Reviewing current literature in the areas of Coalitional Psychology and Aggression, especially as it relates to Political Behavior. Links to current papers in these areas appear on the left, while blog posts evaluate particular findings and their implications.

February 12, 2013

Darwin Day: Reflections on a year of evolution and politics


Happy Darwin Day! Although this blog has been relatively inactive during the winter season, my continued collaboration with the web magazine Evolution: This View of Life has been very engaging. The Politics Section at ETVoL has continued to feature many news articles that cover new research on the application of evolution theory to political behavior. In this piece below, Dominic Johnson and I survey some of these findings and place them in the context of the broader effort of consilience in the social and life sciences. I hope you enjoy--

Dominic Johnson & Anthony Lopez

On D-Day, 6 June 1944, 150,000 soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin the slow march on Germany. It was a turning point, a day on which uncertainty evaporated and the Allies could focus on the struggle ahead. In a war that would claim over 60 million lives and engulf the entire globe, to this day we remain struck both by the depths of depravity and the remarkable feats of heroism that can be achieved by human beings.

Today is another D-Day—Darwin Day. Evolution might seem so divorced from the realm of politics that they have little to exchange. World wars involving millions of people, nation states, complex organizations, nuclear weapons, and the clashing of cultural ideas might seem to mark a line of division in the development of human beings, beyond which evolution has nothing to say.

However, as editors of the politics page, we believe that Darwin’s legacy sheds vital new light on our understanding of political events. For one thing, despite monumental efforts over the centuries, we have failed to prevent wars from occurring—and not for lack of people studying it. Especially following the end of the Cold War and the rise of new forms of conflict around the globe, new approaches are sorely needed. Another reason is that evolutionary science has advanced rapidly in recent years and decades, and important new theories, tools, and methodologies are emerging. Much of the resistance to biological explanations of behavior is a re-run of the sociobiology debates that raged in the 1970s. The science has simply moved on, and we must too. If we are to understand human behavior, evolutionary theory offers the single most powerful and parsimonious framework for doing so.

The levels of analysis and human behavior
This claim is not as controversial among psychologists or biologists as it is among social scientists in general and political scientists in particular. One common fear is fueled by the memory of Nazi attempts to apply evolutionary ideas to politics in ways that are fundamentally dangerous. Fortunately, the ideas and goals of eugenics have been widely and rightly discredited, and have absolutely nothing to do with the modern application of evolutionary theory to human affairs.

Another reaction to the incorporation of evolutionary theory in the social sciences, and especially in international relations, is that there is no need for evolutionary theory, even if they acknowledge that the misapplications of the past are less likely today. For these scholars, the world we are trying to understand is much more than, or even entirely divorced from, the human beings that live within it. The father of modern international relations theory, Kenneth Waltz, famously examined three possible “levels of analysis” in international politics: (1) the international system as a whole; (2) nation-states; and (3) individual human beings. Each of these levels in principle might offer explanations of political events. But Waltz’s claim to fame was to reject not only a role for individuals in international politics, but even a role for states—despite their widely differing characters, cultures and regimes. For Waltz, since there is no monopoly of force “above” states to enforce agreements and regulate behavior, the recurrence of war in the international realm could be explained entirely by the pressures exerted on them by other survival-minded states. Like billiard balls, the actions of one state could be predicted by the actions of others, since all were primarily seeking to maintain their security by the only reliable means: power.

Waltz’s theory remains a powerful perspective on world politics, and theory and practice in international politics often operate with this “neorealist” view as a background against which other factors must be measured. But it is probably fair to say that most political scientists today reject any neat division and accept that all three levels of analysis are, in reality, important influences on politics. World War II is an important illustration of this, because it strongly suggests that even the most significant world events can be influenced by individual human beings and by the character of the nation-states that they create.

