TIFT #88: Us and Them–The Biology of Hate and Reconciliation

Oct 24, 2023


This post was prompted first by goings on in the world, but more specifically by two interesting encounters. I attended a talk entitled, “Darwin, and Freud's Epistemological Path to the Unconscious” by Mark Erickson, MD. Coincidently, I listened to an episode of Dr. David Puder’s podcast with Robert Sapolsky, an outspoken primate researcher and writer. The result was a basket of ideas with relevance to the state of the world.

A more up-to-date version of evolution

I had a feeling my understanding of evolution was not fully up to date, and Dr. Erickson made that quite clear. Please pardon my past errors. The version I learned, and the one envisioned by both Darwin and Freud, focused, not surprisingly, on the male and his sperm. The bigger, more dominant male, whose genes would naturally beget stronger offspring, will impose his version of the species. That, Dr. Erickson explained, is why Freud conceived of two opposing drives, sex and aggression. Eros led to spreading the genes and aggression eliminated the competition, each with the same result.

We now know that a binary drive theory is too limited and fails to take into account much of our social nature. Ego psychology and the two-person version of psychotherapy came along to provide a counterpoint to the original Freudian view. Interestingly, the theory of evolution was similarly updated. In 1964, William Donald Hamilton came up with the idea of “Inclusive fitness,” adding to Darwin’s original theory the many ways enhanced social interaction can amplify the spread of the same genetic material by nurturing and protecting close relatives.

One way to think of this broader view of evolution is to look, not at the male or even the baby-producing couple, but to take the point of view of a gene. What are the totality of factors that cause a particular gene or genome to widen its representation? Perhaps a metaphor would be the popularity of a song. To some extent it depends on the quality of the music, but, just as much, it results from the myriad influences affecting how many people hear the song.

What excited biologists about this new view of evolution was that it explained the otherwise mysterious phenomenon of altruism. Why would reproductive mammals sacrifice themselves to save offspring or close relatives? With his insight, Hamilton opened the door to a broader view of how evolution influences social behavior.

Us and Them

One immediate consequence of Hamilton’s idea is seeing how human social behavior, evolved for the propagation of hunter-gatherer tribes, came to favor attachment to one’s close relatives and rejection of those belonging to other tribes. When “WE” thrive and outcompete “THEM” our genes become more “popular” and spread more widely. 

This begins to explain the depth and persistence of hating outsiders while loving those in our own group. How natural it is for humans to divide the world into friends and enemies. Maybe that is why we have two geopolitical poles, why we have two political parties, and why the field of psychotherapy divides itself so naturally into opposing orientations. 

It seems also to explain why making friends and breaking into a new group require an investment of energy. Getting over that uncomfortable hump is, unfortunately, risky and demanding enough to leave too many people in self-imposed isolation.

Getting past Sapolsky’s Determinism

Just a brief note here. Robert Sapolsky is a bit of a "shock jock," saying that everything we do follows the laws of biology and is therefore “determined.” But he also notes that the factors that determine what we do are infinitely complex and individual, which we already knew. So I think he is technically right, but that does absolutely nothing to change the way we experience and think of free will. Who cares if my decision to try to influence others is determined or not? It still feels like a decision, acts like a decision, and affects other like a decision. So, as clinicians, let’s consider Sapolsky’s determinism simply as an alternative name for the familiar experience of free will. I don’t think Sapolsky would disagree. In his book, Behave, he ends with, “Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something, can make things better. But we have no choice but to try.”

Opposing nature

So how can we overcome the tendency to hate embedded in our common biology? It is not original to suggest that empathy is the key, but it is. When we see the other as a person like ourselves, empathy ensues, and we begin to think of that person as “one of our own.” Hate and mistrust begin to melt and attachment grows. What makes our world different from hunter gatherers is that the size of “us” has no limit. It can range from close family to the whole world’s population. When we have policies and habits that emphasize differentness, the process of inclusion is slowed or stopped. Soldiers use de-humanizing names for the enemy. Racists have thing-words for the people they hate. Walls, physical and otherwise, block us from getting close enough for empathy to do its work. Those and other distancing factors block the bonding process that happens by itself when we discover that we are made of the same basic stuff as them

Empathy depends on individual contact. It might be through writing, film or some other art, rather than face-to-face interaction, but it is the rawness of the individual that engenders empathy. Abstractions (etymology: “draw away”) remove precisely the essence, to which our limbic systems are programmed to respond. 

So it’s empathy that makes enemies into friends and leads to immigrants becoming assimilated and prejudices let go. Making empathy happen starts with removing walls that keep us physically separate and abstractions that create mental barriers. Beyond that, bonding is one of the most time and energy consuming of human activities. It’s a process that may start with small talk, where the benefits are minimal and the risks limited, but the rewarding nature of human connection tends to draw us towards greater risks, greater bonding, and relinquishment of mistrust, paranoia, and hate. A well-placed risk is entirely worth the cost, paying dividends that keep on giving. Sadly, that is not always how it is perceived, especially in the unconscious recesses of the individual mind.

Internal blocks to connection

I once ran an IOP for people with addictions, who tend to become increasingly isolated, soothing their loneliness with yet more of their chemical. Our policy was to ask newcomers to “tell their story” in their first or second group meeting. Self-revelation to strangers was shocking and hard for them, but led to bonding with the group, early and strongly. The fact of taking a risk exposed their humanness in a setting were we could make sure they were safe. It went a long way towards helping those individuals trade their isolation for belonging.

 Too many of our clients are isolated because their internal “nonconscious problem solver” deems that the risks outweigh the rewards. Our job is often to help clients find hope and abandon their reluctance. When they do, their experiences can lead to healing moments where the inner mind’s implicit learning is rewritten to reflect a more positive outlook on human connection. Of course the inner mind may be looking for “evidence” that the risk should not have been taken. There are also situations where people trust when they should not, only to experience recurrent painful outcomes. It’s a minefield we must navigate with care, but an important part of our contribution is active support for going ahead in spite of uncertainty.

The heat-generating, energy-requiring friction of human interaction is the true antidote to loneliness, isolation, and hate, be it for individuals or for populations.


Jeffery Smith MD


Photo Credit:  Mert Kahveci, Unsplash

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