Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Biopolitical Science in Darwin's DESCENT OF MAN: The Coevolutionary History of Nature, Culture, and Individuals

Charles Darwin's Descent of Man was published on February 24, 1871.  So this year is the 150th anniversary of its publication.  This has prompted some recent articles--including a particularly good one by Richerson, Gavrilets, and de Waal (2021) in Science--and a book edited by Jeremy DeSilva (2021) assessing Darwin's account of human evolution Descent in the light of modern evolutionary science.

On some points, we can see that Darwin was mistaken.  For example, he claimed that because of their distinct roles in the sexual division of labor, women were intellectually inferior but morally superior to men.  In 1875, only four years after the publication of Descent, Antoinette Brown Blackwell showed that Darwin's evidence did not support his conclusion about the intellectual inferiority of women, and that the correct inference from the biological facts was that the sexes are "true equivalents--equals but not identicals."  I have written about this in Darwinian Natural Right (123-160).

His most fundamental mistake was in trying to explain the inherited transmission of parental traits to their offspring through the "hypothesis of pangenesis"--the idea that every part of the body emits tiny particles ("gemmules") that migrate to the gonads and then are transmitted to offspring, so that the gemmules develop into their associated body parts as the offspring matures (Darwin 2004, 264-267).  Unfortunately, Darwin knew nothing about Gregor Mendel's experiments that provided the first evidence for genetic inheritance.  Mendel knew a lot about Darwin, however, and he agreed with Darwin's theory of evolution.  In his handwritten annotations in his copies of Darwin's books, Mendel endorsed most of Darwin's reasoning, while correcting what he said about pangenesis (Fairbanks 2020).  In his annotations of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Mendel highlighted those passages where Darwin admitted that pangenesis was "merely a provisional hypothesis or speculation," and that "the existence of free gemmules is a gratuitous assumption."  Mendel was an Augustinian friar, and he was condemned by those in the Catholic Church who regarded his support for evolution as a denial of the Catholic doctrine of Creation.

For me, rereading The Descent of Man today is instructive in two ways.  First, while some evolutionary biologists have criticized the "modern evolutionary synthesis" as being too "gene-centric" in not recognizing the importance of cultural evolution, most of what they have proposed as part of an "extended evolutionary synthesis" can be found in The Descent of Man.  In particular, Darwin stresses the importance of cultural evolution, including moral evolution, for explaining human biological nature.  This is what Richerson, Gavrilets, and de Waal mean in saying that Darwin's Descent "foreshadowed" modern theories of human gene-culture coevolution.  I have written about this in previous posts here and here.

Darwin's Descent is also instructive for me because it largely supports what I have called "biopolitical science," which requires a three-levelled analysis of political history as showing the unity of political universals, the diversity of political cultures, and the individuality of political judgments.  I have worked through these three levels of biopolitical history as they are generally manifested in human politics and as they were particularly illustrated in Abraham Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (Arnhart 2012).  This idea of biopolitical science first came to me in 1986 when I read Jane Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe, and I saw that this was a political history of the chimps at Gombe showing the natural history of chimpanzee politics, the cultural history of this particular chimpanzee community, and the biographical history of the unique individuals in that community.  I have written some posts on this herehere, and here.

I have argued that a Darwinian social psychology needs to understand the interaction of genetic history (the evolutionary psychology of Tooby and Cosmides), cultural history (the cultural group selection of Richerson, Boyd, and Henrich), and biographical history (the evolved personality and life history of self-interested individuals who are agents of cultural change acting through coercion or persuasion, as presented by Singh, Wrangham, and Glowacki).

There is a complex coevolutionary interaction between these three levels of history.  Genetic history enables and constrains, but does not determine, cultural history.  Genetic history and cultural history jointly enable and constrain, but do not determine, biographical history.

The interaction also moves in the opposite direction: biographical history enables and constrains, but does not determine, cultural history; and biographical history and cultural history jointly enable and constrain, but do not determine, genetic history.

A famous illustration of how cultural history can shape genetic history is the evolution of adult lactose tolerance (Durham 1991; Gerbault et al. 2011).  Most human beings around the world today cannot easily digest milk, because after weaning from their mother's milk, they no longer produce lactase, an enzyme necessary for digesting the sugar lactose in milk.  This was probably true for most human beings throughout evolutionary history.  But then in pastoral societies with cultural traditions of dairying, milk was available as food for adults, which created a cultural environment in which genetic mutations for the production of lactase in adults would be favored by natural selection.  The people today who are lactose tolerant are descendants of those human beings who lived in dairying cultures.  Their genetic history was shaped by a cultural history favoring the evolution of lactase persistence as human niche construction.


Despite Darwin's ignorance of genetics and the very skimpy fossil evidence of human evolution available to him, he was able to infer the general pattern of human evolution from primate ancestors.  He saw that of the living primate species, the gorilla and chimpanzee were most closely related to human beings; and since these apes lived in Africa, he speculated that the earliest human ancestors must have originally evolved in Africa, and then their ancestors migrated out of Africa to spread out over the Earth (Darwin 2004, 182).  As Richerson, Gavrilets, and de Waal (2021) have shown, the research since Darwin has filled in the details of this general pattern of phylogenetic descent of Homo sapiens from primate ancestors in Africa.

Moreover, they indicate that research in neurobiology, genetics, primatology, and behavioral biology has confirmed Darwin's insight that although there appear to be great gaps in the mental faculties of human beings and other animals, human cognitive capacities "do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree" from the cognitive capacities of other animals (Darwin 2004, 173).  They do not notice, however, that Darwin contradicts himself on this point when he says that humans really are different in kind in their unique capacities for language, morality, and symbolic abstraction.  As I have claimed in some previous posts, Darwin could have escaped this contradiction if he had seen the distinction between emergent differences in kind that can be explained by natural evolution and radical differences in kind that suggest some supernatural special creation.  Richerson, Gavrilets, and de Waal implicitly recognize the uniqueness of human language as an emergent difference in kind when they admit that communication among other animals does not manifest "the syntax, recursiveness, and rich meaning of our learned symbolic communication" (2).  Symbolic language is crucial for human cultural and moral evolution because it is the most effective means for formulating and transmitting social norms.


A crucial part of Darwin's theory of human evolution in The Descent of Man was his account of human cultural and moral evolution.  "Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit" (2004, 157).  In developing this thought, he was influenced by the Scottish tradition of moral philosophy through his reading of David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Macintosh.  He thus rejected the Kantian tradition of moral philosophy in which culture and morality were seen as a uniquely human realm of activity that transcended human nature.

Remarkably, even some of Darwin's strongest supporters--including Alfred Russel Wallace and Thomas Huxley--rejected Darwin's naturalistic account of moral culture because they believed that one could never derive moral values from natural facts.  They assumed that human morality belonged to a transcendent realm of cultural artifice and free will that is beyond the natural realm of causal forces open to scientific study.

Until recently, even most of the  leading thinkers in evolutionary psychology--such as John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and David Buss--rejected Darwin's evolutionary theory of morality.  Over the past 20 years, however, many of these people have moved towards thinking that Darwin was right about this.  Closely related to this is the growing recognition that culture is not uniquely human, because other animals have cultural traditions.  Richerson, Gavrilets, and de Waal rightly see these intellectual movements as confirming Darwin's original insight that explaining culture and morality belongs to the evolutionary science of biology.

Richerson, Gavrilets, and de Waal fail, however, to clearly indicate that human culture and morality really are humanly unique insofar as they depend on the human capacity for symbolic abstraction.  Although other animals have behavioral inheritance systems based on the transmission of information among animals through social learning, only human beings have symbolic inheritance systems in which they think about abstractions that have little to do with concrete, immediate experiences.  Symbolic systems allow human beings to construct a shared imagined reality.  Art, religion, science, philosophy, and morality are all manifestations of human symbolic evolution.  Richerson, Gavrilets, and de Waal suggest this when they refer to "the symbolized nature of human culture" (3).

A biopolitical science must explain this symbolic evolution as the realm for political rhetoric and political philosophy.  For example, we might explain Lockean liberalism as the symbolic niche construction of liberal institutions.  Similarly, we might describe this, as it is by Deirdre McCloskey, as a rhetorical transformation in ethical ideas, moving from an aristocratic ethics that scorned the pursuit of trade and economic gain to a bourgeois ethics in which life in a commercial society became virtuous.


Animals are individuals with characteristic personalities that distinguish one individual from another, and this individuality influences their evolutionary history.  In The Descent of Man, Darwin suggested this when he observed that animals often display their "mental individuality" (106).  He saw evidence for the importance of human individuality in shaping human cultural evolution in Francis Galton's Hereditary Genius (first published in 1869).  Darwin and Galton recognized that the fertilization of an egg created an individual life with an innate predisposition for developing an individual personality (Galton 1972, 426-28).  Some individuals were endowed with the potential for genius, and in the right social circumstances they could invent new ideas and practices that would advance cultural progress.  Darwin observed: "Great lawgivers, the founders of beneficent religions, great philosophers and discoverers in science, aid the progress of mankind" (2004, 162).

