The propensity of identity politics to inject resentment and mistrust into public life is a topic that has been widely discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, although rarely from the perspective of the evolution of human nature.
However, it is useful to look at it from this perspective because it can help explain why roused passions can so quickly become dangerous, even not just the demonization of others, but even the killing of those perceived as the enemy.
The key elements of what it means to be human, and how we relate to each other, evolved over a long period when we lived in hunter-gatherer groups. Survival depended on the group’s ability to cooperate in gathering and sharing food and providing security. We flourished if we worked well together, but only if.
Under these circumstances, it is easy to see why, as intelligent and social animals, we developed capacities such as a sense of fairness, an ability to look after ourselves and our children while working collectively, and a sense of ‘enlightened altruism. It’s also easy to see why, as a species, we learned to despise cheating, the individual seeking an unfair share of the collective pot, and the chancellor.
Some of the most attractive traits we have inherited from our evolutionary past are often closely associated with identity politics. The sense of fairness aimed at by Martin Luther King in the United States and the early civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland can easily be understood as arising from our hunter-gatherer past. Likewise, the appeal to decency and a sense of common humanity that characterized the 2015 campaign for the right of gay people to marry. These attractive feelings are important evolutionary tools that have allowed us to flourish as social animals.
Competition for resources often involved us fighting with neighboring groups for food and territory
But there is also a dark side to nature that the circumstances of our evolution have bequeathed to us. For most of human history, life was hard and calories were scarce. The psychological and ethical perspectives we developed were designed to increase the survival chances of group members. The same did not happen with membership of other groups. Rather it was the opposite.
Competition for resources often involved us fighting with neighboring groups for food and territory. Being intelligent social animals has facilitated our ability to make war on others. There is even something in us that sometimes leads us to wish for the genocidal killing of those we perceive as others. This has happened too often in history for it to be accepted as a disturbing human trait.
In his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, in which Jared Diamond considered the influence of our animal heritage on the way we live, the scientist and public intellectual wrote about human traits such as our sexuality, the our capacity for language and our consumption of dangerous drugs, but also our capacity for genocide. Among the points he makes is that while genocide is often motivated by the desire for land or power, in other cases it is driven by ideology or psychology.
It is easy to see how the psychology of my group versus the other group has reinforced the greatest calamities in history. The Soviet Union, nominally a regime committed to making the world a fairer place, was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of its citizens, people who were targeted for their class identity or national affiliations. Nazi Germany killed millions on grounds of nationality, race and religion. Adherents of different religions have always shown a marked capacity to hate and kill each other. European colonizers in Australia, Tasmania and the Americas wiped out entire populations, or nearly eliminated them. In Rwanda, over a few months in 1994, half a million or more people died in an eruption of ethnic slaughter. These victims of mass slaughter were selected for their identity.
The point is not to argue that the most excitable members of the left in the US are prone to plotting the extermination of Donald Trump’s supporters, or that Republican Ron DeSantis of Florida is an existential threat to the awakened generation. It is rather to point out that the emotions that are inflamed by the way we see the world between us and them are powerful ones that have an enormously dark history. The lesson to be learned, surely, is to tread very carefully.
It’s because we’re hardwired to conserve calories that we find it so hard to stick to an exercise regimen
Also worth considering is the link between evolution and the propensity of identity politics to draw people into thinking in terms of dualities or binaries. In his book Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved To Do Is Healthy And Rewarding, Daniel Lieberman, a professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, explained that it is because we are wired to conserve calories that we find it. so hard to stick to an exercise regimen, even though we know it’s good for us. (For most of our evolutionary history, we had to stay active if we wanted to eat, so unfortunately evolution didn’t have to install a compulsion toward exercise.)
Brain activity uses a lot of calories, and the habit of thinking in any or terms, rather than exploring complexity, can be a way to conserve calories. By its very nature, identity politics encourages binary thinking. The suggestion that the difficulties experienced by group A are due to the actions/malevolence of group B, may be a way to avoid complications and nuances. It can encourage the habit of responding to a series of complex problems with the same simple intellectual response. X is to blame. This type of response can be a siren song, a successful way to shut down challenging thoughts. It’s the calorie equivalent of staying on the couch when you know you really should be going for a run. We find it very attractive, even though we know that the habit of zero-sum analysis, and the relentless us-them rhetoric, is bad for us. All of us.
- Colm Keena is a journalist for the Irish Times. He was previously legal affairs correspondent and public affairs correspondent.