Some versions of international relations theory imply that Hitler himself did not make any real difference and, given the constraints upon it at the time, any German state would have behaved similarly in the 1930s. But few political scientists or historians accept such a view. World War II was to a large extent about Adolf Hitler the man (as well as Stalin, Mussolini, Tojo, Roosevelt and Churchill, among others). Influences at the nation-state level are clear as well. The war itself, as well as the Cold War to follow, was not just a conflict over material resources. It was also a conflict between contrasting political ideologies, not least fascism, communism and democracy. The ways in which ideas spread and clashed within and between nations was also fundamental to the origin and nature of the war. And lest we forget the most basic manifestation and consequence of war, the 60 million dead were human beings too. If we are to understand war, then we need to understand the psychology and behavior of the individuals who endure them as well as the psychology and behavior of the leaders and states that decide to fight them.

War and Cooperation
At each level of analysis, evolution has much to offer. For millions of years, humans have evolved in small, relatively nomadic bands, and the challenges of navigating a complex world of family, friends and adversaries, seem to have left a lasting impact on our evolved psychology. Indeed, the most enduring debates in the social and biological sciences are debates on the evolution of cooperation and the evolution of warfare, and we can see the psychological footprint of these evolutionary legacies at all levels of human relationships, from the individual to the international. Often this investigation leads to entirely novel or counter-intuitive hypotheses, with unique predictions that can account for phenomena where other, non-biological theories fail.

For example, mounting evidence shows that individual phenotypic traits such as bicep muscle mass and upper body strength predict a surprising array of variables, from opinions on wealth distribution to beliefs on the utility of force in foreign policy. This appears to be a reflection of how individuals derived different payoffs from alternative social strategies in human evolutionary history, depending on their characteristics. Our brains “know” our physical capabilities, and adjust our preferences and strategies accordingly. Researchers also continue to accumulate evidence of sex differences in war, revealing a disturbing tendency for males to be both the perpetrators and recipients of violence, and to overestimate their chances of victory in war. These trends are predicted by evolutionary theory based on ancestrally recurrent parental investment strategies that differed between the sexes, and over successive generations led to sexual dimorphism in the design of psychological systems that help regulate behavior. Lastly, and more generally, a surprisingly common leitmotif seems persistent across motivations for violence the world over, especially regarding the revenge motive, honor and status, as well our incessant territoriality, which seems only more urgent in a world of evolutionarily novel and territorially-fixed nation states.

There remains much healthy debate regarding the evolution of warfare and cooperation, as well as corollary debates over the implications for “human nature.” However, we should not be led astray to falsely conclude that the existence of adaptations for war suggests that war itself inevitable or necessary. Three reasons suggest it is not.

First and most importantly, if such adaptations do exist, they are designed to operate flexibly in response to dynamic environmental conditions; viz. aggression is not merely the product of a primal urge that springs forth regardless of person or place. Natural selection always prefers strategies that are contingent on context, maximizing payoffs by triggering a given behavior in favorable contexts and suppressing it in others. We can therefore lay the “killer ape” hypothesis to rest.

Second, there is substantial evidence to suggest that many forms of violence are indeed in decline and have been for some time, again forcing us to recognize the conditionality of behavior and the presence of competing abilities and desires, as well as the success of institutions and governments in preventing aggression and promoting collaboration. This leads to the third reason.

An equally large and accumulating body of research reveals the deep and broad human capacity for cooperation and peacemaking. In a surprising twist, it may in fact even be the case that the social pressures unleashed by an especially violent past are in part responsible for our remarkable ability to cooperate. It is notable that one enduring measure of battlefield success is in-group solidarity, coordination and cooperation. Human conflict may have demanded, or boosted, the evolution of cooperation. Although we are agnostic on the question of whether this renders war a “creative” force, it would be folly to fail to recognize the common and sometimes tragic link between inter-group conflict and within-group cooperation. Here again, however, even this tragic link can be amended as humans have continually sought over time to expand their social and political associations ever outward. As the world globalizes, significant evolutionary questions arise over whether and how our evolved, small-group adaptations will hurt or help us.

