Immigration: anatomy of a progressive narrative | Evolutionary logic of collective action pt.IV

Last week during a debate with Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at George Washington University, Governor Howard Dean offered a compelling narrative about immigration in the United States:

I don’t believe we ought to demonize people who are trying to do the best they can…  How many people in this hall have American Indian blood in you?  Raise your hand…  Everybody else is an immigrant!  The reason this country is such an extraordinary success is because we got those people who dared to leave their homes, who dared to do something different … who took some risks.  And their descendants are all here.  Every American family has a narrative about somebody who worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees – and their grandchildren and great grandchildren got to go to George Washington University [location of debate].  We gotta keep that alive!

…When the Irish got here, no Irish needed apply.  When the Jews got here, they couldn’t go to the Ivy League.  When the Italians got here, they had to labor on the tunnels underneath New York.  Everybody had to face this.  Isn’t it time we stopped and accepted people who want to make America great, and let them be citizens again?

Why does Howard Dean’s answer resonate?  Why is it a potent narrative?  What are the narrative components?  What emotions and cognitive frames does he prime and connect with?

And how has our evolution as a species-a process that has been happening in the context of humans living together in groups for hundreds of thousands of years-shaped whether and how different frames and messages resonate?

In this essay, I will examine rhetoric, narratives, and cognitive framing within the immigration struggle in the United States – through a framework that supposes that evolutionary theory may have something to offer (to our understanding of collective behavior and break down of political strategy).

In this series (Evolutionary logic of collective action) I have been looking at multilevel selection theory as a framework for understanding the evolution of cooperative behavior within human groups and competition between groups.  Where dominant evolutionary frameworks (in line with rational choice theory) often problematize cooperative and “altruistic” behavior, multilevel selection theory explains it.  In short, if evolutionary selection only occurred between individuals, then the most selfish and aggressive individuals would have the evolutionary advantage, and others-serving behavior would be evolutionarily disadvantageous (i.e. altruistic traits should breed themselves out, and selfishness should abound).  However, groups comprised of cooperative individuals should logically have an evolutionary advantage over groups comprised of selfish individuals; the former would work together for the collective good, while the latter would be self-destructive as a group.  So, to the extent that evolutionary selection happens between groups, cooperative and others-oriented behavior should be evolutionarily advantageous, and selfishness disadvantageous.  This, according to David Sloan Wilson and other multilevel selection theorists, helps explain how bee colonies evolved into highly cooperative “super-organisms”, and also how cooperation and compassion evolved in humans.

In David Sloan Wilson’s words [2004: The New Fable of Bees]:

…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on.  Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger. …opportunities existed to increase the fitness of oneself relative to others in the same group, or to increase the fitness of one’s group relative to other groups.  We evolved the behavioral propensities to capitalize on both options.  We also evolved the propensity to limit the self-serving behaviors of our social partners, thereby concentrating natural selection at the between-group level…

The theory is not an entirely rosy-eyed view of humanity, as it also suggests an evolved capacity for aggression toward threats to the group (external and internal), as I discussed in War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection.  This faculty for collective aggression could be activated by perceived threats, as well.  And this may be the primal foundation of xenophobia and anti-immigrant bigotry.  My hope here is to explore what triggers this kind of reaction, and, more importantly, what can activate empathetic behavior instead.

If our species evolved to be highly group-oriented over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, then our group-oriented behavior should logically be at least as instinctive as it is conscious; it should be embedded in our DNA and into the structure and processes of our pre-conscious brains.  In Humans: not just selfish, I suggested that humans’ evolved group-oriented instincts should have profound implications for what kinds of messages will tend to resonate on a preconscious (or primal) level:

Consider, for example, how the public messaging of social justice campaigns might benefit from applying multilevel selection theory at the cognitive level. Understanding how central group identity is to human motivation, we may want to focus our message framing on defining the parameters, interests, and narrative of “the group”; claiming and contesting symbols that are meaningful to the group; positively projecting ourselves and our allies as protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group; and inoculating against our opposition (e.g. painting a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group). There you have a basic framework for campaign messaging that is informed by a theory of social evolution…

…which I will now apply to rhetoric, narratives, and cognitive frames in the immigration struggle; first to an example of a conservative immigration narrative, then to Howard Dean’s example of a progressive narrative.

