Dominic Johnson

MSc DPhil Oxon, MA PhD Geneva

Alastair Buchan Chair of International Relations
Co-Director, Oxford Martin School "Natural Governance" Programme
International Relations Network
St Antony's College

Dominic Johnson received a DPhil from Oxford University in evolutionary biology, and a PhD from Geneva University in political science. Drawing on both disciplines, he is interested in how new research on evolution, biology and human nature is challenging theories of international relations, conflict, and cooperation. His new book, Strategic Instincts: The Adaptive Advantages of Cognitive Biases in International Politics (Princeton University Press, 2020), challenges the common view that human cognitive biases are unfortunate errors or mistakes that lead inevitably to policy failures, disasters, and wars. Rather, it argues they are adaptive heuristics that evolved because they helped us make good decisions, not bad ones. Under the right conditions, these “strategic instincts” continue to lend a competitive edge in international relations. His previous books are: God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human (Oxford University Press, 2015), which examines the role of religion in the evolution of cooperation, and how cross-culturally ubiquitous and ancient beliefs in supernatural punishment have helped to overcome major challenges of human society; Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Tierney, examines how and why popular misperceptions commonly create undeserved victories or defeats in international wars and crises; and Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions (Harvard University Press, 2004), which argues that common psychological biases to maintain overly positive images of our capabilities, our control over events, and the future, play a key role in the causes of war. His current work focuses on the role of evolutionary dynamics, evolutionary psychology, and religion in human conflict and cooperation. Dominic is also Co-Director of the Oxford Martin School Natural Governance Programme.


Professional Responsibilities

Co-Director of the Oxford Martin School Natural Governance Programme


Foreign Policy and diplomacy, Global governance, History, Human nature, International cooperation, International relations, International security, Power, Religion, Violence security and conflict

Dominic Johnson


Google Scholar Stats: 5,495 citations, h-Index 33, i10-index 62.


Journal Articles

  • Johnson, DDP & Tierney, D (2019) Bad world: the negativity bias in international politics. International Security 43 (3): 96-140.
  • Macdonald, Johnson, DDP and Whitehouse, H (2019) Towards a More Natural Governance of Earth’s Biodiversity and ResourcesConservation and Society 17 (1): 108-113. 
  • Buhrmester, MD, Burnham, D, Johnson, DDP, Curry, OS, Macdonald, DW, and Whitehouse, H (2018) How Moments Become Movements: Shared Outrage, Group Cohesion, and the Lion That Went ViralFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution 6 (54).
  • Lopez, A & Johnson, DDP (2017) The determinants of war in international relationsJournal of Economic Behavior & Organization ( 

  • Johnson, DDP (2017) The wrath of the academics: criticisms, applications, and extensions of the 
supernatural punishment hypothesis (Book Symposium). Religion, Brain & Behavior (In Press). 

