A scientific understanding of the presidential debates

How does biology explain the different philosophies on display in the Presidential Debates? Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, October 22, 2012 — The agendas pursued by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in their presidential debates have traversed all manner of international and domestic points of contention. However amidst the thrust and counter-thrust of argument, both candidates display a constancy of philosophy. Romney’s policies focus on the individual’s freedom; Obama believes the welfare of the group is paramount. It is interesting to see what science has to say about these competing agendas.

In truth, both our major political parties are so oriented to the right that the left is still further right than in almost any other country – we are after all the land of the free and home of the brave. But consider the parties’ relative positions: the Democrats are the party of social conscience - they are to the left; and the Republicans are the party of individual freedom – they are to the right; and it is from these (relative) philosophical positions that their policies flow.

This political polarity is an expression of a tension between selfish and altruistic impulses that has long intrigued science; in particular that branch of science known as evolutionary biology. For it is with the study of evolution, and instincts in particular, that all understanding of our behavior starts.

At first glance it appears that the right wing is simply an expression of genetic selfishness – “the gene must replicate to survive, therefore selfishness is natural and legitimate.” Indeed, Richard Dawkins, that most right wing of scientists, may well have had Ayn Rand’s expression “the virtue of selfishness” in the back of his mind when he titled his famous book The Selfish Gene.

E.O. Wilson has recently promoted another theory which says that the mechanism of group selection – where groups compete between themselves for survival - has allowed genuine altruism to evolve within those groups. Altruism is, he says, a way of making the group stronger in the battle between opposing groups. 

Is this concept of group selection behind Obama’s more altruistic philosophy? “We will sacrifice a little as individuals,” you can hear him saying, “but we will be stronger as a nation as a result.”

These two scientific theories appear to neatly describe both sides of the political divide. But before we embrace their explanation, let us go back to Ayn Rand and consider her take on selfishness a bit more closely. Rand defined selfishness as “concern with one’s own interests”, which is still running nicely along the selfish gene track. However, it is with her definition of selfishness as “rational egoism“ that doubts start to arise that attributing our own selfishness to genetic selfishness, might be a bit too simplistic. 

In order to understand our selfishness, Rand says, “One must begin by identifying man’s nature, i.e., those essential characteristics which distinguish him from all other living species.” The first of these she identifies as a brain evolved for rational thought (and ego of course, means the conscious thinking self). Where at first Rand’s philosophy of the “virtue of selfishness” appeared to dovetail with selfish gene theory, under closer scrutiny it appears that she has identified selfishness as a psychologically driven state, not an instinctive one.  

As such, Rand’s theory of selfishness has more in common with the allegory of our condition from the Book of Genesis, than Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene.

According to Genesis, humanity was created in the image of God and lived in the Garden of Eden – presumably meaning our ancestors were loving and harmonious. Disobedience with these ideals came about due to taking the fruit from the tree of knowledge – presumably meaning the advent of the intellect caused us to deviate from our instincts. In the Biblical account it is the search for knowledge that gave rise to selfishness, not our instincts. 

It is difficult to find scientists looking in this direction for an answer to our behavior, but there are exceptions: Consider the following from biologist Jeremy Griffith based on the emergence of a nerve-based learning system in the presence of a pre-established gene-based learning system.  

Griffith says that humans evolved genuinely altruistic instincts (how this might have occurred is a legitimate subject for another post), and that when the power of free will that emerged with consciousness emerged, it must have inevitably come into conflict with the pre-established instinctive orientations.

Griffith says that as soon as our consciousness caused us to stray from our instinctive behavior, the instincts in effect “criticized” those deviations. However – and this is where selfishness comes in - in order to continue its search for knowledge, our consciousness necessarily defended itself against that criticism: It blocked it out; it retaliated against it; and because the criticism made it/us insecure, we became obsessed with proving our self-worth – in other words we became selfish and egocentric. This meshes neatly with both Rand and the account in The Book of Genesis.

A moment’s further thought shows that a very simple explanation for left and right wing behavior emerges from this explanation.

According to Griffith’s theory, left wing or altruistic behavior means leaning toward obeying our selfless instincts; while the right wing ignores our instincts in favor of continuing the search for knowledge. It is a theory worth considering.

So when you look at Obama and Romney representing their parties, debating from either side of the center, take the opportunity to judge their policies of course, but if you are so inclined, maybe you might want to judge the theories behind their philosophies as well.

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Jasper Macmasters

Jasper seeks to make sense of the human condition from wherever truth and knowledge can be found. He is guided by the words of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who said “The discovery of truth is prevented most effectively, not by the false appearance things present which mislead into error, nor directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice, which as a pseudo a priori stands in the path of truth and is then like a contrary wind driving a ship away from land, so that sail and rudder labour in vain.”

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