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Evolutionary Psychology Does Not Explain Differences Between Rightists and Leftists

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2000 words

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the new year, you have heard of the “coup attempt” at the Capitol building on Wednesday, January 6th. Upset at the fact that the election was “stolen” from Trump, his supporters showed up at the building and rushed it, causing mass chaos. But, why did they do this? Why the violence when they did not get their way in a fair election? Well, Michael Ryan, author of The Genetics of Political Behavior: How Evolutionary Psychology Explains Ideology (2020) has the answer—what he terms “rightists” and “leftists” evolved at two different times in our evolutionary history which, then, explains the trait differences between the two political parties. This article will review part of the book—the evolutionary sections (chapters 1-3).

EP and ideology

Explaining why individuals who call themselves “rightists and leftists” behave and act differently than the other is Ryan’s goal. He argues, at length, that the two parties have two different personality profiles. This, he claims, is due to the fact that the ancestors of rightists and leftists evolved at two different times in human history. He calls this “Trump Island” and “Obama Island”—apt names, especially due to what occurred last week. Ryan claims that what makes Trump different from, say, Obama, is that his ancestors evolved at a different place in a different time compared to Obama’s ancestors. He further claims using the Stanford Prison Experiment that “we may not all be capable of becoming Nazis, after all. Just some, and conservatives especially so” (pg 12).

In the first chapter he begins with the usual adaptationism that Evolutionary Psychologists use. Reading between the lines in his implicit claims, he is arguing that “rightists and leftists” are natural kinds—that is, they are *two different kinds of people.* He explains some personality differences between rightists and leftists and then says that such trait differences are “rooted in biology and governed by genes” (pg 17). Ryan then makes a strong adaptationist claim—that traits are due to adaptation to the environment (pg 17). What makes you and I different from Trump, he claims, is that our ancestors and his ancestors evolved in different places at different times where different traits would be imperative to survival. So, over time, different traits got selected-for in these two populations leading to the trait differences we see today. So each environment led to the fixation of different adaptive traits which explains the differences we see today between the two parties, he claims.

Ryan then shifts from the evolution of personality differences to… The evolution of the beaks of Darwin’s finches and Tibetan adaptation to high-altitude living (pg 18), as if the evolution of physical traits is anything like the evolution of psychological traits. His folly is assuming that these physical traits can then be likened to personality/mental traits. The ancestors of rightists and leftists, like Darwin’s finches Ryan claims, evolved on different islands in different moments of evolutionary time. They evolved different brains and different adaptive behaviors on the basis of the evolution of those different brains. Trump’s ancestors were authoritarian, and this island occurred early in human history “which accounts for why Trump’s behavior seems so archaic at times” (pg 18).

The different traits that leftists show in comparison to rightists is due to the fact that their island came at a different point in evolutionary time—it was not recent in comparison to the so-called archaic dominance behavior portrayed by Trump and other rightists. Ryan says that Obama Island was more crowded than Trump Island where, instead of scowling, they smiled which “forges links with others and fosters reciprocity” (pg 19). So due to environmental adversity, they had a more densely populated “island”—in this novel situation, compared to the more “archaic” earlier time—the small bands needed to cooperate, rather than fight with each other, to survive. So this, according to Ryan, explains why studies show more smiling behavior in leftists compared to rightists.

Some of our ancestors evolved traits such as cooperativeness the aided the survival of all even though not everyone acquired the trait … Eventually a new genotype or subpopulation emerged. Leftist traits became a permanent feature of our genome—in some at least. (pg 19-20)

So the argument goes: Differences between rightists and leftists show us that the two did not evolve at the same points in time since they show different traits today. Different traits were adaptive at different points in time, some more archaic, some more modern. Since Trump Island came first in our evolutionary history, those whose ancestors evolved there show more archaic behavior. Since Obama Island came first, they show newer, more modern behaviors. Due to environmental uncertainty, those on Obama Island had to cooperate with each other. The trait differences between these two subpopulations were selected for in their environment that they evolved in, which is why they are different today. Now today, this led to the “arguing over the future direction of our species. This is the origin of human politics” (pg 20).

Models of evolution

Ryan then discusses four models of evolution: (1) the standard model, where “natural selection” is the main driver of evolutionary change; (2) epigenetic models like Jablonka’s and Lamb’s (2005) in Evolution in Four Dimensions; (3) where behavioral changes change genes; and (4) where organisms have phenotypic plasticity and is a way for the organism to respond to sudden environmental changes. “Leftists and rightists“, writes Ryan, “are distinguished by their own versions of phenotypic plasticity. They change behavior more readily than rightists in response to changing environmental signals” (pg 29-30).

