Anglo-American Neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Conflict Theory

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By Sinisa Malesevic:

"It is highly paradoxical that the only classical tradition of social thought that gained a notable reputation for belligerence is in fact the least militarist of all. Often pejoratively referred to as Social Darwinism, the early sociological evolutionary theory, represented most potently in the works of Herbert Spencer and William G. Sumner, had a largely sanguine view of modernity. Both Spencer and Sumner conceptualized social life in a teleological and progressivist way whereby human societies are seen as moving from primitivism and violence towards complexity, sophistication and concord. Although Spencer coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ and applied a heavy organicist and biological imagery to the social world, his understanding of evolutionary development was Lamarckian rather than Darwinian. In other words, unlike Darwin, who explained evolution through natural selection without any set direction, meaning or telos, Spencer firmly believed that acquired biological traits can be transmitted to off-spring and that evolutionary development is destined to reach a final point, a state of perfection – an equilibrium. In Spencer’s theory, social orders resemble nature as they advance from simple, undifferentiated homogeneity to complex, differentiated heterogeneity. In this context, he identified two ideal types of society: the militant and the industrial. Whereas industrial society is seen as being peaceful, decentralized, economically vibrant, socially mobile and essentially based on voluntary, contractual social arrangements, its militant counterpart was the exact opposite: hierarchical, violent, centralized, authoritarian, obedient and socially immobile. Hence, for Spencer, war is a phenomenon of undifferentiated societies that value strong and concentrated systems of internal regulation as they regularly find themselves in conflict with their neighbouring societies. In this social order, military and society become one: ‘the militant type is one in which the army is the nation mobilized while the nation is the quiescent army’ (Spencer, [1876]1971: 154). The volatile social environment with intense conflicts reinforces discipline, faith in authority, autarky and the hierarchical social structure of militant society as the central value becomes the ability to collectively defend oneself from violent attacks by outsiders. In such a society there is no place for an individual as ‘its members exist for the benefit of the whole’. More specifically, this is a society of compulsory co-operation where the social structure adopted with dealing with surrounding hostile societies is under a centralised regulating system to which all the parts are complete subject: just as in the individual organism the outer organs are completely subject to the chief nervous centre. (Spencer,1971: 159–60)Nevertheless, despite his general identification of militarism with pre-modernity, Spencer was well aware that the complexity of a particular social order is no guarantee of its inherent pacifism. A much better predictor was the presence or absence of external conflict, as societies that enter protracted conflicts tend towards developing a militant social structure regardless of their complex organization. Sumner follows Spencer in distinguishing between the simple and largely homogenous pre-modern societies and the complex heterogeneous social orders of modernity. He also posits natural selection as a key generator of social change which in the social world is identified with unconstrained autonomy of action: ‘if there is real liberty, a natural selection results; but if there is social prejudice, monopoly, privilege, orthodoxy, tradition, popular delusion...selection does not occur’ (Sumner, 1911: 222). Summer too understands war through the biological metaphor of ‘competition of life’, arguing that unlike the struggle for existence which arises from the individual’s instinct of survival, the competition of life is a group phenomenon that separates a ‘we group’ from antagonistic outsiders. In his view, it is ‘the competition of life’ that ‘makes war’ (p. 209).Similar to Spencer, he envisages the emergence of militancy in the context of group polarization. He coined the concept of ethnocentrism to explain the link between thein-group’s sense of innate superiority and the resulting hostility towards out-groups. However, Sumner’s focus here is not psychological but sociological as he explains the phenomenon of in-group homogeneity through the intensity of out-group conflict: ‘the exigencies of war with outsiders are what makes peace inside’ and ‘these exigencies also make government and law in the in-group’ (Sumner, 1906: 12). In other words, war and peace are dialectically linked as internal cohesion and amity are dependent on external conflict, and vice versa. More specifically, the proximity and strength of the enemy directly determine the magnitude of warfare: ‘The closer the neighbours, the stronger they are, the intenser is the warfare, and the intenser is the internal organisation and discipline of each’ (Sumner, 1906: 12). However, Sumner’s theory also differs from Spencer’s in two respects. First, he argues that warfare expands and intensifies with civilization: ‘Man in the most primitive and uncivilised state known to us does not practice war all the time; he dreads it. He might rather be described as a peaceful animal. Real warfare comes with the collision of more developed societies’ (Sumner, 1911: 205). The practice of war is linked to the naissance of political organization. Although conflict is a universal feature of human kind, shared with the rest of the animal world, the institution of warfare is a social product dependent on civilizational advance. Second, unlike Spencer for whom war was almost exclusively a destructive force, Sumner identified the unintended productive consequences of warfare in human history: ‘While men were fighting for glory and greed, for revenge and superstition, they were building human society. They were acquiring discipline and cohesion; they were learning cooperation, perseverance, fortitude, and patience’ (Sumner, 1911: 212). Not only then has war fostered technological development, scientific invention and educational advancement, but also ‘war also develops societal organisation; it produces political institutions and classes’ and builds ‘larger social units and states’. In other words, for Sumner, ‘war operates as rude and imperfect [natural] selection’ (1911: 222). This is not to say that Sumner advocated militarism. On the contrary, he understood war as both a social and a natural phenomenon which requires human remedy: ‘A statesman who proposes war as an instrumentality admits his incompetence; a politician who makes use of war as a counter in the game of parties is a criminal’ (p. 224).