Anatomy of a fear narrative

While conservatives make fear-based appeals on most political issues, these appeals tend to be interspersed with appeals to other emotions as well.  Conservative rhetoric that supports laissez-faire economic policies, for example, encourages fear of so-called “big government” repressing individual freedom, but it also appeals strongly to emotionally positive values and concepts of freedom.  In the dominant conservative narrative about immigration though, fear is hardly mitigated by other appeals.  Fear is the cornerstone.  Every argument is at best once removed from fear – fear of foreigners, fear of terrorism, fear of freeloaders, fear of losing one’s job, fear of losing one’s cultural identity, fear of losing privileges, etc.

The power of these fear messages is less about their appeal to individuals and more about how they trigger an aggressive primal group reaction.

Rather than examining the most brash and unabashedly bigoted conservative rhetoric within the current immigration struggle-which, sadly, there is no short supply of-I will analyze a more intellectually developed and nuanced conservative argument; that of Samuel P. Huntington in the introduction to his article, The Hispanic Challenge:

The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages. Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves-from Los Angeles to Miami-and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United States ignores this challenge at its peril. (Huntington 2004)

Working through the progression I outlined in Humans: not just selfish (quoted above), I will now examine first how Huntington’s message framing defines the parameters, interests, and narrative of ‘”the group”; then how it claims and contests symbols that are meaningful to the group; then how it positively projects protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group; and finally how it paints a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group.

“Defining the parameters, interests, and narrative of ‘the group'”

In this narrative, the nation is “the group” onto which we are to project our identity and our group-oriented instincts.  The borders of the United States serve as the physical parameters that define the group.  Characteristics of the dominant culture (“mainstream U.S. culture”) serve as another kind of parameter.  The display of “Anglo-Protestant values” is a signifier of one’s rightful place in the group.  Conversely, failure to adequately display these dominant values casts doubt on the transgressing individual’s rightful place.  The interest of the group, thus defined, is of course to maintain its coherency and self-conception, as well as privileges it has hitherto taken for granted (e.g. being able to converse in one’s own language all day every day).

Interestingly, “past immigrant groups” are claimed as part of “the group”.  This preempts (and inoculates against) the progressive argument that America is a nation of immigrants, by distinguishing between “past immigrant groups” who are now included as part of the group, and “Mexicans and other Latinos” who are framed as external to the group.

“Claiming and contesting symbols that are meaningful to the group”

The “American dream” is the symbol explicitly named in the example.  This meme carries a whole dominant story of America; of hard work ultimately paying off, etc.  The mention of the American dream brings to mind images of the American flag as well.  The American dream belongs to “the group.”  We are to think of it as ours; its mention functions as a device that reinforces the parameters, interests, and narrative of our group.

“Positively projecting protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group”

The protagonists are hard-working Americans, plain and simple.  That may seem self-congratulatory, but the protagonists in most good stories tend to be just that for the intended audience.  Again, the mention of “Anglo-Protestant values” and “the American dream” in the same sentence carries a familiar story of hard work, dedication, commitment, and even righteousness (“Protestant values”).

“Painting a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group”

The paragraph under discussion does not paint anyone as intentionally malevolent.  Rather it induces anxiety in far more sophisticated fashion than overt demonization.  First, and perhaps most obvious, is the use of two explicitly anxiety-related words (bolded): “The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens…” and “The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.”

But what are they threatening?

“…to divide the United States.”

Dividing the United States would certainly entail undermining the group.

