Closing Thoughts - On Blind Tribes and Becoming Sighted

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

Closing Thoughts
On Blind Tribes and Becoming Sighted

Thinking is our most foundational adaptation as human beings. Once we commit ourselves to doing more of it, a crucial question becomes, “How do we achieve an effective balance between liberal and conservative adaptations in contemporary life, toward the goals of reducing conflict, increasing effective dialogue, and ensuring flourishing societies?” John Stuart Mill once remarked, “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”49 This claim may have some basis in evolutionary science. Among humans, as among other animals, a spectrum of traits reflects a population's adaptability. Teddy Roosevelt once made a similar observation when he advised that we “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” As a diplomat, but also a fervent outdoorsman and naturalist, Roosevelt seemed to have a keen understanding of human and animal behavior. And he may have a point—we cannot dispense with the martial, acquisitive, territorial male imperatives of our human ancestry altogether, yet, because our enemies will not be allayed with compassion alone. But loudly chest-thumping while carrying a big stick is an invitation for trouble. To create functioning nations, and to adapt to an increasingly interconnected world, the face of a nation must employ great diplomacy and rise above its most primal impulses.

Since Mill and Roosevelt, psychological science has been steadily accelerating, and our understanding of our evolutionary psychology is beginning to blossom. As we have learned, our spectrum of political orientations reflects the pressures of an ancestral environment that, with the help of our technology, we have for the most part left far behind. But on an evolutionary timescale we were in that environment only yesterday, and we continue to operate using the ancient psychology that helped our ancestors survive. Without understanding the evolved purpose of our political spectrum, we handicap our ability to think rationally about which of our adaptations to put forward and which to scale back.

The need to see human offspring through their unparalleled period of dependency drove our capacity for compassion, to understand other minds, and to share. The need to immigrate to new lands, and to acquire new genes and technologies from outside groups, gave us xenophilia. We still need to raise human offspring. And as we continue to evolve into a global community of nations, entwining into a single interdependent economic, technological, and cultural network, our xenophilia may be more necessary than ever. Certainly, this impulse must know some limits. Opening the doors indiscriminately also lets in those who would do us harm, and extreme empathy would potentially blind us to real danger.

On the other end of the natural curve, the continuous and deadly threat of starvation, predators, human-borne pathogens, and murderous outside clans gave us fear of germs, a toleration for in-group hierarchies, a tendency for submitting to large and aggressive male authorities, group-oriented thinking, and even in-group moral biases that sometimes blind us to reality. Without our ability to form coalitions, with all their inherent biases, we likely would not have survived our ancestral past, when our existence was at the mercy of nature.

But today, nature is at our mercy. We have the great fortune of a large, thinking brain that allows us to harness the earth's energies in order to make the human experience more livable. Having in so many ways surpassed our ancestral environment, important questions remain. To what extent does it serve humanity to collaborate on a global scale, openly sharing technology, information, and wealth? To what extent do we more fully thrive in smaller, competing tribes? How do we organize our communities, societies, and global networks in order to ensure their stability? These are difficult questions to answer. We may be able to take lessons from some of our forebears.

The Iroquois had two forms of government. One was for wartime, the other for peace.50 The sachems, the peacetime leaders, men who were often elected by women, had total control over the internal affairs of the tribe. It was only when war erupted that the war leaders took over, with the sole purpose of dispensing with the enemy threat. When the enemy tried to negotiate a peace settlement, they did so with the sachems. If the terms were agreed upon, the war leaders stepped down and the female-elected sachems took the helm once again. This arrangement certainly seems intelligent. If we are going to make use of male adaptations for territorial gain, hierarchy, violence, and suppressing empathy, war is the time to do so. But holstering those men when wartime is over is a simple, yet brilliantly pragmatic strategy. Letting the warrior class among us administer civil affairs—we already know what happens. Driven by male primate reproductive ambitions, warrior-driven governments have historically been oppressive and misogynistic, prone to forming in-groups, promoting unhealthy respect for authority, and encouraging winner-take-all economic policies that destabilize societies and destroy our natural environment. Moreover, as a means to ensure the hierarchy remains unquestioned, these authoritarians have either forbidden questioning altogether or, more recently, crippled our ability to question by drowning us with false information. But questioning, no matter how difficult the answer, is the only way to keep evolving. Here I recall the words of Thomas Jefferson when he said, “There is not a truth existing which I fear, or would wish unknown to the whole world.”51

In all of this focus on what divides us, one intellectually gripping fact about humanity is that we appear to get along best when faced with an outside threat. This response, which has reliably been documented across the world's bloody conflicts, reveals just how far cooperation was shaped by male coalitionary psychology and its propensity for making war. The question remains, Can we truly come together in the absence of an outside enemy? Or will we be forever destined to create those enemies if for nothing more than the intoxicating sense of unity we experience when standing together? Could we transpose the hostile outside tribe for something else? Hunger? Ignorance? Human limitation? If we are ever to stop fighting one another, it will require understanding where we came from. Only then can we transcend the fears and sufferings of our Stone Age ancestors. Only then can we fully evolve into the worlds we create.