of the proportion of shared genes" (p. 7). Our tendency to favor
kin over nonkin has extended to include large linguistic, national, racial,
religious, and other ethnic groups. The term 'ethnic nepotism' can be used,
according to Vanhanen, to cover this kind of nepotism at the level of extended
kin groups. It does not matter, from the perspective of ethnic nepotism, what
kind of kin groups are in question. The crucial characteristic of an ethnic group
is that its members are genetically more closely related to each other than to the
members of other groups. Therefore, in this study 'ethnic groups' refers, not only
to racial, tribal, and national groups, but also to language groups, castes, and old
religious communities. A problem with this definition is that people are related
to each other at many levels, from the level of the nucleus family to the level of
Homo sapiens. Ethnic groups are therefore never absolutely
distinct and exclusive. Any level can provide a basis for ethnic nepotism. It
depends on the situation what level of ethnic groups becomes politically
relevant. In other words, the boundaries of ethnic groups are always to some
extent socially constructed.
Furthermore, Vanhanen assumes that our behavioral predisposition to ethnic
nepotism, because of its evolutionary roots, is shared by all human populations.
It is hypothesized to be universal, to be an integral part of human nature.
After the construction of the necessary quantitative indices, Vanhanen tests the
following main research hypotheses:
(1) The value of the Index of Ethnic Conflicts (EC) tends to be 10 or less for the
countries whose Index of Ethnic Heterogeneity (EH) value is 10 or less and vice
(2) The values of the Index of Ethnic Heterogeneity are positively correlated
with the values of the Index of Ethnic Conflicts.
Results: Ethnic divisions seem to have produced ethnic conflicts in practically
all countries of the world. Vanhanen notes that cultural theories are hardly able
to explain the universality of ethnic conflicts.
Modernization theories predicting the disappearance of ethnic conflicts at higher
levels of modernity or socioeconomic development fail to explain the
universality of ethnic conflicts for the simple reason that ethnic conflicts have
not disappeared at higher levels of modernity and socioeconomic development.
The universality of ethnic conflicts cannot be explained by any racial,
civilizational, or geographical factors because ethnic conflicts seem to appear
within all racial groups and geographical regions. There is no civilization or
culture without ethnic conflicts. Wealthy and highly developed countries seem
to be nearly as vulnerable to ethnic conflicts as poor and traditional societies.
This is so, according to Vanhanen, because all human populations share the
same evolved predisposition to ethnic nepotism. We have evolved to favor our
relatives in the struggle for existence because it has been an adaptive behavior
pattern. Therefore people learn ethnic attitudes and adopt psychological
mechanisms associated with prejudice, scapegoating, and discrimination so
easily. Ethnic nepotism shared by all human populations is the common factor in
all forms of ethnic interest conflicts. It makes ethnic conflicts to some extent
regular and predictable.
"The results indicate that, as hypothesized, ethnic conflicts have emerged
in practically all ethnically divided societies, which implies that the
question is of a universal human phenomenon. Everywhere in ethnically
divided societies people belonging to the same ethnic group tended to
align with their relatives in social and political interest conflicts. They are
following the imperatives of ethnic nepotism, their unconscious impulse
to support their relatives in conflicts because it has furthered their own
inclusive fitness. Therefore, ethnic conflicts in various forms are very
common in ethnically divided societies. I came to the conclusion that
ethnic nepotism provides an ultimate evolutionary explanation for the
appearance of ethnic conflicts across all cultural boundaries. Furthermore,
if the ultimate cause of ethnic conflicts is in human nature, in our evolved
behavioral predispositions or epigenetic rules, we have to accept the
conclusion that ethnic conflicts are extremely persistent, if not absolutely
inevitable, in ethnically divided societies" (p. 231).
Some other findings of this ambitious macroquantitive research project are (1)
that external interventions tend to intensify ethnic conflicts (although they do
not cause them); (2) that the struggle for territorial rights tends to intensify
ethnic conflicts; and (3) conspicuous inequalities between ethnic groups tend to
intensify ethnic conflicts.
