THE BLOG
08/11/2014 11:19 am ET Updated Oct 11, 2014

Why Is ISIS So Awful? Evolution, Ideology, Culture, and Sex

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Tossing prisoners into chasms, executing children, putting severed heads on display: In a region where brutality is common, ISIS certainly has made a name for itself. The militant Islamist group -- born of the carnage in Syria and Iraq, and led by a "street thug" turned charismatic leader with the stirring nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi -- has now conquered much of Iraq and set up what it calls a Caliphate. Its seemingly unquenchable thirst for blood and territory has at last provoked a U.S. military response.

So, who are these guys, why are they so awful, and how can we account for their success? Many are trying to find specific answers, a few resort to racist slurs, but I hope to get to the heart of the matter by framing the questions in evolutionary psychology.

First, let's dismiss the idea that we can explain ISIS by labeling them barbarians. If only barbarians committed atrocities, we'd be hard pressed to explain why so many Germans became Nazis or so many Americans joined lynch mobs, or indeed why so many of us relished the "shock and awe" that served as the opening ceremony for an unprovoked invasion of Iraq built on lies. "Barbarians" lurk in every society.

You can't pin it on a particular culture, either. For all its brutality, ISIS is hardly unique. The Taliban and Boko Haram are equally vile. But, as so many have pointed out, there is a common thread here: Islam. Could it be the religion founded by Mohammed that's at fault?

The answer is a qualified no. We'll come back to the qualification, but if Islam, or any religion, were a necessary element in the rise of a ruthless band, we'd be stumped to explain the modern champions of brutality, the Khmer Rouge. In just four years in power, from 1975 to 1979, they emptied Cambodia's cities, destroyed all existing institutions, and killed off approximately 2 million of their own people, about a fifth of the nation. Yet, Pol Pot and his fellow Khmer leaders were no religious fanatics. Au contraire, they were French-educated secular communists.

So what does it take for a such movement to succeed? Drawing on evo psych, I'd suggest three answers: a ruthless and charismatic leader, an ideology of passion, and a social context that rewards aggression.

Let's start with the last first. Animal aggression is a well understood adaptive strategy. It pays off in many ways, from hunting down prey for food to warding off rivals for reproductive success.

In social animals, aggression also serves to elevate the status of an individual, thereby conferring greater access to resources, especially reproduction, which after all is the ultimate aim of the genes that fuel it. Both males and females engage in aggression, but it is especially salient among males in social species. Evolutionarily speaking, it is good to be king.

Does this really apply to people? You betcha. As evo psych scholars David Buss and Todd Shackelford note in an excellent paper on human aggression, a study of murders in Chicago finds that 86 percent of killers were men, and 80 percent of their victims were likewise men. Of men who kill women, sexual jealousy by far the leading cause. Beyond dispute, genes drive these disparities.

Because aggression has often paid off in the past, in every human society there will be males who are genetically inclined to ruthless hyper-aggression. Some will simply become bar-room brawlers, but in a few aggression will combine with masterful social manipulation skills.

But why are Chicago gang leaders just losers who will wind up dead or jailed, while their counterparts in the Middle East emerge as al-Baghdadis? What have they got that we ain't got? Passion.

An ideology of passion, that is. The tried-and-true formula for a ruthless male with big ambitions is to fire followers up with a story. It goes something like this: "You are being cheated out of your just desserts by corrupt and disgusting leaders (or enemies), but if you commit yourself absolutely to what _____ calls on you to do, then after a time of hardship, everything will be perfect. Thanks to your heroism, we will enter a golden age."

Just fill in the blank with a) God, b) your country, or c) Karl Marx. If people understood the lessons of history and their own evolutionary legacy, they would not fall for this. But they do. Young men, having little to lose and much to gain by adventure, are especially vulnerable to such toxic ideology. Seduced by visions of a glorious future (not to mention the more immediate rewards of pillage and rape) they abandon all restraint. Indeed, atrocity becomes a bonding ritual. Showing pity for one of "them" can mark a man as untrustworthy.

Seen from this perspective, it is clear that Islam is just a proximate cause, an off-the-shelf ideology of convenience for ISIS, just as Aryan myth was the proximate cause of Hitler Youth, and French nationalism the prompt for Napoleon Bonaparte's armies. The ultimate cause, and the thing to go after in the end, is the deadly combination of charismatic, ruthless leadership with a toxic ideology of passion.

First, of course, ISIS must be defeated by force. The Obama administration has taken the right first step, and here's hoping others join the effort. In the long run, however, three lessons must be learned. First, as evolutionist David Sloan Wilson's research suggests, creating societies that offer dignity, voice, and opportunity to all members elicits pro-social behavior. It's the best inoculation against violent uprisings.

In short, we can't lose faith in liberal democracy -- not here, and not abroad. Yes, we blundered, over and over, in Iraq. We would have done better to listen to Peter Galbraith and partition the country into three ethno-sectarian nations (cf. the Balkans), but it looks like that's happening now. Maybe, just maybe, democracy will get a second chance.

Second, we have to distinguish between the ordinary cultural phenomenon of mainstream religion and what I call Old Time Religion -- the totalitarian meme that drives so much of contemporary toxic ideology. Islam, modestly interpreted, is as capable of sustaining democracy as Christianity was able to shed the Divine Rights of Kings.

Third, evolutionary psychology, nascent though it may be, should be taught universally. The better we understand human nature, the better we can nurture a peaceful, just, and prosperous world.

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