Furthest Right

The Anatomy of Ethnic Conflict (Thomas Jackson)

The Anatomy of Ethnic Conflict

Finally, a scientific look at “diversity.”

reviewed by Thomas Jackson

Tatu Vanhanen

Ethnic Conflicts Explained by Ethnic Nepotism

JAI Press, 1999, $82.50, 370 pp.

Today, most of what passes for social science does not just ignore biology; it deliberately contradicts it. Among sociologists, it is virtually obligatory to assume that different outcomes for races, sexes, and even individuals have nothing to do with genetics but are caused by “oppression” or “injustice.” Likewise, ever since the end of the Second World War, the study of group conflict has ignored one of the most obvious and fundamental facts of human nature: tribalism. It has been the fashion to argue that groups compete along economic class lines and that money in one form or another is at the heart of every conflict.

Tatu Vanhanen of the University of Helsinki is a refreshing exception. In this very important—but largely ignored—study of group conflict, he outlines a biologically-based view of human nature. He writes that it is natural to our species to favor our relatives over people who are unrelated to us. Almost all people care more about immediate family members than anyone else. They also care more about people who are not immediate family members but who are genetically close to them.

As Prof. Vanhanen explains, from an evolutionary point of view, the theory of “inclusive fitness” explains why individuals are likely to sacrifice themselves for others who share large numbers of their own genes. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes just as much sense to ensure the survival of a large number of nephews and nieces as it does to ensure the survival of one’s own children. A sense of biological connectedness finds its ultimate expression in the willingness of men to die for their people in time of war. Prof. Vanhanen calls this commitment to one’s own kind “ethnic nepotism.” It is an extension to one’s larger biological family of the nepotistic preferences people show to close family members.

Prof. Vanhanen is brave enough to point out that the most obvious sign of genetic similarity is physical similarity; people who look like us are likely to be closely related to us. Racial characteristics are obvious indicators of genetic closeness, and one’s race is one’s largest extended family.

The presence of different races in the same territory is always a problem. As Prof. Vanhanen puts it: “I assume that the divisions based on race or color are the genetically deepest ones because they are tens of thousands of years old. . . . [I]t is justified to assume that ethnic nepotism leads more certainly to interest conflicts between racial groups than between other types of ethnic groups. . . . I assume that racial differences represent the most important dimension of ethnic cleavages.”

Race is the most difficult cleavage because people of different races do not feel kin to each other. Prof. Vanhanen argues that even many religious conflicts are between groups that have not interbred for hundreds or even thousands of years, and are therefore genetically separate. Religion, culture, and language can be sources of conflict even if they do not reflect biological differences because, as Prof. Vanhanen explains, the family/non-family distinction has spread to many different kinds of groupings: “Our tendency to favor kin over non-kin has extended to include large linguistic, national, racial, religious, and other ethnic groups.”

Occasionally there is conflict between groups that are genetically indistinguishable from each other. Examples would be purely economic unrest or insurrections to overthrow native but oppressive regimes. In previous decades when Marxism was in favor, scholars went to absurd lengths to argue that all group conflicts were class warfare. When this became obviously absurd, sociologists came up with the theory that ethnic conflict is a primitive vestige that disappears with modernization. As Prof. Vanhanen points out, history has proven them wrong: “[E]thnic interest conflicts have emerged within all cultural regions and at all levels of socioeconomic development. It would be difficult to imagine any cultural explanation of ethnic conflicts that could explain the appearance of these conflicts across all cultural boundaries.”


Ethnic Heterogeneity

Ethnic Conflicts Explained by Ethnic Nepotism is not just a theoretical treatise. It is an ambitious research project designed to test the theory that “the more a population is ethnically divided and the more ethnic groups differ from each other genetically, the higher the probability and intensity of conflicts between ethnic groups.” Prof. Vanhanen also set out to see what else affects levels of ethnic conflict. He wanted to know, for example, whether different forms of government raise or lower tensions, and if there are certain patterns of social organization that defuse group conflict.

