Then there is the matter of what political scientists call “assortative mating,” which is their term for the nonrandom factors that attract mates to one another. Citing previous studies that found “mate pairs that are politically similar will produce a much different next generation than mate pairs that are politically dissimilar”—a fact that they trace partly to genetics—a study of twins and their spouses concluded that mates “tend to be positively but only weakly concordant on most personality and physical traits, but, James Carville and Mary Matalin aside, spousal concordance in the realm of social and political attitudes is extremely high.” Put simply, men and women seem to be more attracted to one another’s politics than to their looks or personalities. (Only religion scored higher.) Political opposites don’t attract. Liberals marry liberals, conservatives marry conservatives—a circumstance that tends to perpetuate these political orientations in the next generation.
Which brings us to the notion that conservatives dominate American politics—indeed all politics—because we are hardwired conservative in our genes. According to the argument, evolutionary genetics is basically about selfishness—about making sure we survive and reproduce ourselves—which, as Northern Illinois’s Arnhart says, is pretty close to the modern conservative philosophy of individualism, self-sufficiency and enlightened self-interest. Furthermore, as Oxford animal behaviorist Richard Dawkins has written, that desire for survival is confined to the survival of our kin and those closest to us, which may explain the conservative hostility to immigrants. It does not extend to the entire species, which if it had may have led to some form of liberalism as expressed in various programs to help others outside our kinship circles. Dawkins cites a “selfish gene,” meaning that all genes really want only to reproduce themselves. Altruism is thus limited to two situations: those in which we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for our kin in order to keep our genes going and those in which we are willing to risk sacrificing ourselves for someone who may return the favor in order to keep ourselves going. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson suggests it could go further. It’s possible that because “people governed by selfish genes must prevail over those with altruistic genes,” he writes in On Human Nature, “there should also be a tendency over many generations for selfish genes to increase in prevalence and for a population to become ever less capable of responding altruistically.” In evolutionary terms, this doesn’t leave much room for liberalism.
So why then aren’t we all conservative? Well, culture has something to do with that. Even if culture is no longer the single defining characteristic of politics, there have been all sorts of cultural pressures that are designed to curb the worst excesses of selfishness and protect those who would otherwise be on the losing side of evolution: the poor, the weak, the ill, the outsiders. Culture shames us into being better than we have to be. And there is another mechanism, this one Darwinian, that evolutionary geneticists refer to as “hawks and doves.” According to this theory, if everyone in a society were a hawk, they would wind up killing one another off—not a particularly effective adaptive strategy. By the same token, if a society were composed entirely of doves, it would take the introduction of only a single hawk to kill off the doves, which makes being a dove not a particularly effective adaptive strategy either. The upshot is that diversity—a combination of hawks and doves—is most likely to sustain individual hawks and individual doves, and theorists have calculated the ratio between the birds that would maximize their overall survivability.
But people, while they may be hawkish or dovish, are not hawks and doves, and political survivability is not the same thing as physical survivability. It is possible that since even genetic adaptive strategies vary by situation, we may have had to temper our hawkishness as an adaptive strategy in a physical sense while making fewer concessions in a political sense, not only when it comes to war but when it comes to social welfare. In this view, hawks ride roughshod over liberals, who may exist only because those hawkish conservatives often overplay their hand and threaten their own survivability. In that case, dovish liberals then become the alternative, which is why theorist John Maynard Smith said that survival strategies will always oscillate between hawks and doves. But Smith aside, if Wilson and Arnhart are right, it may be only a matter of time before conservatism, which is the natural state, reasserts itself, even more so as the cultural prohibitions against selfishness seem to be declining and selfishness is considered a social good. In other words, liberalism is some sort of vestigial response to those times when conservatism screws up, but as Arnhart and others see it, conservatism is the default ideology. In the end, it wins.
The theory sounds plausible, especially since American conservatism does seem to be the baseline ideology even as our politics oscillate, but there is plenty of disagreement about the evolutionary basis of conservative dominance, and most biopolitical scientists have their doubts. Fowler believes hardwired conservatism is a misunderstanding of evolution. It is possible, he admits, that there is an advantage to being a conservative and that not enough time has passed for conservatism to evolve into an unassailable position, biologically speaking, but it is also possible that enough time has elapsed and that diversity indicates we need both conservatives and liberals to survive. “We should have a mix of liberals and conservatives in order to be able to meet environmental challenges,” he says. Hibbing agrees, though he also admits the possibility that liberals may be an “evolutionary dead end” or a “luxury” in a modern society that may not have the same need for diversity as our ancestors did to combat immediate threats.
Pete Hatemi, a pathbreaking political scientist at Penn State University who is examining the human genome for ideological markers, thinks that Arnhart is wrong. But he thinks that Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer is also wrong when he argues that cooperation is just as powerful a force as selfishness in Darwinian evolution and that this should give some hope to liberals. As Hatemi sees it, “Having an attitude, just having one, that’s where evolutionary psychology comes in, not which direction it is. If [liberalism or conservatism] were adaptive, then everyone would be liberal or everyone would be conservative,” which is obviously not the way things are. Yes, he says, people may have conservatism or liberalism in their genes, but evolution doesn’t necessarily favor one over the other. The only proof of the evolutionary superiority of conservatism or liberalism would be a society that was ideologically uniform and had been that way for generations. He doesn’t think the United States is that society. Arnhart thinks it may be close.
Whoever is right, studies show conclusively that the answer is now at least partly in biology and no longer exclusively in society, which doesn’t mean that everyone is finally convinced. Old-line political scientists still think the methodology of biopolitics is crude. Confirmed leftists are still skeptical because they think ideology is economically governed, and confirmed right-wingers are equally skeptical because they don’t want to give up the idea of free will and because they’re afraid of how they’ll be characterized in biological terms. (One study indicates that liberals have higher IQs than conservatives.) Political consultants haven’t shown much interest either, because they are paid to convince people to vote for candidates and biopolitics suggests their efforts may be futile. Indeed, as Hibbing puts it, the fact that the political divide may be unbridgeable could actually lead to more tolerance in precisely the way genetic theories about sexual preference have led to greater tolerance for gays. You can’t blame someone for being born with a different belief system than the one you were born with.
One thing is certain. Hardwired conservative or not, we have seen our political future, and it is not in voter surveys, improved political messaging, increased contributions or better political ideas. We have seen the future, and it is in the genes.