Darwin indicated how this progress arises from the complex coevolutionary interaction of individual history, cultural history, and natural history:
"The more efficient causes of progress seem to consist of a good education during youth whilst the brain is impressible, and of a high standard of excellence, inculcated by the ablest and best men, embodied in the laws, customs, and traditions of the nation, and enforced by public opinion.  It should, however, be borne in mind, that the enforcement of public opinion depends on our appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of others; and this appreciation is founded on our sympathy, which it can hardly be doubted was originally developed through natural selection as one of the most important elements of the social instincts" (2004, 169).

At the level of natural history, natural selection has shaped the innate social instincts of human beings, which make them sensitive to the approbation or disapprobation of people in their community.  At the level of cultural history,  this concern for social conformity motivates human beings to learn the social norms of their group.  At the level of individual history, those talented individuals with persuasive influence or authority over the group can select the social norms that will be enforced by public opinion.

After Darwin, for a long time, many biologists were not interested in studying the evolution of individual animal personalities, because they assumed that evolution would shape a species typical psychology shared by all individuals of the species with little heritable variation.  Evolutionary psychologists (like Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) have concentrated on human universals as evolutionary adaptations shared by all human individuals.

But  in recent decades, the biological study of animal personalities has become one of the hottest topics in biology.  One of the most extensively studied models of human personality among psychologists is the Five Factor Model that describes human personality differences across five domains--Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).  Each domain corresponds to an axis running from high to low.  So, for example, those individuals high in Agreeableness tend to be helpful, trusting, and cooperative with everyone.  Individuals lower in Agreeableness tend to be less helpful, more suspicious of others, and more competitive than cooperative.

This same Five Factor Model can be applied to the study of nonhuman animal personalities, using the same methods as are used in studying human beings.  Four of the factors appear in many animal species.  But Conscientiousness seems to appear only among chimpanzees and human beings.  One possible explanation for this is that Conscientiousness requires a high cognitive ability for making plans and controlling impulses in executing those plans, which requires the large frontal lobes found only in chimps and humans.

The five factors of personality have been found to be highly heritable and thus genetically influenced.  But these factors also vary according to environmental experience, particularly the environment of early experience, which influences personality throughout life. So personality seems to arise from genetic predisposition, from environmental learning, and from the interaction of genes and environment (including the cultural environment).  Through experimentation with animals in the wild and in laboratories, scientists can make testable predictions about the genetic and environmental causes of personality. 

It is possible that the cultural evolution of the bourgeois virtues in modern liberal societies depended on an evolutionary history favoring personality traits like high Agreeableness and high Conscientiousness.  The evidence from cross-cultural economic game experiments that show that being integrated into market exchange is correlated with a greater sense of fairness might support this conclusion.

Just as we have bred domesticated animals to favor those personality traits that we find desirable, we might understand human culture as self-domestication that selects for those personality traits that are adapted to the culture.  The "human self-domestication hypothesis" has been defended by Hare and Woods (2020) and Wrangham (2019).  We might be like those silver foxes who were bred by Dmitri Belyaev for docility, which I wrote about in a previous post.


Arnhart, Larry. 2012. "Biopolitical Science."  In James E. Fleming and Sanford Levinson, eds., Evolution and Morality, 221-265. New York: New York University Press.

Darwin, Charles. 2004 [1879].  The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2nd edition. 
New York: Penguin Books.

DeSilva, Jeremy, ed. 2021.  A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin's "Descent of Man" Got Right and Wrong About Human Evolution.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Durham, William H. 1991. Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fairbanks, Daniel J. 2020. "Mendel and Darwin: Untangling a Persistent Enigma." Heredity 124: 263-273.

Galton, Francis. 1972 [1892].  Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. 2nd edition. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.

Gerbault, Pascale, et al. 2011. "Evolution of Lactase Persistence: An Example of Human Niche Construction." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366: 863-877.

Hare, Brian, and Vanessa Woods. 2020. Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Common Humanity. New York: Random House.

Richerson, Peter J., Sergey Gavrilets, and Frans B. M. de Waal. 2021. "Modern Theories of Human Evolution Foreshadowed by Darwin's Descent of Man." Science 372: eaba3776.

Singh, Manvir, Richard Wrangham, and Luke Glowacki. 2017. "Self-Interest and the Design of Rules." Human Nature 28: 457-480.

Wrangham, Richard. 2019. The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution. New York: Pantheon Books.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Hayek's Mistake: The Ancient Evolution of the Human Trading Instinct and the Neanderthal Extinction

I have often argued against Friedrich Hayek's claim that socialism appeals to our evolved instincts, as shaped by our evolutionary history in hunter-gatherer bands, and therefore that capitalism requires a cultural repression of those natural instincts.  In making that argument, I have disputed the common assumption that the "mismatch" theory of evolutionary psychology supports Hayek's claim.

Contrary to Hayek's assertions, I have contended that evolutionary anthropology sustains the conclusion that a capitalist liberal culture appeals to the evolved human instincts for social exchange or trade and for the liberty expressed as resistance to oppression that can be seen in hunter-gatherer bands.  Adam Smith was right to see that the "system of natural liberty" is rooted in our innate instincts and that the opulence that results from exchange and specialization is the necessary consequence of "a certain propensity in human nature . . . the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."  

Some of my previous posts on this can be found here,  here., herehere, and here.

Contradicting Hayek's claim that there is no evidence for human trade until the last few thousand years, recent research has found fossil evidence for long-distance trade reaching back as far as 300,000 years ago in Africa.  

If Homo sapiens were free traders when they migrated out of Africa and into Europe, where they met the Neanderthals, this might explain the extinction of the Neanderthals, because they were not traders.

Nevertheless, there might be some partial truth to Hayek's thought that the instinctive tribalism of  human beings makes it hard for them to live as free traders in an open and globalized society.  As Paul Rubin has observed, the "folk-economics" of ordinary people often show a failure to understand the non-zero sum character of free market exchange as mutually beneficial to all participants in the market. 


By the 1980s and 1990s, there was an extensive archeological record for long-distance trade in the Later Stone Age (or Upper Paleolithic) from 50,000 to 12,000 years ago.  This was the period with evidence for sophisticated art, ornamentation, and new hunting and gathering technologies that were markers for "behaviorally modern humans."

Archaeological sites dated to this time contain "luxury" items such as amber and seashells that had to be imported or traded from hundreds of kilometers away (Harrold 1988; Mussi and Roebroeks 1996; Weniger 1989, 1990).  Also, the stone used to make tools was transported over great distances.  In some cases, most of the flint would have had to be imported from 100 to 300 kilometers away (Schild 1984; Soffer 1985).

More recently, the archaeological evidence for trade has been extended back into the Middle Stone Age from 320,000 to to 50,000 years ago.  This was the period in which "anatomically modern humans" (Homo sapiens) first appeared.  So this would be evidence for trade being deeply rooted in human evolutionary history.

Some of the best of the evidence comes from Middle Stone Age sites in the Olorgesailie basin in southern Kenya, dating from 320,000 to 295,000 years ago (Brooks et al. 2018; Deino et al. 2018; Potts et al. 2018).  Archaeologists have found there specialized tools, spear tips, scrapers, and awls.  They are made of obsidian, a black volcanic glass that is easily fractured to produce sharp cutting tools and weapons.  The volcanic sites for this obsidian are far away from Olorgesailie, up to 88 kilometers away.  The people of Olorgesailie could have travelled to these distant sites.  But it's more likely that they were part of some long-distance trade networks, in which they exchanged other goods for the obsidian they wanted.  Other evidence for such trade networks is that they used colorful rocks for dyes that had to be imported from far away.

This looks like evidence for Smith's "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" appearing 300,000 years ago.


The Neanderthals survived in Europe for more than 200,000 years, until they disappeared from the fossil record around 40,000 years ago (Higham et al. 2014).  Humans migrated out of Africa and reached northwestern Europe sometime around 44,000 to 42,000 years ago (Higham et al. 2011).  So Neanderthals and humans overlapped in Europe for 4,000 to 2,000 years, and during that time they engaged in some interspecies boinking, as indicated by the fact that the human genome today contains some Neanderthal genes (Paabo 2014).  But despite this carnal coexistence, the fact that the Neanderthals went extinct a few thousand years after the arrival of humans suggests that the humans had some competitive advantage over them.  One possibility is that human trading behavior favored the humans over the Neanderthals.

In contrast to humans, Neanderthal tools have been found close to their sites of origin, so there is no evidence for long-distance trade.  Neanderthals also show little division of labor: when they went hunting for large game, the whole group--men, women, and children--were involved.  Humans showed a more advanced division of labor, in which men hunted large game, and women and children gathered wild plants and prepared the food, as indicated by the fact that men were often buried with spears and arrowheads, while women were buried with grinding tools (Horan et al. 2005; Kuhn and Stiner 2006).

We can infer from this that the greater exchange and division of labor among humans gave them many evolutionary advantages.  They had a greater supply of resources and food, and they probably exchanged ideas as well as goods and services in extensive networks of widely dispersed groups, so that they gathered more information and developed more innovations, which would explain the greater social and technological complexity of humans compared with Neanderthals.  This was the beginning of globalization and free trade.


