Laura Johnston Kohl’s gentle and generous face hides a painful past. I met her at our public library, where she had come to discuss what I had assumed must be the darkest episode of her life: her years as a member of Peoples Temple, the cult that Jim Jones led to annihilation in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. She told us she had survived the massacre only by sheer luck. Her anguish was evident as she struggled and sometimes failed to hold back her tears, but I was surprised that she described most of her time in Peoples Temple as the best years of her life. For her it had been a close-knit community of like-minded friends who were building a socialist utopia free of racism, injustice and consumerism. It was a time of extraordinary personal sacrifice, hard work and sleep deprivation, but all for a worthy cause greater than herself. She remembers with fondness that sense of belonging and the closeness she had had with her friends, but struggles to this day to understand how she and they could have supported and enabled Jones in his destructive madness.
How or why?
Most attempts at making sense of Jonestown have been in terms of psychology and sociology, but biology may shed some additional light on the problem, and from a new direction. Biologists try to understand behavior by asking two kinds of question: “How does this behavior arise?” and “Why does this behavior arise?” If we want to understand bird song, for example, we can examine the bird’s windpipe to see how and where the vibration is produced. We can follow the nerves from that structure back to the brain, and trace the neural circuits that generate singing. If we raise chicks in isolation, we find that each sings a different and abnormal song as an adult, but that all of these “isolate” songs share a few syllables characteristic of their species’ normal song. This shows that there is an innate drive to sing, and that a few syllables of the song are genetically specified in a crude way, but that most of the details of the normal song must be learned by listening to other birds sing. Experiments of this kind are concerned with how birds sing. But if we examine the behavior in its natural context, we can also ask why birds sing. In some species we find that only males sing, that their singing coincides with the breeding season, and that it serves to establish territories and attract mates. Why questions are concerned with the evolution of the behavior and its role in the animal’s reproductive success.
In this article I will mainly concentrate on the why questions about Jonestown and Peoples Temple. What most distinguishes human behavior is its extremely elaborate social organization, and Peoples Temple was, more than anything else, a social experiment gone awry. It left a great deal of human suffering in its wake, but it also left two fundamental and vexing questions: “Why did Jim Jones turn out as he did?” and “Why did so many people willingly follow him to their deaths?”
Gary Maynard, a sociologist at SUNY Stony Brook, argues persuasively that Jim Jones had an extreme case of narcissistic personality disorder, a psychopathology that is usually most damaging not to the person who has the condition, but to those around him. A person with NPD craves the adoration of an audience, insists on being the center of attention in social situations, and is constantly demanding costly sacrifices from friends and family as proof of their love, loyalty and devotion. As the name suggests, narcissists are obsessed with themselves and with how others see them. They are often charismatic, outgoing and attractive, and their craving for attention may lead them into acting, preaching or politics — careers at which they excel. Yet they are also insecure, shallow in their feelings, and unable to empathize with the feelings of others. This lack of empathy and their unrelenting and escalating need for sacrifices by others typically lead to exploitative relationships, often characterized by physical and sexual abuse. They are prone to manipulative fits of rage, especially when their authority is threatened or their demands are not met. Their self-indulgence and impulsivity put them at great risk of alcoholism and drug abuse, which tend to exaggerate the symptoms.
Malignant narcissism as an adaptation
This diagnosis puts a name on Jones’s condition, and as we learn more about the molecular and neurobiology behind NPD, it will eventually answer many of the how questions about his aberrant behavior. My interest here, however, is in why. Despite the obvious catastrophe in Jonestown, two studies strongly suggest that narcissism in humans is not only a product of evolution, but also, in some contexts, an adaptation.
The first, published in 1993 by psychiatrist John Livesley and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, measured the extent to which various personality disorders are the result of heredity. It did so by evaluating eighteen dimensions of personality disorder in 175 pairs of twins, 90 identical and 85 fraternal. Identical twins have 100% of their genes in common, whereas fraternal twins share only 50% of their genes on average. If identical twins are significantly more alike with respect to some behavior than are fraternal twins, then individual differences in that behavior are at least partly attributable to heritable factors, and the relative contributions of genes and environment can be estimated. Of the eighteen aspects of personality disorder examined in this study, narcissism was the most heritable, with 64% of the variance in this trait attributable to genetic factors.
