The barbaric attack of Russia on Ukraine came as a powerful shock to many of us. When the war exploded on our screens it seemed incomprehensible and irrational. The wanton destruction of urban neighbourhoods very similar to the world I grew up in struck me as almost unbelievable.
Meanwhile, the narratives coming out of Russia suggested their dictator had become captive to an absolutist ethno-nationalist narrative with moralistic overtones that were being used to justify unspeakable violence.
The war in Ukraine has cast a shadow over 75 years of comfortable Western beliefs about civilisational progress, the universal attractiveness and eventual victory of liberal democracies, and the general superiority of the Enlightenment over tribal forms of political organisation.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine represents a defining moment in history for a variety of reasons, not all of them obvious. This is not only a war between competing political systems, values, and ideologies – the situation confronts us with profound questions about human nature. We have to consider who we are, what we are capable of, and where we are going.
Liberal democracies have created the most successful civilisations in human history, but perhaps we have become too complacent? We have accepted an optimistic view of ourselves while ignoring the less flattering aspects of human nature that have always been there and may yet shape our fortunes.
In many ways, we are trapped in the 21st century with palaeolithic minds.
A historical perspective
We should not have been quite so shocked by Ukraine’s situation. Taking a broader historical perspective, Russia’s aggression is neither unusual nor surprising. It fits perfectly into the pattern of human history over thousands of years, which is characterised by incessant conflict be it tribal, religious, racial, or ethnic.
Decades ago in a prescient treatise, Arthur Koestler suggested something was badly amiss with Homo Sapiens.
Koestler argued that human history is uniquely marked by incomprehensible patterns of gruesome intra-species violence and that this could only be explained by some fatal flaw in the evolution of the human brain that, unless corrected, would lead to the demise of our species.
The historical horrors Koestler observed are being replayed in real time on our screens every night. Putin’s regime fits Koestler’s fear perfectly, as do the religious wars in Europe which lasted for hundreds of years and led to the deaths of nearly 30 per cent of the local population. The revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment that inform our successful Western liberal democracies – liberty, individualism, rationalism, tolerance – eventually grew out of the exhaustion and despair produced by historic horrendous bloodshed.
In a sense, the war in Ukraine is about two conflicting visions about human nature.
What we might be witnessing (and not only in Ukraine) is the grisly conflict between manifestations of the collectivist, tribal proclivities built into our palaeolithic brains versus the more recent civilisational values emphasising individualism, rationalism, and tolerance.
Are we Enlightened creatures capable of managing our affairs without recourse to violence? Or has our nature been permanently shaped by the irrepressible tribal dictates of our Stone Age background?
Many humans enthusiastically follow the latter, embracing their deeply-rooted collectivist tendencies.
The palaeolithic mind
Tribal characteristics were shaped by evolution when loyalty to the group, belief in shared narratives, cohesion, and effective coordination offered significant survival benefits over chaos. Accordingly, evolutionary psychologists suggest that the human brain evolved, not so much to optimise the rational discovery of reality and truth, but rather to facilitate the maintenance of tribal cohesion.
Putin’s war may be seen as a warning for Homo Sapiens. One of the major achievements of psychology over the last few decades has come with achieving empirical insights into human nature, including the defining cognitive, emotional, and social characteristics of our species.
The picture is not entirely flattering.
There is plenty of evidence that humanity has universal and deep-seated tribal inclinations, cognitive shortcomings, gullibility, a tendency toward authoritarianism, and a predilection for moral absolutism which is readily exploited by politicians like Putin, Orban, Erdogan, and Trump. The same qualities are found in authoritarian left-wing populist movements such as Antifa, Black Lives Matter, Woke ideology, Critical Race Theory, and Cultural Marxism.
Intense group competition has been a defining feature of human evolution. Loyalty to the group presents survival benefits. As a consequence, selective evolutionary pressures shaped the human mind to preference this behaviour. The consequence of strong group loyalty is the converse suspicion of other groups. Discrimination against outsiders, the need to seek significance within group identity, and the desire for shared group narratives are all followup behaviours that have not (and will not) disappear – even with the rise of rational individualism.
Partisan bias (based on ancient group preference) is a feature of liberal democracies. There has been a marked increase in polarisation, both on the political left and on the political right. Research shows that the tendency for tribalism is ‘a natural and nearly ineradicable feature of human cognition… that no group – not even one’s own – is immune’ from.
