Self-interest, politics, evolution, and genes

In our book, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind, Kurzban and I argue that self-interest plays a major but underappreciated role in public opinion on a variety of issues. American University political scientist Liz Suhay has written a review, in Perspectives on Politics, and I want to address a couple of points (mostly about the relationship between evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics). Suhay’s review is smart and perceptive about what we were trying to do with the book, but then seriously misunderstands our views in the end. And it’s in large part my own fault—she’s trying to read between lines we didn’t write (or, at least, didn’t write in that book), providing room for misinterpretation.

Suhay sees our “(relatively) hidden agenda” as “orienting political science in such a way that theoretical frameworks from evolutionary psychology are a sensible next step.” I wouldn’t put it exactly that way, but it’s close. We started this research from an evolutionary viewpoint, looking at some previously unnoticed connections between clashing interests and opposing opinions on sexual politics (on abortion and recreational drugs). That led us to want to take a broader look, where we found all sorts of connections, not just in sexual politics, but for issues involving race, immigration, religion, sexual orientation, income redistribution, social welfare, and so on.

So we decided to write a book. Now, what is the book to be about? It turns out that there’s a deeply embedded position in political science that states quite generally that self-interest barely matters when it comes to political issues. In the end, we decided the book was about pointing to and staring at the relevant demographic patterns. That’s the first hurdle to be cleared. You really think self-interest doesn’t relate to the public’s issue positions? For fuck’s sake, look!

Beyond this main theme, there were other things we needed to address. But we decided not to make the book an explicit defense of evolutionary psychology. While evolutionary psychology had provided our own conceptual framework, we didn’t think it was important that someone accept that framework in order to see the domain-specific demographic patterns of public opinion.

And it was that decision that led to our misunderstanding with Suhay. She can tell that we’re coming from an evolutionary perspective. But we didn’t make our evolutionary framework explicit. In attempting to fill in the blanks, Suhay viewed our discussion of behavioral genetics in chapter 10 as the core of our evolutionary viewpoint. This is entirely wrong.

The evolutionary core of the book comes in the second half of chapter 2 (and a little in the middle of chapter 3). The point is that, while political science has tended to equate self-interest with short-term economic self-interest, an evolutionary view expands the range of motivating human interests and sees many of our normal emotional reactions as guided by our perceptions regarding that wider range of interests. People don’t just care about and compete over getting money in the short-term, but more generally over resources, social status, mating relationships, and so on. This evolutionary perspective doesn’t draw sharp distinctions such that, for example, disagreements over income redistribution might involve self-interest but disagreements over sexual and reproductive policy cannot be self-interested. Our view on “inclusive interests” is based in a fuller view of human competitive concerns.

Had we dove into evolutionary psychology more explicitly, we would have noted that every sane evolutionary psychologist rejects genetic determinism and believes, as we do, that human reactions to social situations are complex, involving contingent responses based on a variety of personal, ecological, and social circumstances. It might be generally true that people seek enhanced social status, for example, but how this translates into individual political opinions relates to lots of additional details. What are the realistic options in one’s society for how social status can be advanced? What are one’s personal features that would make some options more attractive than others? What are one’s coalitional opportunities? And so on.

Thus, when we looked at modern U.S. data on social status issues, we included education and test performance (as measures of meritocratic competence) along with various group memberships (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.). Our findings included, among others, that people with high meritocratic competence but who would be disadvantaged by traditional group-based discrimination (because they’re non-white, or non-Christian, or non-straight, or immigrants, or women) tend very strongly to oppose anti-meritocratic discrimination against people like themselves. Does this mean that there’s something inherent in these folks that makes anti-discrimination views preferable regardless of the relevant social circumstances? Of course not. It means that when you plug a general (evolutionary) desire for higher social status into a set of social circumstances in which the big competition is between meritocratic rules and discriminatory rules, and in which certain specific social distinctions (based on race, religion, etc.) tend to ground discrimination efforts, people generally sort through the relevant facts on the ground and land in a self-interested political position.

Suhay’s identification of our evolutionary position with behavioral genetics is not what we meant and not what we said. In general, behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology are very different enterprises—the former is about individual genetic variance, while the latter is about widely shared, species-typical social goals and psychological mechanisms.

More specifically, we were clear in the book that we don’t think that there’s a “pro-life gene” or a “healthcare subsidy gene” and so on. What we mean by this is just what I indicated above—that political positions are formed from the interaction of widely shared goals with a variety of individual, social, and ecological contingencies. Some of those individual contingencies are in part based on genetic differences. One example we gave is sociosexuality (i.e., how turned on one is by the idea of casual sex). We cite evidence that individual differences in sociosexuality relate in part to genetic differences, but studies also show that societal-level differences relate to, e.g., sex ratios and measures of familial stress. We speculate in that section that the fact that there is some substantial measure of genetic variance in sociosexuality might help explain why there’s also some genetic variance in views on sexual politics—genetic differences (interacting with various kinds of differences in rearing households and societies) help drive sexual lifestyle differences, and the lifestyle differences then become an interest-based factor affecting views on sexual and reproductive political issues (because people are generally motivated to seek advantages for people with their own sexual lifestyles).

The “evolutionary” portion of that account isn’t the fact that genetic differences affect lifestyle differences. It’s instead in the motivations to seek various kinds of social advantages for one’s self and family. The genetic differences are one of many contingent factors that make people with the same general motivations end up with widely contrasting political views. Our dismissal of “socialization” was not a broad dismissal of social factors, but a specific dismissal of the notion that the bulk of adult political views are driven by children learning those views from their parents (we talked about it as the “raised-that-way” view). I stand by what we said there—behavioral genetic studies that find small shared environment effects are devastating for the raised-that-way theory.

Suhay laments that we didn’t just say: “We all seek resources and respect; some of us are born into groups (race, gender, class) that have relatively more or less of those things; our political views reflect this.” The thing is, I really thought that’s basically what we in fact said. I mean, we said more than that, but we also basically said what she said. At least I thought we did.

In lots of ways, Suhay makes charitable assumptions about our work. However, when it comes to our sidebar discussion of behavioral genetics, she switches to the assumption that we’re crazy people. But in fact, I suspect that on these topics Suhay and I have more agreements than differences.