States, Parties, and Leadership
Clearly, much evidence seems to indicate the existence in humans of a complex coalitional psychology that is at the heart of many political behaviors. We see this debate at the international level in explanations for the stubborn prevalence of war and the puzzle of cooperation. States distrust other states, but are able to ally against common enemies. At the domestic state level, however, one debate that has gained momentum is the “red brain/blue brain” discussion. As John Hibbing and his colleagues have noted, certain “bedrock principles” have led to enduring questions that political coalitions have had to solve the world over and throughout time. These are questions such as: how to treat out-groups, how to deal with in-group rule breakers, such as free-riders (e.g. punish or rehabilitate?), the proper conduct of leadership, and more generally, the appropriateness of absolutism or compromise on political issues. Hibbing and colleagues argue that these core puzzles have been sufficiently enduring in human social life that our answers to these questions underlie the liberal-conservative spectrum, and even have a genetically heritable component. Others such as Jonathan Haidt have taken a (not-mutually exclusive) neuroscientific approach and have investigated the underlying brain systems active in liberals and conservatives, with some surprising and provocative results. See ETVoL’s interview with Haidt here.

In addition to the conduct of political parties in response to the seemingly ubiquitous questions of how to achieve in-group solidarity and successful foreign relations, researchers have actively investigated the biological dimensions of leadership. Even in egalitarian societies that enforce strict rules regarding ‘upstarts’ who may seek to gain undue influence over others, political groups have had to deal with the challenge of political power that becomes centralized around formidable or influential individuals. Two intertwined challenges here are the challenge of group coordination when exigencies demand a quick response, and the challenge of resisting exploitation by individuals of great influence. Importantly, although modern nation-states are more accustomed to long-term stable leadership, it is more likely that leadership in ancestral social groups was flexible, fleeting, and varied based on the current challenges facing the group. For example, researchers have shown that subtle cues in the face, in interaction with whether the group is currently at war or at peace, predicts one’s preference in voting among leaders. Furthermore, although the demands of a given task will do much to condition the emergence of leadership, there is new evidence that associates a specific DNA sequence with leadership skills in the form of supervisory or managerial skills.

The seemingly ubiquitous challenges of internal political organization and the risks and benefits of strong leadership are all too familiar and central to human associations. Research continues apace in all these areas, but perhaps most encouraging is one trend that permeates the rest: A greater consciousness of, and explicit movement towards, consilience.

Evolution and consilience: The way forward
At the end of the day, social and life scientists studying humans are all students of behavior, and evolutionary theory continues to gain ground as a useful, and in many cases indispensible tool for exploring the depth and complexity of the human experience. This is reflected in frequent and rigorous publications in many of the leading scientific journals, as well as the fact that these publications are multi-scholar, cross-disciplinary collaborations between biologists, psychologists, economists, anthropologists, political scientists and many others. It is also reflected in extensive coverage by major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Economist, and of course popular television shows such as the Colbert Report and Daly Show.

However, if this movement is to consolidate the gains it has made in the direction of consilience, greater effort must be made, especially in the social sciences, to break down antiquated notions that persistently make it difficult for scholars—especially young scholars breaking the norms of the trade—to engage in innovative cross-disciplinary research. For example, caricatures of evolutionary theory appear indefatigable in many instances, such as the belief that evolutionary explanations imply or require rigid (“hard-wired”) behavior, or that evolution can be used to justify the belief that humans are “fundamentally” selfish and competitive, or the reverse, that they are fundamentally altruistic and cooperative.

Social scientists, like the objects they study, are human, and it takes a long time for beliefs to shift and fears to settle. Thus, many scholars will continue to be wary over the potential reappearance of Social Darwinism, and it will take time for the academic community as a whole to shed popular but flawed impressions of evolution and replace them with a modern, rigorous one, replete with its necessary complexity and nuance.

