Fear and hope, whether human nature is basically selfish or basically good, lie at the core of many political disputes. Evolution suggests the answer is … complicated. (More)

Our Political Nature Part III: Fear, Hope, and Altruism

This week Morning Feature explores Avi Tuschman’s new book Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us. Wednesday we saw how ‘social issues’ like racism and gender roles reflect evolutionary impulses for inbreeding and outbreeding. Yesterday we saw the familial evolutionary roots of our different views on wealth inequality. Today we examine why conservatives see life through the lens of competition, while liberals see it through the lens of cooperation. Tomorrow we’ll discuss how to apply these insights in talking with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

Avi Tuschman earned a Ph.D in evolutionary anthropology from Stanford University. He has worked with presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and legislators on five continents, as well as with multilateral banks to mediate social and economic conflicts in developing countries.

Please welcome Dr. Tuschman as he joins our discussions this week.

“Your great-grandfather’s Social Darwinism”

Conservatism is a worldview premised on fear. Many repeat patterns so familiar that we’ve given them names:

  • Barbarians at the Gates – This narrative finds threats from outside one’s community: the Soviet Union, Al Qaeda, Mexican drug gangs, or letting Those People into Our Neighborhood.
  • The Enemy Within – This narrative finds threats within the community, typically those who challenge existing privilege structures, and often portrays them as agents for the Barbarians at the Gates.
  • Moral Decay – This narrative compares the present and a dystopic vision of the future against the idealized past of The Good Old Days. Unless we halt the slide into degeneracy, often presented as including a need to identify and crush The Enemy Within, we are doomed to fall victim to The Barbarians at the Gates.

As Dr. Tuschman writes, these Dangerous World narratives are built on the idea that human beings are fundamentally selfish, dishonest, greedy, and oppressive:

If, as conservatives tend to believe, human nature is fundamentally competitive and self-interest prevails, then people live in a dangerous world. The “dangerous world” metaphor has long been associated with right-wing ideological views. In the last couple of centuries, though, this metaphor has taken the form of folk-Darwinism. University of Michigan philosopher Peter Railton has dubbed this worldview “your great-grandfather’s Social Darwinism,” in which “all creatures great and small [are] pitted against one another in a life-or-death struggle to survive and reproduce.

Conservatives claim to see proof of this throughout nature. You’re either predator or prey. Even if you’re a predator, you have to be on the lookout for bigger, faster, stronger predators. If you’re not the biggest, fastest, strongest – or in our modern world, the best-armed – predator … you and your loved ones are simply meals waiting to be eaten.

“Facing up to the facts of biological life”

Yet that worldview is based on a deeply flawed view of nature and evolution. Dr. Tuschman quotes political scientist Glendon Schubert:

[T]he roots of political behavior go back not thousands but millions of years…. The implications of contemporary research in physical anthropology [and] related sciences are going to jack political philosophy off of its classical assumptions – once political scientists become better educated in, and start facing up to the facts of biological life including their own life history as a species.

Those biological facts are far less grim than conservatives imagine. They’re also less rosy than some liberals wish. To truly study evolution, one must study not only competition but also altruism: where individuals accept or risk some cost to benefit others, sometimes but not always kin, and sometimes not even of the same species.

Dr. Tuschman explores two basic classes of altruism:

  • Kin Selection – This happens when an individual gives or risks some cost to benefit genetic relatives. Biologist William Hamilton proposed a mathematical theory to predict kin selection, based on the prospective cost to one’s self, the benefit to the recipient, and the percentage of shared genes. The idea is pithily captured by J.B.S. Haldane, when asked if he would risk his life to save a drowning brother: “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.” Studies of holiday giving patterns, trust games, and pain endurance tests, generally confirm Hamilton’s theory (with noteworthy exceptions in cultural details).
  • Reciprocal Altruism – This theory, proposed by biologist Robert Trivers, proposes that individuals also give or risk costs to benefit someone who is not kin, and may be a total stranger or even another species. The giver’s cost is usually much less than the benefit to the recipient. The anticipated reciprocity may be direct (the recipient will help the giver in the future), or indirect (others will see the giver’s generosity and help the giver in the future). This form of altruism, including reputation-based indirect reciprocity, has been observed in most primate species and in other species as well.

“Wary cooperators”

Neither kin selection nor reciprocal altruism suggests that humans are always or even reliably “good.” Rifts within families may warp kin selection behavior, and most humans (and other animals) cheat on reciprocity in at least some situations. In the 1980s, political scientist Robert Axelrod hosted a computer tournament where participants submitted programs to compete a classic game theory problem called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. But unlike the classic problem – and like most real world interactions – the tournament used multiple iterations and the competing programs could remember and adjust to each others’ past behavior.

The winning program, and the simplest, was designed by mathematician Anatol Rapoport and it used the “tit-for-tat” strategy: cooperating on the first round and repeating the opponents’ moves in succeeding rounds. Thus, if an opponent defected in a round, Rapoport’s program would defect in the next round against that opponent … most of the time. (He programmed it to ignore a small minority of defections.) Dr. Tuschman writes:

As Rapoport’s tit-for-tat strategy demonstrates, neither a pure reciprocal altruist nor a pure reciprocal defector would fare well in increasing its fitness relative to tit-for-tat players. The program’s key feature is that it punishes defections by other players, but these punishments are only strong enough to dissuade future cheating. Since punishment is expensive, forgiveness is crucial. Thus, social environments where reciprocal altruism has evolved are full of “wary cooperators” – to use political scientist John Alford’s term.

“Money is only as good as the … advantages that it can buy”

Studies of human and other primate behavior have generally confirmed the utility of the tit-for-tat strategy when: (1) punishments are not excessive; (2) the real world behavior is transparent; and, especially, (3) others see and reward a reputation for generosity and fairness.

Indeed studies have found both reciprocal giving and punishing cheaters trigger the same sets of feel-good chemicals. As Dr. Tuschman concludes:

What’s the moral of the story? Are we agents of rational choice? Money does motivate people. But our primary wiring is not for unconditional, self-interested material gain. First and foremost, we’ve evolved as social animals. So successfully cooperating, and avenging cheaters, also stimulates our reward system. […] Money is only as good as the survival, status, or fitness advantages that it can buy.

Yes, humans can be dangerous. But we can also be heroic, in ways that biologists still struggle to understand. We are, in Jonathan Haidt’s term, an “ultrasocial” species, able to form and sustain huge groups that reach far beyond biological kinship. Individualism may be coded into our DNA, but so are cooperation and self-sacrifice.

But as we’ve seen, these genetic predispositions vary among individuals, and we’ll look at environmental, societal, and biological factors that affect the shape of that distribution curve, nudging more of us toward liberalism … or conservatism.


Happy Friday!