Many Americans were shocked at Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election but those with graduate degrees in the social sciences and humanities were among the most mystified. These men and women may be paid a good salary to profess their knowledge and understanding of humans and their societies, but this expertise didn’t allow them to predict that someone like Trump could capture the vote of so many of their fellow Americans.
The 2016 election tightened the grip that conservatives have on US politics and this could pose a severe threat to the funding of scholarship in the social sciences and humanities in the country. But even though there is much discussion of the election result among these scholars, there have been few scholarly attempts to understand the appeal of the conservative message to so many Americans or why Trump’s rendering of it was particularly appealing.
The reasons for the Trump victory that have been proffered so far are mostly the opinions of pundits rather than scholars. Putting aside for a moment the outrage over lies, fake news and interference from Russians, they are same tired old economic explanations. It’s claimed that Trump voters feel economically insecure, dissatisfied, envious, or just plain neglected. That phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid”, still resonates. We’re in the habit of looking at the economy to find post hoc explanations of people’s behavior and people themselves are inclined to point to the economy to justify their opinions and actions.
But if we want a fuller explanation of the appeal of conservatism, isn’t it time we tried exploring other approaches?
What does Darwin have to offer?
Hearing the name “Darwin” may cause many readers to anticipate a story of evolved genes that cause some people think in more conservative ways. Some evidence does suggest a very weak link between one gene and political affiliation1 but this isn’t our story. Darwin’s theories can be applied to more than the evolution of genes. In fact, Darwin knew nothing about genes. Biologists didn’t begin to understand genetic inheritance until some years after Darwin’s death.
What Darwin did (in his book On the Origin of Species published in 1859) was to provide a theory that made sense of patterns in the variation of living organisms. His theory, which he summarized as “descent with modification” has proved very successful in explaining change and diversity in the genes of populations. But there’s no reason that the same basic theory can’t help to explain patterns in cultural variation.2 Just as genes are passed from parent to child, cultural information passes between people as they interact. Children don’t “inherit” the beliefs of their parents because we can get our cultural information from many other people as well. We can also modify our beliefs based on our experiences and often pass on these personalized beliefs rather than exact copies of what we acquired from others. Nevertheless, most of what we “know” is based on what we have “inherited” from others.
Culture has been evolving very rapidly in almost all human populations for several generations and so it’s reasonable to assume that Darwin’s theory can provide insight into the patterns of cultural variation that have emerged from this evolutionary process. Overall, life for humans has improved. All over the world, people are healthier and more prosperous than they were a century ago. But the distribution of the benefits has been patchy and there have also been costs. Higher tech weaponry has made killing easer. Old ways of living and making a living have become impossible. These costs have also been unevenly distributed.
A Darwinian explanation of cultural change must look at changes in the pattern of social interaction. It’s through these interactions that we inherit our cultural information. Each one can result in the cultural equivalent of “mating”, with information passing from one mind to the other. No offspring is conceived as a result of this transfer, but the mind of one or both of the participants comes out of the experience subtly altered.
Patterns of social interaction have profoundly changed in almost all human populations during the last 300 years. For almost all of human history and pre-history, going back maybe two million years, “The Family” was the main social institution organizing people’s lives.3
Human biology makes it essential that our young be raised in families. This isn’t the case for the species closest to us on the evolutionary tree. Like most mammals, chimp, bonobo, gorilla and orangutan females can successfully raise their young without help. It’s likely that this started to change in the human lineage as our ancestors began to evolve larger brains. In order to grow their large brain, our babies have to be born large but helpless. Once born, they grow very slowly and require a regular supply of energy-rich nutritious food. A human can only survive to adulthood if its mother receives a considerable amount of help – help from several people, not just the baby’s father.4
Families are child-rearing teams. Not all team members do a lot of hands-on childcare but all members are expected to play a role, perhaps by helping to gain resources or by providing protection, advice or useful connections. Over the years our ancestors evolved a wide variety of ways to organize these teams. Families vary enormously in size, complexity and behavior. But the basic function of the family is always the same – or at least it was until recently. Families were a bit like primitive living organisms. Their members worked together to their family going, acquiring resources from the environment to maintain themselves and create a new generation of members.
