Niall Ferguson and the Amity/Enmity Complex

In earlier posts, I have noted the remarkable paradigm shift that has recently occurred in acceptance of the fact that human behavior, including moral behavior, is highly dependent on predispositions that are hard-wired in the brain. It did not come easy.  The concept of innate behavioral traits flew in the face of a good many cherished ideological myths, not the least of which was the myth of Marxism.  We have made great progress, but we have not reached our journey’s end. 

Not all the myths are dead.  Legions of psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, philosophers, and other “experts” of every stripe are still fighting a delaying action.  They will continue to insist until the bitter end, or, to put it more concretely, until the facts finally drag them back to reality, that, while some aspects of human behavior may be innate, we are only wired to be “good” and “moral.”  Once upon a time they told us that, because the “gentle” chimpanzee was our closest relative in the animal kingdom, then, obviously, our nature was to be “gentle” and “unaggressive” as well.  When it turned out that, after all, the chimpanzee is not as “gentle” and “unaggressive” as first imagined, and, in fact, displays some character traits that are distinctly politically incorrect, the hapless beast was tossed overboard in favor of today’s favorite, the lately fashionable bonobo.  The bonobo, we are told, is a paragon of cooperative behavior, with sexual habits that are in perfect harmony with the most advanced views on the topic.  In a word, we have made progress, but only partial progress.  Instead of being fully buried, our heads are now only half buried in the sand.   

All this gushing over bonobos ignores some hard facts.  Among them is the Amity/Enmity Complex.  As I noted in an earlier post, Robert Ardrey once described the Complex as

…the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside under the pretense it does not exist. The paradox may be simply stated: If the evolutionary process is a merciless struggle among individuals to survive, with natural selection determining the fittest, then how could such human qualities as altruism, loyalty, charity, and mercy have ever come into existence? If Darwinian evolution presents a picture of dog eat dog, then how did dogs ever get together?

…What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly (Arthur) Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years. But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.

…Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.

It does not take a mental giant to figure out how the predisposition to acquire such a dual morality would have promoted the survival of ancestral humans.  It served to spread populations out, optimizing their exploitation of available territory.  Ardrey has included several interesting descriptions of related behavior in other primate species in his books.  At a time when we possessed only crude weapons, the survival value of enmity between adjoining groups was enhanced by the fact that it was unlikely to have lethal consequences.  Times have changed.  Our weapons are no longer crude.

The complex is the fundamental human behavioral trait behind such “isms” and other related evils as racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious bigotry.  However, rather than admit something as unpleasant as an innate behavioral trait that might predispose us to be other than perfect angels, we have refused to accept the obvious.  The obvious is that the enmity half of the Amity/Enmity Complex is the unifying fact that explains all these behaviors.  Rather than accept it, we have instead experienced the devastating effects of each of these “isms” in turn, only giving them a name that associates them with “evil” after the fact.  Would it not be better to understand the underlying phenomenon than to continue on this eternal treadmill, constantly closing the barn door after the animals have already fled?  There have been many Cassandras among us since the time of Darwin, thinkers who pointed to the abundant evidence for the existence of the Complex, and the dangers of ignoring its existence.  One would think that, if the preceding centuries of violence and warfare were not enough, the scales would surely have dropped from the eyes of even the most stubborn doubters after the genocide and mass slaughter of the 20th century.  Alas, bonobos are still in fashion, and we’re still not quite there yet.

I remain optimistic, however.  I have witnessed the paradigm shift referred to above in my lifetime.  The other shoe will eventually fall.  Facts are stubborn things.  They don’t go away, and we continue to accumulate them.  The Amity/Enmity complex is a fact.  As long as we retain the freedom to inquire and to research the truth, it will become, like innate human behavior, a fact that is increasingly difficult, and finally, impossible to ignore.  It may be that we will have to beat the last, recalcitrant, “progressive” psychologist over the head with the last quantum fluctuation in the last electron in the last molecule in the final neuron that proves, once and for all, that the Complex is real, but one day he, too, will be dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world. 

Meanwhile, the manifestations of the Complex, countless as they are in our history, remain obvious to anyone with a mind open enough to look at them.  Besides much else that recommends it to the interested reader, there are many interesting examples in Niall Ferguson’s book, “The War of the World.”  For example, referring to anti-Semitic pogroms in pre-WWI Russia:

What happened between 1903 and 1906 was quite different in character… The catalyst was a classic “blood libel”, prompted by the discovery of the corpse of a young boy,…In the violence that ensued, hundreds of shops and homes were looted or burned. This time, however, many more people were killed… Between October 31 and November 11 there were pogroms in 660 different plances; more than 800 Jews were killed.

To the persecution of the “bourgeoisie” in the Russian Civil War:

The Bolshevik newspaper Krasnaya Gazeta declared: “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood… let there be bloods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible.”… Between 1918 and 1920 as many as 300,000 such political executions were carried out.

and, finally, to the genocide committed against the Armenians by the Turks:

Like the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, the Armenians were doubly vulnerable: not only a religious minority, but also a relatively wealthy group… In the mid-1890s irregular Kurdish troops had been unleashed against Armenian villages as the Ottoman authorities tried to reassert the Armenians’ subordinate status as infidel dhimmis, or non-Muslim citizens. The American ambassador estimated the number of people killed at more than 37,000… The murderous campaign launched against the Armenians from 1915 to 1918 was qualitatively different, however; so much so that it is now widely acknowledged to have been the first true genocide… the men and boys older than 10 were massacred… The number of Armenian men, women and children who were killed or died prematurely may have been even higher than a million, a huge proportion of a pre-war population that numbered, at the very most, 2.4 million.

Is it really so hard to see the common thread here?  Is the truth really so difficult to recognize and accept?  The damage we have done to ourselves boggles the mind.  One day we will learn to understand ourselves, and grasp the reasons why we do these things.  May that day come sooner rather than later.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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