Lastly, therefore, if consilience is to be successful it must couple academic collaboration with good old-fashioned public diplomacy. Evolution: This View of Life has prioritized public diplomacy as a central aim, and in collaboration with The Evolution Institute and The Social Evolution Forum, it has been instrumental in sparking active and constructive discussion at the intersection of academia and the public eye. ETVoL is uniquely focused on both breadth of coverage and depth of analysis, and it currently remains the only web magazine of its kind. As editors of the politics section, we aim to provide a forum for all new research on politics, irrespective of topic or level of analysis, but unified by a common focus on applying the insights of evolution to the many puzzles of political behavior.

No one is under any illusions about the ability of evolutionary theory—nor indeed any other theory—to end war, create peace, halt climate change, or solve any other of the great challenges that confront us in the 21st century. But given the urgency and magnitude of such tasks, what we should not do is leave any stone unturned. For over a hundred and fifty years since Darwin introduced his theory of evolution, many stones have been left unturned. Darwin Day is a rallying call to pick those stones up and look. We do not know what we may find.

August 26, 2012

Social Darwinism Strikes Back?

The scientific study of human social behavior is a challenging endeavor, not least because we as scientists are necessarily colored by our own human perceptions. Aldous Huxley famously wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Descartes wrestled with the challenge of how far (if at all) to trust his own senses when investigating the world around him. If we understand anything at all, it is that behavior, and the psychology that enables it, is marvelously complex. Yet, as sure as human social behavior eludes our best efforts to reduce it to a few simple principles, there will always be those who brazenly take up the task anyway.

The most recent example of this comes from an unfortunately prominent magazine – The National Review – which has seen fit to publish Kevin Williamson’s itinerant ramblings on evolution and politics. Let’s go through some of the highlights:

“What do women want? The conventional biological wisdom is that men select mates for fertility, while women select for status…”

First of all, natural selection acts over time to favor psychological mechanisms that regulate behavior in ways that correlated with reproductive success ancestrally. Although fertility and status are necessary elements of the equation, the choice of a mate is an incredibly complex one. Organisms are not going around “choosing” mates based on fertility or status in an explicit or exclusive manner; instead, regulatory systems in the minds of organisms attend to cues in others that have ancestrally correlated with fertility or status, but also in conjunction with many other adaptively relevant cues. The processing of such a range of cues operates to regulate the experience of attraction toward others. What does all of this mean? It means that we are not consciously choosing mates based on fertility/status, and it means that these two cues are not the exclusive basis of such choices. As just one example of the latter, the choice of a romantic partner varies greatly depending upon context – the person you have a one-night stand with is probably not the same kind of person you want to marry. Furthermore, kindness and trustworthiness are also important attributes that both males and females seek in a partner. In addition, research shows that humans are apt to deem certain behavioral traits desirable in a partner contingent upon who the target of that behavior is (e.g. kindness, but toward whom?).

Again, fertility and status are inevitably components of the evolutionary calculus, but we do evolutionary theory a grave disservice when we reduce complex mating choices to a conscious or exclusive emphasis on these two cues, AND when we export this calculus beyond its proper social domain (i.e. from mating to leadership, as discussed below). Perhaps Williamson can be forgiven for going too far with a major finding from sexual selection and parental investment theories; surely he would not be the first to reduce the complexity of nuanced theoretical frameworks to gross behavioral generalizations. Many a science writer has done the same. What is especially disturbing, however, is Williamson’s suggestion that Mitt Romney deserves the entirety of the female vote purely as a consequence of his status. He writes:

“You want off-the-charts status? Check out the curriculum vitae of one Willard M. Romney…From an evolutionary point of view, Mitt Romney should get 100 percent of the female vote.”