Perhaps an even more potent message though is that they (“Mexicans and other Latinos”) are explicitly “rejecting” our “values.”  Notice that their “linguistic enclaves” are “from Los Angeles to Miami.”  Why reference Los Angeles and Miami?  Why are they not instead “from rural Iowa to upstate Maine”?  The intent to conjure negative fear-based stereotypes of specific urban areas should be obvious.  Mentioning rural Iowa or upstate Maine might break the reader out of the realm of stereotype.  The reader might then ask, “Why are Mexicans and Latinos emigrating to rural Iowa and upstate Maine?”  And he or she might answer the question, “They must be going there to find work.”  They might wonder about the kind of work available in these areas, and they might wonder if it includes farm work.  Farm work is certainly hard work in the story of America.  For that matter, farms are an iconic symbol of America.  Associating “Mexicans and other Latinos” with rural America, farming, and hard work could undermine the whole conservative frame.  The negative and false stereotype of lazy and freeloading Mexicans-intentionally evoked with the assertion that they are “rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream”-loses its power.

Every rhetorical appeal in the example is fear-based: fear of a group divided; fear of people who do not work as hard as the rest of us and thereby take advantage of the good will of the group; fear of urban violence and stereotypes; fear of losing our country, our language, our coherent and familiar group identity.  Key to the potency of each appeal is that the nation-the United States and “mainstream U.S. culture”-is “the group” onto which we are to project our identity and our group-oriented instincts.  Then, within this cognitive frame of national identity, immigrants are negatively cast as both external threat and internal parasite in relation to “the group”.  If we evolved in tribal groups in which individual survival depended almost entirely upon the success of the group, then these two things-external threat and internal subversion-are precisely what we should have evolved to fear, despise, and act forcefully and collectively against.  This lens can explain why conservatives do not need to mitigate fear-based appeals (with appeals to other values and emotions) when discussing immigration, and why immigrants have been such an easy and popular political target in many countries and contexts throughout recorded history.

Anatomy of a progressive narrative

A progressive challenge to the dominant conservative immigration frame requires an asymmetrical narrative battle.  The conservative arsenal may only contain one weapon-fear-but it is a highly potent weapon.  Progressives need to use other narrative and framing tools, and to inoculate against fear.

While progressives should take care to not feed into conservative frames (a theme I will return to), still a progressive immigration narrative cannot entirely disregard the national framework (nation as “group” that one identifies with).  We live in a nation, after all, whose symbols surround us – symbols that mean a lot to most people in our society.  Indeed, the national frame (nation as group) is activated every time one sees an American flag.  Immigrants must positively recast themselves-and must be positively recast by their progressive allies-within that national identity framework.

Howard Dean’s immigration narrative offered a compelling appeal that accomplished such a recasting.  Here’s that quote again:

I don’t believe we ought to demonize people who are trying to do the best they can…  How many people in this hall have American Indian blood in you?  Raise your hand…  Everybody else is an immigrant!  The reason this country is such an extraordinary success is because we got those people who dared to leave their homes, who dared to do something different … who took some risks.  And their descendants are all here.  Every American family has a narrative about somebody who worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees – and their grandchildren and great grandchildren got to go to George Washington University [location of debate].  We gotta keep that alive!

…When the Irish got here, no Irish needed apply.  When the Jews got here, they couldn’t go to the Ivy League.  When the Italians got here, they had to labor on the tunnels underneath New York.  Everybody had to face this.  Isn’t it time we stopped and accepted people who want to make America great, and let them be citizens again?

In Dean’s national frame, the parameters of the group are far more permeable than in the conservative narrative.  Immigrants are not only included in the group; they are welcomed and embraced.  The group is, after all-with the important exception of American Indians-comprised entirely of immigrants.  Immigrants themselves become the protagonists with which we identify.  Today’s immigrants are like our grandparents and great grandparents who “worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees,” so that we can enjoy the opportunities that we have partially inherited from their hard work.

This story effectively counters the conservative narrative that frames immigrants as both external threat and internal parasite.  How can someone be an external threat if he is welcomed into the group, included as an integral part of its self-conception and identity?  And how can someone be a freeloader (internal parasite) when she is working hard and scrubbing floors on her knees.