Ethnic diversity is not only a major predictor of low public investment in such
public goods as schooling and infrastructure, and the inability to provide
minimum standards of living for its least advantaged members (Easterly and
Levine, 1997; Salter, 1999; Schubert & Tweed, 1999) but it is also a major
predictor of several measures of (violent) crime (Alesina, Baqir & Easterly,
1997), and all categories of violent and protracted - collective - conflict. Earlier
studies by Rummel (in the nineteensixties), and Haas (1974) - who are not
mentioned by Vanhanen - found that the heterogeneity in composition of a
population is consistently associated with the frequency of wars, military actions
and foreign conflict casualties. Countries with many different ethnic groups,
language communities, nationality groups and religious and racial groups enter
wars more often than homogeneous polities (Van der Dennen, 1981: 158).
Rummel (1997) found recently that two simple measures, the number of ethnic
groups and the number of religious groups a state has, are related to its
collective (internal and external) violence: the more groups the more
Not mentioned by Vanhanen either is my ongoing research on ethnocentrism-cum-xenophobia
in preindustrial societies (and many primate and social
carnivore species), where it seems to be universally present too (reported in Van
der Dennen ).
Further support for the primordial nature of ethnocentrism and ethnic nepotism
is presented in Reynolds, Falger & Vine (1987), Shaw & Wong
(1989), Flohr (1994), and the recent volume edited by Thienpont & Cliquet
Concern for and commitment to the own group ('community concern' and a
'sense of belonging' or group identification based on personal recognition) seems
even to be characteristic of chimpanzees according to De Waal (1996), but not
surprisingly this is also the only species with extremely violent and lethal
intergroup raiding in its behavioral repertoire.
Alesina, A.; R. Baqir & W. Easterly (1997) Public goods and ethnic
divisions. World Banking Paper No. 6009.
De Waal, F.B.M. (1996) Good Natured: The Origin of Right and
Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ.
Easterly, W. & R. Levine (1997) Africa's growth tragedy: Policies and
ethnic divisions. Quartely Journal of Economics, 112.
Flohr, A.K. (1994) Fremdenfeindlichkeit: Biosoziale Grundlagen von
Ethnozentrismus. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.
Haas, M. (1974) International Conflict. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Reynolds, V.; V.S.E. Falger & I. Vine (Eds.) The Sociobiology of
Ethnocentrism: Evolutionary Dimensions of Xenophobia, Discrimination,
Racism and Nationalism, 1987, pp. 1-47).
Rummel, R.J. (1997) Is collective violence correlated with social pluralism?
Journal of Peace Research, 34, 3, pp. 163-76.
Rushton, J.P. (1995) Race, Evolution, and Behavior. New
Salter, F.J. (1998) The symposium target paper in context. Paper prepared for
the symposium on 'Welfare, ethnicity and altruism: Bringing in evolutionary
theory', Bad Homburg, Germany, 10-13 February.
Schubert J.N. & M. Tweed (1998) Ethnic diversity, polulation size and
charitable giving at the local level. Paper prepared for the symposium on
'Welfare, ethnicity and altruism: Bringing in evolutionary theory', Bad
Homburg, Germany, 10-13 February.
Shaw, R.P. & Y. Wong (1989) Genetic Seeds of Warfare:
Evolution, Nationalism, and Patriotism. London: Unwin Hyman.
Thienpont, K. & R. Cliquet (1999) In-group/Out-group Behaviour
in Modern Societies: An Evolutionary Perspective. Brussels: NIDI
Van den Berghe, P.L. (1981/1987) The Ethnic Phenomenon.
New York: Elsevier.
Van den Berghe, P.L. (1999) Racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia: in our
genes or in our memes? In: Thienpont & Cliquet (Eds.), pp. 21-33.
Van der Dennen, J.M.G. (1981) On war: Concepts, definitions, research data - a
short literature review and bibliography. In: UNESCO Yearbook on
Peace and Conflict Studies 1980. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, pp.
Van der Dennen, J.M.G. (1995) The Origin of War: The Evolution of a
Male-Coalitional Reproductive Strategy. Groningen: Origin
This review was published in the Human Ethology
Bulletin, 15, 3, 2000, pp. 12-14.