The biological instability of social equilibria

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Popko Peter van der Molen

In: Evolutionary perspectives on competition, cooperation, violence and warfare

Edited by J. van der Dennen and V. Falger

Published in Sociobiology and Conflict, 1st ed. 1990, ISBN 0 412 33770 3 (HB)


The writing of this chapter has been supported by a grant of the ANO foundation. Comments and criticism from Michael Kirton, Vernon Reynolds and Robin Dunbar were of great help to improve this text, which is not to imply that they are responsible for any flaws in the basic line of argumentation defended here. The help of Ben Hoffschulte in refining and presenting this text is also gratefully acknowledged. --- PPvdM

The Sociobiology of Conflict was the topic of the ninth meeting of the European Sociobiology Society, held on January 10 and 11, 1987. It was Michael Hopp's initiative to organize this conference in Jerusalem, Israel, a symbolic place in many respects. Thanks to the scientific and personal quantities of Professor Amotz Zahavi, from Tel-Aviv University, many non-Israeli participants were able to experience the naturalistic, geographical and political history of the country in an impressive guided tour which influenced clearly the presentations and discussion in the conference.

Without the hospitality and financial support of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute the meeting would not have been possible. The Institute's director, Professor Yehuda Elkana, and Mrs Rivka Ra'am, member of the Executive Board of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, in close cooperation with local organizer Michael Hopp, contributed very much to the success of the meeting itself. The Board of the European Sociobiological Society expresses its gratitude for this vital support.

In the conference itself Vincent Falger, Lea Gavish, Johan Goudsblom, Anne Rasa, Avi Shmida, Jan Wind and Amotz Zahavi presented papers next to those elaborated and collected in this volume. ESS Board members Jan Wind, Hans van der Dennen and Vincent Falger organized those aspects of the conference not immediately connected with the meeting in Jerusalem.

Finally, the patience and trust of Tim Hardwick, former senior editor with Chapman and Hall, and his successor Bob Carling, were indispensable for this book to be published. It is fortunate that in human society cooperation is not less essential than conflict. This volume combines both, not surprisingly.


This chapter deals with a behavioural mechanism which thwarts any systematic attempt to prevent and put a permanent end to conflicts between social groups and organizations. Essential in this mechanism is a certain kind of social-role blindness, a peculiar unawareness of what we are doing on the level of social-role interactions, whereby attraction or repulsion effectuated. As in Tiger's contribution (Chapter 5), special provisions in our behavioural system are discussed which prevent us from utilizing our intellectual and cognitive faculties for investigation of our innermost social tendencies. We shall return to these `no entrance' signs built into our cognitive system below.

Other elements of this mechanism are involuntary incrowd-outcast selection reflexes and a `trait dimension', which may be described as a `readiness to comply with a submissive role'. This dimension is correlated with a great amount of social behaviour and a small amount of thing-oriented, individualistic and explorative behaviour. It is, by definition, of great importance for the distribution of social roles and for the social structure in a group; it determines, for example, the likelihood of assuming or maintaining a compliant and socially accepted subordinate position. Knowledge of this personality trait dimension and of its effects in social groups and structures may increase our understanding of a wide range of intriguing and sometimes disquieting phenomena. These phenomena range from educational and organizational strategies to the often catastrophe-like collapses and turn-over phenomena in companies and other social structures, and from the way social roles and positions tend to be distributed to the resulting evolutionary consequences.

First I will explain why, from a purely biological point of view, differences between individuals are to be expected in any socially living mammalian species in the following situations: readiness to comply with a submissive role; sociability versus thing-orientedness; compliance versus self-will. It will be argued that the underlying biological organization must, from an evolutionary standpoint, be very old and elementary. We will investigate then the consequences of these behavioural differences on the level of social interaction. A lifespan theory of social structures and organizations will be introduced as one of the implications.

The first sections of this chapter comprise a concise outline of these mechanisms, omitting at this point experimental data and illustrations. The basic assumptions made will, however, be stated explicitly. In the following sections we will check these assumptions against experimental and empirical data from biological and psychological research. Finally, it will be pointed out why understanding of the way these interpersonal differences are behaviourally organized (and the way our awareness tends to be blocked in these respects) have such far-reaching consequences; an increase in our understanding of the life cycles of social structures might be by far their most important result. Such understanding would enable us to map the processes underlying periodic catastrophe-like turn-over phenomena and to learn how to control their decreasing efficiency and violent backslashing on any level of organization.

Some consequences of living socially

Among socially living mammals, each individual is by necessity saddled with a conspicuous bi-polarity in behavioural urges