Evolved Utility - Is Conservatism an Extreme form of The Male Brain?

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

Evolved Utility
Is Conservatism an Extreme form of The Male Brain?

The value of evolutionary science is not only in the understanding that differences exist but also in the evolved purposes that those differences serve. Such insights illuminate the origins of our political divisions and hopefully also expand our capacity to bridge them. In the previous chapter we considered how natural forces, such as germs and genetic diseases, were selective pressures shaping the personality differences that undergird our orientations. Throughout this book, we will also examine the pressures shaping the sex and gender differences that in turn give us “masculine conservatism” and “feminine liberalism.” To start, and to make better sense of the science above, let us consider the pressures that gave us differences in ToM.

Most evolved traits have multiple influences. One common explanation for greater ToM in women is that women have generally been tasked with interpreting the needs of offspring, who as infants are incapable of expressing their needs through language, and who remain in dependency for a far greater stretch than the young of other species. As one example of this ability put to use, women are more likely to hold infants in the face-to-face position than men,71 and as we saw above, women's brains appear to be far better at reading facial expressions. We have also seen that another output of ToM, the ability to experience empathy—to understand and share another's emotional experience—is also found between men and women (and between conservatives and liberals). That the marathon of provisioning and care required for human offspring should demand empathy is intuitive, as is that women would command a comparatively greater capacity to empathize. Indeed, in keeping with our gendered political brain hypothesis, empathic men (who, as noted, also tend to be liberal) tend to have lower testosterone and make better fathers than high-testosterone men, as we will explore in greater detail in chapter 7.

Conversely, there is evidence to suggest that less empathy among men has fitness benefits, aiding in male mate competition (which is often violent) and in facilitating killing in warfare.72 Once again, it is important to remember here that natural selection doesn't particularly care what traits get passed on to the next generation. It is a mindless algorithmic process in which traits that provide an advantage get passed on. Sometimes the advantage can involve experiencing empathy, at other times suppressing it. It is not difficult to see how empathy might be a liability in the heat of battle, or how burying empathy would help men to kill their competitors and live to pass on male genes coding for staving empathy, particularly for men of the outside tribe.

In a similar vein, intolerance for ambiguity would also be useful in dangerous environments, such as combat. For instance, seeing a rival group as possibly dangerous, depending on the circumstances, would potentially get men killed more often than those thinking in strictly categorical terms. In other words, when the stakes are life and death, it makes more sense to think in black-and-white terms. Indeed, when combat veterans’ thought patterns get stuck on the parameters of the war zone, such as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, a common psychotherapeutic technique systematically recalibrates black-and-white thinking in favor of greater integrative complexity.73

Even men's overrepresentation in STEM fields may reflect the pressures of a violent ancestral environment. Across the globe, males show an advantage on spatial tasks as compared to women,74 and research finds that spatial abilities are critical for STEM fields, for example, architecture, engineering, robotics, or other domains that require the ability to mentally rotate objects in three-dimensional space.75 This ability has long been hypothesized to be an offshoot of adaptations for hunting and defense, both of which make use of projectile weapons, which require spatial abilities for effective use.76 Indeed, research finds a relationship between spatial tests and throwing accuracy, with men being consistently better at hitting their target than women.77 These sex differences are seen early; by three years old, boys outperform girls on throwing speed, accuracy, and distance, and there is no other motor performance skill in which boys excel so much in the early years.78 And as we discussed, there is a significant relationship between conservatism, masculinity, and spatial abilities, along with so many other adaptations geared for using violence to survive a harsh, ancestral environment. We will continue to explore these connections.

In all, the stereotypes about liberalism having a feminine quality and conservatism a masculine one have empirical backing and are rooted in our neuropsychology, which was shaped by selective pressures of the natural and social environments of our ancestors. In turn, our evolved political orientations reflect those pressures. While there have been bounteous explanations for what drives our political stances, few have as much explanatory power as the strategies we employ to survive and reproduce. In the next chapter we will come to understand how these strategies underlie the often contentious divide between liberals and conservatives on social equality versus hierarchy in human affairs.