How Evolution Drives Politics
Isn’t it interesting how we live side by side but have completely different experiences? Some people feel like they are living their best lives, others feel like it is the end of the world. This divide keeps growing, especially in politics.
In the heat of ideological arguments that highlight our differences, we overlook our shared biology as well as our very human limitations. This polarized climate makes me wonder if we are approaching a point of no return, as if we are splitting into two separate species. Is this really what’s going on — speciation? Seeing how evolution works in our culture and politics helps gives perspective, and perhaps open doors with people we may otherwise unnecessarily see as enemies.
We can do better.
In the beginning …
I grew up a diligent creationist, and part of that was learning about evolution. Specifically I would learn about how evolution was wrong. Until late college, creationism was the Truth — something 100% proven to me. Evolution was absurd, impossible, and ultimately a deception used to deny the sacredness that we were created in the image of god.
That was my reality. Everything I knew lined up with these convictions.
But then I changed.
It took years, but my perspective is different now. I am no longer a creationist, instead evolution enthralls me. It’s not just a subject matter, it’s personal. In studying evolution, I didn’t just learn about it, I also learned from it. I see its principles and parallels all over my personal life as well as the world at large, especially in its descriptions of how life changes over time.
For instance, speciation.
There are several ways new species develop. You can have an existing population that is suddenly separated by a physical barrier. There’s some isolating event, like a river cutting a land in half. Then each group can go down a separate path of evolution, each becoming something different. This is allopatric speciation.
There’s also parapatric speciation, where a population is not separated by some barrier preventing one individual’s ability to mate with any other. Instead, groups can be separated merely by distance. Differences can arise and become more extreme as only geographical neighbors become mates, also potentially leading to new species.
But I’m interested in sympatric speciation. This is where separate species evolve out of one original population even though they still live in the same space. It seems almost impossible, and biologists agree it’s rare.
In sympatric speciation, a population will split into groups that each find unique niches and live on natural resources separate from what other groups utilize. Eventually, those distinct ways of living become exclusive of any other. This is suspected to be the case with the two species of fish Amphilophus Citrinellus and Amphilophus Zaliosus. One group preferred living off the algae floating near the surface of the water, the other found more success living off the plants growing near the bottom, eventually mating only with others that matched their own preferences.
So now, let’s talk about politics …
I think this is something happening now with the polarization in our own country — an ideological sympatric speciation. People are living in two completely different realities, even though they live right next to each other. They have found distinct political niches and crafted separate news cycles, talking points, and even entertainment to nourish their ideologies.
On one end of the spectrum, we have Homo Republican, and on the other we have Homo Democrat. Show a Homo Democrat a gun, and they see and feel something entirely different than a Homo Republican. Tell the story of how a billionaire made their fortune — a Homo Republican may find it inspirational while a Homo Democrat may find it repugnant. On it goes — different narratives citing select facts to reinforce a particular set of ideas. When they talk about issues ranging from immigration, taxes, to sexuality they may use some of the same words but are often talking about, seeing, and feeling completely different things. In the last few years especially it seems like there is such a difficulty in communicating that one group might as well be speaking Mandarin and the other Farsi — with neither able to translate.
Each group gets more and more distilled as we dismiss facts that disagree with our convictions. That’s terrifying to me — because how do I know when I’ve inadvertently or unconsciously tossed out a fact that might be staring me in the face — simply because I don’t like it? It’s happened before. Like I said, I was a creationist. I know what it’s like to have convictions sculpt my facts.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
But, isn’t someone right?
Did you see what happened in Iowa? They held a Democratic primary — at least, they were supposed to. If you followed the news at all, some people thought it would be a good idea to build an app to let people vote. Then the day came for people to use the app, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work to such an extent that the party couldn’t be confident of any results until days after the fact.
I am a software developer — and anyone that works in technology knows exactly what happened. Somewhere there were some pointy haired bosses. Likely there were also some tech bros parading around talking about “fail fast and fail often!” There were probably some overworked software developers, among whom were some talented engineers and at least one god-awful one. There’s always at least one god-awful one.
But besides all that — what was truly amazing about the Iowa debacle is that it provided a window into a larger and extremely humbling truth: for all the ways that we think something can work and especially how we think something should work — reality is as indifferent toward us as we are toward it.
