Genetics is a fascinating subject. Politics, in comparision, is infuriating. At times the scientific approach taken to explain how we have come to be humans seems a million miles away from explaining why we behave as we do. Current theory suggests relying not on explanations of how behaviour may be motivated now, but how such behaviour may have helped our ancestors.
The scientific approach taken to explain how we have come to be humans seems a million miles away from explaining why we behave as we do
Behaviours developed during this ‘Era of Evolutionary Adaptation’ (EEA), a catch all term used to describe our animal history, are argued to have a beneficial effect on our chances of survival. How this translates into politics is a subject of fascination.
With the world on a knife edge over North Korea, a seemingly insane US President tweeting nonsense and a resurgence of right wing ideology, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have lost our way. It is, in fact, our genetic history that has allowed you to think this way, but also for such issues to arise. To attempt to understand how our genes dictate our world, we must first travel back in time. To the time of the selfish gene, an idea originally championed by renowned theorist Richard Dawkins. And a friendly little fellow called the Dawkins Pig*…
Motivation and the EEA
To understand the significance of the EEA is to understand the mechanics of genetic replication. On a very basic level, our DNA (the working blueprint for all animals) has replicated by what Charles Darwin has termed ‘Natural Selection‘. Natural selection has two parts.;
- The chance mutation of the molecular structure of a gene and subsequent change to the organism’s behaviour or biology. This is due to a statistically driven error in replication (and with genetic molecules millions of molecules long, this isn’t unbelievable.)
- The effect of this new behaviour on the chances of the organism’s survival to reproduction (and in essence, replication of the gene itself.) This is devoid of chance and directly related to the external environment.
If these two tenets lead to the organism breeding, the mutation is said to be ‘adaptive.’ Mutations are tiny, happen at random and their expression in behaviour can be either good or bad. For example, a gene mutation leading to muscle degradation (i.e in Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy) leads to early death, but a gene leading to greater regulation of cancer cells improves longevity. Nature rewards the good and punishes the bad.
Although the idea of ‘good gene’ is comforting, it is a term we have created to explain ourselves. Perhaps a little arrogant in context.
Over millions of years the sum change induced by this process has led to the replication of good behaviours, and for lack of a better word, ‘good genes’. Although the idea of ‘good gene’ is comforting, it is a term we have created to explain ourselves. Perhaps a little arrogant in context.
So how is the gene selfish if it’s helping an animal to survive? The gene simply does not care, it has no emotions and is about as cerebral as a rock. Its mutations are equally purposeful, undecided and rewarded or not. The random unconscious mutations of the gene are passed on without its knowledge or desire, it is in short an ignorant beneficiary.
So what does this really mean about our behaviour? It’s simple, we are puppets for aeons of unconscious force. Politics is already beginning to make more sense.
The EEA is the term given to the time period and environmental history that have produced both the fuel, pathway and results of Natural Selection. The key motivation for organisms is to do what the gene wants; create the best chance for it to replicate.
Survival behaviour and evolutionary psychology
Imagine that you are the Dawkins Pig, the small mammal we mentioned earlier. You scavenge food from the forest floor and have a very well developed sense of smell. You are also good at hearing, but a little slow. Your main threat is the Eagle, a fast, almost silent killing machine with fantastic eyesight and razor sharp claws. In your pack of 5, you are the fastest. This is crucial to not just you, but your genes.
One day you are out scavenging on the particularly meaty carcass, enough for you and your furry friends. It seems calm, and you are content. The smell is intoxicating, the food is causing your body to release a happy hormone (another trick of evolution) and you are chowing down. Suddenly you hear the all familiar screech of impending death. You are terrified. Lightning fast reflexes kick in, and you are off, scrambling through the undergrowth. Your memory is on fire, your simple brain processing the bushes and rocks as landmarks toward your warren. This behaviour – running like hell – has been with you since birth. And your furry dad had it too until he got old and eaten.
One of your comrades was a little more confident, and took an extra bite.
After a while you reach the hole and dive in, followed by your fellows. All but one. Far behind the slowest and fattest of your friends is being torn apart, goodbye animal, goodbye a few hundred thousand years of genetic lineage. Your speed and his slowness have saved you. The genes your father passed down, and the ones his father passed down to him, have done their duty. If genes cared about the entire species, both of you would have lived. But the gene doesn’t, it cares about itself and its survival-machinery, you.
If genes cared about the entire species, both of you would have lived. But the gene doesn’t, it cares about itself and its survival-machinery, you.
You are the best of the Dawkins Pigs. A few hundred thousand years later that same speed will save your monkey type descendants.
Explained as a physical attribute such as speed, the benefit of a lucky genetic mutation is easily understood. But when it comes to psychology, you can argue things just as simply. A more twitchy animal is more likely to run earlier. The more twitchy animal may pay more attention to the external environment and have a lower threshold for ignoring the smell of a local predator. He who runs first lives. This is the crux of the psychology of evolution, decisions that aid survival will pass on the genes that led to this decision making in the first place. Over time more mutations may refine this behaviour, and those that do will become magnified. This is why guinea pigs are nervous and monkeys aggressive; it is what has worked for them in the past.
