A widely debated study published in the current issue of the scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly tries to explain why most of us attach ourselves to broad political concepts like liberalism and conservatism and embrace different social and religious values.
The study concluded that people are apt to form “evolutionary novel” social and religious ideas — ideas that run counter to the evolutionary influences upon the human species —or not, based upon their intelligence. The findings by an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science tend to displease conservatives because you could construe them, wrongly I think, to mean that conservatives are naturally not as smart as liberals and highly doctrinaire religionists are not as bright as free thinkers.
Science Daily, which reported on the study, tossed some fuel on the fire by recounting a national longitudinal study of adolescent health in the United States that it said bolstered the London findings. That study found that young adults who identified themselves as “very liberal” had an average IQ during adolescence of 106 compared with 95 for those who regarded themselves as “very conservative.”
But the London study was not trying to rank people on political and religious curves based upon their intelligence but upon their adjustment to evolutionary pressures. It argued that people are designed by evolution to be conservative, caring prescriptively about themselves, their family, their friends and people most like themselves because for their ancestors it was a matter of protection from the lurking perils of the environment. People of liberal inclinations, on the other hand, tend to expand their concern to an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers — people outside their families, their social order and even their country — and thus break away from the environmental pressures that held their ancestors in thrall. So they are “evolutionary novel.”
It is a good way of describing the essential divide between conservatives and liberals: an exclusive concern for the safety and prosperity of your own brood and kind vs. an expansive concern for the wellbeing of people outside family and social order and perhaps far away in place and time.
It also is a scientific and thus less judgmental way of defining the gulf between the attitudes of Americans toward the two burning issues of the times, health care and climate change, which have almost literally torn the country asunder. So ferocious are the outpourings, especially on the conservative (or evolutionary) side, that it has made action on either problem virtually impossible. Opposition to major health-care reform runs in sync with resistance to taking hard steps to reverse global warming because people think it can't really be happening or else a remedy would make life less fulsome for us right now.
All of us involved in the debates view the other side in more judgmental terms, the proponents of reforms as reckless and conspiratorial agents out to destroy our way of life, the opponents as selfish and heartless protectors of the status quo.
If you don't care for these evolutionary theories about contemporary behavior, there is a slightly different way of characterizing the differences, which is that the society has become more and more self-centered — narcissistic in the words of Roger Cohen, the thoughtful columnist for the New York Times. We have never had the sense of social solidarity — all for one and one for all — that Europeans and some other societies had but we are losing what we had in an orgy of self-contemplation. If there's nothing in it for me, forget it.
It was on display last week at the White House health-care summit where the two sides, represented by Republicans and Democrats, demonstrated only one huge difference. One side thought nearly every person should be assured access to medical care and had a plan to require everyone to share the risks and thereby extend insurance coverage to 30 million people (while reducing the federal budget deficits). The other side said reforms should be limited to protecting people who are well enough off to have insurance already and maybe to expanding that group over the next 10 years to some 3 million people who are on the cusp of affording it and might buy a policy if they could get a cheap one in another state that did not much regulate the insurance industry.
As for the ferocious opposition to climate legislation, take your pick: evolutionary self-centeredness or narcissism. If there were even a 20 percent chance that our industrial society was heating the earth through the production of carbon and other greenhouse gases, which would raise unknown perils for our own descendants, would you not want to take the strongest possible steps to prevent it? Not if you have to balance their fates with your own ambitions for the good life.
The opinion pages of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette are a daily laboratory for the theory. Rare has been the day that columnists and letter writers do not rage against the global-warming theorists, which happen to be nearly every climate scientist in the world. The paper's editorial staff goes back and forth between ridiculing the idea and then acknowledging it and attacking Democrats for not taking courageous steps to combat it, like a stiff tax on fossil fuels. The fact that it snowed on the letter writers and even some Republican senators proves to them that global warming is nuts. (The international climate panel predicted winter blizzards as warming oceans put more water vapor in the atmosphere. January 2010 was the warmest January on record globally.)
Maybe there is something to the notion that intelligence explains political differences.