The Bergdahl-Taliban Prisoner Exchange and Evolution

Evolutionary theory helps explain the reaction to the Bergdahl-Taliban swap.

Posted Jun 08, 2014

War is always an evocative public issue and frequently implicated with evolutionary considerations, and the reaction to the Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner exchange could not make that more clear.

It’s still early and more information is sure to emerge, but here’s what we know in this first week of his release. President Obama traded five “high risk” Taliban leaders being held by the US for US Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan by the Taliban. 


The president reports the Joint Chiefs of Staff--the heads of each branch of the US military--unanimously supported the exchange based on the ideal of leaving no soldier behind. On the other hand, much of the discussion in the media has been highly critical (and from an evolutionary perspective that’s not surprising, but more on that later). Members of Congress, from both parties, claim the president broke the law by releasing the Taliban prisoners without giving Congress the required 30-day notice. Other discussion by political leaders and pundits has suggested the price was too high, because the Taliban detainees exchanged for Bergdahl were too dangerous to release. And even if one can’t or shouldn’t put a price on something like this, doing any kind of trade simply encourages more hostage taking and puts more Americans at risk, because it tells our enemies they can get something of value for an American hostage.

Most critically, there is evidence indicating Bergdahl’s disappearance was not the result of his honorable service but his deliberate abandonment of his post. Reports indicate he shed his weapon and gear and walked off base. Fellow soldiers in his unit have said he should be charged with desertion. Up to six other soldiers died in the search for him. Further, shortly before his disappearance, he wrote his father an email that was highly critical of the US.


In short, this suggests five really bad guys were released and six US soldiers died in the effort to recover a man who was reckless at best and traitorous at worst. As the politicos say, the political optics on this are bad, as reflected in a recent survey of US adults. While 78% of respondents said the US “should make every effort to recover American POWs,” only 29% agreed that the Bergdahl-Taliban exchange was “the right thing to do” (44% disagreed and the other 27% were not sure). More tellingly, 22% said he is a “traitor/deserter,” while 13% said he is a “patriot” (the other 65% didn’t know). 

Reuters/Ipsos poll: Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl


Evolutionary theory gives an interesting perspective on some of the reactions to this event. Although I don’t think it’s fair, a number of people have been critical of Bergdahl’s family. In particular, his father expressed sympathy in social media for Guantanamo Bay detainees and talked of repayment by God for the deaths of Afghan children. In his appearance with President Obama to announce the release, he wore a long beard and spoke in Pashto, similar to his son's Taliban captors. Of course, the profound love most parents feel for their children would lead many to go to extraordinary lengths to secure the release of their child from the horrible, abusive conditions their son probably suffered.

Mr. Bergdahl with Pres. Obama announcing the release of Bowe Bergdahl at the White House on 5/31/14 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster).

But I do feel obligated to put evolution in the mix. Evolutionary theory adds a reminder that the primary biological imperative is to reproduce to increase the frequency of the individual’s genes in the gene pool. So Bergdahl’s parents, by fighting for his survival, were also fighting to increase the presence of their genes, which he would pass down to his children, in the gene pool (i.e., "kin selection" in evolutionary parlance).

Probably like most people reading this, I prefer the parental love angle, but that doesn’t mean that biological forces are not also at play.


The more interesting, and palatable, angle takes a group perspective. Evolutionary theory suggests that our ancestors who joined groups were more likely to reproduce because they were more likely to be near a greater number of potential mates and to survive because they had assistance securing important resources (e.g., food and shelter) in the violent evolutionary environment. And because groups were so beneficial, humans evolved a strong sensitivity to violations of group expectations.

For instance, there’s a lot of evidence that individuals are willing to incur costs to punish non-cooperators, i.e., cheaters, (think of the $28,893 it cost in 2011 to incarcerate a US Federal inmate and average of $31,286 it cost for a state inmate). Individuals punish more harshly non-cooperating in-group members than non-cooperating out-group members, and individuals who identify more closely with a group punish group non-cooperators more than those who identify less closely.  

In these terms, then, the negative public reaction to the prisoner exchange for Bergdahl is not surprising. Yes, we want to recover a soldier who contributes to the fitness or vitality of our nation. But if that soldier "cheats" or weakens our nation by abandoning it or, worse, by harming it through treachery, then our desire to punish is strong, even if that soldier has already endured five years of abuse.

Knowing what you know now, would you have made this prisoner exchange? Let us know by leaving a comment. 

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In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg 

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