  • Johnson, DDP (2016) Hand of the gods in human civilization (News & Views). Nature 530(7590): 285–287.
  • Johnson, DDP & Thayer, BA (2016)The evolution of offensive realism: survival under anarchy from the Pleistocene to the present. Politics and the Life Sciences 35 (1):1-26.
  • Macdonald, DW & Johnson, DDP (2015) Patchwork planet: resource dispersion and the ecology of life (the 2015 “Huxley Review” article). Journal of Zoology 295: 75-107.
  • Johnson, DDP (2015) Survival of the disciplines: is international relations fit for the new millenium? Millennium: Journal of International Studies 43 (2): 749-763.
  • Johnson, DDP & MacKay, NJ (2015) Fight the power: Lanchester’s laws of combat in human evolution. Evolution & Human Behavior 36: 152-163.
  • Johnson, DDP, Lenfesty, H. & Schloss, JP (2014) The elephant in the room: religious truth claims, evolution and human nature. Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences 1 (2): 200-231.
  • Johnson, DDP & Toft, MD (2014) Grounds for war: the evolution of territorial conflict. International Security 38 (3): 7-38.
  • Johnson, DDP, Blumstein, DT, Fowler, JH & Haselton, MG (2013) The evolution of errors: error management, cognitive constraints, and adaptive decision-making biases. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 28 (8): 474-481.
  • Johnson, DDP, Price, ME & Van Vugt, M (2013). Darwin's invisible hand: market competition, evolution and the firm. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 90: S128-S140.
  • Stopka, P & Johnson, DDP (2012) Host-parasite dynamics lead to mixed cooperative games. Folia Zoologica 61 (3/4): 233-238.
  • Blumstein, DT, Atran, S, Field, S, Hochberg, ME, Johnson, DDP, Sagarin, R, Sosis, R & Thayer, BA (2012). The peacock’s tale: lessons from evolution for effective signaling in international politics. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History 3 (1): 191-214.
  • Johnson, DDP (2012) What are atheists for? Hypotheses on the functions of non–belief in the evolution of religion. Religion, Brain & Behavior 2 (1): 48-70.
  • Johnson, DDP McDermott, R, Cowden, J, & Tingley, D (2012) Dead certain: confidence and conservatism predict aggression in simulated international crisis decision-making. Human Nature23 (1): 98-126.
  • Johnson, DDP & Fowler, JH (2011) The evolution of overconfidence. Nature 477: 317-320.
  • Johnson, DDP & Tierney, D (2011) The Rubicon theory of war: How the path to conflict reaches the point of no return. International Security 36 (1): 7-40.
  • Johnson, DDP, Weidmann, NB & Cederman, L-E (2011) Fortune favours the bold: an agent-based model reveals adaptive advantages of overconfidence in war. PLoS ONE 6 (6): e20851.
  • Sagarin, RD, Alcorta, CS, Atran, S, Blumstein, DT, Dietl, GP, Hochberg, ME, Johnson, DDP, Levin, S, Madin, EMP, Madin, JS, Prescott, EM, Sosis, R, Taylor, T, Tooby, J & Vermeij, GJ (2010) Decentralize, adapt and cooperate. Nature(Opinion) 465: 292-293.
  • King, AJ, Johnson, DDP & Van Vugt, M (2009) The origins and evolution of leadership. Current Biology 19 (19): 1591-1682.
  • Johnson, DDP (2009) Darwinian selection in asymmetric warfare: the natural advantage of insurgents and terrorists. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 95 (3): 89-112.
  • Johnson, DDP, & Levin, SA (2009) The tragedy of cognition: psychological biases and environmental inaction. Current Science 97 (11): 1593-1603.
  • McDermott, R, Tingley, D, Cowden, J, Frazzetto, G & Johnson, DDP (2009) Monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) predicts behavioral aggression following provocation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 106 (7): 2118-2123. (Note: corresponding author).
  • McDermott, R, Johnson, DDP, Cowden, J & Rosen, SP (2007) Testosterone and aggression in a simulated crisis game. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 614 (1):15-33.
  • McIntyre, MH, Barrett, ES, McDermott, R, Johnson, DDP, Cowden, J & Rosen, SP (2007) Finger length ratio (2D:4D) and sex differences in aggression during a simulated wargame. Personality and Individual Differences 42: 755-764.
  • Johnson, DDP, McDermott, R, Barrett, ES, Cowden, J, Wrangham, R, McIntyre, MH & Rosen, SP (2006) Overconfidence in wargames: experimental evidence on expectations, aggression, gender and testosterone. Proceedings of the Royal Society (B) 273 (1600): 2513-2520.
  • Johnson, DDP & Bering, JM (2006) Hand of God, mind of man: punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary Psychology 4: 219-233.
  • Johnson, DDP (2005) God's punishment and public goods: A test of the supernatural punishment hypothesis in 186 world cultures. Human Nature 16 (4): 410-446.
  • Bering, JM & Johnson, DDP (2005) Recursiveness in the cognitive evolution of supernatural agency. Journal of Cognition and Culture 5 (1/2): 118-142.
  • Burnham, T & Johnson, DDP (2005) The evolutionary and biological logic of human cooperation. Analyse & Kritik (Special issue on Ernst Fehr) 27 (1): 113-135.
  • Johnson, DDP & Tierney, DR (2004) Essence of victory: winning and losing international crises. Security Studies 13 (2): 350-381.
  • Johnson, DDP & Krueger, O (2004) Supernatural punishment and the evolution of cooperation. Political Theology 5 (2): 159-176.
  • Thom, M, Johnson, DDP & Macdonald, DW (2004) The evolution and maintenance of delayed implantation in the Mustelidae.Evolution 58 (1): 175–183.
  • Johnson, DDP, Stopka, P. & Macdonald DW (2004) Ideal flea constraints on group living: unwanted public goods and the emergence of cooperation. Behavioural Ecology 15 (1): 181–186.
  • Johnson, DDP, Stopka, P & Knights, S (2003) The puzzle of human cooperation. Nature (brief communication) 421: 911-912.
  • Johnson, DDP, R. Kays, Blackwell, P & Macdonald, DW (2003) Response to Revilla, and Buckley and Ruxton: the resource dispersion hypothesis. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 18 (8): 381.
  • Johnson, DDP & Macdonald, DW (2003) Sentenced without trial: reviling and revamping the resource dispersion hypothesis. Oikos 101 (2): 433-440.
  • Johnson, DDP, Kays, R, Blackwell, P. & Macdonald, DW (2002) Does the resource dispersion hypothesis explain group living? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 17 (12): 563-570.
  • Johnson, DDP, Stopka, P, Bell, J (2002) Individual variation evades the Prisoner's Dilemma. BMC Evolutionary Biology 2:15.
  • Johnson, DDP, Wrangham, RW & Rosen, SP (2002) Is military incompetence adaptive? An empirical test with risk-taking behaviour in modern warfare. Evolution and Human Behaviour 23: 245-264.
  • Johnson, DDP, Jetz, W & Macdonald, DW (
  • Johnson, DDP, Baker, S., Morecroft, M. & Macdonald, DW (2001) Long-term resource variation and group size: a large-sample field test of the Resource Dispersion Hypothesis. BMC Ecology 2: 1.
  • Johnson, DDP, Macdonald, DW, Newman, C & Morecroft, MD (2001) Group size versus territory size in group-living badgers: a large-sample field test of the Resource Dispersion Hypothesis. Oikos 95 (2): 265-274.
  • Johnson, DDP & Macdonald, DW (2001) Why are group-living badgers sexually dimorphic? Journal of Zoology 255: 199-204.
  • Stopka, P, Johnson, DDP, Barret, L (2001) Friendship for fitness or friendship for friendship’s sake? Animal Behaviour 61: F19-F21.
  • Stopka, P & Johnson, DDP (2000) Badgers (Meles meles) as a model species for the development of ecological and behavioural research. Lynx 31: 125-131.
  • Johnson, DDP, Macdonald, DW & Dickman, AJ (2000) A review of models of the sociobiology of the Mustelidae. Mammal Review 30 (3): 171-196.
  • Johnson, DDP & Briskie, JV (1999) Sperm competition and sperm length in shorebirds. Condor 101 (4): 848-854.
  • Johnson, DDP & Mighell JS (1999) Dry-season bird diversity in tropical rainforest and surrounding habitats in Northeast Australia. Emu 99 (2): 108-120.
  • Johnson, DDP, Hay, SI & Rogers, DJ (1998) Contemporary environmental correlates of endemic bird areas derived from meteorological satellite sensors. Proceedings of the Royal Society (B) 265: 951-959.
  • Krueger, O & Johnson, DDP (1996) Bird Communities in Kyambura Game Reserve, south-west Uganda. Ibis 138 (3): 564-567.

