The Ukrainian Conflict – 4 Aug 14 [III]

Why We Fight (Over Land)
Joshua Keating
Slate | March 28 2014

From the outside, it’s hard to see how the annexation of Crimea was a rational decision for Russia. As yesterday’s vote in the U.N. General Assembly showed, Moscow is now more politically isolated than ever. Its economy is paying a steep price thanks to harsh sanctions and tumbling markets. Moscow now has responsibility for yet another autonomous unrecognized region of questionable strategic importance—one that just happens to depend on Ukraine for its power and water. 

Then again, when it comes to territory, states often behave in ways that seem illogical to outsiders. Why is public opinion in South Korea, China, and Japan so inflamed by the question of who owns a series of uninhabited rocks? Why does Israel continually subject itself to international opprobrium by constructing new settlements in the West Bank?

In the most recent issue of the journal International Security, Monica Duffy-Toft and Dominic Johnson, political scientists at Oxford, argue that a new theoretical framework is needed to analyze such behavior, one rooted in evolutionary biology. They write:

Territorial behavior facilitates effective competition for resources such as food, mates, shelter, breeding sites, and security from predators. Territory per se—a particular patch of ground—is not necessarily intrinsically valuable. For example, you cannot eat land, but you can eat food that grows there. Territory is therefore a proxy through which organisms secure access to key resources and protect them from competitors. Across the animal kingdom, as well as in preindustrial human societies, access to and control over resources have been essential for survival and reproduction, and adaptations to acquire these via territorial behavior have been subject to strong selection pressure throughout evolutionary history.


As Duffy-Toft told me an interview today, “It comes back to survival and reproduction. There’s an instinct that we need land in order to exist. We need to have the capacity to get resources to live our lives.”

But as she points out, territorial behavior need not always lead to violence. “It’s to our advantage to have borders, to delineate them and understand the basis of who lives where,” she said. “[The model] may explain why it is that states go after territories that have no material basis, or that the costs are higher than what they will get out of them.”

Generally speaking, when opponents enter into conflicts—whether birds fighting over a nesting site or states going to war over a border dispute—the actor that previously occupied the territory has an advantage.

“If somebody’s a resident, they seem to fight harder. They’re much more apt to be aggressive,” Duffy-Toft says. “As residents, they know the feel of it and the smell and where to find food, but if they come to the conclusion that they don’t have the capacity to defend that territory, they will abandon it.”

A version of this dynamic played out in Ukraine. Even though Crimea was part of Ukraine,  local sentiment and ground conditions were favorable to Russia, and it was clear that Kiev didn’t have the means to challenge Russia’s territorial aggression. So Putin’s move went unchallenged, and the territory—in terms of de facto control if not international recognition—changed hands without much bloodshed.

Duffy-Toft acknowledges that the thesis is controversial. While their piece is currently the lead article in International Security, one of the more prestigious journals in the field, it took almost 10 years to get it published.

“We’re pushing up against real biases in our field,” she says. “Scholars don’t want to admit that our behavior can be constrained by the fact that we’re animals. They say we’ve developed norms in place to mitigate against that. That’s true, but let’s look at where those institutions came from.”

Fighting over territory may be a fundamental biological impulse, but it’s become much rarer, particularly since World War II. This is part of the argument the United States has used to make the case that Russia’s actions are beyond the pale for a modern state. "You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion," said John Kerry. "The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West," said President Obama, "nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game. That’s the kind of thinking that should have ended with the Cold War." (This is also key to the controversial distinction Obama drew this week between the Iraq war and the invasion of Crimea. Whatever actions the United States may have taken in Iraq, in Obama’s view, the country’s sovereignty was not violated as Iraq’s borders never changed.)

Part of the reason why territorial wars are now rare may be that the killing capacity of states has increased so much due to improvements in weaponry, particularly nuclear weapons. The costs of challenging a state’s residency in a given territory is now so high that few countries are willing to try it, and international norms have been developed to preserve the current status quo.

This has left us with a situation in which basically every piece of land on the Earth is recognized as part of one state or another and borders are rarely challenged—or at least rarely challenged by force. “There’s a recognition that warfare is a lot more costly today,” Duffy-Toft said. “Preserving [the existing] boundaries is recognition that this equilibrium is the best all-around.”

The small exceptions to that rule—contested territories like the West Bank or Kashmir, breakaway states like Abkhazia or Somaliland—are where fights over territory are most likely to occur.

