By Robert Appelbaum
In the United States today there is a strong correlation between place of residence and political attitudes. If you are a New Yorker, you are likely to be liberal. New York City voters chose Hillary Clinton by a margin of 60%! That is, 79% of voters in the five boroughs voted for Clinton as opposed to 19% for Donald Trump. If, however, you live in Mobile, Alabama, you are likely to be conservative, and there in 2016 Trump won by a plurality of 14%.
What gives? Well, if you are a charlatan, like the bestselling author Sebastian Junger, you have a very tidy but ridiculous answer: it’s evolution! For according to Junger, social biology has demonstrated that “politics are in our DNA”! Indeed, not just “politics” in a general sense – the sense in which Aristotle said that “man is by nature a political animal” – but politics as exemplified in current-day America, and its divisions between liberals and conservatives.
Let me quote his precise words: “The fact that political opinion is rooted to some degree in our genes and biology means that both liberalism and conservatism may be adaptive traits that got passed down through thousands of human generations because they helped us survive.” Now there is a leap of thought here that only a charlatan can pretend to know how to manoeuvre, even with the hedging implied in “to some degree” and “may be.” In effect, Junger is alleging that some 350,000 years ago homo sapiens emerged from its ancestor homo erectus with genes for both liberal and conservative beliefs and that both sets of beliefs were “adaptive.” Since both liberalism and conservatism as we know them today were born in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that must mean – what? That it took human beings 349,000 years to find out how to express its DNA? Or perhaps you think, not without reason, that liberalism and conservatism in recognizable forms were already alive and well in ancient Athens; ha! It only took us 347,000 years to learn how to express them, then.
It should be noted that the few studies Junger cites base their evidence on surveys of undergraduate students in contemporary America. No African hunter-gatherers were consulted. Nor was Thomas Hobbes, whose philosophy actually underlies these studies. (Hobbes said that human beings were naturally at war with one another, so that human societies formed out of the interest of mutual self-preservation, and that they need strong leaders because even in collectivities humans are at war with one another.)
But before I go on – and I will go on – to argue that Junger and the studies he cites misunderstand Darwin and evolutionary theory, let me get to the ugliest aspect of what Junger is claiming, which is already evident in the political data I started with. Mobile, Alabama voted not overwhelmingly but decisively for Donald Trump, and Mobile, according to the latest census, is 45% white. And leaving aside New York City for the moment, consider the fact that Mobile’s neighbour to the north, Birmingham, Alabama, voted decisively for Hillary Clinton. And Birmingham is 73% African-American.
If it’s “in our DNA” does that mean that blacks have a “liberal” gene and whites have a “conservative” one? That seems to be what Junger is suggesting. And the argument could go on to say that Jews, Hispanics, and Asians in America are more likely to be “liberal” because, well, it is in their DNA! In other words, the argument, taken to its logical conclusion, is fundamentally racist. But hold on there, for New York City is 44% white: that is, ultra-liberal New York has about the same proportion of whites living within its borders as Mobile, Alabama does. There is something very wrong going on here. Some people would say that “nature” is being over-valued and “environment” or ever “nurture” is being under-valued. I would say that the complexity of human life as a whole is being overlooked.
Junger actually has an agenda, though, which is to say that since all human beings have natural tendencies to be either liberal or conservative, it is okay for America to be divided the way it is, so long as we recognize that these divisions are natural and inevitable. That’s not much of an agenda, to be sure. “Neither political party can accuse the other of being illegitimate or inherently immoral; we are the way we are for good reason. Every human society must do two things: It must be strong enough to protect itself from outside groups, and it must be fair enough to avoid internal conflict.” Huh? The implication is that liberals are indifferent to the preservation of American society, and conservative are indifferent to questions of fairness. Both claims are almost certainly wrong. Liberals (if I may continue just a little bit longer developing Junger’s stereotypical claims about their being two kinds of politics) may be in favour of strong relations with allies and irenic relations with adversaries because in the long run that will protect us better. Conservative may be in favour of lower social benefits for the poor because in the long run that will make the poor into better, stronger, more self-reliant people. Fairness and self-preservation are ambiguous ideas. Authoritarian regimes and social democracies alike are apt to embrace both values, though each in its own way. Mussolini was both an egalitarian and a war-monger. Ghandi was a nationalist and a protectionist as well as a pacifist.
But never mind what real politics is all about. Junger and the writers he cites are eager to claim that a major part of it, maybe 50%, is all about DNA. It may even be all about brain mass. If you are still with me, I would like you to consider what is implied by this sort of reasoning, and how it actually violates Darwinian principles of natural selection. The reasoning itself is diseased. It has been infected with reductivism and logical positivism. It relies on the grotesque idea that in trying to understand an aspect of human behaviour, you come to final solution either by (a) demonstrating that it is “adaptive,” or (b) that it correlates with the biology of an identifiable region of the brain.
Adaptive: it would seem to be the case that everything we now find about the human condition must have been, once upon a time, “adaptive.” By that logic, imbecility, a condition known throughout history, is somehow adaptive: that is, it allowed for people to survive against other people, all of them competing for resources, who did not have that adaptation. That is not of course what Darwin said about adaptation. Natural selection was never a matter of the “survival of the fittest.” It was a matter of the flourishing of reproductive patterns. Moreover, as in the famous case of what Darwin called “sexual selection,” traits, like a peacock’s feathers, which inhibit the animal from expressing a good many survival behaviours (such as flying away from a predator), may be naturally selected because they are sexy, that is, because peahens are attracted to them, even if it will mean that their male offspring will probably be unable to fly. Natural selection is not a machine, and it is not necessarily efficient, the way a machine must be. It ends up, among human beings, leaving us with both geniuses and imbeciles, not to mention people who voted for Donald Trump.
The brain: it would seem too that everything we now find out about the human condition must be located in the brain. But don’t get me started. Junger cited a study which claims to have found a “correlation” between political attitudes and “brain structure.” Junger triumphantly declares that “measuring the sizes of the anterior cingulate and the right amygdala accurately predicted a person’s political orientation 72 percent of the time”, which would be astonishing if true. However, the scientists who conducted the study are much more cautious. “Our findings,” they say, “reflect a cross-sectional study of political attitudes and brain structure in a demographically relatively homogenous population of young adults. Therefore, the causal nature of such a relationship cannot be determined.” So the researchers have not discovered a region of the brain that causes variations in political attitudes; they have only discovered a statistical correlation, in very narrow circumstances, that suggests that further studies are warranted. But that qualification hardly matters to Junger, because researchers have found something in the brain! Problem solved. And indeed, though the researchers never mention it, Junger is quick to propose that if it is in the brain it is also in our DNA.
Have I been unkind to call Junger a “charlatan”? Yes. But I have not been inaccurate. A charlatan is “a person falsely claiming to have a special knowledge or skill,” as dictionaries put it. Junger is not a social psychologist or a neuroscientist, but he claims the authority of both kinds of researchers in order to put forward a vapid, feel-good conclusion. We’re all in this together! It’s in our genes!
This is not the first time in the past week I have discovered opinion writers in the Washington Post spreading lies and disinformation. I have written to the Post about it, but of course I have received no reply.