To this end, Prof. Vanhanen first constructed what he calls an Index of Ethnic Heterogeneity (EH), which is a number on a scale of 0 to 200, indicating how much ethnic, tribal, racial, and linguistic diversity is to be found in a country. He also took religious differences into account when the religions were very old, and their adherents had tended not to interbreed. He calculated EH scores for every country in the world that has a population of more than one million. This is clearly an inexact process, since it is difficult to make precise international comparisons, but Prof. Vanhanen explains his methodology clearly, and seems to have made as fair an attempt as possible to rank nations according to diversity. The lowest scores are 0 for North and South Korea, 1 for Lesotho (a tiny African country established as a homeland for a particular tribe), and 2 for Japan and Portugal. The highest scores are Chad (144), Sudan (124), and Bosnia-Herzegovina (112). The United States has an EH score of 35, which puts it in line with such countries as Cuba, New Zealand, Russia, and Uzbekistan.

Prof. Vanhanen than constructed an Index of Ethnic Conflict (EC), likewise running from 0 to 200. He notes conflict is even harder to quantify than ethnic diversity, but he included such things as the existence of ethnically-based political parties, the degree to which national politics is an ethnic struggle, and the type and level of communal violence. Prof. Vanhanen limited his analysis to the period 1990 to 1996, and not surprisingly finds that Bosnia-Herzegovina gets a perfect score of 200—that is to say, it was in a state of full-scale ethnic war. Other very high scores were for Sudan (180), Rwanda, Burundi, and Somalia (160), Croatia and Afghanistan (140). Low scorers are North and South Korea, Mongolia, Lesotho, and Tunisia, all of which got scores of 0. The United States was at 40, pretty much in line with its EH index, and gives it about the same level of ethnic conflict as such places as Nepal, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Laos, and Uzbekistan.

Not surprisingly, Prof. Vanhanen finds a very strong correlation of .726 between EH and EC scores. There is a very clear trend: The more diversity, the more conflict. After establishing this point, Prof. Vanhanen looks into the countries that deviate the most from the trend line. Some countries have much more conflict than would be expected from their levels of diversity and others have less; Prof. Vanhanen wants to know why.

At the beginning of his research, Prof. Vanhanen theorized that democratic countries were more likely than authoritarian ones to be able to contain ethnic discord, because people could express nepotism thorough politics rather than through violence. In order to test this theory he calculated something called the Index of Democracy for each country, and plotted it against levels of group conflict. He found that as a general rule, the presence or lack of democratic government seems to account for only about 10 percent of the level of conflict, leading him to conclude that “the level of ethnic conflicts seems to be nearly independent from the degree of democratization.” Part of the problem is that democracy is usually found in countries that are ethnically homogeneous, where there is probably not much conflict anyway. When the EH index is held constant, differences in the degree of democracy do not seem to have much effect on the level of conflict.

This still leaves the question of which countries have either more or less group conflict than would be expected from their levels of diversity. The graph on this page is a scatter plot with each point indicating a nation’s scores for both diversity and conflict. Only the most strongly deviating countries (in both directions) are named, and it is interesting to note that the most extreme deviations are in the direction of unexpectedly intense ethnic conflict. In other words, it is more likely that countries with moderate ethnic diversity will have very intense conflict than it is that countries with great diversity will have ethnic peace. The most extreme cases are in the direction of more conflict rather than less.

The two countries most distant from the trend line are Rwanda and Burundi. Both have relatively small tribal minorities, and EH scores of only around 20. However, during the period Prof. Vanhanen investigated, both had gone through savage rampages of tribal violence that gave them very high scores for conflict. Prof. Vanhanen notes that Tutsis and Hutus differ physically from each other considerably more than is usual for neighboring tribes in Africa, and suggests this contributed to the savagery of the violence.

As a general rule, Prof. Vanhanen finds that former Communists countries and former parts of the Soviet Union have higher levels of conflict than their levels of diversity would suggest. This is probably because Communist regimes kept ethnic struggles bottled up, and they are only now reappearing. Prof. Vanhanen predicts that although Cuba has followed the Communist practice of suppressing racial strife; as soon as Cubans are free to express themselves, conflict is likely to break into the open.

What about the countries on the chart that have unexpectedly low levels of group conflict? Mauritius is a small Indian Ocean island nation that has a population very differentiated along racial, ethnic, and religious lines, but does not have much ethnic conflict. Prof. Vanhanen writes: “Mauritius provides an excellent and rare example of a country where ethnic conflicts have been mitigated by adapting institutions to the requirements of ethnic nepotism.” By this he means that the unicameral parliament is deliberately set up to balance the representation of different ethnic groups. It is worth pointing out, however, that Mauritius has an EC score of 60, 20 higher than the United States, and its score is low only in comparison to its EH index of 110.

