The Radical Theory of Evolution That Explains Democrats and Republicans

Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson says competing altruistic and selfish impulses govern society. That seems true of politics around the world, too.

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Daniel D. Snyder

Why does the United States have two political parties that espouse such opposing philosophies? The Republicans fight for the conservative ideals of "individual rights -- and the responsibilities that go with them," from which flows the belief in limited government and few regulations. Democrats argue for the liberal notion that "we also rise or fall as one nation ... I am my brother's keeper, my sister's keeper," from which derives the support for social-assistance programs and universal access to health care. Why do these two parties -- and the divided populations they represent -- see "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" so differently? Is it cultural, or is there something innate in our biology that explains these differences?

Scientists have spent the last decade examining the physiology of political thought, but they have only succeeded in identifying the symptoms and not the root cause. So, forget about the MRI studies showing that Democrats and Republicans respond differently to fear, with greater or less blood flow to specific parts of the brain. Ignore the finding that conservatives have enlarged amygdalas, the part of the brain associated with anxiety and emotions, but that liberals have a larger anterior cingulate, which is associated with optimism. Skip over the research that says we inherit our politics from our parents. They all tell us the "how," not the "why."

The underlying reason for the eternal conflict between Republican "individual rights" and Democratic "we're all in this together" is explained by a radical and magisterial theory of evolution outlined in Edward O. Wilson's groundbreaking new book The Social Conquest of Earth. Wilson, who has dominated evolutionary thinking for the past 40 years, has synthesized a lifetime of work into a "theory of everything". Greatly simplified, his argument is that two rival evolutionary forces drive human behavior: first, individual selection, which rewards the fittest individuals by passing along their genes; and second, group selection, in which the communities that work best together come to dominate the gene pool. Wilson argues that these two evolutionary forces are at work simultaneously, so that both self-serving and altruistic behaviors are constantly competing at the individual and at the group level. As he explains, "Members of the same group compete with one another in a manner that leads to self-serving behavior .... At the higher level, groups compete with groups, favoring cooperative social traits among members of the same group." In other words, individuals with self-serving behaviors beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of individuals with self-serving behaviors.

Extending this evolutionary theory, two competing forces are at work within the political organism: the "Republican genotype," which favors individualistic behaviors, and the "Democratic genotype," which favors altruism. Both forces are simultaneously at work at the individual and group levels. Different individuals -- and different groups -- will respond more or less to each of these forces depending upon the political and economic environment. The physiological differences between Democrats and Republicans in fear response, anxiety, etc., are simply symptoms of these competing genetic influences, and not the root cause of their divergent political beliefs.

Democrats and Republicans are not two sides of the same coin, but rather different parts of the same genome.

If this theory is correct, it should be applicable not simply to Democrats and Republicans but to political parties around the world -- that is, the general political structure of nations should split roughly into the "individualistic" versus "altruistic" models. In fact, most liberal democracies (i.e., where the voting is actually free and fair) have either a two-party system or a multi-party system having a dominant and a minority coalition, the two sides of which tend to split along those themes. In Britain, the Conservative Party argues for "putting more power in people's hands" while the Labour Party highlights "social justice and strong community." In France, the right-wing UMP (Nicolas Sarkozy's party) puts individual "liberty and responsibility" front and center, while the Socialist Party (of Fran├žois Hollande) believes that social equality requires the "redistribution of resources and wealth." In Japan, the right-wing Democratic Party "values people's individuality and vitality," while the left-wing Liberal Democratic Party begins its constitution with a call for the "prosperity of mankind."

Wilson's theory of group and individual selection also accounts for the fact that political parties wax and wane in strength and influence, but that neither faction ever achieves total dominance. As he states, "The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressure cannot move to either extreme. If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve. If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies."

In other words, Democrats and Republicans are not two sides of the same coin, but rather different parts of the same genome. One cannot dominate the other, nor can either live without the other. Like it or not, the two parties are condemned to coexist with one another.