But even if this refutes Hayek's belief that the extended open social order made possible by trade requires a Freudian repression of our tribalist instincts for living in a closed society, many human beings show an instinctive emporiophobia--or "fear of markets"--because they cannot understand the fundamental idea in economics of the gains from trade.  Many people cannot understand how any voluntary exchange of one thing for another makes both sides better off, because they assume that such exchanges must be zero-sum: if one side wins, then the other side loses.  If the rich get richer from trade, the poor must get poorer.  That's the logic of the Marxist theory of free trade as necessarily exploitative.

Oddly, however, while many people agree with Donald Trump that "trade is bad," and so Americans need protectionist restrictions on trade to stop the Chinese from exploiting America by selling cheap goods in American markets, these same people are happy to shop for Chinese goods at their local Walmart.  

As I have suggested in a previous post, although the folk-economic beliefs of ordinary people often show fear of markets, the economic behavior of these people shows their practical understanding of the gains from trade in free markets.


Brooks, Alison S., et al. 2018. "Long-Distance Stone Transport and Pigment Use in the Earliest Middle Stone Age." Science 360: 90-94.

Deino, Alan L., et al. 2018. "Chronology of the Acheulean to Middle Stone Age Transition in Eastern Africa." Science 360: 95-98.

Harrold, F. B.  1988. "The Chatelperronian and the Early Aurignacian in France." British Archaeological Reports International Series 437: 157-191.

Higham, Tom, et al. 2011. "The Earliest Evidence for Anatomically Modern Humans in Northwestern Europe." Nature 479: 521-524.

Higham, Tom, et al. 2014. "The Timing and Spatiotemporal Patterning of Neanderthal Disappearance." Nature 512: 306-309.

Horan, Richard D., et al. 2005. "How Trade Saved Humanity from Biological Exclusion: An Economic Theory of Neanderthal Extinction." Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 58: 1-29.

Kuhn, Steven L., and Mary C. Stiner.  2006. "What's a Mother to Do? The Division of Labor among Neandertals and Modern Humans in Eurasia." Current Anthropology 47: 953-980.

Mussi, M., and W. Roebroeks. 1996. "The Big Mosaic." Current Anthropology 37: 697-699.

Paabo, Svante. 2014. Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. New York: Basic Books.

Potts, Richard, et al. 2018. "Environmental Dynamics During the Onset of the Middle Stone Age in Eastern Africa." Science 360: 86-90.

Schild, R. 1984. "Terminal Paleolithic of the North European Plain: A Review of Lost Chances, Potential, and Hopes." Advances in World Archaeology 3: 193-227.

Soffer, Olga. 1985. The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Weniger, G. 1989. "The Magdalenian of Western Central Europe: Settlement Pattern and Regionality." Journal of World Prehistory 3: 323-372.

Weniger, G. 1990. "Germany at 18,000 BP." In The World at 18,000 BP. Vol. 1, High Latitudes, ed. O. Soffer and C. Gamble, 171-192.  London: Unwin Hyman.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Darwinian Anthropology of Lockean Forcible and Reputational Punishment

The scholars of John Locke's political philosophy have recognized that what Locke calls "the executive power of the law of nature"--the natural right to punish those who violate the law of nature--is crucial for his teaching because the law of nature that supports the equal liberty of all individuals would be "in vain" if transgressions of that law were not punished, and because this natural right to punish is "the true original of political power" (ST, 7, 89).  But while they recognize the expression of this natural right in the forcible punishment of those who inflict physical harm, the Locke scholars do not recognize the second form of this natural right--the reputational punishment of conduct that is offensive to society although not physically harmful (see, for example, Simmons 1991, 1992; Ward 2010; Zuckert 1994).  Nor do they recognize that both forms of natural punishment are seen in hunter-gatherer bands prior to the establishment of government, which confirms Locke's claim that "in the beginning all the World was America," because the foraging life of the American Indians "is still a Pattern of the First Ages in Asia and Europe," which is a state of nature (ST 49, 102, 105, 108).  

In his Second Treatise, Locke concentrates on forcible punishment, and that's what has held the attention of scholars; but they do not recognize that in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke identifies reputational punishment as a second kind of natural punishment.

In the Essay, Locke says that in all of their actions, all human beings are moved to satisfy their natural human desires, and while there are many natural desires, they are all part of the human pursuit of happiness; and human happiness comes from pleasure, while human misery comes from pain.  Human beings differ, however, in how they rank their natural human desires.  So, for example, some human beings pursue sensual pleasures above all, while others pursue intellectual understanding as the greatest pleasure.  So while there is no single summum bonum for all, there is a single summum bonum for each person (ECHU, 2.21.31-73).

Thus, good and evil are nothing but pleasure and pain.  But moral good and evil requires something more:  it is "the conformity or disagreement of our voluntary actions to some law, whereby good or evil is drawn on us, from the will and power of the lawmaker; which good or evil, pleasure or pain, attending our observance or breach of the law by the decree of the law-maker, is what we call reward and punishment" (2.28.5).  

There are three kinds of moral laws coming from three kinds of lawmakers with three kinds of rewards and punishments.  The divine law is made by God and enforced by His rewards and punishments in the afterlife, and this is "the only true touchstone of moral rectitude."  There are two kinds of human laws: the civil law and the law of reputation.

The civil law is made by government and enforced by governmental coercive force that punishes those who disobey:

"This law nobody overlooks: the rewards and punishments that enforce it being ready at hand, and suitable to the power that makes it: which is the force of the Commonwealth, engaged to protect the lives, liberties, and possessions of those who live according to its laws, and has power to take away life, liberty, or goods, from him who disobeys; which is the punishment of offences committed against the law" (2.28.9).

This summarizes much of what Locke says in the Second Treatise about how people in the state of nature consent to the establishment of government to secure their natural rights.

Finally, "the law of opinion or reputation" is that by which social opinion calls whatever is socially praised virtuous and whatever is social blamed vicious, and those who disobey this law are punished with a bad reputation.  And just as the people have consented to the civil law, according to Locke, they have also consented to this law of reputation:

". . . the measure of what is everywhere called and esteemed virtue and vice is this approbation or dislike, praise or blame, which, by a secret and tacit consent, establishes itself in the several societies, tribes, and clubs of men in the world: whereby several actions come to find credit or disgrace amongst them, according to the judgment, maxims, or fashion of that place.  For, though men uniting into politic societies, have resigned up to the public the disposing of all their force, so that they cannot employ it against any fellow-citizens any further than the law of the country directs: yet they retain still the power of thinking well or ill, approving or disapproving of the actions of those whom they live amongst, and converse with: and by this approbation and dislike they establish amongst themselves what they will call virtue and vice" (2.28.10).

In this way, Locke clearly implies that in the state of nature, the natural right to punish has two levels: there is a natural right to punish with physical force those who inflict physical harm on others, and the people must give up this right to public institutions with the establishment of government and civil law; but there is also a natural right to punish with social disapproval those who have engaged in blameworthy conduct, and this right is retained by the people even after the establishment of government and civil law.

In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke advised parents that they should use this law of reputation--social praise and blame--as the most powerful means for shaping the moral character of their children.  This was "the great secret of education" for cultivating the moral and intellectual virtues in children, and particularly for instilling "civility"--a "respect and good will to all people" (secs. 56-65).  

Locke observed that this law of reputation introduced some cultural variability in moral standards--"and so in different societies, virtues and vices were changed."  This provoked some of his readers to criticize him as a moral relativist who denied the eternal natural law.  And yet he thought there was some universal regularity in these reputational standards of morality. He saw that "as to the main, they for the most part kept the same everywhere."  They "in a great measure, everywhere correspond with the unchangeable rule of right and wrong."  So that "even in the corruption of manners, the true boundaries of the law of nature, which ought to be the rule of virtue and vice, were pretty well preferred" (ECHU, 2.28.11).

Insofar as Locke saw this moral law of reputation as compatible with individual liberty, he would have agreed with Friedrich Hayek's criticism of John Stuart Mill's "no-harm principle" in On Liberty.  Mill wrote:

"The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion.  That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any f their number is self-protection.  That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. . . . The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others.  In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.  Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign" (1956, 13).

Following this principle, Mill condemned "social tyranny" as "tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling" and the "despotism of custom." 

Hayek disagreed: "the fact that conduct within the private sphere is not a proper object for coercive action by the state does not necessarily mean that in a free society such conduct should also be exempt from the pressure of opinion or disapproval. . . . John Stuart Mill directed his heaviest attack against such 'moral coercion.' . . . it probably makes for greater clarity not to represent as coercion the pressure that public approval or disapproval exerts to secure obedience to moral rules and conventions" (1960, 146).  In a free society, Hayek believed, society but not the state enforces moral virtue.  The enforcement of moral rules through the social pressure of public approval or disapproval should not be seen as coercion (1960, 62-63, 402, 451).

When Patrick Deneen (in Why Liberalism Failed) scorns Locke's liberalism for its "atomistic individualism" and its failure to cultivate the moral virtues of social life, he says nothing about this--about how Locke insisted on the importance of promoting social virtue through social praise and blame.

What Locke calls the law of reputation is what evolutionary theorists of cooperation--beginning with Richard Alexander (1987)--have called "indirect reciprocity."  In direct reciprocity, we reciprocate the cooperation or defection of others: if you scratch my back, I will scratch yours (Trivers 1971).  In indirect reciprocity, we reciprocate someone's reputation for cooperation or defection:  if you have the reputation for scratching other people's backs, I will scratch yours.  In large societies, where we need to interact with many people who are not our kin, and with whom we have not had any previous interactions, we rely on their reputations to decide whether we can trust them; and our social happiness depends on our maintaining our own good reputations for being virtuous people.