Think about it — before the primary, how many people who had never, ever worked in technology talked boldly about how awesome that app was going to be? Even more to consider, how many people who had worked in technology propagated the same exalted narrative? “This app is going to be awesome!”
And then it wasn’t.
It spectacularly wasn’t.
Keep in mind, this was an app to tally votes. This wasn’t exactly Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars.
In our ideologies we trade in a fiat currency of emotions and selectively useful stories. We masquerade what’s ultimately faith as knowledge. Homo Republican and Homo Democrat literally scream about how the world should be on any issue. Everyone has a plan to save the world and truly believes “our app is going to be awesome!”
The truth is, not one of their ideas has ever been implemented in its entirety. We don’t have a lineup of alternate realities where we can reference “Earth A through Earth Z did this and it worked every time!” And for instances where we have some examples of our ideas working in a limited setting, time, and context — we still might miss key variables and principles. We make up patterns that don’t actually exist, or miss the ones that do. But no matter these gaps — the whole time we believers keep repeating “our app is going to be awesome.”
“Our god is on our side!” cried how many people through how many wars?
“Capitalism is the only economic system that works!” cries idealists who live in a world where there has never been a purely capitalist society. Same for socialist. Or communist. In every system, people suffer.
“Biology does not matter in determining if you’re a man or woman!”
“Snowflakes! Weak, triggered snowflakes!”
“Racist! Everyone’s a racist!”
“The world was created in six days!” I used to say.
Everyone has their Truth. 100% proven. Unshakable reality.
But what everyone gets wrong…
In all this vitriol, Homo Republican and Homo Democrat have both completely divorced themselves from the reality of who the other is. Neither side has the bloodlust, ignorance, or evil that the other imagines. Each side simply sees the world differently. Everyone — regardless of their ideological species — has families, hopes, dreams, loves. Most of them are mostly good.
Recently, Jordan Peterson and his family have been struggling with crisis after crisis including cancer, auto-immune disorders, and addiction. Being seen as a leader among the alt-right, critics were quick to revel in his pain — calling it well-deserved. This same spirit plays out on both sides, as each hopes the ascending body count will matter. A few weeks ago we saw it happen again as people were glad about Rush Limbaugh’s lung cancer diagnosis.
Is this really the sentence we administer on people who disagree with us? Are these people truly so culpable of harm in the world? Is the attitude we see in them as being so hateful, one that we justify in ourselves?
As the saying goes, “Take note of your enemies, for you will become them.”
What we can learn from ants …
Researchers recently released a paper detailing how different ant colonies subdivided into different groups based on divisions of labor. If some ants were more of a forager type then they associated naturally with the other forager types. If they were more of a caretaker type, they congregated with other caretakers in the nurseries. The more and more they associated with their natural communities the more closed off those groups became toward other groups in the colony.
But the subdivisions in the colony couldn’t become too hostile toward each other, because otherwise the colony would collapse. They saw the same dynamics play out with honeybees, sometimes the entire hive needed to reach consensus and change locations.
So how does the colony or the hive keep from collapsing? The researchers models predict that individuals in one group interacting with others from a different group changes the internal thresholds and social biases that can otherwise escalate to an irreconcilable division. Per the article:
Their model predicted a clear way back from polarization: fight the tendency to interact only with those who are similar, and be willing to let your internal thresholds shift a little.
“Our model predicts that if you interact with those who are different from you, over time, you’ll become similar to each other,” Tokita said. “It basically erases those differences.”
How can we bridge the gulf between the people who are happy with their lives vs. those who believe doom is upon us? It begins with being strong enough to stomach each other’s differences. We can’t have our butts planted in the bleachers. We fool ourselves into thinking we’ve done more than that anytime we root for our team on social media or attend a rally that truly doesn’t matter. If Homo Republican and Homo Democrat really want to make a difference in the world, maybe they should learn to talk with each other and not assume ill intent. Maybe they can volunteer somewhere together. Join a book club together. Go out running with each other.
