The Controversial Link Between Genetics And Civil War

Though their conclusions have been criticized as racist and fatalistic, a group of researchers argues that civil wars are more likely in countries where there are vast genetic, and therefore aesthetic, differences among populations.

War genes
War genes
Jean-Marc Vittori


PARIS — For 70 years now, we've been living in peace. Badly hit by an economic crisis, obsessed with signs of a decline, undermined by a pessimism without equal in the world, the French forget what joy it is to live in a pacified country and continent. Not everybody is so lucky.

If conflicts between countries have grown scarcer since World War II, the same can't be said of civil wars. They have killed more than 15 million people since the Allied victory in 1945. In the last half-century, civil wars have affected one in every four country — even in Europe in the late 1990s.

These conflicts cause immense pain, wreak economic havoc for years, destroy cities and lives. They also create terrible migration patterns, as evidenced at the moment south of the Mediterranean, where Syrians, Eritreans, Somalis, Malians, Sudanese and Central Africans leave to head towards Europe. Last year, more than 230,000 migrants are estimated to have landed on the Old Continent's coasts, driven out of their countries by bloody conflicts and persecution.

Of course, each war has its history and roots. But all civil wars have a common cause: a major opposition between groups that can't be solved through political institutions. It's essential to understand where this opposition originates if we are to avoid these immense losses.

Over the last quarter-century, many researchers have worked on this topic, but their results have been inconclusive. They have assessed the impact of religious, linguistic and ethnic differences on conflict risks. Others have gone further and have looked at genetics and, more precisely, at the correlation between genetic diversity and the risk of war.

Two economists, Tufts University's Enrico Spolaore and the University of California's Romain Wacziarg. argued in a 2013 article that the closer the population of two countries are genetically, the greater the chance that they will go to war with each other. They explain this link with a simple hypothesis, namely that similar peoples want the same resources and are therefore more likely to fight to get their hands on them.

In an article entitled, "The Nature of Conflict," published last month, three scientists made an opposite correlation in the case of civil wars. Quamrul Ashraf of Williams College, Cemal Arbatli of Moscow's Higher School of Economics, and Oded Galor, an Israeli professor at Brown University, wrote that "genetic diversity, as determined predominantly during the exodus of humans from Africa tens of thousands of years ago, has contributed significantly to the frequency, incidence and onset of both overall and ethnic civil conflict over the last half-century."

For example, the probability of civil war emerging between the years 1960 and 2008 was five times higher in countries with significant genetic diversity (such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) than in countries with very little diversity (such as South Korea).

The researchers offered three main explanations. First of all, genetic diversity can be detrimental to the establishment of trust and cooperation. We are suspicious of those who don't look like us. Secondly, groups that are genetically different often have different political priorities in terms of producing wealth and goods either for the public or for their redistribution. Finally, "Since genetic diversity reflects an heterogeneity between individuals — through character traits rewarded differently depending on the geographical, institutional or technological surroundings — it can exacerbate economic-inequality-induced grievances," they wrote.

Fatalistic findings

There's something breathtaking about this research. The reasoning behind it sometimes resembles a shaky footbridge. The work "borders on full racism," one anonymous economist commented online. And its conclusions can lead to fatalism. What good is there in trying to prevent civil wars if they originate in human migrations that took place tens of thousands of years ago?

This research can also raise questions about its authors, but Oded Galor, the most seasoned of the three, is a renowned economist. For 20 years, he has been editor of the Journal of Economic Growth, one of the world's most-respected economic publications. For years he has been nurturing an interest in the millennial roots of economic growth. And if he recently began to study genetic diversity with Quamrul Ashraf, it's because it's a factor in this very long-term growth.

Having been the targets of violent criticism after an article they published in 2009, the two told Nature that they believed the study of genetic diversity was "a proxy for immeasurable cultural, historical and biological factors that influence economies."

Be that as it may, we'll have to get used to seeing scientific progress influence how we view the world, the economy and human societies. Instead of giving in to fatalism, this could instead prove to be yet another reason to forge institutions for preserving peace.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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