Cognitive behaviours that spread through the EEA can be described as ‘memetics’, ideas or constructs that replicate due to their influence. And now we can use them to explain politics.
Evolutionary psychology applied to politics
Politics is a human science. And like any science based on behaviour, is only ever somewhat accurate. Humans can appear unpredictable on an individual level, but our history shows us that large groups over long time periods act the same. History repeats itself. Why? Because humans, and the cognitive memes that dictate us, are a constant. Little changes occur, people challenge the cultural norms, but all in all this is just small business. Remember, real change takes aeons. And our politics is not that old.
Humans can appear unpredictable on an individual level, but our history shows us that large groups over long time periods act the same. History repeats itself. Why?
Let’s remember the Dawkins Pig. Its main survival driver was a low threshold for running. Twitchiness, reacting to fear, is what worked for it and is still one of main drivers today. You may be familiar with ‘fight or flight’, our reaction to threat. The brain, on a primal level, treats all external stimuli the same. It instinctively takes advantage of ‘genetic memory’ (the sum of our memetics) to make a snap judgement. If something is a threat, your body releases adrenaline. Your legs fill with blood, your heart rate increases and you are ready to run or fight. The underlying drivers are fear, and insecurity, the feeling of threat.
To understand why some politicians are successful then you can simply invoke EEA psychology, memetics and the Dawkins Pig. A politician that can provide a solution to fear will be favoured. Often simple arguments work best, simple mantras repeated to enforce confidence. These mantras can be nonsensical, and fall apart on analysis, but they don’t need to get this far.
Political mantras can be nonsensical, and fall apart on analysis, but they don’t need to get this far.
They talk to the Dawkins Pig, who reacts instinctively. When it comes to a political policy, it is once again those that seem the most decisive that work best, and in the case of modern day politics, present a threat and a solution. Right wing politics excels at this technique.
One simple example is Donald Trump’s Mexican wall.
During his campaign, Donald Trump made outrageous claims about immigrants. He incited violence at his rallies. Denied climate change and extolled the virtues of religion. He used simple (and often made-up) words and repeated himself over and over. Hillary Clinton made complex arguments, was bipartisan in her analysis of racial groups with respect to economics, and logical in her approach. We know now who won, and now we know why. Trump was talking to the pig, and with it, years of behaviours that say ‘avoid the threat.’
Donald gave the American people a threat; poverty and terrorism. He gave them an enemy; immigrants and terrorists. He offered a solution; a wall and war. The pig oinked happily, but not in all cases. The Electoral College saw their own threat, a Hillary Presidency that would rob them of their security and riches, their own pigs began to oink. A chorus of oinks led the pig master into power. Fear and its response, a survival drive perfected by hundreds of thousands of generations, at the whim of an unconscious molecule, made the unthinkable happen.
The pig ran to the warren.
When applied broadly, this approach can easily explain controversial policies. Brexit tricked people by creating an enemy of the EU and the promise of a better economy (survival.) The UK’s Conservative party’s austerity measures present a threat of poverty and solution of cutting services (ironically actually damaging the Health Service, but remember, the pig doesn’t think much.) ‘Brexit is Brexit, Strong and Stable’, both simple mantras designed to cut through sense and apply to an ancient animal.
So how can this knowledge help you, since we all carry the pig inside?
Fight the pig, fight the politics
Humans have a special ability to apply logical analysis to a situation. We are able to analyse information to make an informed judgement, as long as we no longer perceive it as a threat. Our cerebral abilities evolved after our simple ones, in order to thrive in a complex social environment. We developed an ability to predict the weather, learn areas where prey would feed, create weapons. We developed medicines. This logical and scientific thinking process, working on evidence, took us from fighting in caves to writing articles on computers.
Humans are able to analyse information to make an informed judgement, as long as we no longer perceive it as a threat.
By realising the influence of the politician on the pig, you can recognise when people are likely to be taken advantage of. If a politician is oversimplifying, creating an enemy (often fake) and a solution (often illusory), then they are baiting the Dawkins Pig. This baiting talks to the memetic, and these memetics spread like wildfire, turning a single utterance of ‘Brexit is Brexit’ into a cultural song.
They are baiting the Dawkins Pig. This baiting talks to the memetic, and these memetics spread like wildfire, turning a single utterance of ‘Brexit is Brexit’ into a cultural song.
The solution is simply to recognise the fear, either in yourself or others, and ask simply, is this real? By addressing the fear, you can often see the ancient hand behind it. Perhaps in future we can move beyond such ‘gut’ politics, but that requires asking some tough questions. Not just of our politicians, but of ourselves. And thanks to Dawkins and Darwin, we can do just that.
*The Dawkins Pig is a fictional mammal created as a means to explain the role of genetics with reference to a species. And like its namesake, the pig is both stubborn in its behaviour and exceptionally well suited to survival. But I wouldn’t win a debate with the Professor, or rub his snout.