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date: 26 March 2017

Toward an Evolutionary Theory of International Relations

Summary and Keywords

The current practice of conceiving and examining international relations within the dogma of the existing dominant paradigm in international relations unnecessarily truncates our understanding of how historical factors influence current events and restricts our ability to generate flexible and creative hypotheses to predict, and perhaps more successfully intervene in, future events. In many ways, these constraints result, at least in part, from the temporal, strategic, and behavioral isolation embedded in these models, which limit our ability to understand, integrate, and address how states deal with one another comprehensively. Substantial theoretical and empirical purchase can be gained through the application of an integrated explanatory rubric of evolutionary modeling, invoking the central concepts of variation, selection, and retention. Models derived from evolutionary psychology, applied not only to human cognitive architecture, but also to the interaction of these psychological dynamics with environmental factors including institutions, provides a richly generative framework from which to derive meaningful and novel hypotheses about politics in general and international relations in particular. It also allows for a progressive and cumulative research agenda that can build a more comprehensive and descriptively accurate foundation for understanding the nature of interaction between people and societies as well as between states themselves. Such an approach provides a useful framework for understanding the dynamic and interactive nature of international relations, sheds light on existing limitations as well as empirical findings, and facilitates insight into areas not yet explored.

Keywords: international relations, international relations theory, evolutionary psychology, variation, selection, retention, institutions, reproduction, empirical international relations theory


Prominent theories of international relations, often referred to as the “isms” for realism, liberalism, and constructivism, tend to focus on parsimonious variables that are assumed to influence myriad dependent factors. For example, realism (Morgenthau, 1948; Waltz, 2010) assumes that power is the currency that determines the nature of relations between states. These models have become dominant in part because of their parsimony and their ability to provide insight into factors like power, or money in the case of liberalism, or social interactions in the case of constructivism, which matter a great deal to many people much of the time. However, as has become increasingly evident in a current age dominated by the destructive power of non-state actors, these models often fail to accurately describe or predict the nature of outcomes in the international environment.

One of the important ways in which they do fail results from one of their primary benefits: the parsimony of the models often fails drastically to provide insight into specific small dynamics within international relations, such as the origin and function of small terrorist cells. Few models in international relations attempt to examine the workings of the state through an investigation of individual psychology; Robert Jervis’s (2015) masterwork, Perception and Misperception in International Relations, constitutes the exception that proves the rule. This approach provides the critical insight that individual psychological processes matter for understanding state-level outcomes, even in the face of large institutional constraints. And such models often offer a panoply of psychological biases and errors in judgement that, while often quite accurately predictive, often fail to the rise to the level of an overarching theory of human action or state behavior. The typical argument for why such approaches have never been as popular or influential as the “isms” rests on the notion that parsimony brings rigor, while richness produces models that quickly become unwieldy. But yet this trope is not necessarily true.

Evolutionary models in particular offer both great parsimony as well as incredible theoretical richness and generativity. Indeed, models derived from evolutionary psychology in particular offer a hugely powerful, productive, and generative theory that can provide novel insights into the nature of human decision-making and how these processes interact with state structures and institutions. Models based on evolutionary psychology have generated productive and cumulative research agendas in many other disciplines, and can offer similar benefits to scholars of international relations if we take their implications seriously. The problem is that many political scientists are not familiar enough with these models to easily recognize their utility, and applications are not always obvious. Even worse, many people hold a distorted view of evolutionary models based on misguided notions of eugenics and other horrible abuses of these ideas from the past.

Evolutionary models are not unknown to political science in general. And they are often used in two, often conflated, ways. First, evolution is often used as a metaphor for a process of change over time. For example, in their book The Arc of War, Levy and Thompson (2011) examine how actors adapt to such features of the environment as changes in technology, military organization, and the nature of various threats. This sophisticated work examines the ways in which states and individuals react to the incentives in the environment. Because such changes are understood to result from conscious strategic choices, these evolutionary arguments are more metaphorical than biological in nature, although of course there is some element of both to the extent that those who are eliminated in war fail to biologically reproduce.