As brain size increased in the human lineage, the amount and quality of the help mothers received also had to increase. The pattern of growth and development that produced large-brained humans co-evolved with the pattern of “team parenting” behavior that supported this growth and development. This could not have been simple co-evolution of genes.5,6 Our genetic inheritance may be responsible for the emotional foundation of human family behavior, helping to create and maintain bonds between family members, but we clearly don’t have genes that program us to either be good mothers or to provide appropriate help to mothers. We learn how to be family members as we grow up in a family. Our early experience of receiving and giving care in a family influences how we behave for the rest of our lives. The environment in which we learn about the world and how to survive in it is part of our family inheritance. The influence it has on our behavior is at least as important as our genetic inheritance.
Over thousands of generations in the distant past, the genetic changes associated with the increase in human brain size evolved in concert with the cultural changes necessary to support young with resource-hungry brains. Families which were most successful in raising young were those that maintained beliefs, rules, customs and habits which kept a group of people working together as an efficient child-raising team. Those which were less successful died out. It was natural selection, between families. Information (cultural information and genetic information) associated with the most efficient conversion of resources into offspring was most likely to be passed on to the next generation.
The origins of conservatism
A brief consideration of the beliefs, rules, customs and habits consistent with the efficient conversion of resources into offspring yields a list that nowadays typifies “extreme conservatism.” The most successful families would have members who saw it as natural that:
1. The interests of the family must come first.
− Members must try not to even think about what might be in their own personal interests. “Obey and respect your elders” is a good general rule.
2. It must always be assumed that people will put the interests of their family first.
− It therefore doesn’t make sense to trust a friend as much as a family member and non-family members will never see you as completely trustworthy.
3. Strangers who act friendly or generous are particularly untrustworthy.
− Why would anyone do this? They are insulting your intelligence.
4. Children are a blessing and should behave like blessings.
− They should be eager to perform as much work as their age and skill level allows, including the care, supervision and correction of younger children.
5. Women and girls should want to be mothers and perform work compatible with motherhood and childcare.
− The future of the family depends on having reproductive age females willing to endure the discomfort and risks of pregnancy and childbirth. They should not want to waste their time doing things that men and boys can do.
6. Sexual behavior likely to result in pregnancy must be controlled by the family so that births are controlled.
− A baby can’t survive unless it’s born within a team that is able and willing to raise it. Producing babies that can’t be raised is upsetting and wasteful.
7. Mating outside one’s immediate family is necessary but ideally a match can be arranged between members of related families or family friends.
− This makes it more likely that relatives of the bride and groom can agree and work together providing help to the children that result from their marriage.
Maintaining a set of cultural traits that caused people to behave in accordance with these basic rules not only enabled a family to successfully compete against other families; it also made it likely that individual members of the family enjoyed greater genetic “fitness” than members of families which were less efficiently turning resources into offspring. Future generations included more genes from members of efficient families.
Historical and anthropological studies suggest that, despite vast cultural variation, respect for elders, primacy of family, xenophobia, child labor, gender division of labor, high birth rates, and arranged marriages were commonly considered to be “normal” in most parts of Europe until the 18th or 19th century and in most non-European countries until the 20th century.7 Of course families had “black sheep”. There was disobedience, unfairness, jealously and occasional cuckoldry.8 And, in the places and times that are of most interest to historians, normal behavior was often suspended. In cities and during wartime, prostitution, venereal disease, destitute orphans and all manner of sin could be found.
But most of our ancestors were born, grew up and raised their children well away from cities and wars. The majority of them were members of the more efficient childcare teams, thriving in the good times and surviving the bad. Natural selection favored behaviors that added to the efficiency of those teams and the genetic and cultural traits associated with these behaviors.
A Darwinian view of “modernization”
In the last few centuries family-promoting cultural traits began to weaken and this has revolutionized the way humans live. Most humans alive today don’t belong to teams that efficiently turn resources into offspring. Even though we’re more prosperous than our ancestors, we produce very few offspring. Fertility is very low or falling rapidly in almost all human populations.