Dean also inoculates against the opposition’s fear-based frame.  He doesn’t name Mexican and Latino immigrants by name, but instead invokes Irish, Italian, and Jewish people – in effect saying that demonization against a particular group of people is as arbitrary and cruel today as it was a hundred years ago (when such discrimination was aimed at people who are now considered “part of the group,” even by conservatives).  The villain in Dean’s narrative is not named explicitly, but inferred: anyone who would “demonize people who are trying to do the best they can,” and anyone who refuses to accept “people who want to make America great.”  Here the immigrant is cast as the patriot who wants to make America great.  The people who are anti-immigrant are the ones who stand in the way of America’s greatness.  Immigrants are the heroes of the narrative, and we see our best selves in them.

As far as symbols go, the American flag can just as well be claimed by progressives and by immigrants themselves, as was abundantly clear in the massive pro-immigrant rallies and marches that exploded across the United States in 2006.  Waving the flag essentially says, “This flag is ours too, and we will contest your misuse of it for hatred and bigotry.  The story of America is a story of immigrants.”

All of the above poses a critically important contesting of conservative hegemony within the national identity framework.  However, a national identity frame (nation as group we are to identify with) should not be the only progressive narrative strategy, and perhaps not even the primary one.  An effective progressive immigration narrative must also appeal to other kinds of group identities and must prime other cognitive frames.  Enlisting group identities that transcend national, racial and cultural boundaries are critical for this task.

Class identity (one’s economic class as the “group” one identifies with), for example, has historically been key to forging class-based solidarity between immigrant and (supposedly) “non-immigrant” workers.  Dean subtly evokes this frame by repeated references to hard work and labor.

Similarly, the “one human family” story that is central to so many religious narratives likely accounts (at least in part) for the high participation of many religious bodies in immigration solidarity and reform efforts. In both class identity and “human family” identity, “the group” extends beyond the borders of nations.  Thus the very concept of “immigrant” is rendered impotent as a pejorative in the conservative frame.  We are all workers, human beings, children of God – doing the best we can, which sometimes understandably requires moving from one place to another.

When the concept of nation loses primacy as the thing we project our concept of group onto-at least in relation to the issue of immigration-then the arbitrary borders of nations cannot effectively draw the boundaries of identity.  The “circle of compassion” is thereby expanded, and the so-called “immigrant” cannot easily be cast as an outsider, foreigner, or external threat.  For something to qualify as an external threat, it must first be perceived as being external – not the case in a narrative that frames a class-based, religious-based, or humanity-based group identity.

The power of the conservative narrative on immigration relies heavily on its ability to demonize and other-ize immigrants in order to make people fear them.  It is difficult, however, to conjure fear of the foreign if the foreign becomes familiar and the “outsider” becomes integrated into the definition of the group.  It is difficult to elicit fear of a stereotype if that stereotype is shattered.  It is therefore critically important that Americans see immigrants and hear their personal stories as much as possible.  The cause of progressive immigration reform needs established leaders like Howard Dean as allies who boldly frame the national debate, but, probably more than anything else, Americans need to hear the unmitigated stories directly from immigrants themselves.  This should be a central principle in a narrative strategy for progressive immigration reform.

Not feeding hostile cognitive frames

In George Lakoff’s groundbreaking book Don’t Think of an Elephant, the title itself makes the central point of the book: telling someone to not think of an elephant is an ineffective strategy for trying to get them to not think of an elephant!  The book critiques how the Democratic Party’s messaging had been defensive for many years, unwittingly carrying conservative cognitive frames.  Republicans characteristically accused Democratic politicians of being for “big government,” “taxing and spending,” being “weak on national security,” and many other negative-sounding things.  And Democrats’ characteristic reply essentially amounted to “No, we’re not!  We’re not for ‘big government!’  Just watch – we’ll cut social programs too!  We’re not weak on national security!  Just watch, we’ll keep military spending right where it is.”

This kind of response only feeds the overarching hegemonic conservative narrative and frame.  Conservative values gain legitimacy when the supposed “opposition party” (the Democrats) parrots their words, phrases and frames.