The second way in which evolution is used emerges from the non-metaphorical, more literal, understanding of evolution resulting from differential biological reproductive success among individual actors. Some work has been done in political science from this perspective as well. In particular, Hatemi and McDermott (2011) have explored these issues in depth with particular attention to their implications for political preferences, attitudes, and behavior, including political ideology. They have also written extensively about the implications of an evolutionary approach to gene-culture coevolution for understanding the nature and development of variance in political culture (McDermott & Hatemi, 2014b). And indeed, much of this other work has used insights derived from evolutionary psychology, as well as behavior genetics, to understand various aspects of international relations, including political violence (McDermott & Hatemi, 2014a, 2016) and leadership (McDermott, Lopez, & Hatemi, 2016). But as with the earlier psychological models put forth by scholars like Jervis (2015), it is important that scholars who wish to traction the generativity of these models of evolutionary psychology understand the comprehensive nature of the model as an overarching theory that can produce rich and robust insights and predications about a wide variety of important phenomena in political science in general, but also for international relations in particular.

To be clear, this approach does not adopt a metaphorical perspective on evolution, but rather takes a biological perspective. Again, there may be overlaps between the two ways in which the notion of evolution is employed, particularly if the conscious choices that actors and states make result in different rates of reproductive success over time, or within particular communities, but the key difference lies in the posited independent variable. For metaphorical models, this variable can exist within the arena of state or individual choice and action, whether conscious or not. For biological models, this variable emerges from differential rates of reproductive success and relative fitness over time.

So what does such a biologically oriented theory of international relations based on models in evolutionary psychology look like? Substantial theoretical and empirical purchase can be gained by invoking the central evolutionary theoretical concepts of variation, selection, and retention (e.g., Cosmides & Tooby, 1987; Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby,1992; Buss, 2004; Pinker, 1997). Such an approach provides a useful framework for understanding the dynamic and interactive nature of international relations, sheds light on existing limitations as well as empirical findings, and facilitates insight into areas not yet explored. In this way, it can produce a generative theoretical foundation that offers novel queries, suggests different kinds of tests and evidence, and establishes a cumulative basis of knowledge.

This evolutionary argument is discussed, along with the ways in which societal members emerge as political threats, how states and other actors might select targets to sanction, and how international behavior encourages the strengthening and survival of some kinds of groups and states and the diminishment or perhaps even extinction of others. There are limitations to this approach, but it can improve upon conventional wisdom, pointing in the direction of a theoretically innovative research program to guide the systematic study of international relations in the future.

An Evolutionary Perspective

The original theory of evolution by means of natural selection dates to Darwin’s seminal volume On the Origin of Species (1959). Darwin’s quite sophisticated work has been commonly equated with more pedestrian concepts and phrases that actually emanated from Herbert Spencer (1925), who originally coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to characterize his application of Darwin’s model to humans. In all his myriad writings, Darwin himself only ever used Spencer’s phrase once, and yet many commonly misattribute this simplification as constituting an accurate summary of the entire model. The differences between Darwin and Spencer remain critical for a proper understanding of the current application of this theory to international relations. Importantly, Darwin did not apply his model to particular individual units; rather, he was describing the process that happens to an entire species over time.

Attempts to apply these large-scale millennial processes to individual outcomes can lead to quite misguided applications, such as those that Spencer attempted in his discussion of racial supremacy. As a result, misunderstanding has plagued popular conceptions of evolutionary theory. Spencer, in an attempt to take on Weberian notions that privileged effort and morality in explaining outcome, argued that success resulted from the “fitness” of genes (e.g., Hofstadter, 1992; Landman, 1932). He used this view to justify the horrific sexist and racist policies that sought to eliminate those whose inevitable failure in society was already assumed to be predetermined (Hudson, 2015; Selden, 2000). Note the complete lack of agency allowed for any processes of social or environmental intervention in this view. Indeed, such a characterization remains completely antagonistic to Darwin’s quite subtle view that local ecological processes drove the direction of evolution. In fact, his voyage on the Beagle provided just this insight, as he came to understand that different environments produced remarkable diversity in how species evolved in order to accommodate to the particular ecological environments in which individual species must strive to thrive and survive. But, most important, Darwin never intended his notion of species evolution to be applied to the outcomes of any one given individual. This means, critically, that the outcomes of the processes described are necessarily, by nature, probabilistic in any given case.