The other study of relevance here, published in 2008 by Bridget Grant and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health, measured the prevalence of NPD in a sample of more than thirty-four thousand American adults. It found that 6.2% of the sample had NPD at some time in their adult lives, with a significantly higher rate for men (7.7%) than for women (4.8%). This is about ten times higher than the lifetime prevalence of schizophrenia. High rates of drug abuse and other mood and personality disorders were found in the narcissistic group, but it is the high prevalence of NPD itself — one out of thirteen men and one out of twenty-one women — that is most striking. Obviously not all of these people achieve the notoriety and destructiveness of Jim Jones. Many have the symptoms only during adolescence or early adulthood, but the data suggest that at least half of NPD subjects have a more severe and persistent form of the condition that lasts a lifetime.
That NPD is such a common and largely heritable condition strongly suggests that it is a product of evolutionary forces. But if it contributes to reproductive success, why are we not all narcissists? If it is disadvantageous, why does it persist at all? The answer to these questions lies in a facet of evolutionary theory developed mainly by John Maynard Smith in the 1970s and 80s. Only part of it concerns us here, and it is most easily grasped through example.
My personal favorite, and one that is arguably and literally the most colorful, is the mating behavior of the male giant cuttlefish that live off the coast of southern Australia. Like their close relative the octopus, cuttlefish are masters of disguise, able to change the texture, pattern and color of their skin almost instantaneously. Although these talents probably evolved as mechanisms of camouflage, the clever cuttlefish have put them to more exotic uses. Complex visual patterns sometimes dance across their bodies in waves, dazzling and confusing the visual systems of potential prey, or signaling aggressive or amorous intent to other cuttlefish. Normally solitary animals, they congregate by the thousands during the mating season, and competition among the males is fierce. Contests among the largest males are decided through intimidating visual displays and, if necessary, real and damaging physical combat. The victor mates with and then jealously guards his female as she lays her eggs. But this turns out not to be the only path to success as a male cuttlefish.
Some sexually mature males are much smaller than the dominant mate-guarding males, far too small to have any hope of winning a fight. They are, in fact, about the same size as females, and when unguarded females are hard to find, they change their pattern and coloration to disguise themselves as females. Thus cloaked, they can sneak up to a real female without being attacked by the guarding male. When the dominant male is distracted, usually by a challenge from another large male, the little sneak quickly drops his pretense and mates with the female.
This situation is called an evolutionarily stable state, because the two different ways of being a successful male cuttlefish — alpha male or little sneak — coexist in a stable equilibrium. Males of intermediate size are at a reproductive disadvantage — too large to sneak and too small to fight — so there is simultaneous selective pressure in two directions. A population temporarily depleted of alpha males would not remain so for long, because their absence diminishes the need for sneaking and favors the mate-guarding tactic. Larger males would be favored in subsequent generations, and the balance would soon be restored. The important point is that a successful behavioral tactic need not and cannot propagate throughout the entire population if its success depends on the presence in the population of some alternative tactic. This is called frequency-dependent selection, because the fitness value of a trait, like mate-guarding or sneaking, depends on its frequency of occurrence in the population.
Leaders, followers and evolutionary stability
What psychiatrists call narcissistic personality disorder appears to be part of an evolutionarily stable state in human social behavior, and its low but significant prevalence in the population is probably maintained by frequency-dependent selection. This means that NPD is only part of the story. Just as mate-guarding cuttlefish are in equilibrium with female-impersonating sneaks, narcissistic leaders are in equilibrium with an alternative tactic in human social behavior: that of their followers.
Narcissists often do well in life. NPD is so common that we have all met such people and know of many more. Think of the self-centered, abusive and well-paid boss, the charismatic and powerful politician who can’t keep it zipped, the sexually hypocritical and financially corrupt TV preacher, and the diva or movie star with her temper tantrums, adoring fans and long string of marriages and divorces. Of course evolution doesn’t care about status, fame or fortune, except to the extent that these contribute to reproductive success, which they clearly do. So does the sexually exploitative nature of narcissistic behavior. But there is also a deeper and more important aspect of reproductive success at work here, something that taps into the very core of human nature, a remnant from the origin of human social behavior in our distant prehistoric past.
More than anything else, it is social cooperation that has made us by far the most numerous large animals on the planet. Unlike the instinctive sociality of ants, bees and termites, however, ours is implemented through an innate system of socially-oriented emotions and intuitions that serve only as the foundation of the much more elaborate social behavior we acquire over many years, mainly through reinforcement learning. In this sense our social systems resemble bird song: they arise from our genetic predisposition to cooperate, but many specific details must be learned.
