Evolution, religion and nationalism

The recent events between Israel and Palestine just reinforce my belief that what is wrong with the world are two things: nationalism and religion.

I highly recommend this talk, where Richard Dawkins talks extensively about the second topic, but I want to comment on the first one.

We can give some simple evolutionary explanations for the need to arrange a society around the concept of “us” versus “them”: nations are nothing but an exaggerated extended family. Of course migratory movements blur the identification between genetic relationship and national relationship, but there is still today a strong correlation.

It is easy to understand how protecting the extended family is a good evolutionary strategy. The more your family is protected, the more the genes closely related to your genes are protected, and thus any genes that enhance this capacity for cooperation will be selected in a world where competition for resources is fierce.

In the example between Israel and Palestine, the resource is land and one of the reasons why the fight is so destructive is that there is a strong conflict of national identity between these two peoples, reinforced by a strong association of these national identities with religious traditions.

Now those are the evolutionary reasons, and it’s then easy to understand the existence of the conflict and given some background, even to position ourselves in either side. But here’s a question: can we stop ourselves as nations from being moved by these forces, and should we? In other words, are there legitimate reasons for citizens of Nation A to feel that they are entitled to birth rights fundamentally distinct from those of Nation B?

I think intuitions will vary wildly here, depending on how close we are from the fundamental cell of the direct family. Most people would agree that a citizen is entitled to certain rights just by virtue of their relation with their parents, such as the right to inheritance.

Over time more and more of these birth rights have been challenged. In ancient Egypt the Pharaoh was not only the supreme Emperor but a deity himself. Deity was then an inheritable character. Until a few centuries ago complete political power over the nation was a stably inheritable character. Today’s monarchies are however not as powerful as they have once been, and the relatively fewer personal dictatorships are interrupted too often to allow for inheritance to occur.

So it wouldn’t necessarily be a stretch to imagine a world in which inheritance of property was also severely limited. But I won’t debate this further. The important point to consider is how we should position ourselves with regards to two questions:

(i) Do genetic relationships justify the discriminate treatment of people with regards to their legal rights? Do any relationships, and if so, which?

(ii) If genetic relationships do not justify discrimination at the level of national laws (with the exceptions of the laws that refer to immediate family relationship), then why should we treat people who are not born within certain regions or not born from certain other people as being entitled to different rights?

A possible answer to the second question would be that cultural relationships can justify that distinction. I am more justified in supporting someone who speaks the same language or has the same habits as I do than a random stranger. The distinction would therefore be not genetic, but memetic.

Yet, we can always return to the same problem of scales. At the personal level, we may perhaps indeed be justified in supporting our peers, but are we justified at the national level? Should we treat legal immigrants differently than locals? If not, then why are we entitled to ignore all the other people who did not go through the process of immigration, and if we are so entitled for practical reasons, why are we entitled to impose restrictions on who can be approved in those processes?

One can often find retreat on the position that practical circumstances avoid the possibility of allowing the free movement of people. A sudden surge of immigrants could highly deteriorate the economy, perhaps. But the only justification for the obsevation of those practical circumstances are, at the bottom, the maintenance of the different standards of life for citizens versus non-citizens. We feel we are entitled to maintain our standards of life, even if that means to maintain the poor standards of others.

Now imagine a world in which there was no nationality and no religion. There would be no reason for Palestinians and Israelis to hate and compete with each other, because there would be no notion of “Palestinians” and “Israelis”.  There would be no conflict between the arab “terrorists” and the western world. There would be a moral and economical imposition for all countries to develop and sustain decent quality of life for all human beings, and the strong reasons that move bombs across borders today would have disappeared.

In this world the problem-solving resources would be focused on solving the problems generated by poverty and war. Not necessarily for highly philantropic motives, but because they know that avoiding the problem would only make their own situations worse. Today we can avoid dealing with poverty and war because we speak from the side of the victors. It wouldn’t be the same if there were no sides to be taken.

The interesting thing is that this world is only a step away from us, and it is us, the western world, who don’t take that step. For there would be no difference in the world if the poor and oppressed nations suddenly decided to give away their citizenship. But there would be a dramatic difference if the opposite happened. And we are not justified in not doing it.

Now what would be the practical implications? Suppose enough countries like Australia, the European Union countries or the United States progressively relaxed their requirements for the movement of people? This would add pressure for countries like Israel (although I am not aiming at a solution to this particular problem. The time scales may be different) to do the same with respect to their neighbours, including the Palestinians.

Now, without intending to imply a position with either side, what would it mean for the conflict between Isreal and Palestine if the Palestines were forced to be treated, quite literally, through all the institutionalised proceedings, as having the same rights as the citizens of Israel, and vice-versa?


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