Thus, the essence of this application of evolutionary theory to international relations concerns the interaction between human goals and decision-making processes and the institutions and structures that either enhance or diminish human welfare. Together, these efforts incorporate three main elements drawn from evolutionary theory: variation, selection, and retention or replication. The evolutionary model is introduced and its application to international relations is discussed, along with how this argument differs from other uses of evolutionary theory to relevant topics. To be clear, within this application, the notion of evolution is employed in more than a metaphorical sense. Although evolution typically refers to biological organisms, the processes by which entities reproduce themselves can be conceptually applied to other sets of institutions that change over time as well (Lustick, 2009).

Institutions are not synonymous with biological organisms, but the central tenets of evolutionary theory are applied to broader processes of international relations. This application represents more than an allusion, but does not require any anthropomorphic assumptions regarding the state or other important non-state actors. In this way, the powerful probabilistic odds that undergird selection pressure that takes place over long periods of time are leveraged. In addition, no assumptions about unitary actors must be made; rather, each actor in the system responds in accordance to its own individual directives, goals and plans. Those familiar with Adam Smith’s (2011) notion of the hidden hand in economics intuitively understand the process by which individual disorganized units can create, without central direction, a larger well organized holistic structure. Much like Adam Smith’s hidden hand, a bottom-up theory like evolution can explain and describe how unrelated individual choices in other powerful arenas like sex can lead to predictable aggregate outcomes as a result of relative degrees of reproductive success. When applied to broader purposes, reproductive can be understood in institutional as well as other terms. However, we would argue that institutional reproduction depends, in crucial ways, on the political as well as physical survival of the principal actors who create and support it. When such actors fall by the wayside, for whatever reason, whether political, economic, or for some other reason, the systems they create may fail to sustain themselves as well. In this way, exogenous shocks to the system that may be created by challenges and problems that could also be understood in realist or liberal terms can all fit well within an evolutionary model precisely because the source of shock matters less than the dynamics such environmental pressures put into action.

In this application, variation occurs among actors as well as between the local environmental contexts within which they interact (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992; Dennett, 1995; Dawkins, 2006). In institutional terms, variations in governments, regimes, cultures, and the like constitute the equivalent of natural mutations in goals, purpose, and function. Each represents different interests as groups and individuals compete in their desires and struggles to achieve power, autonomy, and success, however they define those accomplishments, but always with the ultimate goal of success in mind.

It is important to be clear here. In biological evolutionary models, survival is not about individual survival, for all mortal humans die; rather, it refers to reproductive success because all genes are potentially immortal. Similarly, in political terms, a given institution may survive the individual states or actors who create them, and that is why, in part, individuals wishing to secure their legacy want to create enduring institutions; one of the important insights of an evolutionary model lies in the recognition that institutions and structures that align more closely with innate human psychology, rather than fighting to constrain it in some way, will be much more likely to thrive and thus survive over time.

These variants are then selected by states or other nonstate actors, on the basis of some political, economic, cultural, or social reason, however arbitrarily defined by those who feel threatened. In this way, governments and other powerful groups choose which states to support and which to oppose on the basis of ideological, material, religious, or other grounds. The grounds on which these selections are made are not necessarily arbitrary either, being driven by forces that existing models drawn from evolutionary psychology can help us understand and predict as well. For example, evolutionary models note the historical important and prevalence of in-group solidarity and outgroup discrimination. Such forces may play out in the modern world in terms of different topics and threats, so that predators are now conceptualized as states that do not share particular political or economic structures and not large animals like bears, but the psychological architecture that categorizes the value of cooperation and the meaning of threat remain largely the same despite the enormous increase in size and the changes in our institutional environments from our history in smaller scale societies.

