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Keywords:

  • suicide attacks;
  • evolution;
  • kamikaze

Explanations for suicide attacks abound. Yet the literature remains conceptually fragmented, with different authors focusing on different attitudes, incentive structures, values, psychological processes, strategic imperatives, and cultural, historical, and personal circumstances. Curiously, however, there have been few efforts to cast suicide bombing within the extensive evolutionary literature on human altruism—in which it clearly belongs. Neither have there been more than occasional efforts to mobilize the distinction between “proximate” and “ultimate” explanations, with most proposed explanations being proximate. Here we draw on content analyses from materials written by Japanese Kamikaze pilots to propose an evolvable cognitive algorithm—by hypothesis, species typical—that (1) specifies environmental circumstances under which such “heroic” behavior is likely; (2) is consistent at the proximate level with the Japanese data; and (3) that is not inconsistent with many of the diverse proximate attitudes, values, and psychological mechanisms that dominate discussions of contemporary suicide campaigns. The evolutionary perspective is not an alternative to most of the proximate explanations offered in discussions of contemporary cases but is, rather, a paradigm around which diverse proximate explanations can be organized.