A few weeks ago I posted a question on my FB page. In essence, I asked that if someone chooses, during the National Anthem to stand with their hands clasped in front of them, or behind their back [as I do] does that make them less patriotic than someone who puts their hand over their heart? The comments I received on this borderline rhetorical question were interesting and a few frightening in their “kool-aid” quality. For this blog, I want to pose this question to all of you: Does the placement of your hand during a ceremonial song, designed to reinforce your allegiance to your community accurately reflect your dedication to said community?

In other words, are President Obama, myself, and thousands of other Americans less patriotic because we don’t put our hands over our hearts during the National Anthem?

To provide you with fodder for your response, I think it will be helpful to look at patriotism, its cultural origins, its historical importance and its evolutionary roots. Patriotism is nothing new, and Americans certainly don’t have a monopoly on the sentiment. In fact, our displays of pride in country pale in comparison to those that were often obligate throughout history. From Genghis Kahn’s ability to mobilize thousands of warriors to travel thousands of miles on horseback to continue conquering lands in his name, to the ancient Roman practice of complete allegiance to the state, in exchange for full rights as a citizen – patriotism is a necessity in a centralized government, and nearly universal. Among all organized societies, a sense of belonging, duty and willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of the greater good is pervasive. In fact, throughout history there has never been a large, society with a centralized government, be it democratic or autocratic, that has succeeded without citizens that felt a deep sense of patriotism. When put into this context, it’s no wonder that the “powers that be” react so strongly when students march, flags burn and songs advocate overthrowing the government.

Despite Howard Zinn’s suggestion that, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” (public lecture, 1995) history has shown that dissent is a threat to the status quo and viewed as unpatriotic. Here in lies one of the problems with the concept of patriotism: too often we are provided examples of patriots as blind followers of the policies of their governments, and we are told that that is admirable. Meanwhile, anyone with a moderate understanding of US history recognizes that is the Founders of our nation had held that view of patriotism, they would have never produced “The Declaration of Independence”. However, they did not view patriotism as a willingness to blindly support and follow the rules of your society, no matter what, and for that we hold them in the highest regard and hold them up as the ultimate examples of patriotic “Americans”. Now, before people start claiming that I’m advocating a revolution of any kind, I’m not. I’m simply asking you to consider how we define these terms that mean so much to our society. Further, I’m asking you to consider where patriotic behaviors and the social category “patriotic” evolve from in the first place.

On the surface, patriotic behaviors are similar to altruistic behaviors, and as such, are as seemingly contradictory to our current understanding of evolutionary theory. Instead of behaving in a way that exposes ones-self to undue risk of injury and death in an effort to preserve or expand the norms, goals and fabric of our society, individuals should let others make those sacrifices and “cheat” whenever possible. There does seem to be good evidence for this, as evidenced by the structure of our and past militaries that tend and tended to recruit and “utilize” individuals with fewer resources and political power. However, there are thousands of individuals in the US today, and millions throughout history and pre-history who are willing to, or did, give up their lives for the sake of God or country [or both]. There are those who claim that patriotism is another piece of evidence that humans are altruistic by nature. Still others claim that patriotism is evidence for group selection among modern humans. Still others claim that our willingness to engage in patriotic acts is evidence of how strong culture can influence behavior.

From the historical, contemporary and archaeological records, it is apparent that humans everywhere feel a sense of pride in their social groups and that they are often willing to fight, and die, to defend the territories, resources or reputations of those social groups. However, to truly understand patriotism among humans, we need to expand our perspective and consider several things: 1) Is patriotism unique to humans? 2) If not, what other animals show patriotic behaviors and why?

In response to question 1, I would say that yes, patriotism is unique to humans, however simple patriotic behaviors are not. In other words, no other animal on the planet is willing to put his or her life at risk to ensure that an abstract symbol is not defaced in anyway. Meanwhile, humans will drop their weapons in the heat of battle to make sure that a flag doesn’t touch the ground. Despite this, we do see the antecedents of patriotism among non-human animals. For example, among the social insects, individuals readily sacrifice their own lives to help ensure the survival of the queen and her offspring. Of course, once you understand haplodiploidy and its impact on behavior, these acts of “altruism” make perfect sense. We also see that individual primates living in complex social groups that defend resources against outside groups, often act in ways that increase their potential for injury, while promoting the success of the group. Among many macaque species, females from one community will join forces to exclude females from other communities from core areas with a lot of resources. While individuals could “free-load” off of one another and some do, most don’t. Instead, they all suffer losses and gain victories together. Similarly, male chimpanzees work together to defend territorial boundaries and regularly engage in group boundary patrols, intercommunity encounters [ICEs], incursions, and battles that put each individual male at risk. Despite the risks involved, males still engage in these behaviors, and often seem eager to do so.

A deeper look at the behaviors and the contexts in which they are acted out reveals that kin selection, reciprocal altruism and collective actions usually explain most of them. Both female macaques and male chimpanzees stay in the groups they are born into their entire lives and are therefore with genetically related individuals when engaging in group behaviors. Further, these are long-lived organisms that have the potential to trade favors over a long period of time, allowing for reciprocity, or the potential of reciprocity. Finally, Watts and Mitani (2001) have suggested that territoriality among male chimpanzees may be a collective action problem. That is, each of the males has the same problem [defending the community range against outsiders] and they all can gain much more if they work together to minimize individual risk and maximize the potential for success in their territorial interactions.

When we take a macroscopic view of human patriotism we see many of the same base causes and explanations. While human patriotism is a complex, social and cultural phenomenon that involves socialization and enculturation to align oneself with a specific abstract concept like a nation state, or empire or village, the fact of the matter is humans everywhere do align themselves with those concepts, and most of them do so because they identify with other group members through shared genes [kin selection], ideology, goals [collective action] or for the possibility of receiving something from the group for such actions [reciprocity, or more accurately, interchange]. It is rare that a patriot in any society is not rewarded with status and reproductive opportunities, which opens the door for selection to favor a propensity to act patriotic in populations over time. It also means that individuals will be socialized to act in a patriotic way, because they will have the positive reinforcement of those around them.

If our ancestors went through long stretches during which individuals that were willing to take risks on behalf of the group were more successful in acquiring status and attracting mates than their less enthusiastic group-mates, selection would have favored behaviors in those Hominin populations that reinforced group solidarity and loyalty to that group. Over time, those behaviors combined with heavy layering of culture and social norms could have evolved into what we call “patriotism”.