Here, selection is intended by those in power to reduce variation in the existing population of societal groups to those entities whose constitution is the least dangerous or otherwise most advantageous to the state, government, or ruling class; in a sense, groups that are most favored are those that demonstrate the best fit within their local political ecology. A state may select which groups it wishes to target or support on the basis of a variety of factors, which can be political, economic, social, or ideological in nature. In effect, sanctioned authorities designate support for those states or groups they deem advantageous to their own survival, while working to eliminate those that threaten them, or that they believe may come to do so.

Note again here that the basis of the retention choices, whether religion or ethnicity or something else, matter much less than the psychological mechanisms these challenges engage and the way such choices set particular processes in motion. Selection can occur as a result of the success of one actor or group relative to other actors or groups because one or the other more accurately represents the interests of its relative constituency, proves more effective at persuading others of its value and merit and can recruit more followers, or simply emerges victorious in combat as a result of superior size, technology, or strategy. Thus, state action can pervert a more representative or efficient outcome when it selects on criteria that do not reflect the interests of the constituency. In this way, some groups survive only through state support and intervention, while others wither prematurely. Here, too, models drawn from evolutionary psychology and biological anthropology can provide a number of important hypotheses about the nature of leadership, how leaders and followers relate to one another, and how egalitarianism can evolve in the midst of chaos and competing dominance structures (Boehm, 1999).

In time, winning actors replicate differentially relative to their opposition, at a cost in resources and members to other competing groups. Some of this takes place through processes again informed by evolutionary models, which suggest the importance of emotional entrepreneurship on the part of leaders for recruiting followers; the strategic use of outrage can inspire tremendous loyalty, improve group cohesion, and increase the number of followers (McDermott, 2010). By obtaining or retaining a disproportionate share of resources, whether material, social, or ideational, more cohesive and powerful groups survive, in part, by perpetuating the extinction of less viable groups. In this context, the relevant territorial unit becomes populated with those actors who are most like the preferred occupants of the dominant political elite, the alpha males if you will, and such leaders are almost always male. As with any process of replication, some political processes grow faster and with less opposition than others. Processes that are most in line with natural human psychological architecture appear to be those most likely to succeed, and those most in opposition to these mechanisms, such as the violent and corrupt forms of communism best represented by leaders like Stalin or Mao, will be most likely to extinguish themselves. Indeed, when we talk about a phenomenon as “going viral” we are colloquially leveraging this notion of rapid replication. When conditions are right for contagion to emerge, replication can prove rapid indeed, whether in the realm of viruses in the human body or processes such as the domestication of animals and agriculture or political democratization over the course of history.

This approach to international relations differs from both the structuralist as well as rationalist approaches in important ways. Regarding the former, the evolutionary model takes us past a simple structural deterministic logic whereby one configuration of factors, such as the distribution of military power, money, or regime type, produces a given outcome, whereas another configuration diminishes its likelihood. Rather, the evolutionary argument identifies the logic underlying challenges confronted by all government configurations. Compared to rationalist arguments, an evolutionary model takes us past simple static assessments of context with vague references to attaining idiosyncratically defined objectives. Rather, the evolutionary approach animates the assessments of context, infusing it with a clear yet parsimonious purpose. In particular, evolutionary models provide an explanation for the origin of preferences, and elegantly explain why actors choose the goals as well as paths they do.

Note that, importantly, evolutionary models allow, and indeed encourage, the possibility of strategic interaction among and between these actors. Without needing a central organizing force, evolution allows for the emergence of sophisticated structures through a bottom-up method of adaption (Holland, 1998). In this way, the well-established methods and techniques of rational choice and other simulation strategies are well suited for investigating specific aspects of the political evolutionary process.

Comparison with Other Evolutionary Models

This does not represent the first effort to adopt biological modeling to political issues such as political repression and behavioral challenges against existing authorities. Indeed, there have been several previous efforts (e.g., Francisco, 1995, 1996; Moore, 1966, 1998; Oliver & Myers, 2002).

