Our Political Nature

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Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 10.24.54 AMEver since reading Tom Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” the subject of what shapes political preferences has fascinated me. Whatever makes people vote against their own economic interests must be a powerful force. Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” is a wonderfully illuminating book on the science of politics. “Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us” by Avi Tuschman is a good companion to Haidt’s book.

If skeptical about the premise, think about these facts: a brain scan can now accurately predict whether a person is conservative or liberal, and twins separated at birth have been shown to share extraordinary similar political positions, not to mention that all cultures have some kind of left/right political polarity. Like Haidt, Tuschman investigates evolutionary influences on our political nature. The forces that make people liberal or conservative are complex, and Tuschman uses genetic research as well as new developments in evolutionary psychology, sociology and neuroscience studies and experiment to document political polarization. He analyzes tribalism, attitudes toward authority, inequality, altruism, birth order, sibling rivalry, and how the political philosophy of an individual can change over time as the brain develops well into one’s 20s.

Tuschman makes many interesting points. Take xenophobia for example. In warmer climates, infectious diseases spread more easily. A fear of strangers is the direct result of breeding strategies in these areas where people are more sexually conservative. Conservatives live in a scarier world — at least that’s how they perceive it.

Altruism is also interesting to contemplate; giving resources away doesn’t intuitively make sense in the way stockpiling resources to attract mates does. Tuschman shares study after study to show that humans as well as other primates are simply wired for altruism and share a sense of fairness. Simply put, whereas the greedy chimp is ostracized and starves, the generous chimp never goes hungry when it’s his/her turn during the experiment to beg for food.

My favorite part of the book concerns breeding strategies. Tuschman uses the Habsburgs as a good example of how not to inbreed. But shockingly, some cultures inbreed with amazing success (even more success than serial outbreeders). Extreme outbreeding has its dangers as well (measured by number of healthy offspring), and without giving too much away, picking your 3rd or 4th cousin turns out to be (scientifically) a great choice.

Nicole Charbonnet

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