I’m going to talk about Ukraine, because it’s on fire right now and because I happen to have followed its politics for the last decade or so. And I really dig a lot of Ukrainian music. Believe it or not, I’m going to relate the problems in that country to evolution. And I’m going to extrapolate to our own part of the world, with potentially dire predictions. So here we go…
The popular definition of evolution is “survival of the fittest,” an idea that brings to mind something like a big biological free-for-all that ends with one blood-soaked victor standing on top of a planet-sized mound of crushed enemies. Such a set-up doesn’t leave much room for cooperation, and indeed one of the big arguments against “social Darwinism” has always been that it leaves no room for compassion and social responsibility.
Everything in that last paragraph is, of course, utter bullshit. Cooperation is abundant in nature, and we can show that it can evolve under a strictly Darwinian regime of natural selection. Briefly, we have Hamilton’s Rule, which gives a mathematical proof that “altruistic” or self-sacrificing behavior can be selected when the recipients of the sacrifice are close relatives of the altruist. This phenomenon, known as “kin selection”, is the source of the quip by the great population geneticist JBS Haldane that he wouldn’t give his life to save a drowning brother, but he “would to save two brothers or eight cousins.” Key to making kin selection work, though, is the ability of a population to restrict access to the fruits of cooperation to close relatives, or else the invasion of non-cooperating “cheaters” will crush the cooperators leading to a “tragedy of the commons” that, in extreme circumstances, can lead to the extinction of the entire population.
I’m going to take the controversial stand here that kin selection can be applied to human politics and can even predict what kind of government will preside in a given country.
My guess is that about half of you just developed an angry puckered up expression and are getting ready to start prattling about racism and xenophobia or whatever you people believe in. You’re thinking, “ASD, You’re about to say that societies will fall apart if they don’t keep out foreigners, or maintain racial purity, etc etc.” Well, you’re partly right. In order for a civilization to function, the huge majority of citizens have to agree to sublimate their individual interests in dozens of ways in order to facilitate the advancement of the civilization as a whole. They also have to agree that some authority — a government — is legitimately empowered to tell them what sacrifices they need to make. In the old days, when governments presided over smallish tribes of mostly related people, this was non-controversial – the sacrifice of one individual for his or her extended family makes intuitive sense, but it also makes mathematical sense in terms of kin selection. As societies grew, the importance of close biological kinship diminished, and cultural kinship – religion, language, tradition, all of which are transmitted from one generation to the next in a genetic-like manner – became more important. In both cases, however, societies could demand sacrifice because the citizenry perceived itself as being related one to another and to the presiding authority, and so the recipients of the benefits of one’s sacrifice could be expected to “return the favor” for you or your relatives at some later date. Thus, kin selection favored cooperation in these classical civilizations. I would call such a culture, structured by genetic and/or memetic ties that favor kin selection for cooperation, an “organic nation.”
Another type of society that has arisen again and again is the empire. An organic nation becomes an empire when it attempts to extend its control over unrelated groups. This is a tricky prospect, because the unrelated groups have no incentive to cooperate, save fear of the conquerors. Fear and terrorism (aka “policing”) are inefficient tools for structuring societies compared to the self-organizing legitimacy of kin selection, and therefore the empire generally is a lot scarier looking than the organic nation, with seething hatred and instability waiting in the hinterlands. I would argue that the fall of empire can usually be explained by the dilution of the kin-selected nucleus about which the empire’s organic parent culture initially crystallized. Put another way, at some point a German general in the Roman army looked up and realized that his entire division was made of Germans, so why the hell was he out there schlepping a Roman eagle and doing what some Italian fop told him to?
Sometimes this imperial problem of culture-dilution can come upon a society without the actual military procurement of territory. This can happen because of mass-scale immigration; religious or cultural upheaval; or because of intentional manipulation by hostile foreign powers. In each of these cases, a society becomes host to a large population of people — a subculture — who no longer share sufficient relatedness (biological and/or cultural) with the individuals in the government to view the leadership as “one of them”. Thus, the government loses legitimacy in the eyes of the subculture, and once this happens, every sacrifice demanded of that subculture appears tyrannical, illegitimate, an undue burden inflicted by a distant, heartless, and alien authority. The degree of unrelatedness will dictate how bad this effect is; the more dissimilar, the more aggrieved the subculture will be, and the authorities are therefore likely to be more hostile. Moreover, there is no remedy – either the subculture is obliterated by intermixing or outright expulsion/extermination, or else it remains in perpetual conflict with the establishment.
The worst possible scenario occurs when the establishment culture and the subculture are roughly equal in population size (or the subculture is bigger), or when they are more or less geographically separated from each other. At this point, the ills of empire have truly taken hold and the society really isn’t an organic nation at all anymore. Civil society can be expected to break down, and only terror can maintain order.
Which brings us to Ukraine. Way back in 2004, Ukraine first came into the news with the “Orange Revolution”. This was the first of a string of so-called “color revolutions” that popped up in the former republics of the Soviet Union. Ostensibly, these were popular uprisings motivated by public outrage over government corruption, crooked elections, and so forth. Certainly that’s how the western media spun the whole thing: the inexorable march of Democracy into the pockmarked wastelands of Oriental autocracy.