Naturalistic fallacy, anyone? Many of you are probably already familiar with the naturalistic fallacy, and there’s only really space here to point out some of the more egregious of Williamson’s flaws, so let’s move on. Regarding status – how did we get from choosing a mate to choosing a leader? Williamson provides no justification for the theoretical leap from mate choice to leader choice. We are left to assume that since all women want in a mate is a high-status male, women should fall in line behind Romney. There are several reasons why this logic is flawed, but I'll just discuss two. First, there is a significant body of literature on the psychology of courtship and mating, and there is a growing body of literature on the psychology of leadership. The findings are anything but entirely overlapping; that is, the attributes that may cause us to find a partner attractive are not the same attributes that may incline us to prefer one leader over another. Williamson’s logic becomes particularly problematic when we are considering situations in which female voters must choose between a male and female candidate. Should heterosexual women all vote for the male candidate because the female candidate would be – evolutionarily speaking – a poor mate choice? Hardly. Williamson’s claims regarding the female vote are not only derogatory toward women (surprise?) but are also just plain bad science. Although it is clear that some of the attributes of personal attraction can lead us to react more positively toward certain candidates than others, the psychology of leadership cannot be reduced to a matter of mate choice.

Second, some of you are probably wondering: just what does Williamson mean by “status”? Williamson treats the issue of status as monolithic and unproblematic. However, the term “status” is often conflated with at least two closely related constructs – dominance and prestige. For example, I may be perceived as high in status as a consequence of the fights I win, or I may be perceived as high in status as a consequence of my skill, dexterity, or wisdom in various domains of social relevance. Researchers increasingly tend to call the former category of status “dominance,” and the latter “prestige.” What is clear is that “status” does not fully and directly reduce to “wealth.” If it did, corruption would not be a vice but a virtue; greed would be esteemed, not ridiculed. Instead, there is good evolutionary reason to be suspicious of those who possess extreme wealth – in other words, our leadership psychology should represent the product of an evolutionarily recurrent effort to balance the need for a strong leader against the importance of avoiding exploitation by those in power. The cultural expression of this tension can easily be observed in hunter-gatherer groups, and we see it across modern politics. Just as our psychology of mating is highly contingent and domain-specific, the cues that our brains have evolved to attend to when selecting leaders are myriad and complex. Important research that has investigated the complexity of this psychology has been done by Brian R. Spisak andMark Van Vugt. Lessons? In short, leadership psychology is not mating psychology, and the cues that humans have evolved to attend to in both domains are highly conditional and complex.

Unsurprisingly, democrats are up in arms regarding Williamson’s apparent social darwinism, and of course the blogs have taken up the debate as well. At the end of the day it can paradoxically prove useful when an article such at that in The National Review gets so much wrong in such a public way; it can spur debate and force scrutiny of issues that shouldn’t be overlooked. Writing for the magazine Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner recently wrote a piece aptly titled, “When a stupid op-ed produces some smart debate.” Let’s hope the same can happen here.

*Originally published under same title at ETVoL.

August 8, 2012

Politics and Science: It's Complicated

The quest to identify and explain global trends and cycles across politics, economics, and society is as vibrant today as it has ever been. Scholars who seek such revelations are interested in questions such as: What explains the success and failure of nation-states and empires? What explains the emergence of the nation-state itself? Is human violence on the decline, or can we identify cycles of violence that recur through time? Recent decades have produced important and interesting scholarship that is increasingly intrepid both in the scope of analysis and the rigor of methods. Noteworthy examples of such work are Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Peter Turchin's work on cliodynamics.

Aside from being philosophically interesting, if reliable and valid explanations to questions such as these can be identified, perhaps we can make the next logical step from explanation and begin to generate predictions about the future that can be useful to policy makers today. Seems easy, right? Not quite. First, and needless to say, academics can be wrong. Human systems, like most biological systems, are incredibly complex and difficult to model. Second, even seemingly accurate historical explanations may still leave us shortchanged when seeking to draw inferences regarding the future. Third, there is a danger that arguments regarding such major historical and evolutionary change can be either misunderstood - and more dangerously - misapplied in the realm of policy. Mitt Romney, for example, recently cited Jared Diamond's work in support of remarks that apparently tie Isreal's economic success (relative to that of Palestine) to "culture" and providence. Jared Diamond's response in the New York Times clarified that his arguments had been misunderstood by Romney. This is a good example of how easy it can be to make simple mistakes regarding models of complex systems.