Ukraine’s residency was weak enough in Crimea that Putin was able to take it without a fight, but that’s not the case in eastern Ukraine, where Kiev’s claim to the territory is much stronger.  An evolutionary model suggests the Ukrainians would feel compelled to fight back if Russia challenged their hold over this territory.

Duffy-Toft, currently attending a conference of the International Studies Association in Toronto, noted that in addition to her paper finally being published, “territoriality has made a comeback” in the world of international relations scholarship. Though the conference was planned before the invasion of Crimea, “there’s a lot of interest this year in questions about human attachment to land, territory, and identity."

This could be a sign, as some are now arguing, that an older model of geopolitics is making a comeback. As Duffy-Toft put it, “people are going back to fundamentals.”


"Grounds for War: The Evolution of Territorial Conflict"
Dominic D.P. Johnson, Monica Duffy Toft
International Security | volume 38, issue 3 – Winter 2013/14, pages pp. 7-38


International relations theory has thus far failed to account for the recurrence and severity of territorial conflict, especially over land with little or no value. Evolutionary biology offers a unique explanation for this behavior. An examination of territoriality across the animal kingdom as well as evolutionary game theory that deals with territorial behavior generates novel predictions about when territorial conflict is likely to occur.

Full text of "Grounds for War: The Evolution of Territorial Conflict" (170K PDF)


Grounds for Hope: The Evolutionary Science behind Territorial Conflict
Johnson, Dominic D.P. and Monica Duffy Toft
Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 2014

This policy brief is based on "Grounds for War: The Evolution of Territorial Conflict" which appears in the winter 2013/14 issue of International Security.


  • Territory Dominates Past and Present Conflict. Throughout history, and as reflected in today’s most sensitive flash points—such as Jerusalem, Kashmir, the South China Sea—most wars have centered on the conquest, defense, or control of territory. Conflict over territory is unsurprising when it contains material or strategic resources. However, the pervasiveness and severity of territorial aggression remains puzzling, particularly when actors fight over land devoid of material or strategic value.
  • Recurrent Patterns of Territoriality in Nature. Territorial behavior—territoriality—is not unique to humans. It is widespread across the animal kingdom, and scientific research reveals recurrent behavioral patterns that transcend species and context, notably: (1) territorial incumbents tend to win, even against stronger opponents; (2) aggression tends to be the dominant strategy, even when fighting is costly; and (3) territorial behavior varies with the degree of harm combatants can inflict, the value attached to a territory, and the costs of finding alternative territory.
  • New Insights for Conflict Resolution. This wider evolutionary framework suggests why people may be willing to fight over territory even when the costs are high and the probability of success is low, outlines conditions under which territorial aggression is more or less likely, and suggests new ways to avoid it.


Throughout history, the defense of or desire for territory has led to recurrent and severe conflict. States are prepared to fight, and individuals to die, even over land with little intrinsic value. Depending on the method of measurement, statistical studies show that territorial disputes account for one-quarter to three-quarters of all wars. Moreover, explicitly territorial disputes are more likely to lead to war than other types of dispute, more likely to lead to recurrent conflict, and more likely to result in high fatalities if war occurs. Areas regarded as "homeland" are particularly volatile and violently contested. When territory holds resources or offers a strategic location, conflict can be perfectly rational. In many territorial conflicts, however, material benefits are absent, and even where they are present, the sensitivity and severity of conflict are so great that territorial aggression poses a significant puzzle in search of an explanation, and an important problem in search of policy innovations.


Territorial behavior is puzzling only if we ignore the context in which it has evolved. From an evolutionary perspective, territoriality is not puzzling, and in fact shows recurrent patterns and common strategies that transcend species and context. Territorial behavior is prevalent not only among humans, but across the animal kingdom. It has evolved independently across a broad array of taxonomic groups and ecological contexts, from the depths of the ocean to rainforest canopies, and from arid deserts to the Arctic tundra. This recurrence of territorial behavior suggests evolutionary "convergence" on a tried and tested solution to a common strategic problem—an efficient way to secure access to key resources. Organisms have thus tended to develop territoriality because it is an effective strategy for survival and reproduction.

A long tradition of research in evolutionary biology has used game theory and fieldwork to explore which strategies tend do well in conflict over territory. The results are consistent and striking. Behaving aggressively over territory—playing "hawk"—is the best strategy wherever the prize at stake exceeds the costs of conflict. Hawk is an "evolutionary stable strategy"—it cannot be trumped by any other. More remarkably, however, even when the costs of conflict exceed the prize, hawk still emerges as the dominant strategy under certain conditions (such as the presence of transfer costs or combat advantages for territory incumbents). Evolutionary game theory thus suggests that territorial aggression is a strategy that one should expect to have evolved even if, or rather precisely because, fighting is costly.

