The recent debates between Bush and Gore revealed ideological differences that may have very deep roots. I shall attempt to demonstrate that these differences go back very far, back to our prehuman, apelike ancestors, and perhaps even farther than that. I’ll begin with the era when the earth was young and mother nature first “invented” that cosmically important device called sex.
Scientists are still arguing about the paradox of sex. Everything else a typical organism does is aimed at its own survival. Why waste all that time and energy on a function that doesn’t help survival and indeed can jeopardize it? The quick answer is that when a new individual is created by mixing the genes of two other individuals, you get a lot more variation among members of the group than when each individual just goes off in a corner and reproduces by itself. Variation gives flexibility and when something unexpected like a climate change comes along, at least some members of the group are able to survive, whereas the whole lot of reproductive loners may go under. Sex, in short, has become the default pattern for almost all living things on this planet because it survives better than the alternatives.
Because of sex we have species. A species is defined by the fact that breeding occurs within the group but not outside it. So if we didn’t have sex we would only have a bunch of loners trying to survive in a changing environment, and they wouldn’t do nearly as well. But a species is a durable, resilient entity that is likely to survive for a long time, and even to spawn new species in due course that can carry the genetic message even farther down the long corridors of prehistory. If it weren’t for species, life might well have been wiped out a billion years ago and Earth would be just another barren planet.
Species evolve over time. The most interesting evolutionary episode, from our point of view, is when our chimp-like ancestors gradually became human. During that period, two basic behavioral patterns emerged. One was territorial, the other social. The social one was based on the mother’s affection for her offspring and the increased need to have a father around to help out–because the human infant takes a lot longer to become viable than the offspring of other primates. This social impulse soon grew to include more distant kin relations, and a whole tribe. Tribes stuck together because that enhanced the survival value of each individual in it.
As tribes evolved, they competed with each other for the best land. That brought a very old instinct into play: territoriality. The territorial instinct goes a lot farther back than just humans, but our new, sex-driven tribalism gave it more zip. As some tribes got bigger and stronger at the expense of other tribes, this sense of the importance of belonging to a winning team got stronger, and ultimately exploded into what we now can recognize as nationalism. Meanwhile, the social instinct, the sense of being on a team and doing your damndest to make sure that team flourished, grew more expansive, more inclusive, and meshed ever more closely with that old territorial instinct to forge what we now recognize as human nature.
It’s human nature to be nice to your buddies and horrid to outsiders. At present, we are faced with a challenge: can we assimilate the fact that the whole world has grown together, and we all need to be nice to each other? Or must we hang on to the old territorial antagonisms?
Gore is trying harder to be nice to most Americans than Bush, and Bush is trying harder to be tough on foreigners than Gore; at least that is how I distill the essence out of the campaign rhetoric. But when you come right down to it, it all started with sex.
I confess: I might just as well have titled this little essay “Sex and the Democratic Party.” But the poor old Democrats have had enough problems with sex in the past few years, so I thought I’d try to even out the load a bit. Anyway, it’s a catchy title, and if it misled you into reading this, well, I hope you learned something useful in spite of yourself.
Carl Coon 10/18/00