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Bringing “Geo” Back into Politics: Evolution, Territoriality and the Contest over Ukraine

As the crisis continues to unfold in Ukraine, important questions are being asked about how we got here and what we should expect next. Political science sometimes gets a bad rap for a poor ability to make predictions in a world of complex events, but building on some foundational principles, broad predictions are possible. In a 2008 Foreign Policy article Monica expressed particular concern about Russia’s maneuvering in the region; indicating that as the crisis in Georgia over South Ossetia winds down, we should next turn our attention to Crimea and Transdnestria. The premise of that piece was that Russia had been working for some time to ensure its influence throughout the region by way of old-fashioned empire building. But the key question is why certain places over others? Why Crimea and eastern Ukraine, for instance, and not elsewhere?

In a recent International Security article—“Grounds for War”—we outlined how evolutionary science might provide some foundational principles to help us to understand these dynamics. A critical factor is the qualities that inhere in territory – geographic spaces – and how people as individuals and groups relate to particular parcels of territory. Crimea and eastern Ukraine each continue to hold special import to both Russians and Ukrainians, which means that contests for their control are both vestiges of the past and, at the same time, are overlain with contemporary trends and interests.

Just consider the Crimea crisis, where factors deeper than economics or politics are at work. While researching her Ph.D. dissertation in Ukraine in 1992, just one year after independence from the Soviet Union, Monica passed by the Parliament building in the capital city of Kyiv (to Ukrainians, Kiev to Russians). Parliament was in session and various people were lingering about trying to get their concerns heard. One was a Cossack—a huge man in full Cossack regalia (it was August). In his arms was a basket filled with small, clear plastic bags. The bags were sealed with a golden cord and affixed with a waxed seal that contained a trident—a symbol of Ukraine. It was not the seal or cord or the bag that mattered most, but the contents. Inside each bag was about two ounces of what to any outsider would have been, well, dirt. But for the Cossack and his peers, these were precious; these were bags of Cossack landhomeland. He and his fellows had gone to great lengths to conceive of, design, and distribute this physical representation of Cossack territory. Cossacks believe it is their mission to defend Russian Orthodoxy. They claim Crimean Tatars as enemies; accusing them of wanting to steal land and build an independent Tatar state on the peninsula. As this particular Cossack understood, the root cause of the crisis then and today was not ideas or ideology, but territory.

Although United States Secretary of State John Kerry declared Russia’s behavior as reminiscent of the 19th century and therefore puzzling in the modern era, such behavior is far from puzzling—and far from unique to Russia—when examined in the context in which it evolved. From the perspective of evolutionary science, conflicts over territory are not puzzling at all, and show consistent patterns across the animal kingdom. Territorial behavior—what we term “territoriality”—has evolved independently across a wide range of ecologies and species, from the depths of oceans to desolate deserts, and from arctic tundra to tropical rain forests. This recurrence of territoriality suggests a convergence of solutions to a common strategic problem: how to obtain and maintain access to the land in order to survive and thrive. Humans are but one of many organisms that have developed territoriality as an effective strategy for maximizing “Darwinian fitness”. Understanding this basic compulsion towards territoriality shifts the focus of the questions away from whether people fight over territory, but rather why they fight over territory at some times and not others?

From a broader evolutionary perspective, territoriality exhibits three properties:

  1. It is widespread across the animal kingdom, indicating a convergent solution to a common strategic problem;
  2. It is a dominant strategy in the “hawk-dove” game of evolutionary game theory (under certain but common conditions). What this means is that no other strategy can trump it, and even more remarkably, this holds even when the costs of conflict exceed the prize at stake; and
  3. It follows a strategic logic, but one that is calibrated to cost-benefit ratios that prevailed in humans’ evolutionary past, not those of the present.

Taken together, what we find is that humans share a common propensity with other species when it comes to territory. Territory is usually worth fighting for, and invaders can usually be defeated. Furthermore, this propensity is common across space and time.

This is important because in the field of international relations, there are few fundamental principles or laws. The world map, however, highlights at least one iron law of global politics: human territoriality. Almost every inch of the globe is partitioned into exclusive and bounded spaces that are claimed by specific groups of humans. Furthermore, territory has led to recurrent and some of the most severe conflicts. These fights include those—and this remains a puzzle for many scholars of international relations—over land of little material worth or “strategic” importance. This propensity also helps to explain a number of empirical findings about wars over territory: for example, why they tend to last longer; are more difficult to resolve; and lead to intractable conflicts.

In “Grounds for War,” we highlight several behaviors that evolution is likely to have favoured in conflicts over territory, depending on the circumstances.  Because there are multiple returns to investment in occupancy over time, for example, organisms inhabiting a given territory longer will tend to fight harder to maintain their control of that territory (incumbency adds value). Following early work in game theory, we contend that defense of territorial control will likely escalate to violence because it is in the interests of incumbents to protect what they have: a “hawkish” strategy referred to as Bourgeois, from the French  “bourgeois” indicating the middle class, which enjoyed property ownership as opposed to the lower working class, which did not. By contrast, organisms prospecting or intruding into a territory, even one with manifest advantages in terms of food or shelter endowments, are more likely to withdraw when threatened by the territory owner. We identify this behavior as “dove” behavior; since an initially hostile or aggressive display is very likely to be followed by a de-escalation and departure. This “convention”—common across nature—serves to avoid conflict. Hawkish territory owners and dovish intruders are following the optimal strategy, as long as (1) combatants can cause great harm; (2) the costs of finding alternative territory are high; and (3) the benefits at stake are not too valuable. If these conditions are broken (cheap conflict, unclaimed land, or priceless stakes), fighting can escalate—in such cases natural selection may even favor the evolution of lethal conflict.