Locke's claim that in the state of nature, people enforce the natural law of equal liberty through both forcible and reputational punishment can be supported by the ethnographic studies of foraging bands and other people living without formal governmental institutions.  And the fact that these two forms of natural punishment are manifest in foraging societies, which was the environment of our evolutionary adaptation, suggests that this is part of our evolved human nature.

For example, Polly Wiessner, in her studies of the the !Kung San of Southern Africa, has said that among them, "all adult members of the society are autonomous equals who cannot command, bully, coerce, or indebt others."  There is a "strong egalitarian norm that no adult can tell another what to do."  "All people as autonomous individuals are expected to stand up for their rights," and so everyone has the right to enforce the social norms of the group by punishing those who violate them" (2005, 117, 126, 135).

Punishment can take many forms--from mild to severe--mocking, mild criticism, harsh criticism, ostracism from the group, or violent acts.  Although peace was usually maintained, there was always an underlying threat of violence, and sometimes disputes escalated into general brawls.  Although everyone is free to punish transgressors, those who are judged to be too critical or harsh suffer from their bad reputation.

Among foragers, the punishment for the most violent acts--such as murder--can be execution (Balikci 1989; Boehm 2012; Hoebel 1955).  Typically, a murderer is killed by the victim's family taking revenge.  A serial killer (two or more victims) can be punished by collective action: usually the community orders a relative of the killer to kill him; less often, there is a collective attack on the killer.

Sometimes foragers have been identified by anthropologists as utterly peaceful--even called the "harmless people"--but this is because usually by the time anthropologists have contact with them, the foragers have come under state control, which has a pacifying effect, just as Hobbes and Locke said: because the state of nature easily becomes a state of war, people will benefit from having governments to enforce laws collectively that dampen their tendency to violent conflict.  Once anthropologists probe into the distant history of foragers, they discover a history of extreme violence that was reduced once they came under governmental authority (Boehm 2012; Lee 1979, 370-400).  The most violent society ever studied by anthropologists are the Waorani, living in the remote Ecuadorian rainforest, among whom for some time about 60% of all deaths were homicides.  The Waorani themselves wanted to end the killing, and they were happy when they came under a governmental authority that reduced the killing (Robarchek and Robarchek 2008).

Individuals living under the laws of a centralized state have given up their natural right to the forcible punishment of violent assaults, although they might still exercise their right of killing in self-defense when the officers of the state are not immediately available to protect them.  But even when they live under a government, all individuals still have the natural right to inflict reputational punishment on those who offend them, just as Locke said.  

In his Descent of Man, Darwin explained the evolution of the natural moral sense as rooted in the evolved social instincts of human nature that make human beings intensely attentive to the approbation or disapprobation of people in their social groups, so that they want to have the good reputation for displaying praiseworthy virtues and avoiding blameworthy vices (2004, 120-151).  Evolutionary anthropologists studying the ethnographic record have confirmed this by finding that there are universal social norms of moral good and evil enforced in societies around the world and throughout history by reputational punishment--norms of social cooperation that include helping kin, loyalty to one's group, bravery, generosity, fairness in social exchange, and respecting property rights (Curray, Mullins, and Whitehouse 2019; Westermarck 1906).

The most pervasive means of reputational punishment, deeply rooted in our evolutionary history beginning with our hunter-gatherer ancestors, is gossip (Boehm 2012; Feinberg et al. 2012; Feiberg et al. 2014; Hoebel 1955; Raihani and Bshary 2019; Wiessner 2005; Wu et al. 2016a, 2016b).  Through gossip, we ridicule, shame, or denigrate people for their bad behavior and thus punish them by giving them a bad reputation that imposes social costs on them.  Empirical studies have shown that most human speaking time--perhaps 65% across cultures--is devoted to gossip (Dunbar 2004).

In all of these ways, research in Darwinian anthropology indicates that Locke was correct in arguing that there is a natural right to enforce the law of nature through forcible and reputational punishment.

I have written some previous posts on some of these points hereherehere, here, and here.


Alexander, Richard. 1987. The Biology of Moral Systems. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Balikci, Asen. 1989. The Netsilik Eskimo. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Boehm, Christopher. 2012. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame.  New York: Basic Books.

Curry, Oliver Scott, Daniel Austin Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse. 2019. "Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies." Current Anthropology 60: 47-69.

Darwin, Charles. 2004.  The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2nd edition. London: Penguin.

Deneen, Patrick. 2019. Why Liberalism Failed.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Dunbar, Robin. 2004. "Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective." Review of General Psychology 8: 100-110.

Feinberg, M., R. Willer, Stellar Keltner. 2012. "The Virtues of Gossip: Reputational Information Sharing as Prosocial Behavior." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102: 1015-1030.

Feinberg, M., R. Willer, M. Schultz. 2014. "Gossip and Ostracisim Promote Cooperation in Groups." Psychological Science 25: 656-664.

Hayek, Friedrich. 1960. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hoebel, E. Adamson. 1955.  The Law of Primitive Man: A Study in Comparative Legal Dynamics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lee, Richard Borshay. 1979. The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John.  1959.  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 2 vols. Annotated by Alexander Campbell Fraser.  New York: Dover.

Locke, John.  1960.  Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John.  1996.  Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Of the Conduct of the Understanding. Eds. Ruth Grant and Nathan Tarcov. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Mill, John Stuart. 1956. On Liberty. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Raihani, Nichola, and Redouan Bshary. 2019. "Punishment: One Tool, Many Uses." Evolutionary Human Science 1: e12.

Robarchek, Clayton, and Carole Robarchek. 2008. Waorani: The Contexts of Violence and War. Mason, OH: Cengage Leaning.

Simmons, A. John. 1991. "Locke and the Right to Punish." Philosophy and Public Affairs 20: 311-349.

Simmons, A. John. 1992. The Lockean Theory of Rights. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Trivers, Robert. 1971. "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism." Quarterly Review of Biology 46: 35-57.

Ward, Lee. 2010. John Locke and Modern Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Westermarck, Edward. 1908. The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. London: Macmillan.

Wiessner, Polly. 2005. "Norm Enforcement among the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen: A Case of Strong Reciprocity?" Human Nature. 16: 115-145.

Wu, J., D. Balliet, and P. Van Lange. 2016a. "Reputation Management: Why and How Gossip Enhances Generosity." Evolution and Human Behavior 37: 193-201.

Wu, J., D. Balliet, and P. Van Lange. 2016b. "Gossip Versus Punishment: The Efficiency of Reputation to Promote and Maintain Cooperation." Scientific Reports 6: 594.

Zuckert, Michael P. 1994. Natural Rights and the New Republicanism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Friday, May 14, 2021

If COVID Leaked from a Wuhan Lab, Should We Blame Francis Bacon?


Zhengli-Li Shi is a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who is a leading expert on bat coronaviruses.  In 2015, she co-authored a paper published in Nature Medicine entitled "A SARS-like Cluster of Circulating Bat Coronaviruses Shows Potential for Human Emergence."  She and her colleagues reported that they had created a new coronavirus that was a chimera combining genetic material from two strains of virus.  They took the backbone of the SARS-CoV virus--the coronavirus that caused the SARS epidemic of 2003--and replaced its spike protein with one from a horseshoe bat coronavirus known as SHCO14-CoV.  This artificial coronavirus was able to infect the cells of the human airway when injected into a lab culture of these human cells or into mice genetically engineered to carry the human version of a protein called ACE2 that covers the surface of cells along the human airways.  They found that neither monoclonal antibodies nor vaccines could protect the human cells from infection by this new recombinant coronavirus.  This was what virologists call a "gain-of-function" study: they had altered a virus to increase its pathogenicity--its capacity for causing disease. 

If this new virus had escaped from their laboratory, it could have infected human beings with a dangerous disease, which might have become a pandemic.  Since we know that Shi has continued such gain-of-function research in her lab in Wuhan, we have to wonder whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has caused the COVID pandemic was created in her lab and then escaped from the lab in 2019.  Shi has denied this by saying that the SARS2 virus must have emerged naturally in bats and then jumped from bats to humans.  But no one has ever found the SARS2 virus in a bat, despite an intense hunt for it among bats over the past 15 months since the virus was first found in humans in Wuhan.

In her 2015 article, Shi recognized the high risk in gain of function research.  She also reported that her research was completed with funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) before a moratorium on the funding of such research was announced in 2014, during the administration of President Obama.  The NIH announced the lifting of that moratorium in 2017, during the administration of President Trump.  Some scientists warned that this was a serious mistake.  For example, Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that gain-of-function                  studies "have done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics--yet they risked created an accidental pandemic."  

Even between 2014 and 2017, while the moratorium on funding such research was in effect, Shi continued to receive NIH funding--passed through the EcoHealth Alliance in New York City under the supervision of Peter Daszak--because she benefited from a footnote in the 2014 moratorium document that stated: "an exception from the research pause may be obtained if the head of the USG funding agency determines that the research is urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security."  Either Anthony Fauci (the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) or Francis Collins (the Director of the National Institutes of Health) or both must have invoked this footnote to preserve the federal funding for Shi's gain-of-function research.

