THE ETHNIC PHENOMENON – Pierre L. Van den Berghe (1981)

The Ethnic Phenomenon

This is a tricky book to review, as it has such a thorny subject: race and ethnicity. It’s also a fairly old text, first published in 1981. Social sciences certainly gained more data since, yet dismissing this book as outdated would be a huge fallacy.

On top of its subject & age, Pierre L. Van den Berghe takes a sociobiological approach – possibly prompting fears of social Darwinism and the likes. That fear is unwarranted, as The Ethnic Phenomenon is a clear and loud refutation of any attempt at instigating hierarchies or other forms of power based on race and ethnicity.

To make it even more messy, Van den Berghe admittedly writes in a Marxist tradition, but not without offering critique on orthodox Marxism. More importantly – this needs to be stressed – Marxist thought is not the core of this book at all, and is hardly used to support his main arguments – if at all.

Still, The Ethnic Phenomenon is – given the nature of the overall subject – clearly a political book too, and it could not have been otherwise. It speaks for Van den Berghe that he is upfront about his ideological framework. His arguments & reasoning is always clearly spelled out to the reader, who can judge the merit of his thinking case by case. It would be outright stupid to dismiss the entire book just because it is writing by a leftist social scientist – I can imagine people of any political leaning agreeing to lots of what he says, as he generally makes a strong, nuanced case.

Just to get it out of the way: Van den Berghe is unambiguous about the fact that ‘race’ as a workable biological category, or a category to use for social attributions, simply does not exist. Nevertheless, there “is no denying the reality of genetic differences in frequencies (not absolutes) of alleles between human groups.” If you get worked up because of facts like that, this book is not for you.

Before I get to the actual discussion of its 301 pages, let me first say this: The Ethnic Phenomenon is a truly first-rate piece of scholarship, setting the paradigm for the thinking about this topic. It is thorough, honest and courageous, attempting to bring some clarity in a highly emotional debate. This is not an ethics treatise, but a scientific study, including 24 pages of bibliography and a 10-page index.

At the same time, the book wants “to exorcise ethnicity by trying to understand it”. This is an important book, a landmark, absolutely mandatory for everybody that seriously studies the history and the contemporary effects of colonialism, racism, nationalism and ethnicity.

First I’ll try to give the gist of Van den Berghe’s thinking. Afterwards I’ll zoom in on some tidbits I found interesting, and I’ll end with a few critical notes.

Van den Berghe’s basic assumption – in the wake of E. O. Wilson – is that we should look at human social organization just as we look at any other animal species’ social organization, in order to use the broadest possible framework for comparison: human exceptionalism is scientifically moot. He uses a utilitarian model of behavior, taking maximizing reproductive success as an important human goal. This doesn’t mean Van den Berghe is a simple behaviorist, on the contrary: “Unless we stop behaving naturally – that is being our selfish, nepotistic, ethnocentric selves – we court collective extinction.”

As such, “ethnic nepotism” is a biological concept, as ethnicity is a possible marker of common descent. The theory of kin selection states that the more genes an animal shares with another, the more altruistic it will behave towards that other. The less genes it shares, the less altruistic it will be. That basic behavioral fact explains why we tend to favor “our people” over other groups. To determine who belongs to our group – back in our savanna days – language, clothing, ritual markers and the likes functioned as markers. With the advent of colonialism also skin color (“phenotype”, not race) became a marker. Van den Berghe covers multiple examples of colonial empires, slavery, middleman minorities, caste systems, and assimilation – across cultures and across time. (It’s maybe of note to those with a bit more background in biology that Van den Berghe’s theory is not in conflict with multi-level selection theory.)

He does this in detail, examining how different material and social circumstances lead to different outcomes. A telling example is how indigenous people are hard to enslave on their own territory, as they generally have a network and local knowledge to fall back upon when they manage to escape. This helps explaining the fact that slaves had to be imported to the Americas, instead of just enslaving the natives. Another example is the fact that due to a seemingly simple matter as latitude (influencing climate, which influences which diseases thrive, etc.) it was very hard for Europeans to truly colonize Central Africa (in the sense of displacing the original inhabitants), while they managed to do so fairly easily in North-America. The list of such examples in this book is endless and diverse, a feast for the curious mind.