Despite some important similarities in perspective, however, this work differs from these arguments in several ways. First, the argument about loose collections of social actors and social movements is extended to also include states and other non-state actors that have control over the coercive instruments of power. These models can be used to examine the wide variety of activities utilized by them to exert influence in the international arena, and to try to get others to do what is desired. Second, it is important to understand the overall nature of choices in the international environment, including which kinds of states emerge, thrive, and survive; what objectives they attempt to pursue; and what strategies they have learned to maximize these goals over broad periods of time. In the political arena, evolution proceeds, in part, based on actors’ choices. However, states and others who possess weapons serve the most important and decisive direct selection function, in no small part because of their typically exclusive control over the coercive weapons of state power.

Additional features distinguish this argument from the related and complementary one put forward by Oliver and Myers (2002). For example, to the extent that these scholars invoke the biological analogy of evolution, they are working off the “hidden hand” part of the argument, which notes the importance of exaptation, the development of novel structures resulting from the random and stochastic interaction of units in a bottom-up process of development (Holland, 1998; Smith, 1982; Cosmides & Tooby, 1987). Without question, randomly interacting units can self-organize into more complicated structures without higher orders of direction and can affect each other in this way. As noted, this argument is similar to the hidden hand model put forth by Smith to explain how collective good can emerge from individual greed in market economies.

In contrast, a somewhat different process is posited, one that locates a great deal of the selection process within the state. Oliver and Myers (2002) do not seem to speak to the impact of international relations on outcome selection in this same way, concentrating as they do more on the choices made by social movement actors, and less on those made by states. It is suggested that the survival of states in particular, and behavioral challenges in general, does not depend only on the actions and consequences of political elites, but also critically rests on the actions of the state to either support or undermine particular actors within and across those states based on their support for particular values, institutions, and structures, such as democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and so forth. In fact, culture and evolution co-create the local political environments in which actors emerge, flourish, or are extinguished.

This evolution remains distinct from the one typically found in discussions of natural selection in evolutionary biology or psychology in particular (Buss, 2004). This is largely because of the emphasis placed on the mechanism by which selection is determined by instruments of the state. Left alone, natural selection operates on biological organisms to differentially replicate those mechanisms and systems that prove most advantageous for maximizing the specific goal of reproductive fitness; strategies that enhance prospects for offspring’s survival replicate at a neuro-computationally higher rate than those that do not, eventually taking over the relevant systems and driving the most successful ones to universality, while eventually extinguishing those whose features lead to the demise of their possessors prior to reproductive success (Cosmides & Tooby, 1987).1 But make no mistake: just as politically ideology is genetically instantiated (Hatemi & McDermott, 2012), political choices can exert profound biological effects, with genocide constituting only one of the more extreme examples.

Through a biological evolutionary process, nature molds the biological organism within its domain (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994). Specifically, it produces organisms designed to successfully address those repeated challenges and opportunities confronted in the relevant environment. What differs in this model from the biological one upon which it rests is the active conscious participation of a self-directed actor, in the form of a potent political actor, who influences and directs the bases for selection and retention. In part, states, and the political leaders within them, actively attempt to interfere with otherwise more “natural” development upon which various other states might survive or collapse, not on the basis of success in obtaining support or resources, but rather on the basis of some other criteria, whether that be ideological, religious, economic, or some other factor, as determined by another state.

In this way, a model is presented of co-evolution whereby states and leaders respond to each other strategically within a particular ecological environment, constituted by political systems, material and economic endowments, culture, and other local factors, that defines, incentivizes, constrains, and otherwise determines their own and others’ prospects for successful replication. This model is distinguished from well-respected ecological co-evolutionary models presented elsewhere (Francisco, 2010; Garrison, 2008), and those that focus on formal mathematical equilibria (Roughgarden, 1983), because the primary interest is in examining and explicating the fundamentally political and interactive processes underlying mechanisms of selection in international relations. The relationship between co-evolution and evolution remains significant because it engages questions related to classical principal-agent problems. Evolution itself represents, by definition, a process that involves engaging with, and reacting to, the environment in mutually reciprocal interaction; here the socially interactive construction of these phenomena is the focus of this notion of co-evolution. Thus, processes of international relations are explored in a way somewhat similar to biological models, but distinct from them because of their application to the domain of international relations. In that latter case, state actors can take over and assume the role of nature in determining selection, consciously choosing which other states should be supported and allowed to replicate and which should be opposed or extinguished.