Brunei, the other extreme case, is an oil-rich sultanate carved out of a tiny corner of the island of Borneo. It is a good example of why democracy is not always the best way to control ethnic conflict. Brunei, like the oil-rich Arab countries, is not a democracy at all. It has a very small number of native citizens and many immigrants who have no political rights. It expels trouble-makers.

Prof. Vanhanen points out that Arab oil exporters do the same. In Saudi Arabia about 40 percent of the population are non-citizens. They are economically useful—indeed, native Saudis are so accustomed to well-paid government and other make-work jobs that foreigners account for no less than 93 percent of the private-sector workforce! When it has suited them, Saudis have expelled hundreds of thousands of foreigners, so immigrants know not to make trouble.

After the 1991 Gulf War, Kuwait decided it was dangerous to have a large population of foreigners, and expelled hundreds of thousands in an attempt to establish a Kuwaiti majority of at least 60 percent. However, there are so many jobs rich Arabs will not do that and in a just a few years, the foreign population grew back to pre-war levels.

The United Arab Emirates is the most extreme case of all; only 19 percent of the population are indigenous Arabs and therefore citizens. As Prof. Vanhanen notes, it is understandable that the UAE should have an authoritarian system: “It is abnormal that non-citizens comprise 80 percent of the population. Democratization would endanger the hegemony of the native Arab population.” Singapore is another country that has kept potential trouble down through firm rule.

Prof. Vanhanen finds that the data support a number of generalizations about what raises or lowers the level of conflict, and his findings are summarized in the very interesting table on this page. The upper portion lists countries where there is more conflict than would be predicted by the level of diversity (countries with what Prof. Vanhanen calls “large positive residuals”). Asterisks indicate the presence of exacerbating factors like External Intervention or Territorial Conflict.


Click here to see Table 8.1 from this book: “Summary of Findings Concerning Various Situational Factors Connected with Ethnic Conflicts in 30 Most Deviating Countries in 1990-96.”


Prof. Vanhanen points out that when outside forces join in, ethnic conflict often gets much worse. He also notes that battles over land are extremely bitter, and countries may be inviting conflict if they have formal institutions that maintain ethnic inequality. Strong authoritarian rule can make conflicts worse—if a ruler encourages persecution—or relieve it if government suppresses tensions the way the Communists did. And as the countries with less-than-expected conflict show, disfranchised foreigners or a primitive population unaware of what goes on outside the villages are advantages in keeping ethnic peace.

Prof. Vanhanen includes in his book a page or so on every country in the world, describing the major population groups and conflicts. This is a very handy reference, and perhaps the only one of its kind. In it we find many interesting facts, from which a few generalizations emerge.

Many Latin American countries, for example, show lower levels of group conflict than one would expect, given their large Indian populations. This is because whites and mestizos exclude Indians completely from politics, and keep them on the margins of society. In Bolivia, for example, 60 percent of the population are Indians, but have no power. Prof. Vanhanen thinks it inevitable that there will be a political awakening of Indians, and sees the 1994 Chiapas rebellion in Mexico as a sign of things to come. Some Latin American countries will not have to face this problem. Costa Rica and Uruguay, for example, solved their Indian problems rather brutally many years ago. The Uruguayans deliberately exterminated the natives in the 19th century, and the Indians in Costa Rica were so warlike they would not live peaceably with Europeans and had to be eliminated.

Prof. Vanhanen finds that miscegenation can take the edge off ethnic conflict. He offers Brazil as an example of extensive interbreeding that dilutes racial boundaries that would otherwise be much sharper.

Like Latin America, Africa often has lower levels of group conflict than one would expect because so many Africans are isolated subsistence farmers. Prof. Vanhanen offers an example: “Because of Burkina Faso’s extremely low level of socioeconomic development and literacy (18%), national politics does not have a significant role. . . . Contact between different ethnic groups and opportunities for conflict are limited.” In very poor, very primitive countries, “national politics is still limited to urban centers.”