It is a power of this book that Van den Berghe transcends an Eurocentric focus on white cruelty, and embeds it in a wider examination of ethnicity-based exploitation as an universal human group tendency.
To get back to Marxism, a Goodreads review puts it like this:

This is the most significant advance ever in the Marxist analysis of economic exploitation. By substituting kinship for class as the great engine of history, Van Den Berghe has invented a neo-Darwinian Marxism with enormous explanatory power and predictive power. This 1981 book’s accuracy was confirmed by the subsequent breakup of the communist world into clashing ethnic groups.

Add to that the fact that the current malaise in much of the world is of an ethnic nature: Spain & Catalonia, multiple civil wars in the Middle East, a possible break-up of the UK because of Brexit, tension between Flanders & Wallonia in Belgium, anti-EU tendencies in quite a few European Countries, a rise of anti-immigration sentiments across Europe, Myanmar, Russia taking those parts of Ukraine where mostly ethnic Russians live, the rise of Modi’s brand of Indian Hindu nationalism at the expense of other ethnic groups, etc., etc. The Ethnic Phenomenon provides a possible framework to analyze these problems.

Nationalism and racism are the result of a nepotistic mechanism that worked quite well back in the days of small kin-based groups of hunter-gatherers. Van de Berghe’s analysis ties in with what others have written on other domains of knowledge: humanity has evolved way beyond our original ecological nice, and that results in numerous problems, and it might very well end with our collapse as a species – something Van den Berghe warns for, like in the quote a few paragraphs up. To put it simply: we didn’t evolve to live in big multi-million cities, nor to sit on chairs. Both climate change and lower back pain are the result of humanity being too successful.

It should be noted that Van den Berghe considers ethnocentrism to be innate, yet he denies that racism is. When humanity evolved, different ‘races’ didn’t live in the same region, so we “have not been genetically selected to use phenotype as a ethnic marker, because, until quite recently, such a test would have been an extremely inaccurate one”. Indicative of this is that white men do feel paternal about children they fathered with an African woman. Kinship trumps race easily. Van den Berghe discusses similar issues at lenght – and social processes surrounding reproduction play an important role overall this book.

As phenotypically different groups were brought together over the course of history (extremely late in the evolution of homo sapiens), racism develops simply because “Genetically inherited phenotypes are the easiest, most visible and most reliable predictors of group membership. It developed not only in the Western world, but wherever certain conditions were met (e.g. in the Rwanda region). Again, Van den Berghe goes into detail about what conditions are necessary.

A telling example of the power of ethnic markers for group organization is the fact that African-Americans haven’t successfully assimilated in the USA yet – in contrast with Polish, Italian and other numerous other ‘white’ immigrants, who often came to America much later, and similarly didn’t speak English and initially also had an economic handicap. Most of these immigrants assimilated within 2 or 3 generations. Descendants of slaves – overall – haven’t managed to do so after more than 6 generations since abolition. In other words: while class is part of the predicament much African-Americans are in, it is not enough to explain it: ethnic nepotism plays a more important part.


