Political Evolution and the Tea Party

One of the laws of nature is that high altitude makes for more difficult breathing, so animals that survive there tend to be ones that are more effective at making do with a thin oxygen supply.

We can take that specific example as an analogy for the evolution of human civilization. What we are looking at is a process that involves combining smaller groups of people into larger units. Families into bands into tribes into villages and so forth, basic anthropology. What are the factors that maintain enough internal cohesion within the group to keep it from splitting apart? If competition between groups provides some of this kind of glue, what happens when two or more rival groups coalesce? There will inevitably be tensions that have to be resolved by changes in group attitudes, or perhaps by the development of new unifying principles and/or institutions, if the new union is to survive long enough to bestow tangible benefits. Think of it as a change in altitude, where a species of animal migrates to a higher zone that provides adaptive pressure toward more efficient ways of using a weaker oxygen supply. In the case at hand, adaptation is likely to be a protracted process, involving selection over many generations. Life will be tough for the losers.

Our human species has moved up through several such zones in the last hundred thousand years or so, but the first couple of steps took long enough to give time for physical adaptation. Band to tribe required the evolution of speech while tribe to neolithic village required some changes in dietary habits and a slew of changes in institutions and attitudes. But once our ancestors started fooling around with metal and introduced arms races as engines for technological progress, the rate of change exploded. As of now, we are modern people imprisoned in the bodies of neolithic villagers. We are living with a chronic condition of cultural altitude sickness. Some of us have adapted better than others, but we all suffer to some degree.

Pause for station identification: my analogy here is more than poetry, it is backed up by an emerging body of science. I explored the complex issues of human cultural evolution and adaptive changes needed to make it possible in my book “One Planet One People, Beyond ‘Us vs. Them'”. David Sloan Wilson (“Evolution for Everyone”), Peter Richerson and others have carried the studies a lot farther than I did.

This altitude analogy can give us a tool for understanding the current Tea Party phenomenon. Think of it as a bunch of people suffering from altitude sickness even more acutely than the rest of us, and insisting that we move down into lower pastures where we can breath more easily. They know they are right because they can feel it in their hearts, and our denials infuriate them. We know we are right because of all the rational reasons, and find their obtuseness equally infuriating. One side is visceral and the other rational, and the twain seldom if ever meet.

What to do? If it were simply a matter of higher versus lower pastures, we’d sort ourselves out and each live where it suits us. Give the Tea Partiers some land and let them live like the Amish. But no, we each want it all, and unless we change we either have to duke it out or compromise on half measures while we slowly adapt toward a common understanding of the problem and agreements on institutional workarounds.

I cannot fault the President for seeking the latter course.

Carl Coon 8/2/11


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2 Responses to Political Evolution and the Tea Party

  1. Thoth says:

    These observations are helpful in that they allow one to feel at least a little bit good about tolerating uncomfortable political union with others whom one might much rather slough off like so much dead skin. At least in theory it’s all in the name of progress towards a higher, more integrated form of living civilization. But I wonder, will smaller group unions fighting against larger group unions prove more robust, competitive, and ultimately dominate at certain points in the future? Will the few trump the many in the mad dash for resources as our planet bursts at the seams with our population and consumer overshots of it’s carrying capacity? What mechanisms will thin out the herd, and who will be left standing, the narrower minded small groups excluding and undermining outsiders or the humanistic universalists? Or is there are third way? Can we hedge our bets and play both strategies at that same time?

  2. Carl Coon says:

    If cultural evolution followed the same rules as natural selection, then the size of the eventual winning group would not be as important as the differing ability of the groups to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. So yes, a determined smaller group could win to dominance, theoretically. But now we have a new factor, the ability of individuals within a group to imagine differing outcomes to the challenges and perhaps persuade a majority of their group to adopt strategies designed to advance the best outcome. Add the imitation factor, and then try to predict outcomes…you tell me what the rules are governing that kind of equation!

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