There are two primary theories for explaining the origin of the SARS2 virus that has caused the COVID pandemic.  One is that the virus emerged naturally through evolution by natural selection in bats and then passed to humans, perhaps through some intermediary animal.  The other theory is that it was created in Shi's lab in Wuhan and leaked from the lab by infecting people working in the lab.  The creation of the virus in the lab would have been done either by genetic engineering or by evolution through serial passage of viruses (transferring viruses from one cell culture to another and selecting those that had higher pathogenicity).  

Last year, I wrote about the debate over these two theories here and here.  There is no conclusive proof for either of these theories.  The proof for the theory of natural emergence would be finding the SARS2 virus in bats, which has not happened.  The proof for the theory of leaking form the Wuhan lab would be finding some record of the virus being created in the lab, but the lab has refused to release its records of research.  Without such proof, we can only judge the relative plausibility of the theories in accounting for the relevant facts.  In my posts last year, I favored the natural emergence explanation.  But now I have been persuaded by a long article by Nicholas Wade arguing that the most reasonable conjecture is that the virus escaped from Shi's Wuhan lab.  (Some years ago, I wrote a series of six posts on Wade's book A Troublesome Inheritance and how human biodiversity supports the natural right to equal liberty.)

Wade's article is part of a big shift among scientists towards taking seriously the lab leak theory.  This shift began in response to the World Health Organization's report issued on March 30th that dismissed the lab leak theory as extremely unlikely.  This report was not based on a thorough and unbiased investigation, which led even the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Adhanom to criticize the report.  And since then many scientists have signed public letters saying that a full investigation is necessary.  Remarkably, one of the signers of a letter sent to Science is Ralph Baric, an epidemiologist and microbiologist at the University of North Carolina, who has collaborated with Shi in her gain of function research.  Some of this has recently been reported in The New York Times.

Here is Wade's summary of his arguments.  I have added numbers to distinguish the arguments:

"(1) It's documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice.  This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged.  (2) The researches were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory.  So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising.  (3) In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute.  (4) The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanized mice.  (5) It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, and (6) this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses.  What more evidence could you want, aside from the presently unobtainable lab records documenting SARS2's creation?"

"Proponents of natural emergence have a rather harder story to tell.  The plausibility of their case rests on a single surmise, the expected parallel between the emergence of SARS2 and that of SARS1 and MERS.  But none of the evidence expected in support of such a parallel history has yet emerged.  (1) No one has found the bat population that was the source of SARS2, if indeed it ever infected bats.  (2) No intermediate hosts has presented itself, despite an intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals.  (3) There is no evidence of the virus making multiple independent jumps from its intermediate host to people, as both the SARS1 and MERS viruses did.  (4) There is no evidence from hospital surveillance records of the epidemic gathering strength in the population as the virus evolved.  (5) There is no explanation of why a natural epidemic should break out in Wuhan and nowhere else.  (6) There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other SARS-related beta-coronavirus possesses, (7) nor why the site is composed of human-preferred codons.  The natural emergence theory battles a bristling array of implausibilities."

"The records of the Wuhan Institute of Virology certainly hold much relevant information.  But Chinese authorities seem unlikely to release them given the substantial chance that they incriminate the regime in the creation of the pandemic.  Absent the efforts of some courageous Chinese whistle-blower, we may already have at hand just about all of the relevant information we are likely to get for a while."

So if this is true, who should we blame for allowing the human creation of a virus that has caused a global pandemic that has killed over three million people and continues to kill more every day?  

Wade identifies four groups of people who deserve some blame.  We can blame the Chinese virologists who performed the gain-of-function experiments in the Wuhan institute.  We can blame the Chinese authorities who allowed these experiments and then covered up the evidence that the SARS2 virus was created in Wuhan.  We can blame the worldwide community of virologists, because many virologists have engaged in gain-of-function research, despite their knowledge of how risky it is.  We can blame the American government for funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology, because Shi's research has been funded by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) given to Peter Daszak's EcoHealth Alliance.

Since Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of NIAID, we might blame him if he knew about this funding for Shi's gain-of-function research.  Surprisingly, there are some reports now that Fauci has said that he is "not convinced" that the SARS2 virus originated in nature, and that there should be a full investigation of what happened in Shi's lab.  

Or should we blame Francis Bacon?  After all, wasn't it Bacon who in the 17th century proposed the modern scientific project for mastering nature that has supported the research done in laboratories like those at the Wuhan Institute?


Bacon's book New Atlantis (1627) is the imaginary story of an island in the South Pacific inhabited by the people of Bensalem and ruled by scientists dedicated to the technological conquest of nature, based on research they do in Salomon's House.  Bacon's description of Salomon's House is remarkable, because it is the first account of a modern scientific research institution supported by public authority to promote progress in science and technology to conquer nature for human benefit.  Salomon's House is said to have two purposes--"the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible."  The first purpose is knowledge for its own sake.  The second purpose is power over the world.  The aim is to unite human knowledge and human power.

Salomon's House has facilities and tools for studying every realm of nature, including soil, minerals, air, light, wind, water, plants, animals, and human beings.  Scientists work to produce new kinds of drugs, foods, and machines.  They produce flying machines, boats that move under water, robotic devices that move like animals and human beings, powerful military weapons, and artificially created plants and animals.  The latter would presumably include the biotechnological creation of new forms of life, like what Shi does in her Wuhan lab.  The scientists search for ways to preserve human health and prolong life.

The scientists in Salomon's House are assigned various duties.  Some travel throughout the world secreting gathering whatever experimental knowledge human beings have developed.  Others draw out general conclusions from these experiments.  Others apply these experiments to develop new inventions.  Still others build on this knowledge to develop a comprehensive understanding of nature.  

The scientists consult together to decide which inventions and experiments should be made public and which should be kept secret.  They all take an oath of secrecy to conceal whatever should not be publicized.  

Inventions are particularly important in Salomon's House, and for every new invention, the inventor is honored with the erection of a statue.  So it seems that these scientists are motivated by two natural desires--the natural desire for intellectual understanding and the natural desire for social status--the same desires that drive modern scientists today.

The scientists in Salomon's House visit the major cities of Bensalem to announce useful inventions and to help people explain and protect themselves against natural dangers such as diseases, threatening animals, earthquakes, floods, comets, and scarcity of resources.  Salomon's House conducts daily religious ceremonies to praise God for his works and to ask His aid in applying knowledge of His works to good and holy causes.

Throughout his life, Bacon had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British monarch to sponsor scientific research just as Bensalem supported the work of Salomon's House.  After his death, many people were inspired by New Atlantis to device plans to set up publicly supported scientific institutions for promoting experimental studies of nature and useful inventions.  The establishment in 1682 of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, with a royal charter from King Charles II, was one of the most successful outcomes.  Modern publicly funded institutions for collaborative scientific research dedicated to new discoveries and inventions, such as the U.S. National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, also seem to follow the model of Bacon's Salomon's House.

As indicated by the fact that the scientists in Salomon's House are sworn to secrecy, Bacon suggests that some of their research would be seen by the public as harmful.  So, for example, their research is supposed to help people protect themselves against diseases; but some of that research might run the risk of creating and releasing new forms of life that could cause unusually dangerous infectious diseases--like COVID.  Can we trust scientists to have the wisdom to refrain from research that is too risky?  Or should there be public debate over whether such research should be conducted or prohibited?

Some scientists today are worried that if the general public learns that SARS2 was indeed created by a laboratory experiment, the public outrage could damage the whole modern scientific project initiated by Bacon.  The public would learn that we cannot trust the scientists to keep us safe.  As Antonio Regaldo, the biomedicine editor at MIT Technology Review, has said: "It could shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom."

At the very least, this could lead to a public demand that there be no government funding for gain of function research, and that scientists doing privately funded gain of function research should be held criminally liable for the dangerous diseases they might create.  This could be understood as contributing to the cultural evolution of the human behavioral immune system.  I have written about that in a previous post.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Revolution in Burma and the Burmese Ethnic Identity Crisis

Beginning in 1962, when General Ne Win led a military coup that overthrew the fledgling democracy in Burma, there has been a long history of attempts to topple the Burmese military dictatorship and restore democracy through nonviolent resistance.  In 1962, Tin Maung Win and other students at Rangoon University went into the streets to protest the military coup.  They hoped that a Gandhi-style nonviolent resistance movement could restore democracy.  This has never succeeded in Burma, however, because the nonviolent movements have turned to violent rebellions that have failed to bring down the military dictators.

In 1962, Ne Win and the military established what was called "The Burmese Way to Socialism," which became a one-party socialist state under a military dictatorship.  Thousands of private businesses were nationalized.  Burma became one of the poorest, most dictatorial, and most isolated nations in the world.

We have to ask whether a nonviolent revolution can ever work in Burma (or elsewhere).  Or whether there must be a violent revolution instead, if we think successful revolutions are usually violent.  Or is it possible to combine the two, so that mostly nonviolent protesters are protected by armed defenders?  

These questions have become urgent over the past three months in Burma with the new popular protest movement against the military dictatorship that was declared on February 1.  The protesters have been nonviolent.  But in recent weeks, some have engaged in unarmed violence.  And now some of the ethnic armed insurgents who have fought against the government for decades are becoming allies of the protest movement, offering to provide protection against the government's brutal attacks on the nonviolent protesters.