It is important for progressive change agents who are working to shift immigration policy to not fall into this trap.  The most obvious thing progressives should stop doing is referring to people as “illegal” or “illegals.”  Regardless of the technical legality of individual cases, the label of “illegal” cognitively associates immigrants with criminality.  This label is so pervasive in the national dialogue that progressives often repeat it unconsciously without any malintent.  (Check out the Colorlines campaign to Drop the “I-Word”.)  Regardless of intentions, cognitively associating immigrants with criminality pegs them, (within a group identity framework) as internal threat/parasite, and the primal emotions we feel (as groups) toward criminality and internal subversion become our emotional reaction at the mention of immigrants.

In another example, the slogan “Immigrants are not terrorists!” unwittingly carries the negative frame of terrorism, cognitively associating immigrants with terrorism.  Right there they are, together in the same sentence!  This reinforces the idea of immigrants as external threat, and evokes the corresponding emotions.

There is a potent narrative about immigration that is available to progressives; we should stick with it and not be reactive.


In this essay I applied the ideas developed in the previous three parts of this series to the contemporary immigration struggle in the United States, examining rhetoric, narratives, and cognitive frames.  My approach may be a complementary departure from cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s theoretical framework of family-based moral systems.  Where Lakoff emphasizes the nuclear family as the conceptual unit that individuals metaphorically project onto the state-which tends to determine essential political morality, based predominantly on childhood experience of a strict father or nurturant parent model of the family-here the more generic concept of “the group” is emphasized as a determinant of political morality.  To project one’s concept of “the group” onto something larger than what is immediately proximate (i.e. the state, the nation, one’s class, or even the whole of humanity becomes the group with which one identifies) is to project not only familial conditioning but also attitudes and behaviors (in relation to “the group”) that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of multilevel selection and are therefore almost certainly hardwired into our brains.

I wrote this series with the hope that an understanding of ourselves as a species-how we think and behave; how we think and behave in groups; how we have evolved over time to think and behave in the ways we do-might provide some insights into collective action and political strategy.  In this essay, I have taken a first clumsy step toward translating some of those insights into practical narrative strategy tools that grassroots organizations might use to self-consciously craft potent organizing and campaign narratives.  In the coming months, I’ll be further developing and testing some of these ideas and incorporating them into workshop curriculum for the grassroots progressive organizations Beyond the Choir partners with.  Stay tuned…

War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection | Evolutionary logic pt.II

“the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly”

If anyone managed to come away from Part I: Humans: not just selfish with an overly sentimental view of human nature, this post will rob you of that delusion.  Yes, we humans have a remarkably developed faculty for cooperation and group-oriented behavior, in comparison to most other species.  That’s an encouraging thing to know.  And it may even become useful, if you start to identify the conditions that tend to set us up for cooperation.  However, as Charles Darwin, David Sloan Wilson, and many others have suggested, the processes of group selection that helped us evolve to be cooperative within our groups probably also encouraged competition (to put it mildly) between groups.

Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson explain in their book, Unto Others:

…our goal … is not to paint a rosy picture of universal benevolence. Group selection does provide a setting in which helping behavior directed at members of one’s own group can evolve; however, it equally provides a context in which hurting individuals in other groups can be selectively advantageous. Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness. Group selection theory does not abandon the idea of competition that forms the core of the theory of natural selection…

And here’s Wilson again in The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest:

[Multilevel selection theory] has the capacity to explain the behavior of individuals who demonically work to undermine their groups (within-group selection), individuals who angelically work on behalf of their groups (the bright side of among-group selection) and avenging angels who work on behalf of their groups to destroy other groups (the dark side of among-group selection). We might not like the dark sides of animal and human nature, but they exist and require a theory to explain them. …multilevel selection theory has the potential to explain the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

Why do you build me up, buttercup, just to let me down and mess me around?  Seriously though, this just underscores that the purpose of this series is to use the lens of evolutionary theory not to idealize but to examine and better understand how humans and groups work, particularly in relation to collective action – and hopefully make practical use of that understanding.

