On celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden

May 8, 2011 | By | 7 Replies More

In the New York Times, Jonathan Haidt has invoked group selection theory to explain why so many people outwardly celebrated the death of Osama Bin Laden.  To understand why the reaction was natural and predictable rather than primal and boorish, Haidt pointed out that we are more than “selfish creatures, able to act altruistically only when it will benefit our kin or our future selves.” We often do function like this, but we, unique among primates (and akin to bees and ants) simultaneously function intensely at a second higher level.

This [higher level] competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. Bees, ants and termites are the best examples. Their brains and bodies are specialized for working as a team to accomplish nearly miraculous feats of cooperation like hive construction and group defense.

Early humans found ways to come together as well, but for us unity is a fragile and temporary state. We have all the old selfish programming of other primates, but we also have a more recent overlay that makes us able to become, briefly, hive creatures like bees.

As Emile Durkheim pointed out, humans don’t merely act on narrowly focused selfishness; rather, they are subject to emotions that “dissolve the petty, small-minded self. They make people feel that they are a part of something larger and more important than themselves.” Human beings can be knitted together through a benign “collective effervescence” that goes by the name of “patriotism,” which Haidt distinguishes from “nationalism,”

[T]he view that one’s own country is superior to other countries and should therefore be dominant. Nationalism is generally found to be correlated with racism and with hostility toward other countries, but patriotism by itself is not.”


Category: Human animals, Ingroup/Outgroup, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erich Vieth says:

    The words of Howard Zinn:

    "On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.

    Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder — one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

    These ways of thinking — cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on — have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.

    National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours — huge, possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction — what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.

    Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy. . . . "


  2. Jim Razinha says:

    I think Haidt's definition of nationalism is excellent. I cannot tell you how many times I was stunned to read (while in Korea) of the "unpatriotic" criticism of the 2001-2009 administration, rather, un-nationalistic criticism. Haidt has it right.

    Zinn was not without his own critics, but I happened to like his People's History of the United States.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Jim: I almost randomly picked up a copy of Zinn's People's History at the age of 20 at a book fair–it was quite a ride. It dramatically changed the way I thought about the stories I heard from official sources like school history books and claims by politicians. At the end of the book, I lost him, but the stories up to that point were almost explosive. Yes, I thought, why aren't we studying typical people? Why are we focusing on wars and coronations?

  4. Mike M. says:


    Thanks for posting that brave and insightful article by Howard Zinn. Really great–should be required reading.


  5. Karl says:

    This is the third try to send this


    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl: When you send a series of links, they are more likely to get caught up in the spam filter. I've approved that earlier link and this one.

  6. Jim Razinha says:

    That renewamerica link is pretty funny. Maybe someone will host a telethon to raise funds to send enough aluminum foil their way.

Leave a Reply