And it isn’t just norms about family size that have changed; the whole suite of the family-promoting cultural traits has been affected. The effect has been largest in Western populations. Far from seeing elders as worthy of respect, we Westerners often see them as time-expired, an awkward burden. We see our offspring as a responsibility rather than a blessing. Instead of being taught that they have a duty to contribute to their family, Western children are urged to figure out what will make them happy in life and to work for that. We can’t imagine giving an eight-year-old the responsibility of caring for a three-year-old and believe child labor to be immoral. The idea of parents being allowed to control their children’s choice of marriage partner also appalls us. For Westerners, marriages are about adults seeking happiness. We long ago ceased to see marriage as a partnership for the raising of children.
Why did these cultural changes happen? A superficial look might suggest that it was the result of rational reasoning. Individuals might have simply seen that maintaining a strong family was no longer a practical necessity and so they changed their minds about how to behave. But the idea of rational reasoning being involved seems laughable given the emotion generated by discussion of changes in “family values”.
It couldn’t have been that that simple. The family-promoting culture of our ancestors was not the work of ancient social engineers. It was the product of many generations of gene-culture co-evolution. When our forebears acquired beliefs, rules, customs and habits which caused them to be hard working members of an efficient child-rearing team, it was not because they judged these cultural traits to be of practical value. They began to acquire them when they were too young to be capable of rational thought. We humans learn how to behave by observing and experiencing the people around us and by feeling the consequences of our own actions.
Also, the weakening of the family-promoting cultural traits didn’t happen all at once, as one would expect if it was simply the reasoned abandonment of outmoded ideas. The weakening has been an evolutionary process. For example, the grandmother of one of us (Lesley), born in England in the early 20th century, was less assiduously devoted to the interests of the family than her own mother. She only produced two children, even though she had grown up in a family of five surviving children. Nevertheless, many of the family-promoting traits were strong in her. By today’s standards she was very “conservative”. Her son became an engineer but she expected her daughter (Lesley’s mother) to work as a secretary and to quit working as soon as she married. Her mother complied.
Our training in Darwin’s theory of evolutionary change suggests that the gradual weakening of family promoting traits can be thought of as the accumulation of mutations in the cultural information that had previously encouraged people to devote their lives to the interests of their family. By 1800, women in some parts of France were already choosing to limit the number of children they had,9 suggesting that they no longer possessed a complete set of fulling functioning family-promoting cultural variants. Over the next few generations more and more Europeans failed to inherit the idea that children were a blessing. By the early 20th century, fertility was falling rapidly in most European populations, including populations descended from people who had migrated from Europe to other continents.
At the same time, new mutations were appearing in the cultural information that Europeans were inheriting. By 1900, many new social institutions were organizing the lives of Europeans and the role of The Family was much diminished.10 And yet, judging by the writing of the time, including diaries, letters and memoirs,11 most Europeans retained the belief that it was their duty to respect those in authority and put the interests of the larger group ahead of their own interests. In many people’s minds, the “my family” had been partly replaced with the larger social groups they felt they belonged to, such as “my nation”, “my church” and “my race”. This was a time of intense nationalism, religious fervor and racism in Europe. Between 1914 and 1918 millions of Europeans dutifully laid down their lives to further what their leaders told them were the interests of their nation.
The evolution of Western culture has continued steadily over the last 100 years but remnants of family promoting beliefs are still retained. For example, we still consider it “natural” that wealthier and better-connected families will strive to obtain superior schools and more lenient justice for their children.
The weakening of the family promoting cultural traits coincides very closely with the change in the pattern of social interaction and the emergence of other social institutions to take over the role of the family. Both happened first in Europe. In 18th century Europe, social, technological and economic change began to make it both possible and advantageous for people to form strong social connections outside the family. Travel became easier and more and more families found that their young people could gain a better living if they left home and joined a workforce. As more people learned to read, more books, pamphlets and newspapers became available to satisfy their curiosity about life outside their local communities. Within a few generations, non-European populations also started to experience widening social interaction and increased exposure to media.
