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Beware of false prophets: biology, human nature and the future of International Relations theory



    1. Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Christ's College. His research interests are mainly in international political theory and the history of political thought. He is the author of The idea of Greater Britain: empire, nation, and the future of global order, c. 1860–1900 (2007). He has also edited two forthcoming collections: Memory, trauma, and world politics: reflections on the relationship between past and present (2006); and Victorian visions of global order: empire and international relations in nineteenth-century British political thought (2007).
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      I would like to thank the following (in no particular order) for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this article, as well as for illuminating conversations on a number of the topics addressed: Andrea Sangiovanni, Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, Paul MacDonald, Amanda Dickins, Casper Sylvest, Jude Browne, Sarah Fine, Philip Towle, Tim Lewens and John Dupré.


The disciplinary history of International Relations (IR) has been marked by confrontation between those who believe that the study of politics can and should be modelled on the natural sciences, a position defended most forcibly in the United States, and those who have dissented, viewing this ambition as methodologically unjustified and ethically undesirable. But the scientific template against which to judge such claims is constantly shifting. In this article it is suggested that mainstream IR theorists are likely to turn increasingly to the biological sciences for inspiration and intellectual legitimacy. Some of the possibilities and problems involved in this move are explored, focusing in particular on the prominent role played by evolutionary psychology in the social sciences. A variety of reasons are offered, political and theoretical, as to why IR scholars should be extremely wary of looking to the biological sciences to provide universalistic accounts of human behavioural patterns.