  • There’s tons of stuff that is interesting in this book, but what I want to highlight here for starters is something that is bigger than ethnicity. It’s the realization that for hierarchies to arise in societies, you need a surplus in (food) production you can store. Hunter-gatherer societies are all egalitarian. It’s pretty obvious when you think of it, but I hadn’t realized it. As such, agriculture led to class differences. If you cannot store a surplus of product, you do not need slavery or extra paid workers – they are even a burden then. It’s the surplus that generates violence and strife. Not only class differences, but also a state structure only arises because of inequality in status and resources between adult men.
  • Another thing I’ll take away from The Ethnic Phenomenon is the fact that the European expansion can be described in ecological terms as Europeans (having agriculture and technology) filling a vast empty niche across the globe, except in the tropics, where the biotope didn’t suit them, and except in Asia, where agriculture and technology were also advanced enough, and the niche was already occupied.
  • As I hinted at above, language is an excellent behavioral ethnic marker. You cannot fake it. People learning a second language have a very hard time losing their accent. So language is a pretty solid indicator of the fact that an individual at least was raised by “our people” (or not). That explains why it is so important in lots of nationalistic political discourse.
  • What a great quote on the essence of stereotypes: “The issue, therefore, is not the validity of the stereotype. Most stereotypes have some experiential basis. Of course, members of middleman minorities cheat, are nepotistic, and so on. They would not be human if they did not behave that way. The essence of stereotypy and prejudice is not the falsity of the belief, but the misattribution of the observed behavior to particularistic rather than universalistic causes.”
  • Another quote: “The whole history of the spread of religions and languages, for instance, is best understood not in terms of ideology, conviction or natural superiority of one language or religion over another, but in simple utilitarian terms. However they might rationalize their actions, people generally convert or learn new languages if they perceive some advantages. It often pays to learn the ways of the rich, the powerful and the numerous; (…).”
  • Finally, it’s worth stressing that Van den Berghe thinks racism (which is not the same as ‘ethnicism’) as a primary basis for group distinctions has been the exception rather than the rule when you look at the entire human history. Racism only emerged after “long-distance migration across a wide genetic gradient” happened.


Van den Berghe’s view on the state is rather limited. He seems to view it purely in terms of an elite hierarchy – and while in states rulers, MPs, etc. are indeed part of the elite – I think it is a too narrow view. It seems to me that state structures can also be beneficial to non-elites. Granted, this varies a lot among countries, but – in some countries – if not for the state welfare, education, overall health levels, etc. would be significantly less for all citizens, not only for the elite. True enough, these systems are never perfect and tend to benefit elites more, and seem to do little to lessen inequality. Luckily, Van den Berghe’s narrow conception of the state doesn’t interfere with the validity of his sociobiological claims on ethnicity.

Another part that is a bit weak is Van den Berghe’s handling of the transition in the USA from slavery to the situation in the 1980ies. While I think his account of American slavery and its downfall is solid, his account of what happened after abolition is sketchy at best. He does discuss the rise of black nationalism and its effects after World War 2, and the situation around 1981 – with some surprising insights – but I feel the period in between should’ve been dealt with more extensively.


Those points of criticism don’t make the book of any less worth. Pierre L. Van den Berghe’s prose is smooth and crystal clear. He explains specific terms – ‘virilocal’ being my favorite – and as such these 301 pages are perfectly self-contained. One hardly needs any working knowledge of sociology or biology to understand The Ethnic Phenomenon. Everybody can just dive in.

It is, simply put, one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read – and that’s saying something for a book on such a sensitive topic that’s nearly 40 years old. It’s still in print by the way!

Highly recommended to everybody with a serious interest in politics & human behavior.


Here is a link to my other non-fiction reviews, and a link to a list of my favorite non-fiction books.

8 responses to “THE ETHNIC PHENOMENON – Pierre L. Van den Berghe (1981)

  1. I’ll definitely check this out.
    Nothing here is new, really, but this book is almost 40 years old, and I do want to see how he marries sociobiology of Wilson with Marxism 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • This kind of approach to this specific topic was new to me, but it seemed familiar because of a) other sociobiology/anthropology I’ve read, and b) it being logical in itself.

      He covers New Zealand too, by the way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Cant say i am a non fiction fan. Great review tho.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!
      Between my 22 and 35 or so, I’ve only read non-fiction and poetry, no novels whatsoever. I’m glad to be reading fiction again though, and these days I hardly read non-fiction – although I have to say there has been a slight uptick this last year…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Maybe you just have to find the right subject, btw, as for me non-fiction can be a joy to read – I enjoyed this immensly for instance , better than most of my fiction experiences.


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