Theory of Evolution as a Theory of International Relations

Sep 14, 2013

Discussion by: shred13

Deas Users

Before I get to my questions I want to apologise for mistakes and errors I might have done writing this since English is not my first language.

Currently, I am preparing for my finals ( which would be somewhat between a bachelor and a master in Political Science. One of the fields I need to know about is the field of International Relations (IR) and their respective theories. Recently, I came across an article that mentioned the Theory of Evolution on a international scale, meaning that one nation's international policy and politics is determined by "survival of the fittest".

Does anyone know about some theories that combine IR and ToE? I would be grateful for everything, from articles to monographies.

If not, it would be great if you left a comment so I can get inspired and maybe conduct some research on my own.

Thank you very much


14 comments on “Theory of Evolution as a Theory of International Relations

  • A link to your article would help us help you. It sounds like a good cousin of social Darwinism, but hard to say without reading it.

    Report abuse

  • Well, the problem with the survival of the fittest is that the unfit gets shafted.

    While I know that it’s easy to associate politicians with witless animals, I don’t think that the theory of evolution is the best theory to relate international theory to. Maybe you should look at game theory and studies on irrational behaviours by Dan Ariely and others.

    Report abuse

  • 3
    Michael Fisher says:

    I agree with GOD ~ please supply a link even if the article isn’t English

    I Googled & found this book by Bradley A. Thayer:- Darwin and International Relations: On the Evolutionary Origins of War and Ethnic Conflict. Probably not what you’re after though & I’m not inclined to put it on my reading list because it seems to me that using the ToE [as one of the inputs] to explain the behaviour of groups of people is completely untestable & unlikely to be predictive.

    I think games might be more fruitful than ToE & more fun!:-

    1] Game theory in International Relations is a very busy field of study. It uses methodologies grounded in science rather than “just so” stories.

    2] Obama, Nixon, Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt [both], Harding & Churchill:- Poker players all, although Churchill was a big fish losing bundles of cash to Truman [life imitates art]. The carving up of the spoils of war between Stalin, Roosevelt & Churchill at Yalta has often been likened to a poker game & I believe a film was made of the meeting using poker as the analogy.

    I will leave you with a quote from the non-poker playing JFK during his 1960 run for president against Nixon:-

    “…the next President must promptly send to the Congress a special message requesting the funds and the authority necessary to give us a nuclear capacity second to none, making us invulnerable to any attack…. Only then can we get Mr. Khrushchev and the Chinese Communists to talk about disarmament, because having the second best defensive hand in the 1960s will be like having the second best poker hand”

    Brinkmanship is an important factor in politics & war

    Report abuse

  • Any theory of International Relations is but speculation. However, there is one fact, which was given to us by Aesop some 2600 years ago, “Might Makes Right”.

    Report abuse

  • 5
    pvanderploeg says:

    I doubt if one can apply evolution theory to international relations. Where is the hereditary factor? How do you envisage nations to interbreed and produce offspring? Perhaps you could view a nations culture and politics as a set of memes, and interactions between nations as the exchange of memes, some of which will displace existing memes.
    There is a lot of literature o memes, for instance
    and (mention in the wikipedia article)

    Report abuse

  • 6
    Reckless Monkey says:

    As stated above TofE is not particularly related to international relations other than in the broad sense that we are cooperative animals whose genes favoured cooperation long before nations were thought of let alone international relations. Any attempt to link the idea of survival of the fittest to modern culture is prone to one massive failure namely: that they tend to misinterpret the the meaning of survival of the fittest.

    Corporate types and any alpha males tend to see it as survival of those who are the strongest, most ruthless. However in nature while there are many species that this is true, there are many in which the passing on of genes is due to self sacrifice, there is for example many species in which the mother becomes the food for the children (not many diplomats willing to do that I would hazard a guess), likewise protecting young is high on the priority for many animals. How much do we really do this in international Relations? Really? Another example would be the sneaky F#$ker, animals like deer that while the Alpha and would be Alpha males are smashing their heads together the sneaky f*#ker goes around the back and has his way with as many of the females as will have him, what is the equivalent in International Relations in that? Other animals such as wasps pass on their genes by laying their eggs into other organisms which paralysed are eaten alive from the inside out (there may be some examples of international relations that are similar to this). Still other get by by looking like sticks which branch of International Relations does this fit into? Others by photosynthesising light, still others by shouting loud and high pitched and listening for echoes.

    All of the above can be summed up very simply, that which survives, survives, that which survives can breed and pass on the characteristics that allowed it to survive, as conditions change what survives changes and natural variation directs you in a new direction. But the endless possibilities that are tried in nature make International Relations look frankly pathetic. How much has really changed?

    As noted above there is no mixing or sharing of genes, spitting out new politicians or diplomats. There is not heriditary factors. Any resemblances between International relations and the TofE (by Natural Selection- TofEbyNS?) are superficial at best and rife for misunderstanding. If it was my assignment I would be writing about how ridiculous, in fact how dangerous it is to link these ideas.

    Report abuse

  • 7
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #2 by adiroth:


    In reply to #4 by ZedBee:

    Any theory of International Relations is but speculation. However, there is one fact, which was given to us by Aesop some 2600 years ago, “Might Makes Right”.

    Not even that. “Might means you don’t have to bother with Right.” Less snappy, but more accurate.

    Report abuse

  • I agree with some other commenters that Game Theory is extremely useful in the social sciences. There is a great online class in iTunes U (the online class section of Apple’s iTunes) from a guy at Yale that I highly recommend. The class is under the subject of Economics but there are examples for individuals, non human animals competing (this is where the idea of an Evolutionary Stable Strategy comes in), corporations competing, elections, etc. I would also recommend Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature for some excellent insights into what evolutionary theory can tell us about concepts like war, international relations, etc.

