The modern landscape of political violence is punctuated by a dramatic, contentious, and conceptually ambiguous phenomenon: radicalization and political extremism. At first blush, these words conjure images of individuals, sub-state groups and transnational actors that operate outside the conventional boundaries of political discourse, are characterized by extreme political beliefs, and are willing to endure and inflict often grotesque levels of violence in defense and promotion of those beliefs. However, while many aspects we associate with this phenomenon are indeed historically novel, some may also be quite old, such as risk-taking, self-sacrifice and other forms of parochial altruism, which opens the possibility for evolutionary as well as historical explanations of these dynamics.

The evolution and history of warfare, or even political violence more generally, is a seemingly endless tale of arms races among ever-larger units of political association from tribes to empires. Indeed, it is the enduring intensity of this run-away competition itself that may provide an important key for understanding how we ended up with such large nation-states. As the political scientist Charles Tilly famously remarked: war made the state, and the state made war. Thus, while human ultra-sociality within massive groups is arguably one of our greatest attributes as a species, this virtue sits awkwardly and tragically alongside our greatest vice – our seemingly insatiable appetite for competition and violence between groups. For many centuries, the most visible and dramatic instances of political violence were carried out by nation-states, reaching a destructive apex with the development of nuclear weaponry. Yet despite (or at least in part because of) this significant leap in lethal weaponry, the incidence of warfare among nation-states has actually fallen dramatically since World War II. This seems to have provided the opening within which we observe the rising prominence of radicalization and political extremism.

In short, a new and important change is occurring in the history of political violence. The nation-state monopoly on the use of force is steadily undermined and upstaged by violence committed by individuals and groups that often transcend national boundaries and are driven by a heterogeneous mix of belief and desire. There is a growing chorus of research that seeks to understand and explain this trend; however, despite some theoretical and empirical gains, there remains no consensus even on fundamental definitions of core concepts. While the efforts of researchers and policymakers are focused primarily on recent forms of militancy (in particular, Jihadism and ultra-nationalism) that are tied to place and culture, many aspects of political extremism (e.g. parochial altruism) are certainly ancient, which suggests that insights from genetic as well as cultural evolution may prove fruitful.

We invited a broad range of scholars to respond to the simple but challenging question: “What is radicalization and political extremism?” The commentaries that will follow in the coming weeks aim to facilitate much-needed dialogue across the field on the promise and peril of a science of extremism.

Read the full series “Extremism in Historical and Evolutionary Perspective”:

  1. Introduction by Anthony Lopez and Hammad Sheikh
  2. The Virtue of Extremism is its Enhancement of the Ordinary by David Barash
  3. Extremism as Defense by Rose McDermott
  4. Why Extremism Isn’t the Real Issue by Mark Sedgwick
  5. What is Radicalization? by Sophia Moskalenko
  6. Conservative Extremists Are Afraid of Threats That Don’t Exist by Colin Holbrook and Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook
  7. Extremist Violence Has Its Roots in Morality, Not Ideology by Clark McCauley
  8. In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism by Zoey Reeve
  9. Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of Terrorist Recruiters by John Horgan and Katerina Papatheodorou
  10. Why Terrorists Are Misunderstood by Max Abrahms
  11. Why Religious Extremism is Maladaptive by Richard Sosis
  12. The Extremist in Historical Perspective: Lessons from the Era of Anarchist Terrorism by Randall Law
  13. Terrorism and the Apocalyptic by Charles B. Strozier
  14. Extremist Groups Require the Greatest Trust Among Members by Melissa McDonald
  15. Moral Rigidity Evolved to Strengthen Bonds Within Groups by Antoine Marie
  16. Sacred Values, Social Identities, and Extremist Violence by Nafees Hamid

Image: Oklahoma City Bombing by usacetulsa via Flickr

Published On: December 4, 2019

Anthony Lopez

Anthony Lopez

Anthony C. Lopez received a Ph.D. from Brown University in Political Science and is Assistant Professor of International Relations and Political Psychology at Washington State University. His research investigates war as the product of an evolved coalitional psychology, and examines the relationship between inter-group conflict and intra-group cooperation from an adaptationist perspective. Anthony also received training as a Research Affiliate with the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Hammad Sheikh

Hammad Sheikh

Hammad Sheikh is a postdoctoral researcher at the New School for Social Research and a visiting scholar at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict (Oxford University). He studies the link between different building blocks of human sociality (e.g., altruism, common values, shared experiences) and intergroup violence (including religious extremism). To this end, he collaborates with researchers across the world (e.g., Palestinian Territories, Morocco, Northern Ireland) to study populations with direct exposure to violent conflicts, such as active combatants. His work has been published in leading academic journals, featured in the popular press, and has contributed to briefings to the State Department and the Department of Defense, among others. He also consults on monitoring and evaluation of CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs.


  • Rich says:

    As I learn about myself and the big picture of human evolution, I understand that the Golden Rule is inherent and that caring feels better. Not just for my child, parent, sibling or group, but for all humans because I can easily see similarities and befriend them. Anthropologists find warfare to be a new phenomenon and believe not only that we were egalitarian when we lived in small bands but we co-operated with other bands- we created and shared peaceful group systems. Yes, cultures helped develop the symbols and habits of concentration to realize this, but only because caring for others felt better, our inherent compassionate motivation when taken up in our minds simply leads to stress free, protected living where we all cooperate and coordinate for mutual well-being. The beginning of this article, if one were honest, perfectly describes modern corporate-militarist hierarchies- “actors that operate outside the conventional boundaries of political discourse, are characterized by extreme political beliefs, and are willing to endure and inflict often grotesque levels of violence in defense and promotion of those beliefs”. The “extreme actors” it tries to differentiate are simply acting in kind- immature and narcissistic. It seems that modern cult-ures all became victims of anachronistic baboon hierarchies that silenced compassion.

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  • Peter van den Engel says:

    War made the state and the state made war, is a silly statement.
    Because agricultural land made the geography (state) which needed to be either protected or gained (war) and the people living on it did not migrate anymore and so created a continuous language. This is than the human state.
    As a state of existence (another state) it would be a higher one in organization than hunter gatherers.
    As a result they could be taken slave to work on the land.
    So, as you see the statement names only one state; suggesting which?: the geography, the language, or the whole state as a result of that (law? self consciousness? bad land, failed harvest? nor does it mention what it was making war about: civil war? the land, another culture? and for what reason? and for which state of what?
    Without defenition science is not different from illiteracy.
    One thing is certain: war did not make the state.

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