But fighting can escalate for another reason: misperceptions. Because judgments about duration of habitation or the costs of conflict can be complex (and suffer from misinformation or rival interpretations), what we observe across most species is often a mix of behaviors: sometimes both organisms play hawk, and sometimes both play dove, or some combination of the two. In an unusual, novel, or fast moving setting, even a well-adapted organism can make a mistake—deploying the wrong strategy for the situation. Again, humans are only one of many organisms who exhibit these shared characteristics regarding territory, but we are particularly susceptible to misjudgments and misperceptions because of our complex, global, historical communities.

In the example at hand it is not just Crimea that is a cause for concern. In that case, the Ukrainians played “dove” in line with predictions of evolutionary game theory—if the polls are to be believed, ethnic Russians were the territory owners. Russia did have a good (that is, longer) claim to the territory: after having occupied and controlled the Crimea for centuries, it was ceded to the Ukrainian republic only in 1954. For many Russians in the Crimea and beyond then, the sovereignty of Kyiv over Crimea is just as suspect and illegitimate as the sovereignty of Moscow over the Baltic states was to the peoples of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Eastern Ukraine, however, is more precarious in that both Ukrainians and Russians see it as their own. There are two perceived territory owners, and two hawks facing each other down. However, because settlement patterns after Stalin’s ascent to power favored ethnic Russians, the strong concentration of ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s east (the Donbass in particular) as compared to ethnic Ukrainians causes us to predict that the Ukrainians are again likely to play “dove” (either through government action or popular alignment). The truly risky part of Ukraine in terms of war is its western territories; where due both to ethnic settlement patterns and duration of habitation we would expect Ukrainians to act as “hawks” Unfortunately, however, even in western Ukraine, many ethnic Russians (and for reasons of state, Moscow) see large parts of the territory as part of an historic homeland. If there is a region of Ukraine that could spark a fully-fledged war, it is there.

However, saying this does not mean that war over this western bit of territory is inevitable. Rather, the nature of the territory and the different claims to it suggest that the “risk” of war is highest there. Other factors are involved, but the logic of territorial behavior piles on the tinder. We can state the risks somewhat lexically for analytical clarity as follows: (1) humans tend to fight over territory, and those fights tend to escalate to violence (hawks) when multiple communities perceive that control of territory is important to their survival or prosperity; (2) ethnic Russians and Ukrainians will tend to back down (doves) when either their communities have been settled more recently or when their demographic distribution is sparse; but (3) contemporary strategic, material, and political interests overlay the previous two by altering the relative costs of acquiring, maintaining, or ceding control of territory. It is not only a matter of perceived ownership, but a matter of power to enforce it.

In sum, our contribution is adding the first layer, which helps resolve the puzzle over why so many conflicts over territory escalate to violence as opposed to conflicts over other important issues affecting a given community’s survival, prosperity, and security. Crimea is a flashpoint not because Russia is throwing down the gauntlet to the west, but because it is throwing down the gauntlet on what it considers home territory. Moreover, an evolutionary understanding of the importance of territory and the mechanisms by which species come to value it (via duration and distribution of ethnic kin, for example), help predict whether a given community is more or less apt to escalate its interests to violence over territory. In short, for humans and for the family, ethnic, national, and state groupings in which they find themselves today, territory matters in a visceral way. As Scarlet O’Hara’s father Gerald reminds her in David O. Selznick’s film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, territory, land, is special: “Why, land is the only thing in this world worth working for, worth dying for – because it’s the only thing that lasts.”


For further reading:

Dominic D.P. Johnson and Monica Duffy Toft. 2013/2014. “Grounds for War: The Evolution of Territorial Conflict,” International Security, Winter.

Dominic D.P. Johnson and Monica Duffy Toft. 2014. “”Grounds for Hope: The Evolutionary Science behind Territorial Conflict” Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March.

Monica Duffy Toft, 2008.“Russia’s Recipe for Empire,” Foreign Policy, September 2.

Monica Duffy Toft, 2003. The Geography of Ethnic Violence, Princeton University Press.

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  1. O.Voron says:

    Isn’t it amazing that scholars like Dominic Johnson and Monica Duffy Toft have to defend the very idea that territory does matter in international conflicts and need to remind that animals, too, care about territory? John Kerry pretends to be puzzled, although any Dinka and any Nuer in South Sudan easily understands what it is all about. To say nothing about China and Japan, Israel and Palestinian Arabs and many others locked in territorial conflicts.

    One note:
    “Crimea …. was ceded to the Ukrainian republic only in 1954.” Crimea was not ‘ceded’, it was gifted on a whim by Nikita Khrushchev as a token of ‘eternal friendship’ between Russia and Ukraine:))) The whole procedure of administrative transfer from the Russian republic to the Ukrainian republic was not done according to the law, but the Soviets didn’t care. Of course, nobody asked Crimeans whether they wanted to be part of Ukraine instead of Russia (they didn’t).

    When I see today Ukrainian internet exploding with glee celebrating ‘well done steaks’, meaning 40+ people incinerated in a burning building in Odessa, and promising the same fate to the Russians of Eastern Ukraine; when I look at their selfies with these people’s charred remains, I guess Crimeans feel lucky. And so much for ‘eternal friendship’.