Biographical Notes


Brief intellectual history

    My field of research can be described as political ethology or urban anthropology. I apply the concepts and methods of behavioural biology (ethology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary anthropology) to the study of political and other social phenomena, such as power, hierarchy, social control, ethnicity and nationalism. All of these are conventional subjects of the social sciences. It is the biological approach to them that sets my research apart.

       That makes my work radically interdisciplinary because the fields of study it combines were for a long time considered poles apart, such as hormones and hierarchy, emotions and bureaucracy, genetics and the welfare state. How did that happen? 

       As an undergraduate at the University of Sydney (1979-1982) I majored in government and public administration, specializing in organization theory under the guidance of Ross Curnow. With emphasis on the sociology of Max Weber I learnt about such concepts as power, legitimacy and leadership but grew dissatisfied with conventional social science approaches because they did not make use of human biology. How can one understand how a machine operates without knowing the properties of its working parts?

    I followed up the connection between organizations and behavioural biology in two degree programs—a masters and doctorate—at Griffith University in Brisbane (1984-1990). My supervisor was Hiram Caton, who had worked with Edward O. Wilson at Harvard and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt at Germany’s Max Planck Institute. The research culminated in my first book, Emotions in Command (OUP, 1995), consultancies with government and business organizations, and to an invitation to conduct postdoctoral research in Eibl’s Centre for Human Ethology which I took up in 1991. That put my consultancy career on hold while I concentrated on academic research.

    In the mid 90s I began applying behavioural biology to other social and political phenomena that involve interpersonal relationships and manipulative strategies. These include interpersonal attractiveness, crowds and riots, indoctrination, begging, Edward Westermarck’s naturalistic ethics, training suicide terrorists, the connection between class mobility and reproductive strategies, and ethnic solidarity. The last resulted in three books: Risky Transactions (2002) on the interpersonal bonds and trust that facilitate high-risk enterprises; On Genetic Interests on the implications of ethnic kinship for political theory; and Welfare, Ethnicity, & Altruism (2004) on the impact of ethnic similarity on public altruism. My most recent (unpublished) research connects the themes of hierarchy and ethnicity by developing a method for comparing ethnic group power.