This week we’ve seen how both liberalism and conservatism have deep evolutionary roots, and neither will ever Just Go Away. But our genes don’t dictate our political behavior, and thoughtful, persistent activism can enable change. (More)

Our Political Nature Part IV: Theories of Change (Non-Cynical Saturday)

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. Thursday we saw the familial evolutionary roots of our different views on wealth inequality. Yesterday we examined why conservatives see life through the lens of competition, while liberals see it through the lens of cooperation. Today we 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.

“I just saw someone who needed help”

On January 2, 2007, Wesley Autrey was waiting at a New York City subway station with his six- and four-year-old daughters when he saw a young man having a seizure. He and two women rushed to help the stranger, Cameron Hollopeter, but when Hollopeter tried to get up he stumbled and fell onto the tracks. Autrey saw the lights of the approaching train and jumped down to save Hollopeter. With no time to hoist the man up to the platform, Autrey instead pushed him into a drainage trench between the tracks and lay atop him as a shield.

Five cars went past before the conductor was able to stop the train. Fortunately, both men were unhurt. The media dubbed Autrey “The Subway Samaritan,” “The Subway Superman,” and “The Hero of Harlem.” For his part, Autrey told reporters:

I don’t feel like I did something spectacular. I just saw someone who needed help.

Stories like Autrey’s feel remarkable, and biologists struggle to explain why a man would leave two young daughters unguarded and put his own life in danger – risking a combined 200% of his genes – to help an unrelated stranger.

“Turn resources into offspring”

Yet people around the world risk their lives for strangers every day: as police officers and firefighters, EMTs and ER teams, and in exceptionally dangerous jobs that – in terms of individual evolutionary calculations – usually pay far too little to offset the risk of death or disability. Why do so many people do risk their lives for their communities?

The answer may lie in the controversial theory of group selection. This holds that individual-risking genes can propagate in social species if they elicit traits that offer survival advantages for groups in which they exist, relative to other groups of that same species in which those genes are absent. As we saw in our discussion of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind:

Recent research has begun to revive group selection. Social insects account for over half of the insect mass on our planet, and some biologists now think that’s because their social structures gave them survival advantages over solitary insects. Much of that research has focused on direct conflicts between competing groups, and much of Dr. Haidt’s discussion focuses on that. Yet as one of his colleagues told him after reading an early draft of his chapter, group selection is not all about war. If a genetic change helps a group “turn resources into offspring” more efficiently, that group is more likely to flourish … and that genetic change is more likely to propagate.

Simply, a group with at least a few heroes like William Autrey will provide its members a bit more safety, and produce more offspring, than a group with no such heroes.

Meet Fred

Stories like Autrey’s matter when we talk with Fred, our archetypal median voter. As we’ve noted, Fred doesn’t watch cable news unless they’re covering a breaking event. He doesn’t subscribe to a newspaper, although he’ll scan headlines if he sees a paper at the store, or when he goes online. He doesn’t read political websites. He and Mrs. Fred may have the evening news on during or after dinner, but they’re probably also talking with their daughter, the Fredling.

Yet it’s a mistake to call Fred a “low-information voter.” Polls show Fred knows a surprising amount about current events, especially in his own community. He knew about the Great Recession long before the national media reported on it, because he saw friends, relatives, coworkers, and neighbors struggling to find jobs and keep their homes. Those friends, relatives, coworkers, and neighbors are Fred’s primary news sources, and his opinions on high-profile issues like Syria are very thoughtful.

Fred has no overarching political philosophy, except that he’d like government to help make things better or at least not make things worse. In general, Fred neither strongly favors nor strongly dislikes specific demographic groups. He tends to take people as he meets them – one at a time – and he looks at political issues the same way. That makes Fred biconceptual, in George Lakoff’s terms, more progressive on some issues and more conservative on others. In Dr. Tuschman’s terms, Fred has “low ideological coherence.”

“In most cases, moderate personality solutions proved fit”

Of course, archetypal Fred is a fictional aggregate of medians in census data and national polls. If anyone in America is exactly Fred – median age, family size, income, voting history, and giving the median response to every poll question – that’s a statistical accident. Or is it? Dr. Tuschman writes:

We’re here with the political orientations we have because our ancestors’ personalities helped them survive and reproduce successfully over thousands of generations. Their political personalities were instrumental in the regulation of inbreeding and outbreeding. These dispositions helped them mediate biological conflicts between parents, offspring, and siblings. And their moral emotions also balanced various types of altruism against self-interest in countless social interactions. In some types of social or ecological environments, more extreme personality traits were adaptive. In most cases, moderate personality solutions proved fit. That’s one reason why there are so many moderates among us. Another reason for moderates and flexibility is that environments change, so it wouldn’t make sense for our genes to rigidly determine our personalities.

Fred’s capacity to adopt liberal or conservative positions for a specific issue, depending on the circumstances as he understands them, is not a weakness. It’s an evolutionary strength. He maintains that flexibility because he’s not deeply invested in any ideology, and he doesn’t live on an “information island.”

Conditions of change

What conditions would change our statistical description of Fred, that is, the shape of a culture’s political distribution curve? Dr. Tuschman discusses several:

  • Wealth – In poorer cultures, the political distribution curve tends to be somewhat flatter, with fewer moderates and more people at both the conservative and liberal extremes. In wealthier cultures, the curve tends to be rounder, with more moderates and fewer people at either extreme.
  • Religion – In deeply religious cultures, the peak of the political distribution curve shifts somewhat toward conservatism. In very secular cultures, the peak of the curve shifts somewhat toward liberalism.
  • Climate – In warmer climates, the peak of the political distribution curve shifts somewhat toward conservatism, perhaps because xenophobia helps protect people from faster-growing pathogens. In cooler climates, the peak of the curve shifts somewhat toward liberalism.
  • Age – Teens and young adults are somewhat more liberal than adults 30 and older. That may be due to brain maturation, as the judgment centers we need for risk assessment aren’t fully developed until the mid-20s. It may also be due to parenthood and awareness of risks to and responsibility for children. But the evidence does not suggest we grow ever more conservative as we age. Instead, our political personalities seem to become stable at around age 30.

But the genetic predispositions for political behavior are only 40-60% predictive. Politics is an inherently social topic, and the other 40-60% of Fred’s views arise from shared experiences with family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. That includes the conversations we call Fred Whispering, and stories of people caring for each other, like William Autrey.

Both liberalism and conservatism are deeply rooted in our evolutionary biology. Liberals and conservatives exist in every culture and, contrary to the wishes of some on both sides, neither liberalism nor conservatism will ever Just Go Away. But every culture also has lots of moderates like Fred, and Fred also offers his culture evolutionary advantages. To better enable positive, progressive change, we must stop hoping conservatism will Just Go Away … and start talking with Fred.


Happy Saturday!