In Groups and Out Groups

 It would be difficult to overestimate the role of what Robert Ardrey called the Amity-Enmity (AE) complex in our development as a species.  It is an aspect of our behavior and our nature whose expression is ubiquitous in our relationships with other individuals and other groups.  It is fundamental to any coherent understanding of human history.  Why is  the AE complex important?  Among other things, it has played a decisive role in motivating, provoking, and/or justifying virtually every one of our countless wars since the dawn of recorded history, and, presumably, long before that.  It is the reason we associate good, justice, honor, heroism, and similar positive qualities with our in-group, and evil, impurity, dishonesty, and corruption with our out-group(s).  It affects the way in which we perceive and categorize every other human being on the planet.  Indeed, we have categorized many manifestations of AE behavior, such as racism, patriotism, and religious bigotry, and assigned them “good” or “evil” connotations, without ever understanding the one basic predisposition at the root of them all.  It is impossible to correctly understand our group and individual behavior without taking it into account.  Given the decisive role it has played in our past and will continue to play in our future, it certainly behooves us to study it and understand it. 

 

Unfortunately, there are aspects of our nature, including the AE complex itself, that hinder an objective approach to the subject.  For example, many in-groups are defined by ideology.  Beliefs in certain ideological notions are the touchstones for membership in the group.  Some in-groups must believe that human behavior is entirely determined by environment, and lacks any innate component, hard-wired in our brains.  To believe otherwise would challenge the ideological construct that defines the in-group itself.  For example, Marxists in the former Soviet Union believed they could call forth the “new Soviet man” merely by providing a “correct” environment and educational system.  The “new Soviet man” would fit perfectly into the Communist future that they also believed in as a defining concept of their in-group.  The reality of innate predispositions would make the “new Soviet man” impossible.  The reality must, therefore, be denied.  It has been denied, by Marxists and others whose ideologies have been challenged by its implications, with a fury that is difficult to understand unless one understands its in-group based ideological motivation.  One may find interesting examples of this denial in the works of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin, both of whom enjoyed significant “scientific” credibility, and there are many others like them.  When writers like Ardrey insisted that the AE complex existed whether they chose to wear ideological blinkers or not, they did not limit their responses to dispassionate logical arguments.  Rather, they vilified anyone who proposed such arguments, claiming they were fascists, racists, or associated with some other evil.  In other words, they assigned qualities to Ardrey and the rest that they associated with their own out-groups.  In doing so, they proved his point.

 

Why does the AE complex exist?  Like all of our other important characteristics, it evolved, because, at least at some point in our existence, it helped us to survive.  AE behavior is seen in other primates, and has likely been around since before our emergence as a species.  When we lived in small groups of more or less closely related individuals, such behavior tended to spread us out so as to take maximum advantage of the available resources, and increase our chances of surviving local depletion of resources or environmental catastrophe.  Unfortunately, evolution cannot plan ahead, and it could not foresee the emergence of nation states containing populations much larger than the small groups of hunter gatherers that had been the rule for many thousands of years.  Perception of the others of our species in terms of in-groups and out-groups results from an innate predisposition.  It was not a manifestation of conscious, logical thought when it evolved, any more than it is today.  However, in a world of nation states armed with nuclear weapons, AE behavior’s value in promoting our survival is dubious at best.  In fact, our survival is threatened unless we finally grasp its fundamental impact on our thought processes and our actions.

 

Writers throughout history have commented on the seemingly illogical and absurd manifestations of the complex.  The Byzantine historian Procopius recorded a visit by Christian clerics motivated by a dispute over points of doctrine, remarking that the matters at issue were so absurd that he declined to record them.  AE behavior often assumes a façade of rationality because the members of human in-groups are able to use ideological markers to distinguish themselves from “the others,” in addition to the physical traits our primate cousins must rely on.  For example, Procopius also recorded the antics of the “Blues” and “Greens” of the circus.  Later historians have claimed to “understand,” and, occasionally, justify their seemingly irrational mutual slaughter by pointing out that one side or the other associated itself with demands for lower taxation, less oppressive government, etc.  The manifestations of the AE complex in our own day, similarly shrouded with ideological camouflage, have become increasingly destructive.  Instead of relatively harmless assaults of one group of a few score primates on another, similar group in an adjoining territory, we have seen the slaughter of millions of Jews by the Nazis, tens of millions of bourgeoisie by the Communists, including the decapitation of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, and the butchery of the Tutsis by the Hutus.  It has been difficult for us to understand the fundamentally irrational and emotional nature of this mayhem because all of us are subject to the same primal predispositions.  Once we have made the subjective identification of the victims as “others,” it becomes an easy matter to rationalize mass murder by simply buying into the ideological façade.  Henry Ford and countless others like him were able to accept and justify the Holocaust as a “reasonable” response to the “Jewish world conspiracy.”  Hundreds of thousands of Communist sympathizers accepted the mass murder of millions of innocents once they had convinced themselves that the victims were “bourgeoisie.” 

 

Meanwhile, the mayhem continues.  It will not end until we are able to understand ourselves, grasp the nature of our behavior, and finally undertake a conscious effort to control it.  We cannot make our predispositions disappear, because they are every bit as much a part of us as our arms, legs and other physical characteristics.  Evolution has hard wired them in our brains.  As a result, we must belong to in-groups, and we require out-groups to serve as the evil enemy.  If one in-group no longer serves, and begins to disappear, another invariably emerges to fill the vacuum, as, for example, political Islam emerged as a potent force in the world following the demise of Communism. 

 

What is to be done?  First, we must understand the nature of in-group/out-group behavior, and grasp its immense significance.  We must begin to see clearly the decisive and destructive role it has played in our history.  The solution will certainly be easier once we understand that we are all potential victims, and that we are all threatened, and that we ourselves, and not just the “others” might easily belong to the next out-group slated for mass slaughter. 

 

It will also behoove us to devote every effort to understanding the function of our own brains at the most fundamental level.  We must seek to explain the physical basis, not only of in-group/out-group behavior but of human morality and all the rest of the emotions that shape our behavior, our perceptions, and our relationships so decisively.   We face no scientific challenge more grand than this.  Our survival as a species may well depend on our ability to find the answers we seek.