Clearly we’re not the first ones to wrestle with this very long-term problem.  And while the evolutionary lens is novel and may explain much, others have through observation come to similar analyses about humankind’s immense capacity for ruthlessness toward other groups.  Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the most astute observers of this phenomenon.  The title of his 1932 classic Moral Man & Immoral Society suggests that human beings tend to behave morally toward each other within small groups, but that our moral code rarely extends, at least as fully, to the societal (between-group) level.  He laments how “…group relations can never be as ethical as those which characterise individual relations.” The book is a comprehensive treatise on the subject:

As individuals, men [sic] believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.

(Disclaimer: Niebuhr is a fascinatingly complicated figure, who went from leading the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation and running for Congress as a Socialist to advocating for some US military interventions and lending intellectual support for the Cold War.  I’m quoting Moral Man & Immoral Society throughout this article on the merits and relevancy of its content, not because of Niebuhr’s specific politics.)

So whether you explain it through evolution and group selection, or, like Niebuhr, you just observe human behavior and notice the pattern, it seems that we humans tend to struggle to extend the circle of compassion beyond our more proximate relations. And this fact sets us up to be all-to-easily manipulated to fear the bogeymen and barbarians. (The word barbarian, by the way, originated in Greece.  It meant “anyone who is not Greek.” Along similar lines, David Sloan Wilson laments in Evolution for Everyone how, “In many indigenous cultures, the word for ‘our people’ is ‘human’ and outsiders are classified as a type of animal.”)

war & civilization

George W. Bush declared after 9/11, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” and proceeded to lead the nation into two major wars (which are both still happening, by the way).

For anyone who thought rationally about it at the time, this was transparently preposterous framing.  “Okay, okay, I got it.  Anyone who says anything that I don’t like, is a… is a… a TERRORIST!!! Yeah! That’s the ticket!” Anyone who might consider disagreeing with the President’s agenda was preemptively depicted as being in league with the people who had just attacked the nation.

It worked though, because enough people weren’t thinking rationally.  Glued to our television sets, watching repeating loops of passenger jets destroying national symbols and killing thousands of our fellow citizens, most of us felt some combination of terror and outrage.  Fear is a powerful primal motivator that tends to shut down our rational faculties.  When “the group” is threatened or attacked, we instinctively band together.  And we are primed for a counter-attack from “our side.”  While this may in some senses be a perfectly rational reaction, it is not the rational part of the brain that is driving the car.

The good news here is that, in the absence of a perceived threat, most people are generally not eager for their nations to go to war.  The theory of group selection in humans may predict an evolved faculty for group against group fighting, but it would still only make sense for groups to fight with each other if there were something compelling enough to fight for.  War and fighting are costly. Head-on collisions don’t usually benefit the passengers in either vehicle, so we damn well should have evolved to avoid at least some of them.  On the other hand, it would also make evolutionary sense for human groups to have evolved to defend themselves against aggressive groups.  Moreover, extending the automobile metaphor, not all vehicles are equal in terms of size or power.  What’s to stop a monster truck from running a compact off the road?  Isn’t that, after all, kind of the whole story of agricultural civilization?

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá seem to think something along these lines. While the central thesis of their recent book Sex at Dawn is that the advent of agriculture dramatically changed human reproductive strategies and sexual behavior-seriously a must read for all you sexual libertines who want to arm your desire with a scientific theory!-they also discuss major non-sexual behavior shifts that came along with agriculture:

It makes perfect Darwinian sense to suppose that prehistoric humans would choose the path that offered the best chance of survival-even if that path required egalitarian sharing of resources rather than the self-interested hoarding of resources many contemporary Western societies insist is basic human nature.

The advent of agriculture is really a pretty recent phenomenon, in terms of the whole scope of human evolution.  There are still pre-agricultural groups among us; there were a lot more just a hundred years ago, and a lot more a hundred years before that, and so on.  Genetically, we haven’t changed a whole lot – we’re still the same species. So we’re a highly complex accumulation of genes that took millions and millions of years to evolve and then suddenly started to behave dramatically differently – just a moment ago in evolutionary time. What happened?

What agriculture changed, Ryan and Jethá argue (and they’re certainly not the first ones), was the ability to store and accumulate resources, to concentrate wealth, and to consolidate power.  This is the X factor that changed the whole equation of human social behavior, both within groups and among groups.

give us the bananas!