    As for your question, keep in mind that you can probably find any paper that puts forth the most outrageous of theories. Just because it got published in a journal or conference doesn’t necessarily mean much. The proof of that is the guy, I forget his name now, who wrote an article he thought from the beginning was total BS and managed to get it published in a journal on postmodern theory. I have heard people make the argument you are making but I have never seen any good evidence to support it. More importantly to my knowledge no one has even put forward a testable hypothesis based on that model.

    Also, when you say “survival of the fittest” keep in mind that does not mean “survival of the strongest” (or smartest, fastest, etc.). It just means survival of those that are best adapted to their environment. In the early days of evolutionary thinking there were a lot of people who misunderstood this and thought that evolution meant some general direction of improvement, that organisms are always in some abstract sense getting “better” via evolution, but people like Prof. Dawkins demonstrated that such is not the case. Its just about being better adapted to your environment which could sometimes mean being slower, dumber, and weaker but requiring less food for example.

    Report abuse

  • 9
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #8 by Red Dog:

    The proof of that is the guy, I forget his name now, who wrote an article he thought from the beginning was total BS and managed to get it published in a journal on postmodern theory.

    You mean Alan Sokal?

    Also, when you say “survival of the fittest” keep in mind that does not mean “survival of the strongest” (or smartest, fastest, etc.)

    I’m intrigued by the suggestion that Social Darwinism be renamed Social Spenserism, since it was Herbert Spenser, a colleague of Darwin’s, that both came up with the phrase “Survival of the fittest” and was among the first few to apply it to political matters. That boat might have already sailed, but at least it would make it harder to force the “evolution = Social Darwinism” myth.

    Report abuse

  • 10
    Red Dog says:

    One more point. Any theory that claims nations follow a model of evolution by natural selection needs to demonstrate that nations (like genes) are replicators. A replicator is essential for any such theory. In evolution the replicator is the gene. Genes are constantly making copies of themselves. These copies are usually high fidelity copies, i.e., each copy has a lot of similarity to the gene that created it. But there are minor changes due to mutations. Usually these mutations are non-adaptive and the mutation dies out but occasionally the mutation is a better adaptation and the mutated gene thrives. As far as I can see there is no such concept with nations. Nations don’t make copies of themselves. Any theory that wants to claim nations have a kind of natural selection needs to explain: 1) what is the replicator in this analogy? 2) The replicator must be mostly high fidelity, i.e. each copy has a strong resemblance to the original and 3) There must be minor random changes to the replicator.

    BTW, this is also a challenge for Dawkins’ own Meme theory. Some social scientists (e.g. Scott Atran) claim that memes don’t replicate with high fidelity, that when a meme spreads it is as likely as not to mutate in extreme ways and often is not at all similar to the original meme. Atran has demonstrated this in several social science experiments: The Trouble with Memes Dawkins and others have a response to this which Atran deals with in the paper. Its still an open question with memes, although I lean toward Atran over Dawkins on this. But getting back to nations, if you can’t explain how nations are replicators the theory is a non-starter.

    Report abuse

  • 11
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #9 by Zeuglodon:

    In reply to #8 by Red Dog:

    The proof of that is the guy, I forget his name now, who wrote an article he thought from the beginning was total BS and managed to get it published in a journal on postmodern theory.

    You mean Alan Sokal?

    Yes, that’s the guy. thanks.

    Report abuse

  • 12
    Mr DArcy says:

    The theory of evolution by natural selection has no connection with international relations between countries. None at all.

    If shred13 is interested in the subject he could do worse than look at the Communist Manifesto, where Marx explains the appearance of nations, as we we now understand the term, as representatives of the local capitalists in a geographical area. Germany and Italy were relatively late to become nations in the late 19th century. Of course even within a certain geographical area the capitalists always have competing and different interests, hence the need for the state as the “executive committee” of the ruling class. That these various states also have different and antagonistic views about how things should be, is merely a reflection of the interests of their respective capitalists. There are plenty of American capitalists at the moment who do not favour military intervention in Syria. Also in Britain. Hence the vital importance for the capitalists to have control over the state so that it can do their bidding.

    As Marx pointed out, in the process of deciding which of conflicting policies to pursue, the workers are “dragged into the political arena”.and asked to side with the various different, and opposing sections, of the capitalist class.

    Report abuse

  • The only thing I can think of that attempted to apply Darwin’s theory to society, is the perverted idea of Social Darwinism. And believe me, you do NOT want to go down that road.

    As for politics, it seems equally incongruous. That idea has the stale moldy odor of colonialism.

    EDIT : maybe I should read the comments section first before repeating what everybody says.

    Report abuse

  • 14
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #13 by obzen:

    The only thing I can think of that attempted to apply Darwin’s theory to society, is the perverted idea of Social Darwinism

    I disagree with that. There are a lot of attempts to apply Darwinian theory to the analysis of society. E. O. Wilson’s work in sociobiology for example. Wilson is smeared as a Social Darwinist but I’ve never seen any evidence he is one. I don’t always agree with him, actually where I think I disagree the arguments are usually at a level I don’t completely get yet but people that I usually agree with (Dawkins, Pinker) disagree with him on group selection.

    And Pinker himself has a lot to say about social issues. Primarily in his most recent book The Better Angels but in other books as well. And his views are founded on Darwinism. Another good example is Scott Atran who analyzes religion using an evolutionary model. There is a lot of promising research going on to apply Darwin to social issues that isn’t Social Darwinism. Its just in none of those theories is the idea that Nations go through some form of natural selection.

    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.