Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019
Rank and Resource Redistribution: The Liberal Endeavor
Equality Versus Hierarchy
In evolutionary terms, we can operationalize the liberal position as an effort to restrain dominant men from monopolizing resources, which can impinge on the evolutionary fitness of those with less power. Note my use of gendered language here, for the struggle for dominance and the privileged access to resources that dominance confers are disproportionately a human male concern. This is not to say that women are not or should not be competitive. Women also benefit from higher rank and access to resources, and female-female competition is a widely observed phenomenon across the animal world. But for our entire history as a species, male competition has been far more extreme, more violent, more oppressive, and has resulted in greater power distances than competition between women. Though rarely discussed, these differences are rooted in male reproductive psychology. Liberal egalitarianism, therefore, can be seen as a political strategy to impose limits on male ambitions.
One might imagine this reining in of males is a development of the post-feminist world, but on the contrary, it reflects an enduring prehistoric undertaking. In his study of foraging peoples around the world, anthropologist Christopher Boehm reveals how tribal societies, which are thought to mirror the social environments in which humans evolved, strive to maintain an egalitarian order.2 In small-scale tribal groups, order is achieved largely through cultural taboos designed to keep men from rising up to violently monopolize resources, power, and women.
For example, anthropologist Richard Lee has documented how among the !Kung foragers of the Kalahari desert there is a practice in which men returning to camp after a successful hunt denigrate their own quarry. Writes Lee,
Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, “I have killed a big one in the bush!” He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, “What did you see today?” He replies quietly, “I'm no good at hunting. I saw nothing at all…maybe just a tiny one.”3
The clan follows. When they go in to retrieve the kill they respond, “You mean you have dragged us all the way out here to make us cart home this pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin, I wouldn't have come. To think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this.”
This practice is an intentional strategy to prevent boastful young males from amassing too much power, according to one tribal member:
When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can't accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.
When cultural taboos among the !Kung fail to prevent an ambitious young man from becoming violent, the group may agree to execute him. Thus while some social scientists will argue the relative egalitarianism among hunter-gatherers reflects our true nature, before humans became corrupted by wealth or Western civilization, the existence of such strident efforts to tamp down male upstarts suggests a different story about who we are. Writes Boehm,
When the subordinates take charge to firmly suppress competition that leads to domination, it takes some effort to keep the political tables turned. For the most part, the mere threat of sanctions (including ostracism and execution) keeps such power seekers in their places. When upstartism does become active, so does the moral community: it unites against those who would usurp the egalitarian order, and usually does so preemptively and assertively.4
Keeping upstart men in check, then, takes vigilance and is not a foolproof effort. Research on hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists—tribes that supplement hunting and gathering with simple gardening—has found strikingly high murder rates and suggests that unequal resource distribution and women-hoarding can arise despite the best efforts of the moral community. For example, some Amazonian Yanomamö men (mostly those who have killed other men in raids5) tend to have more wives and more children, whom they support with food given in tribute by lower-ranking tribesmen.6
Yet, compared to our modern nations of millions, tribe-sized groups are easier to regulate from within. Because hunter-gatherers can't store vast amounts of food to leverage their power base, there are limits to how much wealth and influence they can acquire. When humans began to master agriculture, things changed, drastically. The increased ability to produce and store grains led to a corresponding growth in man's ability to amass power.7 Men used this power to achieve reproductive success in a zero-sum game, and zero-sum games are the root of inequality.
This historical fact about males and fitness inequity has recently been verified by a rather stunning genomic study, which found that humans exhibit far less diversity in Y chromosomes than in X chromosomes. This finding suggests that some ancestral males disproportionately won the struggle to reproduce while others lost out entirely. By analyzing our genome, researchers were able to calculate that for a period after the introduction of agriculture, one man reproduced for every seventeen women.8
It was not unusual for dominant men to code such drastic carnal inequities into law. For example, among the Inca, sexual privilege was carefully allotted according to rank (with high rank typically being synonymous with high material wealth), as described by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala:
Caciques or principal persons were given fifty women “for their service and multiplying people in the kingdom.” Huno curaca (leaders of the vassal nations) were given thirty women; guamaninapo (heads of provinces of a hundred thousand) were allotted twenty women; waranga curaca (leaders of a thousand) got fifteen women; piscachuanga camachicoc (over ten) got five; pichicamachicac (over five) got three; and the poor Indian took whatever was left!9
Thus, anthropological, genomic, and historical evidence reveals that male dominance has propelled human inequality since the age of hunter-gatherers, which involves disproportionate access to women, and wealth sometimes measured as simply as greater access to food. Large-scale democracy is only a fairly recent attempt to equalize the vast power differences that so often characterize human social life. America's Founding Fathers expressed this intention plainly in the Declaration of Independence with the seminal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This timeless sentiment occurs throughout the letters and documents of America's first statesmen. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to write, “The foundation on which all [constitutions] are built is the natural equality of man, the denial of every preeminence but that annexed to legal office, and particularly the denial of a preeminence by birth.”10
Other Founding Fathers expressed similar ideas, such as James Madison who wrote, “Equal laws protecting equal rights…the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country.”11 The struggle to redress inequities of power formed the basis of democratic governance, which, having fallen from prominence with ancient Greece, was reintroduced to the world in 1776 in the United States. Here America's Founding Fathers were the moral community, and their efforts to frame the Constitution were a direct response to the monarchic dominance hierarchies that had ruled Europe for centuries, not uncommonly by hoarding wealth and by butchering those who voiced dissent.
But even this historic move was stepwise. The Founding Fathers espoused democracy as a means to achieve equality, yet still enforced rank status by allowing slavery and excluding men of color and (all) women from the political process. Even the Framers, in tendering their radically egalitarian American experiment, could not fully disengage from the primordial male pull to subjugate the rival tribe and oppress women. In light of the competitive reproductive psychology of primate males, this failing makes sense.
Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers’ political descendants have carried their work forward—slavery has been outlawed, women vote and serve in office, and today liberals more strongly support a vast number of social and economic policies all rooted in social egalitarianism: affirmative action; equal pay for women; increasing the minimum wage; increasing taxes for the rich or reducing them for the poor; increased spending on social welfare programs, like welfare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, and Medicaid; socialized medicine; free college education; and equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians (which equalize the economic benefits of being married).
Moreover, liberals have generally favored a government role in enforcing an equal playing field. In 1963, Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson famously declared to a joint session of Congress, “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights…. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”12 The next year Johnson indeed signed the Civil Rights Act into law, outlawing racial segregation in schools and discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Once again, while both sexes engage in discrimination, men historically waged war on outside groups on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin, or enslaved them, and we all know that laws prohibiting discrimination by sex is meant to protect women from male dominance, rather than the other way around. But the takeaway message here is that the liberal position is an old one, and its egalitarian and feminist flavor reflects the goal of keeping alpha male ambitions in check.
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to exhibit less support for egalitarian policies and generally oppose legislation granting the government the authority to regulate power and resource differences. This political stance reflects male reproductive psychology, for in terms of fitness men have much more to gain from unequal resource distribution than do women, who have more to gain by resource sharing. This is not to say that all egalitarians are women or that those who prefer dominance hierarchies are only men—they are not. But there is a monumental tilt among males toward inequity, and this tilt is rooted in evolution.