The differences between the evolutionary and co-evolutionary models discussed previously are important because in a natural environment, nature does not remain aware of itself, and selection occurs within the context of local ecologies based on which strategies prove most successful for reproduction given proximate incentives and distal demands (Hamilton, 1964; Barkow et al., 1992; Dennett, 1995). In the case of state selection, the actors making decisions remain self-aware of their goals (or at least they pretend to be) and select behavior based on criteria that may or may not be related to the accurate representation or relative political or economic success. Indeed, a state may choose to try to destroy another state or nonstate actor through war precisely because the opponent has become too successful at recruiting followers, and thus threatens hegemonic or dominant state control. Here, part of the state’s purpose may well be the extinction of certain groups that, because of their very success, pose too great a threat to governmental domestic control and survival. This state-sponsored meta-selection adds an additional layer of complexity and seemingly “unnatural” selection to extant and simultaneously operating processes of natural selection (see e.g., Weber, 1972, 2002; Breiner, 2004). Because human beings constitute the only species that has developed the ability to change their own evolutionary history through dedicated intervention, introducing this element of agency provides the critical distinction between natural selection and this evolutionary model, which also recognizes the critical role of exogenous environmental resources, constraints, and conditions.

Advantages of an Evolutionary Approach

The evolutionary theoretical approach delineated has numerous advantages over the existing theories designed to explain and predict the nature of international relations. Specifically, this model addresses the nature and function of states that select and promulgate the retention of preferred political, economic, and social institutions and structures. In addition, it helps delineate the nature of the relationship between these state actors and the external opponents they engage, which may differ in important ways historically, politically, economically, or otherwise.

A model of international relations based on the principles of evolution could prove helpful in several ways. First, one advantage offered by an evolutionary approach lies in its ability to unify the study of international relations with alternative models of international relations, offering connections that have historically been largely ignored by most scholars. The evolutionary approach challenges a view of single-factor causation, whether revolving around power, or money, or something else, in favor of a focus on the dynamic process of change over the content of decision; this also gets over the great difficulty that most theories of international relations have in understanding and predicting the nature of change. Indeed, evolution is nothing if not a theory of how change occurs. Further, evolutionary models also suggest that it is only through the simultaneous, sequential, and interactive consideration of the distinct forms of state action that we can adequately address and understand the larger topic of state variation and selection.

This interactive evolutionary approach seems more than reasonable. One can see how such principles of variation, selection, and retention can easily shape, guide, and govern the dynamics between states in the international system; states begin using their mechanisms of coercion with increasing escalation in order to assert control in selecting among competing challengers in order to survive themselves. As challengers shift in order to survive, new variants in governmental form and structure arise, and then have to compete within a now-changed ecological environment. Indeed, each new actor who enters or leaves the system changes the entire international structure, prompting just the sort of bottom-up self-organizing phenomena that emerges in biological processes as well.

In addition, an evolutionary approach to international relations sheds light on other related topics, such as the creation, co-evolution, and termination of dynamics between challengers and defenders in the international system. Evolutionary approaches provide particular insight into specific areas of inquiry that are hard to understand from the perspective of other models, such as: (1) situations when conflict becomes asymmetrical, including cases of genocide where there is little resistance or revolution where there is no coercive capacity; (2) when conflict is paused for no apparent reason; (3) when one side tolerates the behavior of the other actor without response; or (4) when the conflict ends. Evolutionary emphasis on the critical importance of variation, selection, and retention on prospects for state survival provides important insight and novel hypotheses regarding these and similar kinds of occurrence that have proved challenging for existing models of international relations to explain.

