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 fitness.
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 nepotism.
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 ([1981]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 versa.
(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 violence.

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 [1995]).
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 (1999).
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.


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This review was published in the Human Ethology Bulletin, 15, 3, 2000, pp. 12-14.