Politics and evolution

A [URL = http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000568.html]recent blog by Matt Young[/URL] has more than a few folk upset. I am not upset, exactly, but I do not agree with the way he characterised the political spectrum, or the general features of the parochial duopoly he has drawn from American party politics. Most of all, though, I object to the notion that biology, in particular evolution, has any warrant in such debates at all.

In the 1970s, as many will recall, sociobiology was all the go; even to the extent of getting a Time Magazine cover story. Sociobiology was almost rabidly attacked by the Left for being, as they saw it, an apologia for the Racist Right. The heat generated did not result in much subsequent light. We don’t need this played out again in the context of neurobiology or evolutionary psychology.

If there are social facts that depend upon biology, they apply equally for those on the right as for those on the left, as Peter Singer argued in his A Darwinian Left. Yes, one has to care to make a rational choice, as Damasio, quoted by Matt, noted. A totally inert reasoning device, whether human or not, will make no judgments at all, worse than Buridan’s Ass. But it does not follow that biology will determine the choices made.

Apart from the contextual and extremely local division of political views into “liberal” and “conservative” based on the American major parties, which in the rest of the world is regarded as a division between moderate conservatism and slightly less moderate conservatism, the idea there is some kind of psychological underpinning to such views is, to speak frankly, silly.

There are those who would change things, and those who would hold things as they are, but is this mappable to American political partisan politics? The Bush Administration has made a great many changes; often the Democrats, from a foreigner’s perspective, strive to maintain the status quo. Neither party seems to an outsider to have a monopoly on progressivist reform or serving special interest groups - the groups that are served are different, that is all.

Some time back, Frank Sulloway, a noted scholar of Darwinism and a psychologist, attempted to map political attitudes to birth order and family structure on the assumption that there was a single strategy in play that was employed to maximize parental investment (in [URL =http://www.sulloway.org/borntorebel.html] Born to Rebel, 1996[/URL]). Unlike the account Matt presents, that attitudes reflect one’s underlying personality traits - conservatives lack empathy, liberals have it), Sulloway stresses that we all have the same psychology, and we employ it to maximize our place in the family, and subsequent society. It at least does not make a monster of those we dislike.

But to demonize any political attitude, and worse, to identify support for a party on that basis, strikes me as questionable indeed. And unnecessary. The political landscape is much more complex, nuanced and overall complex than the simple split given here - political parties represent resources for expression of these complex ideas, not hard ideological positions. Hence they act as “attractor basins”, to use the jargon of chaos theory. Ending up in one party or another is no clear indicator of the sorts of ideas one holds; merely of the place where one began.

This is my opinion, which, like anyone else’s is worth what you paid for it, but given that Matt seems to be tying Darwinism in here with a particular political attitude, I thought it was worth saying.

And as a side note, there is no such thing as “social Darwinism” either, as the historian [URL = http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/rbannis1/SD.preface.html]Robert Bannister[/URL] argued in his 1978 book Social Darwinism: Science and Myth. Instead, he says, and backs up with historical documentation, it is a term used to demonize one’s opponents. And this is what is happening here, I suspect.