In shaping those predispositions, evolution built upon emotional and behavioral mechanisms that serve other purposes and predate our highly social nature. The stress an infant mammal experiences when separated from its mother arises from the same parts of the brain and neurochemical systems that all vertebrates use for recognizing and reacting to physical pain. The neural circuitry that underlies this most primordial of human social relationships — the mother-infant bond — was in turn elaborated in humans to produce the innate foundation of our highly social adult nature. It is the source of the empathy and compassion that drive some of us to contribute to charities and help strangers in need; of the warmth, comfort and rewarding feeling of belonging to a group of friends; and of the genuine suffering that feels so much like physical pain when one is rejected or ostracized.
But there is more to our innate social nature. As the size and complexity of a social group increase, so does the risk of cheating. Cooperation disintegrates if there are too many free riders who consume far more than they contribute to the group, so our basic moral intuitions have been shaped by evolution to discourage such behavior. Most of us feel guilt and shame when we cheat, outrage and disgust at the cheating of others, and virtuous when we make sacrifices to a cause greater than ourselves. Of all the behaviors that arise from these moral intuitions, sacrifice may have been the most important in human evolution.
Sacrifice as a biological signal
Sacrifice has special significance in human sociality. It obviates the need to keep track of how much each member of a large group contributes or takes, because — if the sacrifice is sufficiently costly and hard to fake — it demonstrates to all that the person making it is loyal to the group. This costly signaling hypothesis explains why sacrifice is an essential aspect of nearly all religions, and it is at least part of the reason that religion appears in some form in all human cultures. If you doubt this, try reading Leviticus. You will find page after mind-numbing page of excruciatingly detailed instructions for the sacrifice of the best, unblemished animals to Yahweh. But probably the most costly and hard-to-fake sacrifice imaginable is what Yahweh demands of Abraham in Genesis 22: the sacrificial killing of his only son, Isaac. The power of this myth lies in its appeal to the most fundamental aspect of our innate sociality — the parent-infant bond — and it holds up Abraham as supremely virtuous because of his willingness to prove that his bond to Yahweh is even stronger. Jesus makes similar if less explicit demands of his followers in Matthew 10:37, Luke 12:53 and Luke 14:26, and the most popular verse in the Christian Bible, John 3:16, is so because it is the inverse of Abraham’s sacrifice: Yahweh proves his boundless love for humanity by sacrificing His only son.
Sacrifice does more than merely send a signal of loyalty. It is a real and tangible investment that profoundly affects how the person making it perceives the group. If a person must suffer great pain to join a group — like a tribal initiation rite involving genital mutilation, a brutal fraternity hazing, or a medical intern’s ordeal of sleep deprivation — then defection to another group is unlikely, because that would mean yet another initiation. Conversely, a person who has sacrificed her life savings, her home and her business to a church comes to see in that church the security and safety those things had once meant to her. If the preacher demands even more sacrifice and later appears to be a fraud, prior investments can make that reality too painful to face. Better to deny the appearance, keep making the sacrifices, and preserve the hope, however illusory, that it has all been for a worthy cause.
Narcissists like Jim Jones seem not only to understand all of this, but also to feel it in the core of their being. They crave the sacrifices of others. They erupt with rage when their demands are ignored or denied. Instead of guilt and shame, they feel joy and satisfaction when they exploit others. Their moral intuitions, the innate foundations of their social behavior, are different from those of most people. This peculiar genetic recipe for being a social animal is advantageous, but only if it occurs in a small fraction of the population, and only if a large fraction have a complementary recipe that includes a powerful need to belong, fear of ostracism, and an altruistic desire, or at least willingness, to sacrifice for a greater cause. If this idea is right, then these attributes of followers should also be significantly heritable. Twin studies of behaviors that are good proxies for willingness to sacrifice and the need for social belonging — like religiosity in adults and cell phone use by teens — confirm this prediction.
Human narcissism and altruistic cooperation probably evolved together in our distant past, at a time when we lived in small groups of cooperating individuals that often collided and competed fiercely with rival groups. Antagonism toward the out-group is therefore yet another important aspect of this evolutionary dynamic, one in which uniting behind a single charismatic leader could be essential to the war effort. Modern civilization has found other ways to foster cooperation and wage war, but the ancient pattern of narcissistic leader and sacrificing followers is so deeply engrained in human nature that it continually reappears, from office politics to Nazi Germany. Its most aboriginal manifestations, however, are cults like Peoples Temple.
