Redefining political science by the light of Darwinian logic
Political science is billed as the study of the fundamental questions of government, the nature of the acquisition and maintenance of political power, and the means by which citizens can hold their government accountable. Government is the body which dictates – more or less equitably, and with more or less transparency – the distribution of resources both material and existential. Intellectual property rights, for instance, are increasingly within the domain of governmental regulation as the upper strata of human society (encompassing much of Western Europe and her former colonies, Japan, South Korea, etc) moves towards an economy based upon free moving capital and the magicians hat-trick of pulling more value out of a physical commodity by leveraging the forces of supply and demand. The mandate for such power, handed seemingly from the divinity itself (and often claimed as such), is, of course, the issue – though it can be said that political success is its own mandate, and it would be hard to disagree, in practice, with such a position.
But as arguments based upon divine rationalization are increasingly falling upon unappreciative ears, we are left to observe the more mundane data which is decidedly Earth-bound. Government, at its most fundamental level, is about humans – and humans are, like all life, composed of chemicals and proteins and genetic information which combines into complex forms aimed at replication. To say that its all about sex is an oversimplification, but not much of one. Charles Darwin, in the final paragraphs of The Origin of Species, said, “In the distant future I see open new fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history (Darwin, 297).” Indeed, a mere 150 years since Darwin's pen first darkened the pages of his groundbreaking book, the theories put forth are reverberating throughout all aspects of human existence. In any field dealing with humans, with beings whose origins are natural, it is a marvelous trick of cognitive dissonance to ignore the baser motivations and elementary natures of the subject itself. Hobbes and Rousseau understood this, well before Darwin, and laid out competing explanations of human nature before embarking on arguments of government – but now we have the tools to begin scientifically probing what exactly human nature is. Smith and Marx (and Engels) wrote economic texts that still influence the modern world and are essentially bound up in partisan understandings of how humans are wired. We have the information; we have only begun to apply it.
I propose, perhaps late in the historical scheme of things, that the basic framework of Darwinism should be scientifically applied to the field of political science. It is a tragic miscarriage of modern education that a study of the genetic motivations working on the human mind is not a required course for the aspiring political scientist. Qualitative discussions can only take us so far without quantitative data to guide us. Robert Wright took this stance when he said “public policy, in the end, must comply with human nature (Wright, 257).” An understanding of what human nature is is implicit in this indictment.
Turning, therefore, to the task of advancing (evolving?) the field of political science into the more refined science of politics, we are responsible for gaining an appreciation of the human mind. From simple hunter-gatherer societies on up to the complexities and daunting zero- and non-zero-sum challenges of managing modern states, the basic conflicts remain the same, though they are often unappreciated. Indeed, minding the birds and the bees, literally, is a fitting starting point. Azar Gat, in the exhaustive volume War in Human Civilization says “the 'human state of nature' was not that different from the general state of nature. Both somatic and reproductive struggles were an integral part of it (Gat, 60).” In other words, the same genetic tensions which play out in the struggle for life and replication in the birds and the bees are at work in the human mind and society. This is not to say that we are mere products of genetic programing; we are products of genetic programing with a growing awareness of the program itself.
A basic understanding of the forces of natural selection is crucial to appreciating the task of inventing the science of politics. Evolutionary logic is often simplified, accurately enough, with the phrase: “survival of the fittest.” The term “fittest,” however, is fluid throughout the annals of history; what worked in one time or place failed in another. Furthermore, as fleshed out by biologist Richard Dawkins, evolutionary logic is at work on the level of the gene, the replicators of accumulated information “assembled by natural selection,” and is only at play on the larger scale, in the world of human beings and lions, for instance, as a proxy to the real, genetic, competition (Dawkins, 23). Natural selection, to put it another way, is not concerned with red hair or long legs, but with the replication of information which provides, in turn, for further replication – indeed, natural selection is not even 'concerned' with anything, it is a natural process wherein replication either occurs or doesn't and thus traits which allow for generational success at replication are blindly selected. In the words of Dawkins:“They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines (Dawkins, 20).”
Thus we are best served, while undertaking to explain the nature of modern politics, by gaining knowledge of these forces which allow for successful replication. It is commonly appreciated that natural selection was the guiding force which eventually gave rise to humans. Perhaps a retreating glacier left a vast lake between two groups of apes some millions of years ago thus sending these two populations into genetic isolation, creating different environments which selected for different traits which best served the different groups in their new reality. The process is the same though the actual catalyst may never be known. What is less-appreciated, indeed, barely recognized, is that these forces are still at work. The same natural processes which, at some distant point in prehistory, ensured the genetic separation of modern humans and modern chimpanzees are continuing to shape the world today. We are still the means by which our genes replicate and thereby are bound, to a certain large extent, to the forces which best serve that function. Yes, we may use a condom, but we still desire sex.
