Ian Weiss

Student , Bard College

This conversation is closed.

Have conservative values and behaviors been more fitness-enhancing than liberal ones over long stretches of evolutionary time?

It seems to me that the values and behaviosr of political conservatives match the predictions of evolutionary psychology (EP) far more than do those of liberals. Indeed, many liberals have noticed a connection between EP and conservatism, but they mistakenly conclude from this that the EPists must be conservatives who build their theories to justify conservative ideologies. This is simply not the case. However, I do think that there is a connection: I do think that a wide variety of conservative traits would have been far more fitness-enhancing throughout human evolution than liberal traits.

I could be wrong about a few of these claims, but I'm pretty sure that, compared to their liberal counterparts: 1) conservative men build more muscle; 2) conservative women care more about looking sexy; 3) conservatives tend to get hooked on fat and sugar more easily; 4) they're more competitive; 5) they're more weary of free-riders (non-reciprocators); 6) they prefer small, close knit communities that resemble "bands"; 7) They are more weary of foreigners; 8) They make greater attempts to behave in ways that are acceptable to their groups (eg. respecting taboos) so as to avoid being shunned; 9) they are more likely to reserve sex for committed relationships (which is important in order for males to know who their offspring are).

Could it be that conservatives are Neanderthals and liberals are freaks of nature? Could it be that there's a part of the brain that overrides a wide variety of evolved modules which produce "instinctive" behaviors, and that this part of the brain is more active in liberals than in conservatives? Could it be that the reason why conservatives are generally happier than liberals is because conservatives' lifestyles feature more of the things that humans evolved to enjoy, like membership in a close-knit group of like-minded people? Could it be that conservatives and liberals can learn from each other?

  • thumb
    Jun 3 2011: Well hard to address everything that you said because I don't have time. Nut I will start with one question that kind of stuck with me which is about conservatives being happier than liberals. First I think that you are making a presumption in the question that conservatives are happier so whoever answers it is forced to work with that presumption. Conservatives have a lot of repressed anger, and it comes out on the news, repressed anger against gay people, against the poor, some of them end up being closeted homosexuals so I think what's on the surface doesn't always indicate what one is going through on the inside. They also act out, with childish anger and accusation, I've seen a lot of that out of conservative leaders.

    But to answer your question if they somehow seem happier and less involved with "negative" thinking it is because they have utter fate that the system works, that capitalism is the way to go, that America needs to wage wars to defend itself against outside world and they just deny and ignore that for some people who live in poverty and are the victims of crime this is a wretched place to live in. For the civilians whose country is being bombed and destroyed they are definitely not happy campers.

    So I don't know how adaptive it is to be ignorant of your surroundings and not acknowledge that there are victims of poverty, and that conservative administrations have placed our federal budget into a large deficit. I will leave thst question open for debate. Remember Any one if us can find ourselves in the same position, being homeless or having to do desperate things for our livelihood like go of to war.
  • thumb
    Jun 3 2011: Although it is a fascinating thought experiment, I don't think that associating ideological preference with fitness-related traits are the right way to go. Of course there could be a statistical correlation high enough, but obviously science isn't quite ready to draw a causal relation between them. After all, you musn't forget that evolution is neutral and doesn't set any goals. But most of all, ideology is a social construction which might have its origins in a certain genetic composition, but equally valued is the importance of one's environment. I do have the tendency myself to think that political en moral attitudes match a particular set of genetic traits. But I would like to think that both conservative and liberal preoccupations have flourished in the past because their surroundings and the then social climate were exactly right for them to subvert the opposition. Thus, both sides have adaptive traits, but only if their collective social environment allows them to "do their thing". Actually, because of evolutionary psychology, I increasingly have come to think that political preference doesn't make sense, and that it might even be detrimental for our societies. Ideologies force you to pick a way of life and thought, up until the moment that often you won't be able to see anything but the virtues of your own side. Subsequently, you get caught up in a set of random values which, in the end, will determine policy-making without reasoning the acceptability of other values. Being human doesn't mean that you shouldn't have a certain predisposition, being human or being a biological creature only shouldn't imply that you cling on to it relentlessly just because culture dictates it. Pretending to know what society needs is often overrated.
  • Jun 1 2011: I think that liberals and conservatives definitely have different psychologies. I would be skeptical of arguing that one is more adaptive than the other, or that there is only one strategy that can be derived from an evolutionary perspective. For example, you mention stronger sexual taboos as being adaptive, but a promiscuous approach could also be adaptive, especially for males who successfully cuckold others. It seems to me that conservatives are less likely than liberals to accept risk by trusting other members of society or making large changes. Conservatives and liberals may each have different cost benefit analyses, each of which could pay off in different situations.
    Also, although I think that there is a correlation between what is generally considered to be intelligent and liberalism, intelligence itself is not necessarily adaptive.

    I would recommend The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, or The Blank Slate (check out his TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_chalks_it_up_to_the_blank_slate.html) or How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker for good perspectives on evolution and EP.
    • thumb
      Jun 3 2011: Some of my favorite books!
  • thumb
    May 22 2011: Jafia, I've heard Satoshi Kanazawa make that claim before, and I definitely think that there's something to it. Similar to my argument, Kanazawa says that liberals, more than conservatives, seek "novel" solutions to problems, rather than rely on evolutionarily old and innately programmed heuristics.