Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Conservatives, others should consider things from an evolutionary perspective

Steve Sailer’s two-part essay on the political implications of Darwinian thought, written eight years ago, remain must-reads. They are here and here.

With the proliferation of the blogosphere, the work of heavyweights like Philippe Rushton and Ricahrd Lynn, and the mainstreaming of evolutionary explanations for variances in human populations by reporters like the NYT's Nicholas Wade, the wider social culture has become more fertile for the explosion in our understanding of humanity.

While researchers in Iceland enjoy the unique genetic profile of the world's 300,000 Icelanders and an international consortium of scientists mine the wealth of information that is the fruit of the ongoing HapMap Project, genetic sequencing rushes towards working-class affordability, and the transmission of human genetic material enhances the vision of mice, the right side of the political spectrum is engaged in an internal debate about how to respond to the rapid scientific developments:

Evolution has long generated bitter fights between the left and the right about whether God or science better explains the origins of life. But now a dispute has cropped up within conservative circles, not over science, but over political ideology: Does Darwinian theory undermine conservative notions of religion and morality or does it actually support conservative philosophy?

To frame the debate in such partisan terms might be useful for political analysis, but to one seeking an objective understanding of how the world works, and consequently how to approach the world in a way that maximizes well-being, it's frustrating. It's insinuated that the question is not "Is it accurate?", but is instead "Can it benefit conservatism?" Of course, the excerpt is from the New York Times. And self-appointed kingpin of the Darwin-supports-conservatism movement, John Derbyshire, prides himself on seeking truth irrespective of the effect on the conservativism.

To the extent that various political philosophies claim the betterment of humanity to be their raison d'etre, it might broadly be argued to support any mix of philosophical tenets. Certainly supporters of free-markets make a natural philosophy-type argument in support of free competition. Indeed, business courses on Strategic Management see firms constantly under competitive pressures with those failing to evolve effectively disappearing.

Of greater interest is what an evolutionary perspective explains or at least provides plausible insight into.

Among other things, an evolutionary perspective helps illuminate:

- Why adolescents during and following puberty, under the weight of constant anxiety, expend so much energy trying to fit in. The step from elementary school to junior high places more responsibility in the hands of the student just as his biological processes are telling him it's time to leave the parents. Uncertain of what exactly to do, the inclination is to stick together until realizing, in high school or college, that it is not necessary and even harmful to do so. Many predatory mammalian siblings of the same litter do the animal equivalent of this.

- Why religiosity and age are positively correlated (running a rough regression on the age ranges presented and strong belief reveals a nearly perfect relationship, with an r-value of more than .99), and, relatedly, why women tend to be more religious than men. During the years of greatest fertility, a teleological purpose is obvious enough--make babies. As that passes, the question "What will become of me when I'm gone?" becomes more prominent. It's accentuated for women in that, while men are less likely to father children into their fifties and beyond, women simply cannot do it at that point (in-vitro and other technological developments aside).

- Why most people abhor abortion. The thing is set to become a baby. If it's in the woman's belly, the procreative goal has almost been realized. Less obviously, it also helps make sense of why people are increasingly tolerant of abortion as the person having the abortion becomes increasingly more distant from them. Women in New York? Okay. The Kansas legislature is voting on it? I suppose they should be able to choose, but with restrictions. My friend Cari? I don't think it's a good idea. Brittney, you're pregnant? Of course we're keeping it!

- Opposition to same-sex marriage and discomfort with homosexuality in general. Even if it is irrational to believe that making it more difficult for people of the same sex to be romantically intimate with one another is going to decrease the prevalence of homosexuality (and it's not necessarily irrational with regards to women), it's hard to come up with anything more detrimental to the passing on of genes than being unattracted to the opposite sex.

- Why "Birds of a feather stick together" is a more veracious adage than "Opposites attract" is. When humans, for most of their 100,000 'anatomically modern' years, operated in small hunter-gatherer kin units topping out at 150 people, clan members were genetically similar, not only in appearance but also in temperament, proclivities, thought processes, and so on. That generalizations of entire nationalities are roughly accurate today (Irish irascibility, Norwegians' inability to put down the down once they've picked it up, Japanese politeness) suggests that much smaller, less diverse populations would've been even better candidates for stereotypes. That affinity for those of the same feather, even in the developed West, is retained in the personal relationships people freely seek out with those like themselves. Online dating services cash in big on it, but I haven't come across any sites claiming to find you love in the special someone out there who is the least like you as can possibly exist.

