Why Right-Wingers Think the Way They Do: The Fascinating Psychologi...

Chris Mooney summarizes the latest theories and evidence for the evolution of left/right political personality differences.

... Hibbing and his colleagues consider a variety of potential explanations for the stubborn fact that there is large, politically relevant psychological and biological diversity among members of the human species, and ultimately settle on a tentative combination of two ideas. First, they assert, conservatism is probably more basic and fundamental, because it is more suited to a world in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Being defensive, risk aversive, hierarchical, and tribal makes sense when the threats around you are very real and immediate. As many of these threats have relaxed in modern times, however, this may have unleashed more variability among the human species, simply because now we can afford it. Under this scenario, liberals are the Johnny-come-latelys to the politico-evolutionary pageant; the Enlightenment itself is less than 300 years old, less than an eyeblink in evolutionary time. “Liberalism may thus be viewed as an evolutionary luxury afforded by negative stimuli becoming less prevalent and deadly,” write Hibbing et al.

However, Hibbing and his colleagues also consider a more controversial “group selection” scenario, in which evolution built some measure of variability in our political typologies because sometimes, diversity is strength (for the group, anyway, if not for the individual). ... it’s easy to see why a group of early humans comprised of both conservative and liberal psychologies might have fared better than a more homogenous group.

As Hibbing et al. explain, the evidence suggests that around 40 percent of the variation in political beliefs is ultimately rooted in DNA.

... people tend to mate and have offspring with those who are similar to them on the openness measure—and therefore, with those who share their deeply rooted political outlook. It’s a process called “assortative mating,” and it will almost certainly exacerbate our current political divide.

Yet it would be going much too far to suggest that Hibbing et al. have a strong or highly developed theory for why biopolitical diversity exists among humans. Avi Tuschman does, though. “Political orientations are natural dispositions that have been molded by evolutionary forces,” he asserts.

Knowing how prevalent racism and xenophobia are today among members of the same human species, we can assume that many of our ancestors would have behaved even worse toward Neanderthals. And yet some Homo sapiens bred with them, produced offspring with them, and (presumably) cared for those offspring.

The answer, hints Tuschman in Our Political Nature, is that it may have been the liberals. For one core of the apparently universal left-right difference, he argues, is that the two groups pursue different reproductive strategies, different ways of ensuring offspring and fitness in the next generation.

Conservatives, he suggests in one of three interrelated evolutionary accounts of the origins of politics, are a modern reflection of an evolutionary impulse that leads some of us to seek to control sexual reproduction and keep it within a relatively homogenous group. This naturally makes today’s conservatives more tribal and in-group oriented; if tribalism does anything, it makes it clear who you are and aren’t supposed to mate with.Tuschman’s liberals, in contrast, are a modern reflection of an evolutionary impulse to take risks, and thereby pull in more genetic diversity through outbreeding. This naturally makes today’s liberals more exploratory and cosmopolitan, just as the personality tests always suggest. Ultimately, Tuschman bluntly writes, it all comes down to “different attitudes toward the transmission of DNA.”

According to Tuschman, these competing reproductive strategies arise from the fact that there are advantages to keeping mating close within the group, but also advantages to mixing in more genetic diversity.

Outbreeding brings in diversity, which is vital. ... But outbreeding also has risks—like encountering deadly new pathogens when you encounter new human groups—even as a moderate degree of inbreeding appears to have its own advantages: perpetuating genetically based survival strategies that are proven to work, increasing altruism that arises in kin relationships, and also, it appears, having more total offspring.

Returning to the present, Tuschman emphasizes that conservatives, and especially religious conservatives, always want to seem to control and restrict reproduction (and other sexual activities) more than liberals do.

Tuschman also suggests that other aspects of the liberal-conservative divide reflect other evolutionary challenges and differential strategies of responding to them. He traces different left-right views on hierarchy and equality to the structure of families (a move that cognitive linguist George Lakoff has in effect already made) and the effect of birth order on the personalities and political outlooks of siblings. And Tuschman traces more positive and negative (or, risk-aversive) views of human nature on the left and the right to different types of evolutionarily based altruism: altruism toward kin on the conservative side, and reciprocal altruism (which can be toward anyone) on the liberal side.

... Tuschman’s book ... may or may not stand the test of time, but it certainly forces the issue.

Ideological diversity is clearly real, deeply rooted, and probably a core facet of human nature. Given this, we simply have no choice but to come up with a much better way to live with it. [emphasis mine]

I find Tuchmann's arguments for assortative mating, differential reproductive strategies and altruism persuasive, as origins of today's political divide.

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Replies to This Discussion

Ruth, where do people who study conservatives and liberals put progressives?

Where do you put them?

There has for years been a Progressive Caucus in the US Congress.

I was a longtime activist with Common Cause, and for a while a Congressional District Coordinator. I saw huge differences between its progressive activists and its liberal donors. I reminded activists that donors funded our activism and told them to cool their name-calling.

I have for years been telling people I'm w-a-y out to the left of liberals.

I thought that progressive was the same as liberal, but perhaps I'm mistaken.

Ruth, during my four years in Arizona's political "water wars" about water and land use, I never heard the words liberalism or progressivism.

The 1976 murder of the reporter Don Bolles (Wikipedia tells some of the story) made the war hotter than I wanted so I moved to San Francisco.

There, in a contest about electing the County's supervisors (like a city's councilmembers) by district or at-large, I met a left-leaning activist wearing a button saying "Eschew Liberalism". I asked him what it meant and he told me liberals are socially liberal but fiscally conservative.

I soon learned the names limousine liberal and checkbook liberal.

In another post here, Loren Miller quoted two lines by England's William Gladstone.

Keep in mind that he was referring to England's political parties.

Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence.

Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.

I reversed their order, naming Conservatism first and Liberalism second, and added:

Progressivism is anger at liberals for their prudence.

When Reagan invited the xian fundamentalists into the Republican Party, Jerry Falwell and others like him started a war on liberalism that hasn't ended yet.

The liberals I knew in SF were such gentle folk that I decided that Falwell and his allies were too cowardly to attack progressives.


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