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The Weird World Of Biopolitics
  • February 21, 2012 : 20:02
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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.

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3 comments

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Both liberal and crnaeovstives want clean air, clean water and a healthy environment. The difference comes in their basic philosophies. Liberals believe the government should get involved and fix the environment through a series of laws. The want to tax polluters. They want to cut back on our use of energy. They want the government to put controls on how many miles our cars must get per gallon of gas. They want to join Kyoto and place stops on our industrial growth.Conservatives believe that we can still grow and let the free market find the solutions for our environmental problems. We will have more gasoline efficient cars when the public buys them. We will have biofuels, oilgae, etc. when the free market makes it economically viable. People will start producing mini refineries in their back yard to produce bio-diesel and all sorts of things in our future that we cannot imagine today. Many of our legislative actions will be counterproductive to the creativity of human ingenuity.Therefore conservative don't even want to believe that global warming exists. If they admit it exists then they would have to do something about it and that would be contrary to their basic philosophy of allowing free market capitalism to run its own course.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Perhaps I shouldn't have pshuilbed something I wrote over a year ago without at least giving it a second glance. Whoops! It is, no doubt, far too simplistic in its attempt to define a political dichotomy, but I thought I was being obvious enough that I was painting with broad strokes here.While I should hold firm to my conclusion—no law can change the hearts of men—I'll note that I agree with all three of those points. Ironically enough, your basic argument is a non-sequitur.Certainly the law can reveal and increase sin, but the relevant effect here is to prove the need for a savior. The law itself is not doing the changing; it is merely revealing the urgent need for an outside agent that can perform such a change.And while the law also constrains evil—I wouldn't use the word restrain here, and we'll see why in a minute—it still doesn't follow that this is changing the evildoers heart. If a person would not head in the direction that the law forbids without the law, then the law would not be necessary. The mere fact that the law continues to exist and constrain evil only shows that evil continues regardless of the law.Your third point does no better of a job of proving that law can change a man's heart. Law is a guide, yes! I'll agree. This is why I used the word constrain earlier. The law is passive; it does not act. In order for a heart to change, an agent must be able to act upon it. A heavy-handed bureaucracy is not even close to a suitable outside agent.While one of the chief roles of government certainly is to be an arbiter of justice, this in no way requires government to dictate a moral code to its people and attempt to mold them thusly in order to fulfill its obligation.I don't consider myself a staunch libertarian, and certainly not a Libertarian. I'd say I'm a libertarian conservative. Even so, I think you've got libertarianism wrong here, Dave, and I think we stand to learn a lot from libertarians. Libertarianism is strong enough to wield the sword and arbitrate justice both because, at its core, libertarianism is about protecting the rights of the sovereign individual. A libertarian would tell you that to act against another person through force—be it violence, coercion, or theft—violates their rights as a sovereign individual, and there are mechanisms in contract law and through the legal system that should be used to deal with this.We could admit to playing semantics here by saying that, really, any law which says one thing is good and another is bad is defining a sort of moral ethic. The difference between libertarianism and what we have now, though, is a difference in kind rather than degree. A purely libertarian set of laws would include nothing that says, in effect, You are forbidden to do this because it's bad for you. You see, that's not the government's job. That's the Church's job, and the responsibility of your friends and family that know and love you. Government does not love you, and it does not care for your well-being. It is irresponsible to conclude otherwise. To have your community vote to pass laws that demand you behave for your own well-being, rather than actually invest the time with you personally in an attempt to affect the proper change, reveals a stunning lack of love and a reckless use of government force against you.One last note, in response to the pro-life comment: libertarianism isn't anarchy. A such, laws still exist, but they are meant for the protection of the individual person from external forces. You cannot perform an abortion because it is a terminal violent act against another person without their consent. One cannot murder a person outside the womb for the very same reason.My whole purpose for this blog post was to make the statement that a minimum of laws are fully necessary, but the design of each law should be viewed in the light that it is meant to construct a civilized system in which we can freely live with an assurance of the justice which those laws provide. (We know that justice denied is tyranny– regardless of the effect.) I don't need politicians trying to help me be a better man and weighting me down with all manner of rules and regulations in an effort to achieve such an ever-shifting goal.Reply
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    That's a mold-beraker. Great thinking!
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