Evolutionary logic suggests that territorial aggression can be an effective long-term strategy, even when it incurs short-term costs, but only if the level of aggression is correctly calibrated to the prevailing environment. The problem with evolved traits (as with food preferences or addictive behaviors) is that they tend to be calibrated to cost-benefit ratios that prevailed in humans’ evolutionary past, not those of the present. Beneficial traits can therefore become detrimental in the modern environment. If human territoriality is influenced—even partially—by evolved behavioral mechanisms, then territorial aggression may today be triggered to some extent irrespective of the value of the land, the costs of conflict, or the probability of victory.

While hawkish strategies are likely to predominate, especially among territorial incumbents, evolutionary game theory also outlines conditions under which such strategies will be more or less common. Three important conditions preserve territorial equilibrium (e.g., where ownership is not challenged and conflict is avoided): (1) combatants can cause great harm; (2) the costs of finding alternative territory are high; and (3) the benefits at stake are not too valuable. The so-called territorial integrity norm after World War II reflects a change in these conditions. The world before 1939 had the ingredients for territorial conflict, at least for the great powers: offensive advantages, unclaimed territory, and valuable resources to be seized. After 1945 the world was characterized by the opposite conditions: defensive advantages (especially given the presence of nuclear weapons); the partitioning of the globe into self-determined territories; and resources that could no longer be easily seized, held, or exploited. Territorial conquest may have paid in the past, but it is increasingly expensive today. Defenders can ultimately benefit from adopting or maintaining the hawk strategy even if they incur significant costs in the process, as the Vietcong and Taliban can attest.


Although an evolutionary perspective suggests that humans have a low threshold for territorial aggression, it is not a fixed response. Territorial behavior varies, and in predictable ways. Like other biological traits, territorial behavior is partially contingent on circumstances, taking advantage of strategic opportunities and avoiding dangers. These changes in circumstances, however, may be perceived rather than real—behavior will change either way. This means that shaping perceptions can be the key to conflict resolution in territorial disputes.

First, perceptions can directly upset the conditions for territorial equilibrium. For example, aggression will increase if actors underestimate the costs of conflict, feel cornered or see alternatives as worse, or see territory as having exclusive ethnic, cultural, or religious precedence. All such perceptions can, in principle, be shaped and altered to help prevent or resolve conflict.

Second, if both sides perceive themselves to be the territorial incumbent—a common phenomenon among historical enemies—the problem looms large because each side may expect to win and expect the other side to back down, despite asymmetries in size and strength. This has been strikingly demonstrated by experiments with animals: when two animals are tricked into believing a particular territory belongs to them, they may fight to the death where normally one would withdraw before sustaining significant injury. Claims to land by more than one group are likely to lead to bloody and prolonged conflict, especially if both perceive it as homeland, or as sacred. In such settings, the hawk-dove logic (a system that in equilibrium reduces the incidence of fighting) breaks down and conflict can escalate despite rising costs, declining benefits, and likely defeat. This "perfect storm" of mutually perceived incumbency and hawkish strategies helps to explain why rivalries over such territories as the West Bank and Northern Ireland have been so enduring and hard to resolve. There are, however, grounds for hope. Given that perceptions and misperceptions can be the cause of incompatible claims, changing perceptions—as well as or instead of facts on the ground—offers a genuine route to conflict resolution.


In the future, territorial conflict is likely to become more important, as populations grow and resources decline, and as territorial disputes expand into new domains, such as the polar regions, outer space and near-Earth orbits, radio frequency bands, the internet, and the commercial control of land. To avoid war and to enable other positive effects to follow, resolving conflicts is critical. Should territorial issues be resolved, studies have found that demilitarization and democratization are more likely to ensue. States will have a better chance of achieving these goals if they step back and recognize the broader patterns of territoriality in nature, of which humans are just one particularly deadly example.


Gintis, Herb. "The Evolution of Private Property," Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 64, No. 1 (September 2007), pp. 1–16.

Pearce, Fred. The Landgrabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth (Boston: Beacon, 2012).

Smith, John Maynard. Evolution and the Theory of Games (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Toft, Monica Duffy. The Geography of Ethnic Violence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003).

Vasquez, John A. and Marie T. Henehan. Territory, War, and Peace (New York: Routledge, 2010).


Dominic Johnson is Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and Fellow of St. Antony’s College.

Monica Duffy Toft is Professor of Government and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University and Fellow of Brasenose College.


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