Political Peacocks

Extract from Geoffrey Miller’s essay “Political peacocks”

The hypothesis

Humans are ideological animals. We show strong motivations and incredible capacities to learn, create, recombine, and disseminate ideas. Despite the evidence that these idea-processing systems are complex biological adaptations that must have evolved through Darwinian selection, even the most ardent modern Darwinians such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richards Dawkins, and Dan Dennett tend to treat culture as an evolutionary arena separate from biology. One reason for this failure of nerve is that it is so difficult to think of any form of natural selection that would favor such extreme, costly, and obsessive ideological behavior. Until the last 40,000 years of human evolution, the pace of technological and social change was so slow that it’s hard to believe there was much of a survival payoff to becoming such an ideological animal. My hypothesis, developed in a long Ph.D. dissertation, several recent papers, and a forthcoming book, is that the payoffs to ideological behavior were largely reproductive. The heritable mental capacities that underpin human language, culture, music, art, and myth-making evolved through sexual selection operating on both men and women, through mutual mate choice. Whatever technological benefits those capacities happen to have produced in recent centuries are unanticipated side-effects of adaptations originally designed for courtship.


The predictions and implications

The vast majority of people in modern societies have almost no political power, yet have strong political convictions that they broadcast insistently, frequently, and loudly when social conditions are right. This behavior is puzzling to economists, who see clear time and energy costs to ideological behavior, but little political benefit to the individual. My point is that the individual benefits of expressing political ideology are usually not political at all, but social and sexual. As such, political ideology is under strong social and sexual constraints that make little sense to political theorists and policy experts. This simple idea may solve a number of old puzzles in political psychology. Why do hundreds of questionnaires show that men more conservative, more authoritarian, more rights-oriented, and less empathy-oriented than women? Why do people become more conservative as the move from young adulthood to middle age? Why do more men than women run for political office? Why are most ideological revolutions initiated by young single men?

None of these phenomena make sense if political ideology is a rational reflection of political self-interest. In political, economic, and psychological terms, everyone has equally strong self-interests, so everyone should produce equal amounts of ideological behavior, if that behavior functions to advance political self-interest. However, we know from sexual selection theory that not everyone has equally strong reproductive interests. Males have much more to gain from each act of intercourse than females, because, by definition, they invest less in each gamete. Young males should be especially risk-seeking in their reproductive behavior, because they have the most to win and the least to lose from risky courtship behavior (such as becoming a political revolutionary). These predictions are obvious to any sexual selection theorist. Less obvious are the ways in which political ideology is used to advertise different aspects of one’s personality across the lifespan.

In unpublished studies I ran at Stanford University with Felicia Pratto, we found that university students tend to treat each others’ political orientations as proxies for personality traits. Conservatism is simply read off as indicating an ambitious, self-interested personality who will excel at protecting and provisioning his or her mate. Liberalism is read as indicating a caring, empathetic personality who will excel at child care and relationship-building. Given the well-documented, cross-culturally universal sex difference in human mate choice criteria, with men favoring younger, fertile women, and women favoring older, higher-status, richer men, the expression of more liberal ideologies by women and more conservative ideologies by men is not surprising. Men use political conservatism to (unconsciously) advertise their likely social and economic dominance; women use political liberalism to advertise their nurturing abilities. The shift from liberal youth to conservative middle age reflects a mating-relevant increase in social dominance and earnings power, not just a rational shift in one’s self-interest.

More subtley, because mating is a social game in which the attractiveness of a behavior depends on how many other people are already producing that behavior, political ideology evolves under the unstable dynamics of game theory, not as a process of simple optimization given a set of self-interests. This explains why an entire student body at an American university can suddenly act as if they care deeply about the political fate of a country that they virtually ignored the year before. The courtship arena simply shifted, capriciously, from one political issue to another, but once a sufficient number of students decided that attitudes towards apartheid were the acid test for whether one’s heart was in the right place, it became impossible for anyone else to be apathetic about apartheid. This is called frequency-dependent selection in biology, and it is a hallmark of sexual selection processes.

What can policy analysts do, if most people treat political ideas as courtship displays that reveal the proponent’s personality traits, rather than as rational suggestions for improving the world? The pragmatic, not to say cynical, solution is to work with the evolved grain of the human mind by recognizing that people respond to policy ideas first as big-brained, idea-infested, hyper-sexual primates, and only secondly as concerned citizens in a modern polity. This view will not surprise political pollsters, spin doctors, and speech writers, who make their daily living by exploiting our lust for ideology, but it may surprise social scientists who take a more rationalistic view of human nature. Fortunately, sexual selection was not the only force to shape our minds. Other forms of social selection such as kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and even group selection seem to have favoured some instincts for political rationality and consensual egalitarianism. Without the sexual selection, we would never have become such colourful ideological animals. But without the other forms of social selection, we would have little hope of bringing our sexily protean ideologies into congruence with reality.

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