There are also some more expansive questions here about whether the Burmese revolution can be rightly seen as an expression of a world-wide movement rooted in a natural desire for and a historical trend towards liberty.  I will take up these larger questions in a subsequent post.


In Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution (2020), Ruaridh Arrow has provided a good history of how Gene Sharp and his associates tried to teach some of the soldiers in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) how to launch a nonviolent revolution against the Burmese military dictatorship.  

The Karen are the third largest ethnic group in Burma.  In 1949, after achieving independence from British rule, Burma saw conflict between the majority Bamar ethnic group and minorities like the Karen.  The Karen began an armed rebellion seeking independence from Burma.  In 1976, the Karen National Union changed its position to ask for a federal form of government in which the Karen would have their own regional government within Burma.  Most of the Karen live in the Kayin state of Burma along the border with Thailand.  This armed conflict between the Bamar-dominated government of Burma and the KNLA has become one of the longest running civil wars in the world. 

                                              Kayin State in Burma, On the Border with Thailand

From 1976 to 2000, the KNLA was led by General Saw Bo Mya, who had begun his battlefield experience fighting with the British against the Japanese in World War Two.  He was known for his toughness and wild temper.  So when Bob Helvey went to Burma to meet Bo Mya and to try to persuade him to adopt Gene Sharp's methods of nonviolence, Helvey knew he had a hard job.  Helvey could hope, however, that his own military experience might impress Bo Mya.  Helvey had been a decorated U.S. platoon commander in the Vietnam War in 1968, who had risen in the ranks to become a Colonel and a Defense Attache to Burma in 1983.  When the military sent him to Harvard University for a year as a senior fellow, he heard Sharp lecture on nonviolence, and he was converted.  He has said that his experience in Vietnam convinced him that there had to be an alternative to killing people.  And after hearing Sharp, he decided that he could combine a military style strategic planning with Sharp's nonviolent methods to bring down the military dictatorship in Burma through a plan of strategic nonviolence.

Helvey and Sharp wanted to teach the Burmese resistance movement to avoid the mistakes of the uprising in 1988.  In March of that year, a student was killed by riot police.  When more students took to the streets to protest the killing, the security forces killed hundreds of them.  Thousands of people were arrested, and the universities were closed.

On June 21 of that year, the nonviolent protesters turned violent.  The students killed 20 riot police, and the police killed 80 students.  The government responded with repressive measures, but protests continued to spread throughout the country.  As the military junta began to fear that they were losing control of the country, General Ne Win resigned as socialist party chairman and called for a referendum on establishing a multi-party democracy.

The protesters called for a general strike on August 8, 1988.  Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets.  Some began to march towards the City Hall of Rangoon.  Soldiers opened fire on them, killing hundreds.  The nonviolent protesters responded with violence and attacked the police and soldiers, even beheading some of them.  Over the next three days, over a thousand people died on both sides of the uprising.  The military dictatorship prevailed, under the command of General Ne Win, but it did announce that there would be a general election in 1990.

In January 1989, two leaders of the failed uprising--Tin Maung Win and Ye Kyaw Thu--traveled to Boston to see Gene Sharp and ask for his advice.  They agreed with him that one of the reasons the uprising had failed was that they had not imposed enough nonviolent discipline, and that their brutal violence (such as the beheading of soldiers) had justified the police in firing into the crowds of protesters.

In May of 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had called for a nonviolent transition to democracy, led her party--the National League for Democracy--to victory in the general election.  But then the military annulled the election and put her under house arrest.  She would be under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years.  She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts in the nonviolent struggle for democracy.

Drawing lessons from this history, Helvey in 1991 explained to Bo Mya how a new strategy for nonviolent struggle could finally overturn the dictatorship.  But after Helvey gave his first briefing on nonviolent resistance to Bo Mya, the general walked out of the room without saying anything.  Helvey talked with one of the general's political officers, who suggested requesting another meeting with the general.  "But this time," he said, "don't use the word nonviolent!"

The next morning, Helvey repeated his briefing for the general, but he replaced the word "nonviolent" with the word "political defiance."  This time, Bo Mya was impressed, and he asked Helvey to give this course to some of his soldiers--as long as he never used the word "nonviolence."  Within a few weeks, new recruits joining the Karen National Liberation Army were being taught not only military instruction but also "political defiance."

In 1992 and 1993, Sharp travelled twice to Manerplaw--the village on the Moei River that was the headquarters of KNLA and proposed capital for an independent Karen state.  He explained his new curriculum for teaching a strategic nonviolent action.  He proposed a "Political Defiance Committee" (PDC) with a grand strategy for a nonviolent revolution in Burma to overthrow the military regime.

The strategy document for the PDC planned three phases of action.  In the first phase, the national and regional political defiance committees would provide courses for teaching political defiance; and they would report on the regime's human rights violations.  There would be planning for how to respond to contingent events that would create the conditions for revolution: "The national command is responsible for developing contingency plans for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, her death at the hands of SLORC [the "State Law and Order Restoration Council," the name for the ruling government], the death of Ne Win, or a spontaneous uprising" (Arrow 2020, 163).

For the second phase, there were plans for how to lead the nonviolent revolution through protests, strikes, and efforts to recruit people in the government to defect.  These plans included organizing a parallel government in liberated areas of the country and holding elections.

The third phase would be responding to the collapse of the government, including installing Aung San Suu Kyi and establishing democratic government.  

Here was the most blatant weakness in their plan: they simply assumed that if Aung San Suu Kyi took power through popular elections that would automatically bring democracy to Burma.  They didn't explain how this was to happen.  And they don't show any knowledge of the history of Burma or of the current cultural and political circumstances in Burma that might hinder the success of democracy there.  Most importantly, they did not think about how a country with over 100 distinct ethnic groups that were often in violent conflicts with one another could achieve a conception of democratic citizenship in which all citizens have equal rights.  This problem should have been clear to them from the simple fact that they were working with the Karen National Liberation Army, which had been at war for over 40 years in fighting for the Karen ethnic group.

To reach final agreement on putting their plans into effect, Bo Mya flew to Boston to meet with Sharp and Helvey.  At their first meeting, Bo Mya made a shocking announcement: he had decided that he could not give up his military actions, and so the nonviolent strategy would have to be combined with military force.  Sharp and Helvey tried to persuade him that nonviolence could not work if it was combined with violence--that this was like putting water into the gas tank of a gasoline engine.

In his guide for political defiance instructors, Sharp had written:

"Violence is the most serious contaminant to the success of political defiance (nonviolent struggle). . . . violence by the political defiance organization may give the oppressor the public justification it needs to commit additional atrocities against the public. . . . political defiance attempts to move the struggle away from the oppressor's strong points to areas where he is weak.  We should never seek to fight on his terms."

This is what Sharp and Helvey called "political jujitsu."

Bo Mya disagreed:

"The general argued back that the regime was intent on genocide in the minority areas.  There was no possibility that they could lay down their arms and risk total annihilation.  Instead, he agreed to give up plans for bombings and assassinations in the cities and keep the military forces in a purely defensive posture to protect the ethnic minority areas from government attack.  The military forces would hold onto the territory and buy time for the Political Defiance Committee to move enough trained nonviolent resistance operators into the cities to start the uprisings and overthrow the regime" (Arrow 2020, 165).

Sharp responded to this by arguing that the experience of the Palestinians in the "intifada" of 1987-1990 showed that nonviolent resistance could not succeed if it was combined with violent actions.  Sharp had advised some Palestinians who wanted to apply his methods in a nonviolent campaign to overthrow the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  They wrote manuals of nonviolent actions based on Sharp's ideas that were widely distributed among Palestinians, although the Israelis made these manuals illegal.  Sharp met with Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), in Tunisia; and he tried, but failed, to persuade Arafat to adopt a purely nonviolent strategy.  When the first intifada began in 1987, it was understood to mean an aggressive but nonviolent struggle against the Israeli occupation.  But while most of the intifada was nonviolent, there was some violence--particularly, rock-throwing by young men.  Sharp had warned against this:

"Although stone-throwing is very limited violence in comparison with other options and expresses Palestinian rage and pain, it is almost guaranteed to produce--as it has done--high Palestinian casualties and to alienate Israeli public opinion among the population and soldiers. . . . I have found it extremely difficult to find a Palestinian justification for this heavy price in terms of instrumental effectiveness of that type of action. . . . If you want to alienate Israelis and have them not listen to your demands, then all you have to do is threaten them.  Even if it is with stones, because stones hurt badly" (Arrow 2020, 99).l

And, indeed, the rock-throwing was used by the Israeli propaganda campaign to portray the intifada movement as violent and to argue that it would have been even more violent if the protesters had had access to lethal weapons.  Eventually, the intifada was suppressed.

Sharp's arguments were not persuasive with Bo Mya, however.  And Sharp finally conceded by accepting some combination of nonviolent and violence in the planning for the Burmese resistance movement, although he hoped that over time there would be less recourse to violence. 

