Separation and Its Discontents
Separation and Its Discontents
Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism
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This book builds upon my previous work, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (MacDonald 1994/2002; hereafter PTSDA). While PTSDA focused on developing a theory of Judaism within an evolutionary framework, the present volume focuses on the phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Judaism and anti-Semitism fairly cry out for an evolutionary interpretation. Anti-Semitism has been a very robust tendency over a very long period of human history and in a wide range of societies with different forms of government, different economic systems, and different dominant religious ideologies. Many anti-Semitic episodes, such as the Iberian inquisitions and the Nazi holocaust, have been characterized by extraordinary intra-societal violence. Moreover, anti-Semitism has sometimes been characterized by a very overt, self-conscious racialism...a phenomenon that immediately suggests the relevance of evolutionary theory.

The basic thesis of this book can be summarized by the proposition that Judaism must be conceptualized as a group strategy characterized by cultural and genetic segregation from gentile societies combined with resource competition and conflicts of interest with segments of gentile societies. This cultural and genetic separatism combined with resource competition and other conflicts of interest tend to result in division and hatred within the society.

Nevertheless, as Leslie White (1966, 3) wrote many years ago in his discussion of the Boasian school of anthropology as a politically inspired cult, “One who follows procedures such as these incurs the risk of being accused of indulging in non-scholarly, personal attacks upon whom he discusses. Such a charge is, in fact, expectable and completely in keeping with the thesis of this essay. We wish to state that no personal attacks are intended.”

No personal or ethnic attacks are intended here, either. Nevertheless, the charge that this is an anti-Semitic book is, to use White’s phrase, expectable and completely in keeping with the thesis of this essay. A major theme of this volume, found especially in Chapters 6 and 7, is that intellectual defenses of Judaism and of Jewish theories of anti-Semitism have throughout its history played a critical role in maintaining Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. Parts of the book read as a sort of extended discourse on the role of Jewish self-interest, deception, and self-deception in the areas of Jewish historiography, Jewish personal identity, and Jewish conceptualizations of their ingroup and its relations with outgroups. This is therefore first and foremost a book that confidently predicts its own irrelevance to those about whom it is written.

MacDonald, K. B. (1994/2002). A People that Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy. Westport, CT: Praeger. Paperback edition published in 2002  by iUniverse (Lincoln, NE) (

White, L. (1966). The social organization of ethnological theory. Rice University Studies: Monographs in Cultural Anthropology 52(4):1–66.

The theory of group evolutionary strategies described in A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (MacDonald 1994; hereafter PTSDA) argued that Judaism may be understood mainly as a cultural invention, maintained by social controls that act to structure the behavior of group members and characterized by a religious ideology that rationalizes ingroup behavior both to ingroup members and to outsiders. Although evolved mechanisms of group cohesion are also important, it was shown that social controls acting within the group were able to structure the group to facilitate ingroup economic and political cooperation and resource competition with outgroups, erect barriers to genetic penetration from outside the group, and facilitate eugenic practices aimed at producing high intelligence and high-investment parenting ideally suited to developing a specialized ecological role within human societies. Because of these traits, and particularly an IQ that is at least one standard deviation above the Caucasian mean, Judaism has been a powerful force in several historical eras.

The proposal that Judaism may be usefully conceptualized as a group evolutionary strategy suggests that anti-Semitism be defined as negative attitudes or behavior directed at Jews because of their group membership. This is a very broad that is equally applicable to anti-Jewish attitudes in any historical era. It is also consistent with a very wide range of external processes contributing to anti-Semitism in a particular historical era, and also with qualitative changes in the nature of anti-Jewish attitudes or the institutional structure of anti-Semitism at different times and places.