Such changes transform the flow of cultural ideas. People gain wider social identities. In towns, clubs, religious congregations, political parties, unions and secret societies provide lonely newcomers with new comrades and brethren. Most people continue to see themselves as members of a family living within a local community but they also began to identify themselves as a members of a workforce, a social class, an ethnic group, a religion or a nation.12
As a result, the constant trickle of information from family members re-enforcing ideas of duty to family becomes diluted by other information streams There’s no reason to believe that this will instantly wipe out the beliefs, rules, customs and habits that had been passed down the generations for thousands of years. But there is every reason to believe that the dilution of the message will make it less likely that populations will maintain complete and accurate versions of the cultural traits that had kept their forebears loyal to the interests of their families. Before long, the trickle of information from family members starts to alter and become less coherent. An easily observed effect of this is a sharp reduction in the number of children people have. And as time goes on, more and more “mutations” appear in the family-promoting cultural traits. Loyalty to family becomes loyalty to the fatherland, the motherland, the King, “God, the Father” etc.
Red states, blue states and failed states
Patterns of cultural variation are the result of many influences but explanations of these influences are of two types. They can be historical, such as Fischer’s observation that regional voting patterns in the United States can be tied to the point of origin in the British Isles of people who settled in the region in previous centuries.13 Or they can be environmental, such as Inglehart’s observation that what he calls the “political style” of a group of people can be tied to the level of security in the environment in which they were socialized.14 No explanation can be the whole story and new ideas are not necessarily a threat to old ones.
A Darwinian view of modernization suggests another way that a population’s history can influence its culture. The amount of time that has passed since the widening of social interaction is revealed to be potentially important in explaining the pattern of cultural differences. The more time that has passed, the more changes are likely to have accumulated in the population’s family-promoting cultural traits. This predicts that, because the widening of social interactions happened first in Europe, feeling of family obligation will be stronger in non-Western populations. This has been observed, even in among non-Western immigrants to Western countries.15
Populations which began to experience widening social interactions most recently, such as those in many parts of Africa and the Middle East, appear extremely conservative to Westerners. Elders are still honored and marriages are still arranged. Sexual behavior is kept under strict social control and girls are brought up differently from their brothers. People in these populations are so loyal to family, tribe and religion that they seem unable to see where their own individual best interests lie. Westerners find these frustrating places to do business, distribute aid, or broker peace deals. Modern social institutions premissed on individual autonomy cannot work effectively if feelings of family loyalty are strong.
A Darwinian approach also suggests explanations for cultural differences between sub-populations within a country such as the United States. Immigrants to Western countries from populations of non-European descent are likely to be more conservative than the native population. If they integrate well, the differences are much reduced in their children but they don’t always integrate well. In places where these immigrants come to make a large proportion of the population, they may influence Westerners in their communities to become more conservative.
The observation that the older people in a population tend to be more conservative can be explained by the fact that they have lived during an earlier time in the modernization process and experienced interaction with people who lived during an even earlier time. In Western populations, their conservatism may not explicitly promote the family because it consists of only remnants of the family promoting cultural traits. These remnants can generate a range beliefs and feelings. They may cause people to feel that sexual behavior needs to be kept within strict bounds, that youngsters should respect authority and that everyone should love their country. It’s easy to see how such feelings could make people suspicious of foreign-seeming “experts” claiming that their pronouncements are supported by incomprehensible evidence. And it’s easy to see how such feelings could make people inclined to give unexamined credence to the statements people who look, sound and behave like their friends and countrymen.
A Darwinian approach suggests that people who, by choice or accident, do not live in urban areas and did not attend college, are likely to be more conservative. They have been exposed to a narrower range of social interactions. Their parents and grandparents may have also been isolated from the variety of social interactions that are available to more cosmopolitan Westerners. Extreme examples of rural isolation arresting modernization can be seen in the Old Order Anabaptist communities that have spread through rural areas of the United States and Canada.16 These are descended from European immigrants of strict Protestant sects – Amish, Mennonite and Hutterite. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of these communities chose to continue to live “simply” in small family-based communities, avoiding education beyond age 13, friendships with outsiders and exposure to non-permitted books and most modern media. By and large, these communities maintain a complete and functioning set of family-promoting cultural traits and have very high fertility.
Members of the Old Order Anabaptist communities keep themselves so separate that they rarely vote. But the rural and suburban Americans, whose isolation is less extreme, generally choose to vote Republican and in 2016 the vast majority voted for Donald Trump.
