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Ian Weiss

Student , Bard College

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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?

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    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.

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