While we may never reconcile with Homo Flat Earther or Homo Nazi, the gulf between Homo Republican and Homo Democrat is worth addressing. I know it’s hard. Our ideologies are tightly woven together with our identities and egos. It takes a great deal of humility and restraint to live in a truly pluralistic society. The mind is a muscle, and it will be sore like a muscle. Challenging it, pushing it outside of its comfort zone to risk finding things that would change it, is going to hurt. But just like going to the gym or any other type of fitness, we have to stick with it. We have to exercise, and reject the empty calories of 24/7 news.
But really, who’s right?
While we can objectively see a symmetry of how half the country is “left” and the other half is “right,” we subjectively see an asymmetry in terms of who has the Truth. For instance, climate change. This is a scientific question, and the vast majority of scientists agree it’s man-made based on empirical data. There may still be room to have a discussion even here— but let’s say that climate change is settled science.
Science as settled as evolution.
Again — I want to call out my own experience. I used to be a creationist. What began my journey toward a different opinion was reading a book by Francis Collins — The Language of God. He was reaching out to creationists, explaining why he as a believer was also an evolutionist. Having discussions with each other opens doors, even if those discussions occur on twitter as Megan Phelps shared when talking about leaving Westboro Baptist Church. This is something that Christopher Hitchens understood too when he opted to tour in churches when he released his book God Is Not Great. And even while many did not change their minds, a lot of people at least opened their minds, and consequently their hearts. I saw a pastor being interviewed after Christopher passed away from cancer, and he was expressing that while he didn’t think that god made exceptions, he hoped that if god ever did, he made one for Christopher.
How powerful is that?
We never have to agree. Disagreement is still communication — people can at least speak the same language. There is an implicit respect and kindness in discussion, and in my experience, thoughtfulness follows kindness. If we stop putting preconditions on each other, we might escape the mutual destruction and shared misery of our current political trench warfare.
In the end, we might find that a lot of our differences amount to nothing more than Buzz and Woody shouting at each other, one saying he can fly, the other saying he is only falling with style. To what degree did it matter that either of them were right? They both flipped their opinions in the end. What mattered in the story was never that they came to agree with each other, but rather what they came to understand about themselves individually and the other.
It might seem counterintuitive, but real peace is the ability to keep having fights and never killing each other. So I take some consolation in hearing vehement disagreements because it gives me hope that there are still open doors. Silence from one side would alarm me, because I suspect the funeral dirge for a democracy is indistinguishable from the sound of one hand clapping.
The last living twig of an otherwise dead branch.
Species can go through genetic bottlenecks. A population is reduced to such a small number that even if their numbers bounce back, they are all too genetically similar, making them all vulnerable to a common threat.
Cheetahs are facing this now, having gone through their own bottleneck several thousand years ago. All cheetahs are so closely related that any one cheetah can receive a skin graft from any other cheetah, and there is no immune response recognizing it as foreign. It’s as if it came from an identical twin. This is terrible for their population, and they may very well go extinct someday. If something can kill one of them, it can kill all of them. That’s the risk of having a group be too much alike.
We are right to vilify dscrimination like racism, inequality, and so many other prejudices. Why do we give each other a pass on vilifying others over their different opinions? There’s an idea that strength is the ability to destroy someone. I think real strength demonstrates itself in not needing to. What is either side trying to win? If we eliminate our political dissidents, we’ve lost ideas, minds, and souls. We have to avoid an Orwellian genetic bottleneck in which there is only one set of ideological DNA surviving.
We are the last surviving human species, the last living twig on an otherwise dead branch. Neanderthals, Denisovans, Erectus, on and on — they’re all gone. And just as frequent as speciation, is extinction. Over 99% of all species that have ever existed on earth have come to that end.
Maybe evolution is like fire. I imagine fire used to be thought of as an uncontrollable force, but early humans learned to harness it, then master it. Perhaps we don’t have to be subject to an evolution we consider uncontrollable. I believe we can do better in our daily lives, even if the talking heads and politicians cannot. Our lives are different than theirs — our lives are not based on pumping up ratings or rallying a vote. We think of them as leaders, but they are often little more than the tail that wags the dog. They represent us, and are also a representation of us. They are wheels that squeak louder than the engine. We are the engine.
We can drive our evolution.
We can do better.