We are all deeply political animals. That’s not news, as anyone who’s ever spent time on a playground knows. What’s new is just how much our political past shapes our political future. Avi Tuschman explores this idea in his fascinating new book, Our Political Nature. Drawing from his experience as a senior adviser for Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, Tuschman examines how our genes shape our political views. I emailed Avi some questions recently, and I’ve included an edited transcript below.
Why are we such political animals?
For the last ten years, I’ve been researching the puzzle of political orientation, both during my doctoral work in evolutionary anthropology and during my career advising heads of state on shaping public opinion. Throughout this inquiry, I’ve drawn together dozens of cutting-edge findings from neuroscience, primatology, and genetics, and they reveal that our political orientations are deeply ingrained natural dispositions, molded within each of us by powerful evolutionary forces. We truly are political animals.
Here are just four of the many facts that substantiate this surprising conclusion: (1) twins who have been separated at birth and nurtured in very different environments nonetheless grow up to share remarkably similar political attitudes; (2) a brain scan can accurately predict whether a person is more likely to be a liberal or a conservative; (3) contrary to popular belief, our polarizing left-right divide is by no means unique to America; in truth, similar political spectrums run through almost every country. These spectrums shift slightly to the left or the right depending on the homeland of a population’s ancestors; and (4) even chimpanzees have rudimentary political personalities that are meaningfully similar to our own.
What role does “tribalism” play within politics?
As Our Political Nature explains, tribalism has played a key role in regulating inbreeding and outbreeding over the ages, which is why these traits are normally distributed in our personalities. The book shows how variation in these traits has a measurable impact on the evolutionary fitness (i.e., survival and reproduction rates) of individuals in all types of societies. For example, there is data on how this ancient biological conflict impacts modern populations in Iceland, Denmark, and Turkey (in addition to non-human animal societies).
In your book, you advocate for cutting down on “political junk food.” Can you explain?
In today’s digital media environment, the number of media outlets has multiplied, and they’re competing with one another to occupy particular ideological segments of the political spectrum. This makes it all too easy for people to weave themselves into partisan cocoons. There’s a constant supply of political junk food designed to gratify partisan tastes. And simply being more educated or consuming more media doesn’t necessarily help. Studies show that higher levels of education, along with greater interest in and exposure to politics, have a negative side effect: people polarize in the direction of their predispositions. Liberals become more liberal, and conservatives, more conservative.
Luckily, our political orientations are not set in stone. Only about half of the variance in them comes from genetic differences between individuals, and the rest comes from the environment. So it’s certainly possible to transcend the attitudes that threaten to divide us. Doing so requires realistic expectations and deeper understandings of the structure and properties of public opinion. I’m optimistic that Our Political Nature can play a small part in this process.