Trump’s behavior may not be consistent with some people’s view of “family values” but there are several reasons why conservative Americans might find him appealing. Now in his eighth decade, he has acquired the air of a patriarch. Family is clearly is important to him and his five children. And, while the liberals and the US constitution urge people to greater inclusiveness, Trump’s beliefs are more consistent with the remnant of the family promoting idea which insists that that we need to put “our own” first. He and his daughter, Ivanka, have explicitly stated that once he is president, “his own” will include all law abiding American citizens. Some of his statements have implied that “his own” especially includes Americans who, like himself, are of European and Christian descent. Such statements appeal to the nationalism and ethnocentrism strongly felt by many living in rural areas.
The Darwinian approach makes no specific predictions about African American and Native American populations. They have shared a continent with people of European descent for many generations and yet continue to be seen as separate. This is more a matter of identity than culture, however. Like European Americans, those with African and Native ancestry are modern and, like Europeans they vary in the extent to which they retain remnants the family-promoting cultural traits of their forebears.
Is this the end of “modernization”?
There is reason to look back at the cultural changes of the last couple of centuries with feelings of satisfaction. For most of our history and pre-history human populations were divided up into myriad competing families, each trying to survive and grow in world of limited resources. This is often seen as a trap – the Malthusian Trap that kept our ancestors living to the limits of their means and prevented them seeing the benefits of forming wider social partnerships and pursing other goals. It was in Europe that humans first broke out of this trap by gradually abandoning the beliefs and habits associated with efficiently turning resources into offspring. They stopped believing that they should accept as many children as fate (or God) would give them. This change occurred decades before the development of modern contraceptive technology but couples still large succeeded in limiting the number of children they had. And, instead of bringing these children up to simply be good family members, they prepared them to pursue the other goals the modern world was beginning to offer.17
The pursuit of other goals has made our lives far richer. The coming together of more and more minds has brought an explosion of innovation, not just technological innovation but new ideas about how it is possible to live and behave. It’s been a wild ride, terrifying from time to time and more uncomfortable for some than for others.
Is it now over?
It appears that large numbers of Westerners want to secure their borders and exchange ideas only within the safety of their Facebook communities. Many members of non-Western populations are also trying to protect themselves from the cultural changes that modernization brings. This is bound to disappoint members of academic and business elites who can more clearly see the benefits which emerge from interaction and trade between peoples and nations.
If the Darwinian mechanism described here has merit, the cultural changes of modernization will continue. They’re part of an evolutionary process triggered by changes in the pattern of social interaction that occurred several generations ago. But as Westerners interact with people at an earlier point in this process, their modernization may slow down. Because most humans live in the moment Westerners perceive a great moral divide between themselves and the peoples in the Middle East and African who have begun to modernize recently. But this Darwinian view suggests that what seems to be a great divide is simply the result of populations being at different points in the process of cultural change. The same moral divide would exist between ourselves and our own great-grandparents if we could meet them in their youth when they were giving voice to the racism, sexism, homophobia and bellicosity which caused so much bloodshed and misery in the 20th century.
The long term future for modernization is very uncertain. Even though the fertility of the human population is falling rapidly, it continues to grow because the people born 20 to 40 years ago are now having their children – in most cases not so many as their parents but enough more than enough to replace those dying. Humans are living longer and the mean age of the population is rising, bringing additional problems. But more problematic is the increasing rate at which we are using resources and creating waste. It’s possible that we will succeed in culturally evolving institutions or technology that will help us to continue to prosper. Success is more likely if we continue to make new links between peoples so we can tackle problems together. And this will be more possible if we can learn to be less judgmental of people who happen to be at different stages of the modernization process. We may feel that we want to argue and fight in hopes of changing views but if the understanding provided by Darwinian theory has merit, their view will change. It will just take time.
And in the meantime the political struggle between more and less modern people seems fated to continue. Our differences are more a matter of emotional commitment than reason. But even in the midst of a fight, wisdom lies in trying to understand and respect ones “enemies”. Blind hatred or contempt makes the fighting worse and the prospects of peace more distant.
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