If these countries ever do modernize, contact across tribal lines will certainly lead to conflict. Prof. Vanhanen points out that many African countries “are not natural entities from an ethnic point of view.” Chad, for example, he says is “composed of an accidental collection of very different ethnic groups.” There will be unpleasant consequences if these tribes ever become politicized. The first steps towards modernization often bring primitives into contact with people they find they do not like.

African countries that straddle the black/Arab racial boundary have serious ethnic conflict despite their poverty. Tribal differences may not break through the limiting nature of extreme poverty, but racial differences do. Mali, Mauritania, Chad, and Sudan, have violent racial problems that show no signs of resolution. Of these four countries, only Mali has a conflict score lower than 100, and Sudan, Mauritania and Chad are part of what Prof. Vanhanen describes as an outright African race war between blacks and Arabs.

Elsewhere in Africa, Prof. Vanhanen notes that although Nigeria has banned ethnically-based political parties, the parties that are permitted are often just a cover for tribal politics. He thinks governments should openly recognize the inevitability of ethnic nepotism, and provide institutions for its expression rather try to suppress it. He also makes the interesting observation that Africans who follow tribal fetishistic practices rarely have religious conflicts. It is Africans who have adopted the imported religions—Christianity and Islam—who regularly slaughter each other. Finally, he notes that although Madagascar is close to the coast of Africa, it was originally settled about 1,000 years ago by Southeast Asians who sailed across the Indian Ocean rather than by blacks, who were incapable of sailing over the horizon.

Even about Europe Prof. Vanhanen offers interesting insights. He points out that the presence of so many Russians is a constant source of tension in the successor states of the Soviet Union. In the more European of these countries, assimilation is not completely out of the question, but in Central Asian countries it is likely to be impossible.

Switzerland has always been an interesting anomaly: racially united but linguistically divided. The country has largely avoided conflict by giving a great deal of autonomy to the cantons, which are linguistically homogeneous. The most recent serious conflict was resolved in 1978, with the separation of the Jura region from Berne Canton. This gave the French-speaking Catholics of Jura independence from what had been domination by German-speaking Protestants. Separation was found to be the best solution.

The European conflicts Prof. Vanhanen finds most ominous are imported ones: “In Western Europe, where native populations are ethnically relatively homogeneous, principal ethnic conflicts take place between natives and non-European immigrants. Because the pressure of immigration from poor parts of the world to Western Europe is continually increasing, it is reasonable to expect that these conflicts will increase rather than decrease in the future.”

Prof. Vanhanen is refreshingly candid about the desirability of “civilized divorce,” or partition. He believes assimilation across racial lines is almost always impossible, and suggests the black/Arab war in the Sahara would be best solved by separation. He also considers Nigeria, Congo and Afghanistan to be ungovernable as unitary states. Even for the United States, he calmly predicts rising white consciousness in the face of increasing non-white demands, and suggests partition may be an option. He emphasizes that homogeneous nation-states are the most stable because citizens feel they are part of a kinship group.

If countries with diverse populations do not want to be broken up, Prof. Vanhanen suggests they should establish conscious power-sharing mechanisms that recognize tribal and ethnic loyalties. Where groups are living in compact areas there should be federalism with broad local autonomy. If populations are mixed, the best solutions are likely to involve ethnic political parties and some formal method to ensure proportionate ethnic representation in government. He offers Lebanon as a rare example of a country that formalized power-sharing between Muslims and Christians. Lebanon has been wracked with violence but more of its sufferings have been imported than internal.


Diversity is Not Our Strength

The most obvious lesson of this book is that diversity is not a strength. The idea that it is a strength is so obviously stupid that only very intelligent people could possibly convince themselves it is true. The European nations of the world, which are the only ones that have adopted this view, are only planting the seeds of future conflict when they permit large numbers of aliens into their countries. What they are doing is completely contrary to human nature (see next article) and without precedent in the history of the world.

Prof. Vanhanen’s great achievement is to have set aside the mythology about diversity, and to have followed a research plan that accepts the biological basis of human behavior rather than fight it. His book is a model of realistic social science and, no doubt for this very reason, has been so diligently ignored by those who could most benefit from it.


[American Renaissance, Vol. 13, No. 6, June 2002]


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