The postmortems of the June outbreak of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan continue. As usual, they are full of as many proximate causes as you please, and ignore the ultimate cause: the Amity/Enmity Complex. Briefly put, it is our innate tendency to categorize others of our species into in-groups and out-groups, favoring the former and hating and despising the latter. As the great anatomist and anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith put it, “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.” Elaborating on the significance of the phenomenon, the great and now forgotten Robert Ardrey wrote, “What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly 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.” The “falsehood” he referred to was, of course, the prevailing orthodoxy of his day that there was no such thing as innate human nature.
Since he wrote those words we have made great progress in the behavioral sciences. The role of the innate in our behavior is commonly recognized and heavily researched. In spite of that, we somehow continue to fail to “grasp our contemporary predicament.” We’ve finally begun to look at ourselves in the mirror, but have a persistent inability to focus on the blemishes. Thus, even as hundreds of papers are published about our innate fairness, altruism, and the other “kind” aspects of our behavior that we reserve for in-groups, when it comes to analyzing and understanding the consequences of our behavioral predispositions relating to out-groups, our heads are almost as firmly buried in the sand as they were decades ago. As each new Kyrgyzstan pops up on the radar screen, in spite of the constant, dreary repetition of the same phenomenon over and over and over again throughout our history, we paradoxically act as if we’d been blindsided. We cast about for good guys and bad guys, come up with all kinds of proximate causes in the form of good sounding explanations, and resolutely, firmly, and blindly refuse to recognize the ultimate cause; the Complex.
It is the ultimate cause of racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. It is the ultimate cause of religious bigotry, class hatred, ethnic violence, and terrorism. Perhaps most significantly, it is the ultimate cause of virtually every one of the countless wars we have fought throughout our history. By our continuing failure to recognize it and take steps to control it, we are putting ourselves at grave risk.
Genetic determinism was the chimera of an earlier generation of behavioral scientists. In fact, there is nothing “programmed” in our behavior that we can’t learn to understand and control. Men lust after women, but they do not commonly rape them in the street. We covet the possessions of others, but we do not routinely steal them. We hunger in a society that provides easy access to food, but, somehow, a declining but still respectable number of us manage to resist the urge to overeat and become obese. Our continued failure to recognize the existence of the Complex and somehow find a way to similarly control its constant destructive manifestations is comparably dangerous. It is high time that we stopped pretending that each new Kyrgyzstan was something new under the sun, and started looking for a way out.