Book Chapters

  • Johnson, DDP (In Press) Leadership in War: Evolution, Cognition, and the Military Intelligence Hypothesis. In: Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology(ed. DM Buss), Wiley.
  • Tecza, A & Johnson, DDP (2015) Leadership. In: Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource (eds. RA Scott and SM Kosslyn), pp, 1-15, Wiley.
  • Johnson, DDP & Reeve, Z (2013) The Virtues of Intolerance: Is Religion an Adaptation for War? In: Religion, Intolerance and Conflict: A Scientific and Conceptual Investigation (eds. S Clarke, R Powell & J Savulescu), pp. 67-87, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, DDP (2013) The uniqueness of human cooperation: cognition, cooperation and religion. In: Evolution, Games and God: The Principle of Cooperation(eds. MA Nowak & S Coakley), Cambridge MA:Harvard University Press.
  • Price, ME & Johnson, DDP (2011) The adaptationist theory of cooperation in groups: evolutionary predictions for organizational cooperation. In: Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences(ed. G Saad), pp. 95-133, Springer.
  • Hardie, I, Johnson, DDP & Tierney, DR (2011) Psychological aspects of war. In: The Handbook on the Political Economy of War(eds. CJ Coyne & RL Mathers), pp. 72-92, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
  • Johnson, DDP (2009) The error of God: Error management theory, religion, and the evolution of cooperation. In: Games, Groups, and the Global Good(ed. SA Levin), pp. 169-180, Berlin:Springer.
  • Van Vugt, M, Johnson, DDP, Kaiser, RB & O’Gorman, R (2008) Evolution and the social psychology of leadership: the mismatch hypothesis. In:Leadership at the Crossroads: Leadership and Psychology, vol. 1, (eds. CL Hoyt, GR Goethals & DR Forsyth), pp. 267-282, New York: Praeger.
  • Johnson, DDP (2008) Gods of war: The adaptive logic of religious conflict. In:The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, and Critiques(eds. J Bulbulia, R Sosis, C Genet, R Genet, E Harris & K Wyman),Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press.
  • Johnson, DDP, Price, M & Takezawa, M (2008) Renaissance of the individual: reciprocity, positive assortment, and the puzzle of human cooperationIn: Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology: Ideas, Issues and Applications(eds. C Crawford and D Krebs), New York: Erlbaum.
  • Johnson, DDP & Madin, JS (2008) Population models and counterinsurgency strategies. In: Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World(eds. RD Sagarin & T Taylor), Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
  • Johnson, DDP & Madin, EMP (2008) Paradigm shifts in security strategy: why does it take disasters to trigger change? In: Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World(eds. RD Sagarin & T Taylor), Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
  • Johnson, DDP & Tierney, D (2007) In the eye of the beholder: victory and defeat in U.S. military operations. In: Understanding Victory and Defeat in Contemporary War(eds. J Angstrom and I Duyvesteyn), pp. 46-76, London: Routledge.
  • Macdonald, DW & Johnson, DDP (2001) Dispersal in theory and practice: consequences for conservation biology, In: Dispersal(ed. J. Clobert et al.), pp. 361-374, Oxford: OUP.