It was certainly a grand time in Ukraine, and I have to admit my interest was piqued by their colorful politicians. There’s the usurper Yulia Timoshenko, a cut-throat businesswoman turned political rabble-rouser. Not only is she one of the richest women in the world, she’s also smoking hot:
Don’t forget her friend, recently deposed president Viktor Yuschenko, who blamed (no shit) the current president of Ukraine of trying to poison him with dioxin during the Orange Revolution. There are 50 reasons to think that whole story was hogwash, but the important thing is that it was the first time I saw Vladimir Putin portrayed as the Great White Satan in the Main Stream Media. Yanukovich, the supposed poisoner and current Ukraine president, was depicted as Putin’s homunculus, and Putin began his long descent in the Western press from the decisive leader that brought his country back from the brink of financial and political insolvency to former KGB apparatchik, fascist wannabe, and, apparently, super-spy-poisoner.
Ten years ago, then, there was a “revolution” in Ukraine that was portrayed as “freedom” vs. autocracy. But perhaps a better descriptor is “West vs. East.” Indeed, the conflict today seems to be largely between the Maidan crew, who want Ukraine aligned with the EU, and the government, who wants Ukraine aligned with the Russian bloc. If we want to be even more cynical, we could point out that it’s awful convenient that the organizers of the Orange Revolution – Tymoshenko and Yuschenko – happen to be natural gas bajillionaire oligarchs with a well-publicized beef with the Russian state-owned Gazprom natural gas industry.
Wait, what? A war between two separate groups of financial sector fat cats? That can’t be! It’s about freedom and blue jeans and Pussy Riot and gay people. Right?
Well, maybe. But take a look at this electoral map from The Washington Post:
Notice how the western part of the country overwhelmingly voted for Tymoshenko’s party, and vice versa, the eastern part voted for Yanukovich. That’s not really what we expect as far as cultural revolt goes. That dividing line also interestingly splits the Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking parts of the country. It frankly looks tribal – more Rwanda than republican – and it frankly suggests that the two halves of the country are fighting over which one gets rich off Ukraine’s gas reserves. From a broader perspective, we can guess that the conflict is being egged on by foreign powers who want to tilt this populous, resource-rich area toward Russia or toward Europe for reasons of Realpolitik. But importantly, for my thesis here, Ukraine is vulnerable to that type of manipulation because it isn’t a real country at all.
Yes, that’s right. This region, which has been inhabited by Slavic people for over a thousand years continuously, is not an organic nation. Ukraine, like Poland, has the unfortunate distinction of being a large mass of open countryside in between warlike imperial powers, and so historically has mostly been known because it’s where people from other countries go to fight:
All you need to know about the Crimean War.
If Ukraine ever was a distinct, organic nation, surely a century of leftist social engineering under the Soviets put an end to that. It certainly left behind a gigantic population of ethnic Russians inside so-called “Ukrainian” borders. So really, all Ukrainians have in common is that they happen to live inside historical borders. There is no reason for them to favor “Ukraine” over some local kleptocrat willing to barter half the country’s wealth for his and his cronies’ benefit. Indeed, the protesters are waving EU flags as often as Ukrainian ones. If there are organic nations in this fight, neither would appear to be coterminous with the borders of Ukraine, so any political solution will result in one nation being subjugated by the other. And so…
And so Ukraine burns, and will continue to burn because nobody has the sense to erase the borders and put some thought into where they should actually be drawn. Because admitting that organic nations exist is admitting that leftist social engineering is destructive utopian nonsense. Because admitting that at least part of Ukraine is really probably just another part of Russia would be admitting that Vladimir Putin is right about something. Because admitting that the Orange Revolution was one group of douchebags trying to screw another group of douchebags potentially invalidates the American Empire’s global program of democratic militarism.
In conclusion, I leave you with another electoral map, and encourage you to speculate as to whether the “non-country” imperial problem of legitimacy might be more widespread than the former Soviet republics:
Oh Yeah! Seriously, well thought out and scarily applicable to the USA.
Interesting piece. I’m curious to see what effect globalization enabled by technology will have on ‘organic nations’. I had a sense that Ukraine was a country divided, but didn’t realize it was so stark. Although I’ll concede there are certainly distinct regions in the U.S., I’m not so covinced it’s as absolutely divided as the media typically pushes – http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2012/.
I have drunkenly speculated many times about how the “global culture” of the internet will play out. My intuition tells me that it will turn the human world into a “well-mixed culture.” Diversity will disappear and most forms of voluntary cooperation will become untenable. Extrapolating, one might guess that a “well-mixed culture” will be so fucked up and inefficient that it can’t sustain a functioning global communications network; return to square one, 410 AD with scarier weapons.
I’ve seen many versions of the study you link to that try to suggest the divide in the US isn’t all that bad. The assumption is that population size is what matters; which is roughly like saying Tibet should shut the fuck up about being oppressed by the Han Chinese because there are so few Tibetans in relation to their commie overlords. In fact, I’d argue that your map proves my point: vast regions of the US that are culturally distinct but sparsely populated are forcibly dominated by massive, dysfunctional urban elites that despise them.