Human nature run amok
If these evolutionary speculations are right, then why did Peoples Temple self-destruct? By what stretch of the imagination can the massacre of November 18, 1978 be construed as a contribution to reproductive success? Obviously it cannot, just as the suicidal march of sea turtle hatchlings away from the ocean and toward brightly lit beachfront homes cannot be so construed. In that example, a highly adaptive behavior that depends on natural light sources for nocturnal navigation is thwarted by the presence of artificial lights. In Jonestown, powerful and largely unconscious forces from the dark side of our social human nature were unleashed, in a nearly aboriginal setting, on a people who had no cultural traditions appropriate for such a life. Extant hunter-gatherer tribes restrain charismatic leaders and depose them if necessary. The members of Peoples Temple were culturally clueless on this aspect of aboriginal life, and, unlike a natural tribe, had been artificially selected by Jones for their compliance and obedience. Jonestown was a dysfunctional and anachronistic amalgam, arbitrarily plunked down into an environment best suited to hunter-gatherer foraging, struggling and failing to become a self-sufficient agricultural settlement, heavily subsidized by Social Security checks and other resources plundered from its members’ former lives in civilization, and led by a narcissist whose neurochemical anomalies were being artificially enhanced by twentieth century pharmacology. Jones’s addiction to psychoactive drugs probably exaggerated his paranoia and self-destructiveness.
Evolutionary explanations such as I have attempted here are sometimes condemned for excusing or justifying immoral behavior. This completely misses the point and misconstrues my views on the morality of Peoples Temple. Most of its recruits had good intentions, and when they were joining the movement, Jones made them feel that they were part of a force for good in the world — healing the sick, helping the poor and fighting racism. Their generosity and sincere desire to help other people made them especially vulnerable to Jones. The Cause, of which he and they often spoke, changed over the years, from spreading the social Gospel, to surviving the coming nuclear war, to building a communist utopia in the jungle. As far as I can tell, however, Jones never cared a whit for any of these things. He was a charismatic and manipulative fraud who faked his magical powers and cared only about himself. The Cause was, and always had been, Jim Jones.
By the time of its cataclysmic end, most of the residents of Jonestown seemed to understand and accept this, at least at some unconscious level. They paid lip service to socialist slogans, but their public loyalty was to Jones, and most of them meant it enough to give cyanide to their children and then drink it themselves. Jones led his regiment from behind in this supposedly glorious revolutionary act. That was the whole point. He wanted to see mothers poison their own children. It was the same lust for ultimate sacrifice exhibited by Yahweh in Genesis 22. The resemblance is probably no coincidence. The God of the Old Testament, like so many other cruel and punishing gods invented by humans, was likely modeled after real and narcissistic human leaders of the Bronze Age.
The survivors, of course, have suffered the most, and there is nothing I can write that would ease their pain. Laura is now a Quaker and an elementary school teacher, benign outlets for her need to belong and to help others. Her admirable qualities were at one time common among her friends in Peoples Temple, and this was no accident: these were the qualities Jones was looking for. I can only offer that there were innate, powerful and largely unconscious forces at work in Peoples Temple, and that Jones was a master at manipulating those forces. At a meeting of his executive committee in 1973, when an underling suggested the possibility of creating a super-race from their leader’s sperm, Jones announced, “There is a unique factor in my heredity which can produce very special children.” For once, unwittingly, he may have been telling the truth.
(John C. Wathey is a computational biologist with a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, San Diego. He is writing a book on the biological bases of religious emotion, spiritual longing and the illusion of God’s presence. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
 The word “cult” is a loaded term, and Jonestown scholar Rebecca Moore advocates the more neutral phrase “new religious movement” (Moore 2009 pp 5-6). Despite its flaws, however, “cult” best captures the idea of a group of devoted followers led by a charismatic and exploitative leader, a social structure in which ties to friends and family outside the group are discouraged, control is enforced through fear of ostracism, loyalty of members must be repeatedly demonstrated through costly and continually escalating sacrifices, and defection from the group is extremely difficult or even life-threatening. The nontheistic Raëlian Movement and Heaven’s Gate are not new religious movements in any strict sense of “religious”, nor was Peoples Temple by the time of its exodus to Guyana. The Amish clans in America are clearly religious, but not new. All of these groups, however, fit the pattern I am trying to explain here, and it is in this sense that I would identify all of them as cults.
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