- Why men spend countless hundreds of hours withering away on MMOs. These parallel universes allow men to embrace a visceral competitiveness that has been selected for (in men) over hundreds of thousands of years but which has fewer outlets of expression in contemporary society. We may not be able to execute a dawn raid on a rival clan for the good of our children, but--well, actually, we can pretty much do exactly that in the virtual world.

- Why women obsess over physical appearance. While sexual selection is something Darwin focused on more heavily in Descent of Man than in the Origin of Species, the two are closely related. With regard to female attractiveness, there is much overlap--a woman with sinuous curves, smooth skin, a full head of hair, and the ability to move is not only sexy, she's also probably pretty healthy. If a woman can prop herself up enough to snag a better man than she'd be otherwise able to get, she'll increase that chances that her offspring will be strong, smart, and well-provided for. Women painting their nails so their kids will have good genes; men virtually slaughtering one another for the right to transmit those genes!

- The difficulty in suppressing the 'fight or flight' response that makes people hostile and edgy at the worst times to be so, like when the boss unexpectedly shows up for a performance review. Detecting a threat before it became fatal had obvious survival benefits, but for the lives the vast majority of people in the developed world live, it can become a major liability.

- The prevalence of obesity, especially in the developed world. Eat while you can to store up in case you can't eat again for awhile. Of course, most of us can eat whenever we want, and our daily workload is nowhere near as physically taxing as that of our ancestors. Even Europe, with lower living standards and less reliance on an automobile to get around, isn't immune.

- The difficulty of sleeping during the day and staying awake throughout the night. The circadian rhythm is a protective vestige. Wandering around at night would've exposed our ancestors to many dangers, hampering their ability to work as a group and making them easy targets for big predators, many of which are active at night (lions, leopards, hyenas, etc). Conversely, sleeping during the day meant wasting productive time and artificially giving up the crucial sense of sight when it could be most effectively employed.

- Seemingly intractable differences in populations with regard to physiology, athletic abilities, cognitive capacities, susceptibility to various diseases, criminality, etc. The vast majority of human history has seen disparate populations living in isolation from one another, with unique, local evolutionary pressures working on them.

- The persistent failure of quixotic policy goals that ignore the underlying reality of human biodiversity, from No Child Left Behind to the disastrous attempt to install a liberal democracy in the heart of the Middle East. People are different, and by extension so are groups of people. There is no ecumenical set of propsitions that will be equally effective throughout the world.

That's not an exhaustive list of even what I'm able to perceive. And my untrained mind is going to miss more evolutionary insights than it is going to catch. Refusing to look at things from an evolutionary perspective is to willingly put blinders on. When you're leading a political movement, it's to ask others to follow a blind leader.


JSBolton said...

If political leaders were to actually notice and act upon, these differences, policies would indeed be very much changed.
What if it is true that, for each point of IQ differential between two groups in the same polity, the lower group has greater incentive to try to shift status competition towards one of ruthless violence, and away from one of IQ and its correlates?
If the right were to act upon this, they would have to change much more than the left would.
Oddly enough, the left is politically more in tune with the HBD differentials, even though they are, in theory, more committed to equality of results. They're the ones who insist that everyone is equal in capacities, yet their politics exploits differences as if they were permananent fixtures of the genetic landscape.

JSBolton said...

Why do rapists prefer victims in proportion as they are closer to their peak of fertility?
Why does the crime rate of cohorts peak with young men at the height of their hormonal rush, and then decline?
No theories of socialization can explain such 'coincidences', and especially not the decline from such peaks.
At the same time, women have to be paid to donate eggs, or quality ones at least, when Darwinian considerations should predict that they would pay rather than be paid, to get cost-free additional representation in future generations.
Maybe a strange anti-darwinian socialization is operating there?
Or does the market only value germline cells from lineages which are the most wary of irresponsible breeding?

faq said...


How can you mention evolution and people without pointing out the different brain structures of each gender. Females are more centered. Males are more spread out. That in part helps explain why almost everything of importance has been done by men.

The Simpsons sketch in this episode deals with it in a funny (of course) way.


Audacious Epigone said...


Interesting observation on egg farms (and sperm banks). Unlike the donation market, which is off-limits to profiteering (at least by those who've actually conceived the adoptee), donators in these industries are usually (but not always) compensated for something that they 'should' gladly participate in.

Anonymous said...

Egg donation is risky to health and future fertility, and also very unpleasant. It is no surprise therefore that women have to be paid handsomely for the task, particularly if they are perceived to have desireable qualities.

Audacious Epigone said...


Indeed. This page covers some of them. In addition, it is pretty disruptive to a donor's schedule. This is in contrast to sperm donation, which is a minor inconvenience.