Now there was something substantial to fight about: storehouses and accumulated treasure, as well as control of arable land, water access, and more.  There’s evidence to suggest that the ability to systematically store food is enough by itself to radically change behavior – or at least that’s the case with some of our primate cousins.  Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham observed that wild chimpanzees in Tanzania-which, like human forager societies, are fiercely egalitarian with food when foraging in the wild-became remarkably aggressive when humans started providing a regular supply of bananas.  Franz de Waal describes in Chimpanzee Politics how Jan van Hooff observed similar aggression in a chimpanzee colony in captivity: “Violent fights broke out at every meal because some of the apes tried to monopolize the food.  The tension began to build up long before feeding time.”

Ryan and Jethá say that the same is true of us:

Human groups tend to respond to food surplus and storage with behavior like that observed in chimps: heightened hierarchical social organization, intergroup violence, territorial perimeter defense, and Machiavellian alliances.  In other words, humans-like chimps-tend to fight when there’s something worth fighting over.  But for most of prehistory, there was no food surplus to win or lose and no home base to defend.

In yesterday’s post, I asserted that our “primal switches” are “being flipped about every which way all the time. Human beings in modern society are like fish out of water. Our primal brains (including our pro-social strategies) evolved under different conditions than the ones we now know.” Shit gets weird when somebody’s controlling all the bananas.

But again, our genetics shouldn’t have changed significantly in such a short time. Our environment changed dramatically, but our adaptations have so far been mostly behavioral, cultural and psychological. The encouraging thing here is that underneath all the confusion of modern life-yeah, sure, we got issues, but-we should have a strong underlying preference for cooperation and pro-social behavior. Again, group selection can help explain our evolved faculty for highly cooperative behavior within our social groups. It can also explain why a faculty for aggression would be somewhere in our repertoire (as one tactic for among-group competition), but it would still make sense for groups to evolve to be wary of war and conflict; because, with all else equal in pre-agricultural life, groups that avoided costly conflict should have done better than groups that didn’t.  

So, unless I’m missing something, this helps explain what I’ve known since I was a kid – that most people I meet, under most circumstances, are not jumping at the opportunity to kill or get into a fight with others, even people outside of their group. And it would explain why, even with a lot of resources at their disposal, it is still at least somewhat of a challenge for political leaders to lead a people to war.  The warmongers have to bang on those drums for a while to get us in the rhythm.  The bad news is that they have a lot of knowledge about how to do that.

Hermann Wilhelm Göring, a notorious leading member of the Nazi party, candidly explained:

Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. …voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country. [my emphasis]

Just look at those phrases!

“tell them they are being attacked”

“lack of patriotism”

“exposing the country to danger”

These phrases aren’t just about frightening people, they’re also about framing their fear in particular group-oriented terms.  There is a dangerous enemy threatening us (the nation), and you, “Mr. Commie Internationalist,” don’t seem to care that much about us… you selfish, indulgent traitor.  You lack patriotism (identity with the group), and as such you’re as much of a threat to us as the menacing enemy.

Fear has the power to activate the most aggressive aspects of our among-group competition instincts.  Hermann Wilhelm Göring wrote a handy guide for nation states of all stripes for how to stoke fear to accomplish precisely that.

power of identity

Rosa Luxenburg understood the powerful “evil magic” of this formula well before Göring did, but she couldn’t stop it despite her best efforts.  She pleaded passionately with the unionists and the German Social Democrats to not get pulled into World War I.  This from her essay Either Or (1916):

On August 4th, 1914, official German Social Democracy, and with it the Inter-national, collapsed miserably. Everything that, during the preceding fifty years, we had preached to the people, that we had declared to be our sacred principles, that we had proclaimed countless times in speeches, in brochures, in newspapers, in leaflets – all at once all that proved to be empty clap-trap.Suddenly,  as though by evil magic, the party of the proletarian international class struggle has become a national liberal party … In other countries, socialism has fallen more or less deeply and the proud old cry, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite! ‘ has been transformed on the battlefields into the command, ‘Proletarians of all countries, cut each other’s throats!’…