This does not mean that evolutionary models offer the perfect solution for all problems and changes in international relations. Indeed, evolutionary models will not be applicable in particular to two distinct sets of problems. First, such models will offer little traction for one-time problems that do not have a clear psychological evolutionary precursor. Evolutionary models are most relevant to those problems where one can assume that the successful resolution of such challenges over time led to differential reproductive success in our ancestors. Therefore, problems that would have confronted most people across time are likely to continue to exert an impact in the present, albeit perhaps in a different form. So, for example, challenges related to finding and keeping a mate and successfully raising children, keeping safe from predators, and obtaining enough resources to survive would fall into such a category. Second, novel problems would be harder for modern humans to think about how to resolve by relying on evolved strategies, although certainly mechanisms designed for similar problems in the past may be invoked when seemingly new challenges emerge. For example, climate change as a global phenomenon may be new, but local droughts, fires, and floods that caused devastation are not. Similarly, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons may also present larger scales of threat, but pandemic disease killed huge swaths of humanity over time, including events such as the Justinian Plague (541–542 ce) and the Black Death Great Plague (1346–1353), which appears to have cost a quarter of humanity their lives (Ziegler, 2008).


An evolutionary approach to international relations offers clear advantages over the existing predominant models of explanation. It offers a description of the sources and variation of action and change in international relations that can apply regardless of, and with the ability to incorporate, other factors such as power, money, or regime type. By locating the genesis of international relations not within the structure of the system, some characteristic of its units, or the particular preference hierarchies of idiosyncratic leaders, but instead within the competitive environment in which states must survive, the emphasis shifts from a narrow concentration on particular state action to a more nuanced appreciation of the contextual factors that can affect any state that seeks its own survival in the midst of many others who seek to dominate or overthrow it. In addition, by focusing attention on the influence of the past on the formulation of present structures, the approach helps explain why some states and strategies survive or prove effective while others do not, and why some variations work in some environments while the same ones might not thrive in others.

An evolutionary approach that concentrates on explicating the variation, selection, and retention of alternative actors suggests uniquely integrated opportunities for future research in this area. Specifically, this approach highlights novel questions regarding the possible alternative structures that were available at particular junctures in time during the development of certain states. For example, it becomes possible to explore the ecological exigencies supporting the development of particular regimes in Soviet Russia or Maoist China from a different perspective, focusing on the how the disconnections between natural human psychological architecture and state institutions help precipitate the collapse of these systems. In addition, an evolutionary approach allows an examination of the alternatives available and the early actions taken by states to wield the coercive instruments of power. Such an approach also allows for an examination of why certain types of states or governmental structures do not prove successful in one particular context in which they emerge, but flourish in alternate contexts. After all, failure of a system such as communism in one environment should not necessarily ensure its extinction under different environmental conditions, any more than the success of universal health care in one country could assure its adoption elsewhere.

Second, this model focuses new attention on the conscious choices made by states to render their opponents impotent in making threats against them, or, alternatively, to find ways to provide important supports and resources to assure their alliance. Moreover, this perspective allows a full analysis of the many specific types of strategies that states can employ in seeking to control or destroy opponents in ways that serve to strengthen the ability of the state to survive and decisively influence its environment. Previously, various aspects of these questions and problems have been pursued from different angles and even subfields of scholarship; an evolutionary model offers the possibility to analyze these phenomena in the united whole in which they develop and change.

Finally, this model supplies a mechanism to explore the relative success or failure of behavioral challenges to existing states without relying on the internal characteristics or beliefs of the state itself or some posited inherent vulnerability of a particular regime type. Instead, this model locates decisive influence for outcome on outside environmental factors and processes of change over time. We suggest that such an approach can provide new opportunities for previously distinct areas of research to come together in service of a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the nature, sources, and functions of states as well as non-state actors in international relations across a variety of regimes, each acting in service of survival within variant environmental circumstances.


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(1.) For example, color constancy, whereby we “see” the color green as being the same throughout the course of the day (despite its actual hue shifting depending on the light), would have offered clear advantages for those foraging for food and trying to avoid predators, so its replication into subsequent generations proliferates (Thompson, 1995). On the other hand, a design feature that led individuals to move toward predators would have quickly become extinct.