One type of evolutionary approach to anti-Semitism considers the possibility that humans have mechanisms that cause them to favor relatives or others who share genes. There is little doubt that kin recognition mechanisms exist among animals (see Rushton 1989), and some evolutionists (e.g., Dunbar 1987; Shaw & Wong 1989; van der Dennen 1987; Vine 1987) have proposed genetic mechanisms based on kin recognition as an explanation for xenophobia, although others have proposed that the genetic mechanism may well depend on learning during development (e.g., Alexander 1979, 126–128). Genetic Similarity Theory (GST) (Rushton 1989) extends beyond kin recognition by proposing mechanisms (possibly based on kin recognition mechanisms) that assess phenotypic similarity as a marker for genetic similarity. These proposed mechanisms would then promote positive attitudes and a lower threshold for altruism for similar others. There is indeed considerable evidence, summarized in Rushton (1989) and Segal (1993), that phenotypic similarity is an important factor in human assortment, helping behavior, and liking others, although whether GST can account for these phenomena remains controversial (see commentary in Rushton 1989).

Mechanisms based on kin recognition and phenotypic similarity may have some role in traditional anti-Semitism, since in traditional societies there would be much more phenotypic similarity among gentiles than between Jews and gentiles, due to differences in clothing, language, appearance (e.g., hair style), and quite often their physical features. Moreover, among Jews, there are anecdotal reports of very high levels of rapport and ability to recognize other Jews which are consistent with the existence of some sort of kin recognition system among Jews.1 As Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell notes, “I was born in galut and I gladly, though once in pain...the double burden and the double pleasure of my self-consciousness, the outward life of an American and the inward secret of the Jew. I walk with this sign as a frontlet between my eyes, and it is as visible to some secret others as their sign is to me” (Bell 1961, 477). Or consider Sigmund Freud, who wrote that he found “the attraction of Judaism and of Jews so irresistible, many dark emotional powers, all the mightier the less they let themselves be grasped in words, as well as the clear consciousness of inner identity, the secrecy of the same mental construction” (in Gay 1988, 601).

However, theories based on phenotypic similarity do not address the crucial importance of cultural manipulation of segregative mechanisms as a fundamental characteristic of Judaism. Indeed, I would suggest that the segregative cultural practices of Judaism have actually resulted in ethnic similarity being of disproportionate importance for Jews in regulating their associations with others. Because of the cultural barriers between Jews and the gentile world, phenotypic similarity between Jews and gentiles on a wide range of traits was effectively precluded as a mechanism for promoting friendship and marriage between Jews and gentiles, and there was a corresponding hypertrophy of the importance of religious/ethnic affiliation (i.e., group membership) as a criterion of assortment.

Moreover, generalized negative attitudes toward dissimilar others seem insufficient to account for anti-Semitism directed against individuals because of their group membership. The mechanisms implied by GST or proposed evolved mechanisms of xenophobia postulate that each individual assesses others on a continuum ranging from very similar to very dissimilar. The important feature of Judaism, however, is that there are discontinuities created by Jewish separatism and the consequent hypertrophy of Jewish religious/ethnic (i.e., group) status as a criterion of similarity. Fundamentally, what is needed is a theoretical perspective in which group membership per se (rather than other phenotypic characteristics of the individual) is of decisive importance in producing animosity between groups.

Creating a group evolutionary strategy results in the possibility of cultural group selection resulting from between-group competition in which the groups are defined by culturally produced ingroup markings (Richerson & Boyd 1997). Boyd and Richerson (1987) show that ingroup markers can evolve as an adaptive response to heterogeneous environments. Groups mark themselves off from other groups and thereby are able to remain reproductively isolated from other groups and adjust rapidly to new and variable environments. Judaism in traditional societies was indeed characterized by a highly elaborated set of ingroup markings that effectively set Jews off from gentile society (PTSDA, Ch. 4). The proposal here is that the process of creating ingroup markings is central to understanding anti-Semitism.

The body of theory that I believe is most

Kevin MacDonald is Professor of Psychology at California State University-Long Beach, Long Beach, CA 90840-0901, USA. His research has focused on developing evolutionary perspectives in history and developmental psychology. After receiving a Masters degree in evolutionary biology, he received a Ph.D. in biobehavioral sciences at the University of Connecticut working on behavioral development in wolves, and he continued developmental research during a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois performing research on human parent-child play. His research has focused on developing evolutionary perspectives in developmental psychology. He has also authored four books, Social and Personality Development: An Evolutionary Synthesis (NY: Plenum, 1988) and A People that Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), Separation and Its Discontents: Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism (Westport, CT, 1998), and The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (Westport, CT, 1998).


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