The world war has decimated the results of forty years’ work of European socialism by: devaluing the significance of the revolutionary working class as a factor of political power, destroying the prestige of socialism, breaking up the proletarian International, leading its sections into a fratricidal war against each other and chaining the desires and hopes of the masses in the most important capitalist countries to the course of imperialism… [my emphasis]

…and chained to the cognitive frame of nationalism – meaning that the nation state was the “group” with which the Germans of 1914 were pressured to cast their lot and identity. How we define our identity is how we label some pretty important folders in the filing cabinets of our brains.  Sorry for the filing cabinet metaphor – that’s not actually how brains work.  How they work is a lot more interesting.  We don’t “file” information.  We associate and cluster new information and experiences with dynamic memories-they change a little with each remembering-of old information and experiences, and with the feelings these memories evoke. Rosa Luxenberg could have almost been a lay neuroscientist with her phrase “chaining the desires and hopes of the masses … to the course of imperialism.” That is exactly how the process of cognitive frames works. We are evolutionarily and neurologically predisposed as human beings to “chain our desires and hopes” to the groups we identify with, because we evolved in a context where our survival as individuals was highly dependent on the survival and health of the group.

Thus the rallying cry of the Industrial Workers of the World: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Within the cognitive frame of class consciousness, the members of a worker’s economic class constitute the “group” with which she casts her lot and identity.  Her hopes and desires are chained to her fellow workers – including the ones on the other side of the border and on the other side of the ocean. The threat that she perceives and mobilizes with her group to overcome is the threat of a social system that concentrates into the hands of a few the wealth produced by the many; a system that turns a blind eye to the poverty, misery and degradation of her fellow human beings.

If this language seems overly glorious, naive, or outdated to you, I encourage you to think again. Perhaps it’s not the exact wording to fit our times, but we do desperately need a highly moral and moralizing progressive narrative and framework. We need to be willing to step boldly out of our resignation, to hope, and to inspire hope in others. Reinhold Niebuhr encouraged approaching social justice struggles with the tools of science, but also admonished that “cool objectivity” cannot meet the moral and emotional demands of collective mobilization:

Contending factions in a social struggle require morale; and morale is created by the right dogmas, symbols and emotionally potent oversimplifications. These are at least as necessary as the scientific spirit of tentatively. …[Industrial workers] will have to believe rather more firmly in the justice and in the probable triumph of their cause, than any impartial science would give them the right to believe, if they are to have enough energy to contest the power of the strong. They may be very scientific in projecting their social goal and in choosing the most effective instruments for its attainment, but a motive force will be required to nerve them for their task which is not easily derived from the cool objectivity of science. …The world of history, particularly man’s collective behavior, will never be conquered by reason, unless reason uses tools, and is itself driven by forces which are not rational.

Dear reader, it is nearly 3:00AM and I have stayed up too late and kept you reading too long. In another post I will return to the subject of fear, and discuss strategies for “inoculating” against fearmongering.  I’ll explore cognition and culture as extensions of the human immune system and of evolution itself. And I’ll resume this discussion of how group-oriented behavior, identity, cognitive frames, a moral and moralizing hegemonic progressive narrative, and collective action all fit together.

For tonight, I’ll sign off with this thought… We have a lot of “space” in our brains that evolved to deal with threats. The impulse to collectively mobilize to overcome a genuine common threat is not an inherently negative thing. Indeed, evolutionarily, it’s an impulse to which we owe our very survival as a species… so far.  If we are to continue to survive as a species on planet earth, we humans will have to make sure that this impulse is cognitively connected-in enough people’s brains-to the huge looming threats we face. We can’t afford to keep being duped into fearing the wrong things, and into waging wars of aggression and scapegoating immigrants and people who appear different than ourselves.  The trick is to wire our primal switches to the right lightbulbs! This is what grassroots organizing is all about: building relationships and feeding pro-social identities that are broad enough, strong enough, and instructive enough to tilt us toward investing together in our collective interest.