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Evolutionary Politics

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

We are politically homeless: we have no political party and don't occupy any recognized political position. To most intellectuals, what we say will seem conservative, since we see the Human Condition as setting limits to the progressive program of social improvement through reason and moral insight. To conservatives, our desire for shaping a new better world may seem like leftist utopianism.

The biggest difficulties that social progress faces are:

  1. Due to unpredictability and cognitive limitations, it is hard to design a policy that will do only what we want (unintended_consequences), and
  2. What we want may be physically or evolutionarily impossible, so we will fail. In hindsight we may may come up with a plausible story, but that doesn't mean we actually understand the real obstacle.

If loose evolutionary reasoning can really be used to prove anything (so its claims are meaningless), then where are all of the uses of neo-Darwinian reasoning to justify socially progressive theories? The application of evolution to the study of human behavior has lead to many results that are just not politically neutral:

  • There are powerful human behavioral instincts that social structures must either cater to or work around.
  • Self-promoting, selfish, and competitive behavior is ubiquitous.
  • Reproduction and family structure are vitally important.
  • There are innate differences in male and female behavior resulting from different reproductive roles.
  • Punishment and intimidation are vitally important for maintaining mutually beneficial social cooperation.

In all these cases evolutionary argument points toward traditional views being correct, or at least implies that traditional views are likely to be more consistent with innate human motivations than some cleverly devised new way of living and behaving.

The less-developed theory of Darwinian Cultural Evolution has other predictions that seem not so much repugnant as puzzling or nonsensical:

Because of this coupling to politics, we have adopted the tactic of not advocating public policy, instead recommending personal policies that you and your friends can adopt to make the world a better place. This reduces the tendency for our views to be pigeon-holed as being motivated by a political viewpoint, but (more subtly) also avoids our being dismissed due to confusion. Our views are confusing because we don't fall at a recognized political position. Evolutionary thinking leads to unfamiliar justifications for recognized policies. For example, in Luxury Fever, Robert Frank argues that work-safety and overtime regulations are desirable not because they prevent employers from exploiting their workers but because they prevent workers from compromising their own interests in a futile desire to get ahead in the rat race.


Dean Kisling, 2012/09/20 12:58


I have written a 12,000 word paper - hope and disgust 2012 - I have set up a wordpress site to host it. I found your site because I have been working on disseminating the paper.

the shortlink is

My home page is there is some info there about me. Please get back to me if you have any questions or comments about the paper.



Robert MacLachlan, 2012/11/24 08:33, 2012/11/24 09:34

I very much agree with your view that any patterns in human behavior must be interpreted through the lens of Evolutionary Psychology. You also write well. I laughed many times reading your rant. High levels of frustration with those who “don't get it” is common among those who succeed in wrapping their minds around the nonintuitive and deeply humbling viewpoints of evolutionary psychology and Darwinian cultural evolution. But to actually influence anybody who isn't a true believer you need to come up with a better Story than “we've been suckered into being led by self-serving psychopaths”. Everyone is necessarily self-serving to some degree, and some leadership qualities may not be all that well separated from psychopathy (hence the persistence of psychopathy, despite the poor outcomes for the majority of psychopaths.)

Any story needs to acknowledge the degree to which our leaders, our news outlets, and so on are in fact acutely responsive to what people find compelling and must explain how these concerns have emerged from our evolutionary history. Consider news values. What makes a construction worker falling of the roof a half mile away not-news and a girl falling down a well on some other continent news? Why is bad news more newsworthy than good news?

I think you need to take a look at yourself and seriously ask if you've been suckered by some purveyors of fear. Is the world really going to hell in a handbasket? I think not, but this is a widespread consensus both on the left and the right. We certainly do live in interesting times, but we've also come a long way (see The Better Angels of Our Nature).

I do like the degree which you pull back from this at times and add some balance, but if you actually want to nudge people whose worldview is different from yours, then you need to go a lot farther in their direction, showing that you understand where they're coming from. I strongly recommend that you read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which is particularly oriented toward understanding contemporary US politics, and also The Happiness Hypothesis, which is a broader introduction to the state of the art in evolutionary social psychology.

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analysis/social/evolutionary_politics.txt · Last modified: 2012/01/21 16:26 by ram