Commentaries & Reviews

  • Johnson, DDP (2015) Big Gods, small wonder: supernatural punishment strikes back. Religion, Brain & Behavior In Press.
  • Johnson, DDP & Toft, MD (2015). Bringing “geo” back into politics: evolution, territoriality and the contest over Ukraine (with commentaries).Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution 5: 87-122.
  • Reeve, Z & Johnson, DDP (2013) Identity (con)fusion: social groups and the stickiness of social glue (a commentary on Harvey Whitehouse). Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History 4 (2): 314-319.
  • Johnson, DDP & Fowler, JH (2013) Complexity and Simplicity in the Evolution of Decision-Making Biases. Trends in Ecology & Evolution28 (8): 446-447.
  • Johnson, DDP (2012) Natural Security: 3.5 Billion Years of Adapting to Novel Threats. Political Insight 3 (2):12-15.
  • Johnson, DDP (2011) Why God is the best punisher. Religion, Brain & Behavior1 (1): 77-84.
  • Johnson, DDP (2009) God would be a costly accident: supernatural beliefs as adaptive. Behavioral and Brain Sciences32 (6): 523-524.
  • Johnson, DDP & Van Vugt, M (2009) A history of war: the role of inter-group conflict in sex differences in aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences32(3/4): 280-281.
  • Johnson, DDP (2009) Beyond Belief: A review of “The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success” by Lyle B. Steadman and Craig T. Palmer. Evolution & Human Behavior30: 225-228.

Policy Briefs

  • Johnson, DDP & Toft, MD (2014) Grounds for Hope: The Evolutionary Science behind Territorial Conflict. Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International AffairsPolicy Brief Document, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
  • Johnson, DDP & Tierney, D (2011) Crossing the Rubicon: the perils of committing to a decision. Belfer Center for Science and International AffairsPolicy Brief Document, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Selected popular press and media

  • Johnson, DDP“Divided We Fall: The One Culture, the Next Generation, and 21st Century Challenges”, 19 Sept 2016 Social Evolution Forum
  • Johnson, DDP& Lopez, A “The Ends of War: Human Evolution and the Origins of Inter-Group Violence” 04 March 2016 This View of Life
  • Johnson, DDP “Overconfidence and the War in Syria” Political Violence @ a Glance, 19 Nov 2015.
  • Johnson, DDP “What Isn't Evolutionary Psychology?” This View of Life, 6 May 2015.
  • Johnson, DDP & Thayer, BA “Why Man Seeks Power” The National Interest, 01 April 2014.
  • Deane-Drummond, C, Johnson, DDP, Fuentes, A & Lovin, R “Highly Evolved Questions: What Scientists and Theologians Talk About” Christian Century, 7 August 2013.
  • Johnson, DDP “Welcome to the Jungle: Anarchy From the Amazon to the Atomic Age” Edge, 6/6/13.
  • Johnson, DDP “D-Day: Darwin’s March on Politics” This View of Life, 12 Feb 2013
  • Johnson, DDP & Thayer, BA “What Our Primate Relatives Say About War” The National Interest, 29 Jan 2013.
  • Johnson, DDP“Why Are We Sometimes More Likely to Succeed When We Are Overconfident?” Science and Religion Today, 20 Sept 2010 [web link].
  • Johnson, DDP & Tierney, D “Why Does bin Laden's Death Feel Like a Triumph?” The Atlantic, 5 May 2011.
  • Johnson, DDP & Fowler, JH “On Overconfidence”, Seed Magazine, January 2010.
  • Johnson, DDP & Tierney, D “The Wars of Perception”, New York Times(op-ed), 28 November 2006, A23. (Reprinted in the International Herald Tribune as “A Mirage of Defeat in the Desert?”).
  • Johnson, DDP “Why the War Looks Lost”, Lettre Internationale(Copenhagen), July 2007.