“... people must feed, find shelter, and protect themselves (somatic activities) in order to reproduce successfully (Gat, 59).” This, in the words of Gat, is the underlying rationale of all human behavior. All politics, socialization, and competition or cooperation is bound by the logic of reproductive success and the somatic resources which best enable it. Why, we can ask, is money valued? Why do politicians seek personal gain and political success? Why are social constructs, like political parties, so hotly contested? The most fundamental answer to all of these questions is because these are all commodities, activities, and combinations which have and continue to prove useful in the struggle for reproductive success. More than mere sex, reproductive success depends upon such baser drives as ensuring the protection of our progeny, those who will carry our genes into the future, and cultivating mutually benefiting alliances with individuals and groups whose goals align with our own. The 'other,' as defined by race, religion, culture, language, or what have you, is a threat to the success of our own genetic lineage and we are woefully aware of the mammoth task of righting the social ill of racism and prejudice which results from this genetically based sense of competition. But that is the whole point: genetic success is not concerned with such things as “human happiness” or “equality.” Just as an understanding of the genetic processes which create more productive cereals has enabled us to sustain a massive human population, an understanding of the processes which have shaped human societies is our best bet at controlling them – we are, in a very real sense, attempting to tame ourselves.
Gat, in his text explaining, as he puts it, the evolutionary rationale behind “deadly aggression,” explores by necessity some of the most basic forces at work in humans, and connects the dots from the dawn of man to the modern world (Gat, 47). Gat explains: “During 99.5 percent of the almost two million years of evolution of our genus Homo, all humans lived a fairly distinctive way of life, that of hunter-gatherers. Only 10,000 years ago in some areas, and even more recently in others – a brief moment in evolutionary terms – did humans turn to agriculture and animal husbandry (Gat, 4).” Any attempt to understand modern man must be grounded in an understanding of the forces which created him.
Gat asserts, “The quest for power is indeed central to politics and is hotly pursued (as realists hold), but this is so precisely because power is the universal and vital means through which somatic and reproductive resources can be defended or won (Gat, 668).” Power, however, is another term which is defined by context. Pure strength, for instance, may have constituted power in the majority of our evolutionary history (and in certain environments today), but political, religious, and economic power are now the dominate means of coercion and, by default, reproductive success. Indeed, a caveat should be added here because the separation of political, religious, and economic fields is in and of itself a recent phenomenon. Formerly the ruling powers constituted a combination of the three, and even today it is only by social vigilance that they are not united again. “Politics – internal and external – of which war is, famously, a continuation, is the activity intended to achieve, at the intra- and inter-state 'levels,' the very same evolution-shaped human aims that we have already seen (Gat, 669).” Politics, we can safely say, is the struggle over the allocation of resources somatic and reproductive. The survival of the fittest, today, plays out as much at the ballot-box as it does on the Savanna.
The “human program,” or the combination of genetic coding which has created the human mind and body, is, however, a distinctly plastic apparatus. Within the boundaries of human nature there is room for an incredible diversity of tactics for survival and replication. “From the primary somatic and reproductive aims, other, proximate and derivative, 'second-level,' aims arise. It is not only the best providers who can subsist better and have more wives and children, but also the social arbiters within the group who can use their position to reap somatic and reproductive advantages. Hence the competition for esteem, prestige, power, and leadership, as proximate goods, which, like the primary competition itself, can also take the form of violent conflict …. There are highly complex interactions here, which are, however, underpinned in principle by a simple evolutionary rationale (Gat, 138).” Grappling over reelection, then, should be, according to evolutionary logic, seen as a complex struggle for more basic needs. The evolution-shaped forces which dominate the human mind are focused on increasing the probability of genetic success. We are the victims of evolutionary dispositions which drive much of our behavior – far more than we realize. However, as I said before, while we desire sex, we often use condoms. I bring this up, again, to make the point that while we are products of natural selection and the callous calculations of genetic recombination, we are increasingly able to rebel against those desires, or to warp them to our own means. We desire sex for pleasure, not only for reproduction. Politically speaking, we desire not just the pursuit of life, but the pursuit of happiness. Natural selection does not care about human happiness – emotions are themselves proxies which guide human behavior – but humans care about human happiness and we desire a government which does as well. “The evolutionary logic in itself has no normative implications. It can inform us about human natural predispositions, the often ignored effects of which we would be wise to take into account but which are often variable and even contradictory. We may choose to follow such predispositions or rebel against them (Gat, 144).”
Therein lies the rub. Not only must citizens know enough about their government to hold it accountable but we must have an understanding of who and what we are attempting to regulate. “Effective moral codes fight fire with fire,” asserts Wright, following up a passage explaining social punishment for behavior which is contrary to the aims of society (cheating, for example, or theft). But this implies that we have an understanding of what human nature looks like. “It is the evolution-shaped proximate mechanisms – the web of desire – that dominate human behavior, even where much of their original adaptive rationale has weakened (Gat, 672).” Understanding modern politics means understanding the evolutionary forces driving the players.
Modern government certainly does have a massive impact on its citizens. Complex societies require complex governments. The underlying logic, however, is the same today as it was for our ancestors who so long ago emerged as the dominate predator out of the milieu of Earth-bound life; that is, the logic of reproductive success and the competition which ensues to secure it. The science of politics should concern itself with the project of discovering the fundamental principles of human nature, concentrating on how best to enable man, the animal, to continue to gain mastery over his genetic inclinations. Lives hang in the balance. Politics is that arena of human life wherein crucial resources are divvied up, distributed, and discarded as per the whims of powerful players. We are the heirs to millions of years of accumulated genetic data driving us towards certain behaviors which have proven successful in reproduction – but that might not be enough for for us; as with government, only by understanding the forces controlling us can we hope to change them.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Alachua Florida: Bridge-Logos, 2009.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford Press, 2009.
Gat, Azar. War in Human Civilization. New York: Oxford Press, 2006.
Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal . New York: Vintage Books, 1994.