In perhaps the most outlandish part of the book, Ryan articulates one of my now-favorite just-so stories. The passage is worth quoting in-full:

Our direct ancestor Homo erectus endured for two million years before going extinct 400,000 years ago when earth temperatures dropped far below the norm. Descendants of erectus survived till as recently as 14,000 years ago in Asia. The round head and shovel-shaped teeth of some Asians, including Vladimir Putin, are an erectile legacy. Archeologists believe erectus was a mix of Ted Bundy and Adolf Hitler. Surviving skulls point to a life of constant violence and routine killing. Erectile skulls are thick like a turtle’s, and the brow’s are ridged for protection from potentially fatal blows. Erectus’ life was precarious and violent. To survive, it had to evolve traits such as vigilant fearfulness, prejudice against outsiders, bonding with kin allies, callousness toward victims, and a penchant for inflexible habits of life that were known to guarantee safety. It had to be conservative. 34 Archeologists suggest that some of our most characteristic conservative emotions such as nationalism and xenophobia were forged at the time of Homo erectus. 35 (pg 33-34)

It is clear that Ryan is arguing that rightists have more erectus-like traits whereas leftists have more modern, Sapiens traits. “The contemporary coexistence of a population with more “modern” traits and a population with more “archaic” traits came into being” (pg 37). He is implicitly assuming that the two “populations” he discusses are natural kinds and with his “modern” “archaic” distinction (see Crisp and Cook 2005 who argue against a form of this distinction) he is also implying that there is a sort of “progress” to evolution.

Twin studies, it is claimed, show “one’s genetically informed psychological disposition” (Hatemi et al, 2014); they “suggest that leftists and rightists are born not made” while a so-called “consensus has emerged amongst scientists: political behavior is genetically controlled and heritable” (pg 43). But, Beckway and Morris (2008), Charney (2008), and Joseph (2009; 2013) argue that twin studies can do no such thing due to the violation of the equal environments assumption (Joseph, 2014; Joseph et al, 2015). Thus, Ryan’s claims of the “genetic origins” of political behavior rest on studies that cannot prove or disprove “genetic causation” (Shulitziner, 2017)—but since the EEA is false we must discount “genetic causation” for psychological traits, not least because it is impossible for genes to cause/influence psychological traits (see argument (iii)).

The arguments he provides are a form of inference to best explanation (IBE) (Smith, 2016). However, this is how just-so stories are created: the conclusion is already in mind, and then the story is crafted using “natural selection” to explain how a trait came to fixation and why it currently exists today. The whole book is full of such adaptive stories. Claiming that we have the current traits we do in the distributions they are in in the “populations” because they were, at a certain point in our evolutionary history, adaptive which then led to the individuals with those traits passing on more of their genes, eventually leading to trait fixation. (See Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010).

Ryan makes such outlandish claims such as “Rightists are more likely than leftists to keep their desks neat. If in the distant past you knew exactly where the weapons were, you could find them quickly and react to danger more effectively. 26” (pg 45). He talks about how “time-consuming and effort-demanding accuracy of perception [were] more characteristic of leftist cognitionleftist cognition is more reflective” while “rightist cognition is intuitive rather than reflective” (pg 47). Rightists being more likely to endorse the status quo, he claims, is “an adaptive trait when scarce resources made energy management essential to getting by” (pg 48) Rightist language, he argues, uses more nouns since they are “more concrete, an anxious personalities prefer concrete to abstract language because it favors categorial rigidity and guarantees greater certainty” while leftists “use words that suggest anxiety, anger, threats, certainty, resistance to change, power, security, and conformity” (pg 49). There is “a connection between archaic physiology and rightist moral ideology” (pg 52). Certain traits that leftists have were “adaptive traits [that] were suited to later stage human evolution” (pg 53). Ryan just cites studies that show differences between rightists and leftists and then uses some great leaps and mental gymnastics to try to mold the findings as being due to evolution in the two different time periods he describes in chapter 1 (Trump and Obama Island).


I have not read one page in this book that does not have some kind of adaptive just-so story attempting to explain certain traits/behaviors between rightists and leftists in evolutionary terms. Ryan uses the same kind of “reasoning” that Evolutionary Psychologists use—have your conclusion in mind first and then craft an adaptive story to explain why the traits you see today are there. Ryan outright says that “[t]raits are the result of adaptation to the environment” (pg 17), which is a rare—strong adaptationist—claim to make.

His book ticks off all of the usual EP things: strong adaptationism, just-so storytelling, the claim that traits were selected-for due to their contribution in certain environments at different points in time. The strong adaptationist claims, for example, are where he says that erectus’ large brow “are rigid for protection from potentially fatal blows” (pg 34). Such strong adaptationist claims imply that Ryan believes that all traits are the result of adaptation and that they, as a result, are still here today because they all serve a function in our evolutionary past. His arguments are, for the most part, all evolutionary and follow the same kinds of patterns that the usual EP arguments do (see Smith, 2016 for an explication of just-so stories and what constitutes them). Due to the problems with evolutionary psychology, his adaptive claims should be ignored.

The arguments that Ryan provides are not scientific and, although they give off a veneer of being scientific by invoking “natural selection” and adaptationism, they are anything but. It is just a long-winded explanation for how and why rightists and leftists—liberals and conservatives—are different and why they cannot change, since these differences are “encoded” into our genome. The implicit claim of the book, then, that rightists and leftists are two different—natural—kinds, lies on the false bed of EP and, therefore, the arguments provided in the book fail to sway anyone that does not believe such fantastic storytelling masquerading as science. While he does discuss other evolutionary theories, such as epigenetic ones from Jablonka and Lamb (2005), the book is largely strongly adaptationist using “natural selection” to explain why we still have the traits we do in different “populations” today.

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