Helvey and Sharp knew that their Burmese students of nonviolence would need a textbook, a clear and concise manual on how to move from dictatorship to democracy through nonviolent struggle.  So, in the summer and fall of 1993, Sharp wrote From Dictatorship to Democracy, which was a 90-page distillation of his 900-page Politics of Nonviolent Action.  It was translated into Burmese and into the minority languages of Karen, Mon, Chin, and Jingh Paw.  It was widely distributed to Burmese activists.

When the Burmese intelligence services recognized the influence of this book, they made the penalty for possessing this book imprisonment for up to 7 years.  Foreign Minister U Ohn Gyaw called a press conference to denounce this book and to charge that Aung Sang Suu Kyi was under the influence of subversive Americans such a Bob Helvey and Gene Sharp.  In fact, Suu Kyi had read the book, and she endorsed it as a good statement of her own nonviolent strategy.

The book shows both the strength and the weakness of Sharp's teaching.  It's strength is that it is written in generic terms so that it appeals to nonviolent resistance to oppression as a propensity of a universal human nature.  As Arrow says, "by omitting any reference to particular countries, religions, or cultures, it would become applicable anywhere, by anyone in the world" (168).  

But this is also its weakness, because it does not consider how this universal propensity to resist oppression must be diversely expressed in different historical conditions.  So that any attempt to move from dictatorship to democracy through nonviolent action in Burma will have to be adapted to the peculiar cultural and political circumstances of Burma.  We need to understand not only the human nature of nonviolent resistance but also its human history.

We also need to understand how the success of any revolution--nonviolent or violent--depends on the actions of human individuals.  So, for example, in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the one person most likely to lead a revolution in Burma; and thus a lot has depended on the peculiarities of her character, her judgment, and her circumstances.  (I have written about "biopolitical science" as moving through three levels of analysis: natural history, cultural history, and individual history.)

After a few years of waiting for those unpredictable historical events or individual actions that might create the conditions for revolution, Helvey and Sharp finally decided to end their involvement in Burma at the end of 1998.  Their biggest setback had come early in 1995 when the Burmese army gathered for their final attack on Manerplaw, and Bo Mya was forced to retreat across the river to Thailand.  Then, in 1997, the Thai government turned against the resistance movement in Burma; and so Helvey and Sharp were no longer safe to travel through Thailand.


In contrast to Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, who hoped for a revolutionary transformation that would establish a democracy, some Burmese political thinkers--like Thant Myint-U (2021)--have thought that while a revolution was unlikely, the Constitution of 2008 offered the possibility of a gradual evolution of liberalizing reforms that might eventually bring full democracy.  The prospects for this looked good, particularly when Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and allowed to lead her party in campaigning for seats in the new parliament, and then when her party won a majority in parliament in the free elections of 2015.  But now it seems that this progress towards liberal democracy under the new constitution has been suddenly reversed by the military coup of February 1.

The Constitution combined a semi-elected parliament with military rule.  The army remained autonomous under its own commander-in-chief, who appointed 25 percent of the seats in a two-chamber parliament.  The other 75 percent of the parliamentary seats were filled by elections.  The parliament appointed the president, and the president appointed ministers.  But the ministers of defense, border affairs, and home affairs (in charge of the police and local administration) would be military men nominated by the commander-in-chief.  The president appointed the chief ministers in charge of the country's fourteen states and regions.  Anyone with family members with foreign citizenship were prohibited from being president, which disqualified Aung San Suu Kyi, because her husband and two children were foreign citizens.

In many ways, this Constitution of 2008 resembles the United States Constitution.  There is a separation of powers between the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary.  The selection of the president is made by a "Presidential Electoral College."  The "Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Citizens" (Chapter VIII) include many of the rights protected in the United States Constitution.  The "Basic Principles of the Union" (Chapter I) include "the eternal principles of Justice, Liberty, and Equality in the Union" (sec. 6).

On November 7, 2010, the first elections under the Constitution were held.  Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy boycotted the election because they refused to accept the Constitution.  This made it easy for the military's Union Solidarity and Development Party to win the election by a landslide, which was probably helped by some vote rigging.  One week after the election, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

In the history of this period by Thant Myint-U, Than Shwe, the head of the military forces (called the Tatmadaw), is portrayed as the statesman who planned a transition from oppressive military strongman rule to a divided and balanced structure of power that would be more popularly acceptable (Thant Myint-U 2021, 67-68, 78-80, 109-10, 126, 133, 135, 221).  In 2010, Than Shwe was 78 years old, and he was planning for his retirement, so that he would not be replaced by another military dictator.  He retired many of the older generals and put in their place a new generation of younger officers who would be loyal to him; and he told them that they were to be the guardians of the new constitution.  

In the first few months of 2011, Than Shwe promoted the selection of Thein Sein as President.  Thein Sein had chaired the Constitutional Convention that wrote the Constitution of 2008.  Then Than Shwe abolished the military junta, formally retired, and appointed General Min Aung Hlaing as the new head of the military.

President Thein Sein promoted some liberal reforms that moved towards greater economic and political freedom.  The United States and other countries began to open up to Burma.  In December of 2011, Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Burma since John Foster Dulles in 1955. 

Thein Sein approved a bill amending the party registration law that allowed the National League for Democracy to become a legal political party.  Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders agreed to register under the law, which meant that they had accepted the new constitution.  On April 1, 2012, the first by-elections were held, and the NLD won their first seats in the parliament.  In response to these changes, the United States and European countries began to lift the economic and political sanctions on Burma that had been imposed to punish the military rulers.

In 2015, in the first fully free and fair election since 1960, the NLD won 86 percent of the seats being contested.  Although Suu Kyi could not constitutionally become president, she selected Htin Kyaw to be the president, while making it clear that she would be the true leader of the country.  The parliament passed a law to create the new position of State Counsellor for Suu Kyi.  She took other positions as well, becoming minister for foreign affairs, education, electric power, and energy.

In June of 2012, two months after the NLD had won the by-elections, Suu Kyi launched a world tour--her first trip outside of Burma since 1987--that became a worldwide celebration of her triumph.  She flew to Oslo to finally accept in person her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.  She flew to London to give a speech to both houses of Parliament.  She flew to Washington to meet President Obama at the White House and then to accept the Congressional Gold Medal in the Rotunda of the Capitol, packed with political leaders who cheered her.  In her speech, she acknowledged "the reform measures instituted by President U Thein Sein."  After she had returned home, in November, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma.  Two years later, he visited a second time.

But then, beginning in 2017, the Western world's adulation of Suu Kyi was replaced by dismay and shock in response to the Burmese army's brutal attacks on the Rohingya and Suu Kyi's refusal to criticize those attacks.  The Rohingya are a Muslim people who live in the Arakan state of western Burma on the border of Bangladesh.  There is a long history of violent conflict between these people and the Burmese Buddhist people who live near them.  Many Burmese say that the Rohingya are a foreign "Bengali" people and not one of the "national races" (taingyintha) of Burma.  

There have been many Muslim insurgencies in Arakan, the first one in 1948.  After rioting between Muslims and Buddhists in 2012, and a harsh operation by the Burmese army to put down the rioting, some Rohingya exiles in Saudi Arabia formed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which recruited young men for an armed insurrection.  In 2016, ARSA led some Rohingya men in an attack on some police posts in an Arakan township near the Bangladesh border.  In the following months, the Burmese army attacked the insurgents, which forced as many as 70,000 Rohingya to flee the violence and seek refuge in Bangladesh.  As ARSA continued its attacks on Buddhist villages, the army responded with merciless massacres.  By the end of 2017, there were over 700,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.  The conflict continued into 2018.  Western leaders and human rights agencies condemned the Burmese military for "genocide" or "ethnic cleansing."  In 2019, the government of Burma was charged with genocide before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.  Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to the Hague to lead the defense of Burma against the charges.  Many of her supporters were stunned that she was apparently defending the atrocities committed by the Burmese army.

This conflict between Muslim and Buddhist groups in Arakan is only one of hundreds of ethnic conflicts in Burma, which arise from a continuing dispute over the ethnic, racial, or cultural identity of Burma--the question being who belongs to the Burmese nation, and who is an alien?  This question runs deep through the history of Burma.  When the British ruled Burma as a colony, they called the country "a zone of racial instability."

The Burmese state recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups, but this list is confusing because the distinctions are not really fixed: based on their diverse ancestry, intermarriage, and migration, people can belong to different ethnic groups as defined by race, culture, or language (Cheesman 2017; International Crisis Group 2020).  For example, even Aung San Suu Kyi, who identifies herself as belonging to the Bamar majority, is part Karen.

Insofar as these ethnic groups see themselves as competing for resources and power within Burma, they are thrown into political and military conflict.  Of the almost 100 registered political parties, the majority seek to represent the interests of a specific ethnic group.  Much of the political system is organized around diverse ethnic interests.  The Constitution provides that the most politically and dominant ethnic groups have their own eponymous states: the seven states of Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan.  The Constitution also recognizes six other ethnic groups with geographically concentrated populations their own self-administered areas.  There are also a small number of elected seats in state and regional parliaments that are reserved for ethnic groups.

Burma has some of the longest-running armed conflicts in the world, some of which began over 70 years ago, and most of these conflicts arise from ethnicity.  These ethnic military groups include some twenty "ethnic armed groups," such as the Karen National Liberation Army, some hundreds or even thousands of armed militias, and twenty-three "Border Guard Forces" who operate under Tatmadaw control in areas close to Burma's international borders.