In more autocratic societies, the result can be the widespread acceptance of what may seem to outsiders as consensual group delusions re-enforced by propaganda and social coercion. This is what we are seeing in Putin’s Russia.
Another feature of palaeolithic thinking is the built-in tendency for cognitive shortcomings in the service of promoting consensual beliefs. How could so many Russians believe Putin’s absurd narrative about Nazis in Ukraine threatening national survival of such an extreme nature that it necessitated preemptive war? This is less surprising if we consider that throughout history every civilisation has believed fictional stories that served the purpose of group integration.
One of the most important adaptations in our evolutionary history is the emergence of a symbolic ability to preserve ideas inside fictional realities and to use language to share information with others by way of telling stories. Shared beliefs improve group cohesion which is beneficial in small groups where communicators intimately know each other.
The tendency to believe brings with it a measure of gullibility that has always been exploited by politicians, advertisers, and powerful institutions. Even today we have a ready ability to accept fake information. Putin’s true believers are not so different from followers of other tribal movements like fascism, Marxism, or Woke ideology. There is a well-established pattern of cognitive distortions and heuristics such as the confirmation bias, the illusory correlation effect, fluency effects, the Dunning-Krueger effect, and others that are more likely to promote consensual agreement rather than the rational discovery of reality. Putin’s propaganda is effective not only because he dominates the media, but also because his message exploits common failures of human inductive reasoning.
Absolutist morality is where the values of the group become unquestionable and all efforts to promote them are virtuous and justifiable – regardless of truth. This kind of moral certainty justifies all manner of horror – including genocides – in ‘the ends justifies the means’ approach to politics. Moral absolutism offers certainty as well as significance to followers of various radical political movements.
National Socialists believed in the inherent superiority of Germans, Marxists believe in unquestionable virtue of destroying class enemies, religious radicals see nonbelievers as things to be converted or erased, Woke activists revel in ‘calling out’ and destroying the lives and careers of those who question their dogma. Moral certitude blinds us to reality and denies the legitimacy of disagreement and the need for open discussion, which is a foundational value of classical liberalism.
Consider the absurd slogan ‘silence is violence’ seen at BLM rallies – asserting that withholding opinion is morally deplorable because it does not actively affirm the group. Moral absolutism is often justified in terms of Utopian narratives that promise a glorious future for the group that justifies every sacrifice. The dramatic promise of a ‘thousand-year empire’ (Nazism) or a perfect communist utopia (Marxism) or Putin’s ‘Novorussia’ have a powerful emotional appeal that liberal incrementalist ideologies have great difficulty matching.
Autocratic leaders like Putin are a quintessential feature of the human predisposition to tribalism, and often become the symbolic embodiment of their cause. Traditional belief in divine rulers has given way to intense personality cults in countries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. They often personalise complex issues and ideas, making people feel as if their election solves existential threats. Leaders need to display strength, consistency, and an uncompromising attitude to satisfy the craving for simplicity and moral certainty by their followers. Disrespect for the truth is a common feature, replaced by the repetitive invocation of tribal narratives. Putin is not unique in this: Trump also lied repeatedly, as did Hungary’s Orban, Erdogan, and others. Followers concur, as long as the propaganda they receive is comforting and consistent with their views.
The Ukrainian war serves as a reminder of the powerful tendency for our tribalism to be too easily aroused for political purposes.
At the most general level, the dramatic confrontation between diametrically opposed visions of human nature – collectivism and individualism – will continue and perhaps escalate. The archaic tribal imperatives of the human mind shaped by our evolutionary past remains with us. Despite the unprecedented achievements of Western liberal civilisation based on the Enlightenment, we cannot be certain that these hard-won values will endure and be powerful enough to overcome our human vulnerability to evolutionary tribalism marked by gullibility, autocracy, and moral absolutism.
Which human political system will triumph? The outcome is by no means certain, but we can take some comfort from the past victory of liberal democracies over fascism and communism. The results of the war in Ukraine will either affirm the superiority of our system and our optimistic vision about the perfectibility of human nature for the time being, or it will signal a return to autocratic tribalism in an important part of the world.
Joseph P Forgas is a social psychologist and Scientia Professor at UNSW. He published numerous books, including ‘The Psychology of Populism: Tribal Challenges to Liberal Democracy’, and has received the Order of Australia for his work.
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