Some ethno-nationalists would say that what we see here is an expression of a natural human desire for ethnic identity that leads to unremitting conflict in an ethnically diverse country like Burma.  To achieve some harmony, they would say, Burma needs to establish a homogeneous Burmese ethnic identity that would exclude all foreign ethnic groups as aliens.  But it's not clear how this could be done.

In previous post, I have disagreed with the ethno-nationalists by arguing that while our evolved human nature is inclined to tribalism, in that we naturally look for cues of coalitional affiliation by which we set "us" against "them," the content of those cues depends on social learning and cultural history.  And consequently people in multi-racial/multi-ethnic societies can be taught to be cooperative.  A country as culturally and ethnically diverse as Burma could achieve this if it were to become a fully liberal open society, in which people would see themselves as equal in their political rights as citizens while being diverse in their social identities as belonging to different ethnic groups.

The Burmese Constitution actually affirms the principle of equal citizenship, but this seems to be contradicted by the Constitution's affirmation of the multiplicity of ethnic identities.  The "Basic Principles of the Union" include the declaration that "the State is where multi-National races [taingyintha] collectively reside" (sec. 3).  But this is immediately followed by the declaration that "the Sovereign power of the Union is derived from the citizens and is in force in the entire country" (sec. 4).  Is Burma a community of equal citizens?  Or is it an amalgamation of "multi-National races"?

The Constitution's "Fundamental Rights and Duties" are said to belong not to "national races" but to "the citizens."  All citizens "enjoy equal rights before the law" (sec. 347).  And "the Union shall not discriminate against any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex, and wealth" (sec. 348).   The equal rights of all citizens include the right "to develop their language, literature, culture they cherish, religion they profess, and customs, without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths" (sec. 354).

The Constitution does recognize the "special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union" (sec. 361).  But it also recognizes "Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union" (sec. 362).  This affirms religious liberty and religious pluralism, by which all citizens are free to profess and practice their religion in any way that does not infringe on the religious liberty of others.

The Constitution declares: "The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden.  Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity, or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution" (sec. 364).

According to these constitutional principles, the Rohingya Muslims should have the same equal rights as citizens as the Arakanese Buddhists.  In fact, President Thein Sein suggested this in 2012 when he said that the Rohingya Muslims were entitled to equal Burmese citizenship, except for those who had illegally entered the country since 1948.  And some Burmese ministers had said that less than 20 percent of the Rohingya were illegal immigrants (Thant Myint-U 2021, 183).


Despite this history of conflict between Burma's diverse ethnic, racial, and religious groups, all of these groups are now united in opposition to the military junta that seized power 100 days ago on February 1.  One of the favorite slogans for the protesting crowds has been: "We won't let you govern us at all."  People cannot be governed if they do not consent to government.  But then people must decide the best way to express their withdrawal of consent--either through nonviolent resistance or violent retaliation or some mixture of nonviolent and violent actions.

Sometimes a government can be overthrown by a nonviolent revolution before the revolutionaries engage in any violence.  That's what happened in the American Revolution.  In a letter to Thomas Jefferson (August 24, 1815), John Adams wrote:  "What do We mean by the Revolution?  The War?  That was no part of the Revolution.  It was only an Effect and Consequence of it.  The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington."  Adams elaborated that idea in two other letters to Jedidiah Morse (November 29, 1815) and Hezekiah Niles (February 13, 1818).

The American colonists' methods of nonviolent resistance included boycotts of British goods, refusal to export American raw materials to Britain, refusing to serve on juries under Crown-appointed judges, and creating their own parallel economic, judicial, and political institutions (such as the Continental Congress).  Before the bloody violence at Lexington in 1775 and the authorization of a Continental Army in 1776, the American colonies were already independent of the British Government.  Gene Sharp helped to edit a history of this nonviolent American Revolution (Conser et al. 1986).

Similar methods of nonviolent resistance are now being used by the "Civil Disobedience Movement" in Burma, which is attempting to overthrow the military junta that took power on February 1.  In addition to the massive street protests across Burma, people have launched nation-wide economic boycotts, and they have refused to do any work for the government or pay their taxes.  Bureaucrats, teachers, doctors, and other professionals have refused to work.  There are reports that many government agencies cannot operate because so few people are working for them.  Some police and military people are defecting from the government.  The National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar was formed on April 16 claiming that it is the legitimate government of Myanmar, which creates a parallel government similar to the American Continental Congress.

The military junta has responded to this with violent repression--killing as many as 770 people, arresting at least 5,000 people, and brutally attacking and torturing many people.  It's natural for people who have suffered such violence to want to defend themselves with retaliatory violence.  But the proponents of nonviolent resistance--like Maria Stephan (2021)--are arguing that this would be a mistake because it plays into the hands of the military dictators: violent resistance against dictators strikes them where they are strongest; nonviolent resistance strikes them where they are weakest.  Dictators like to point to the violence of anti-government protesters because this justifies their own violence--weakening public support for the protesters and making it less likely that police and soldiers will defect from the government.  Stephan cites the quantitative evidence supporting this argument.  Over the past 120 years, nonviolent revolutions have succeeded about 50% of the time, while violent revolutions have succeeded only about 25% of the time.  Successful nonviolent campaigns have taken on average about three years to prevail, while successful violent campaigns have lasted about nine years.

Such arguments have not been persuasive with those many protesters in Burma who have begun using whatever weapons they have, such as slingshots and homemade air guns (Paddock 2021).   In recent weeks, many protesters from the cities have gone into the forests for training in warfare and sabotage (Beech 2021a).  Now the "ethnic armed organizations" (EAOs) that have been fighting the government for decades are now supporting the protest movement (The Irrawaddy 2021).  They do this in two ways.  By attacking the Burmese military in the border areas, they force the government to deploy more troops to the frontlines, which leaves fewer troops for attacking urban protesters.  They also provide a refuge for protesters fleeing the cities and going underground, while being trained in guerrilla warfare by the EAOs.

Remarkably, perhaps for the first time in the history of Burma, all of the ethnic groups in Burma are united in cooperating to resist the military junta.  More than a third of Burma's population is composed of hundreds of ethnic minorities, many of whom have fought insurgencies against the Burmese military, without any support from the Bamar ethnic majority.  But now many people in the Bamar majority see themselves fighting alongside the ethnic minorities against the military.  One Bamar elementary-school teacher was quoted as saying that she now understands the suffering of the Rohingya:  "After the coup, I saw soldiers and police killing and torturing people in the cities.  Then I started to feel empathy for Rohingya and ethnic people who have been suffering worse than us for many years" (Beech 2021b).  

The National Unity Government has proposed a new constitution that will establish a federal system in which regions with large minority ethnic groups--the Karen, the Kachin, and others--will have some political autonomy.  This has been the major demand of the EAOs for decades.

This conception of Burma as a multi-ethnic state, in which all citizens have equal rights under the law regardless of their ethnic identity, could eliminate the governmental persecution of minority groups like the Rohingya, which would break away from the policies of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.  Aung San Suu Kyi's government has persecuted minority ethnic groups.  In the 2020 election, for example, many polls in Burma's frontier lands where the ethnic minorities are concentrated were closed before election day.  Out of an electorate of about 37 million people, 1.5 million registered voters were disenfranchised.  And this is not counting the one million Rohingya now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh because they were forced to leave Burma (Beech and Nang 2021aBeech and Nang 2021b).

For now, we must wait to see whether the resistance movement can succeed in overthrowing the military dictatorship, and whether a successful movement is nonviolent or violent.


Arrow, Ruaridh. 2020. Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution. London: Big Indy Books.

Beech, Hannah. 2021a. "'I Will Die Protecting My Country': In Myanmar, a New Resistance Rises." The New York Times, March 24.

Beech, Hannah. 2021b. "'Now We Are United': Myanmar's Ethnic Divisions Soften After Coup." The New York Times, April 30.

Beech, Hannah, and Saw Nang. 2020a. "'This Is Not a Democracy':  Myanmar Prepares for a Troubled Election."  The New York Times, November 6.

Beech, Hannah, and Saw Nang. 2020b. "Myanmar Election Delivers Another Decisive Win for Aung San Suu Kyi." The New York Times, November 11.

Cheesman, Nick. 2017. "How in Myanmar 'National Races' Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya." Journal of Contemporary Asia 47: 461-483.

Conser, Walter H., Ronald McCarthy, David Toscano, and Gene Sharp, eds. 1986. Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence, 1765-1775. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

International Crisis Group. 2020. "Identity Crisis: Ethnicity and Conflict in Myanmar." Asia Report Number 312. August 28.

The Irrawaddy. "Ethnic Armed Groups Unite With Anti-Coup Protesters Against Myanmar Junta." April 30.

Paddock, Richard. 2021. "Myanmar's Protesters Face Down the Military With Slingshots and Rocks." The New York Times, April 17.

Sharp, Gene. 2012. From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. New York: The New Press.

Stephan, Maria J. 2021. "Myanmar's Protesters Have Achieved Significant Victories--Now Is the Time to Double Down on Nonviolent Resistance." Waging Nonviolence, March 24.

Thant Myint-U. 2021. The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. New York: W. W. Norton.