Tag Archives: Darwinism

Myths of Evo-Politics

Evo-Politics appears to be growing, but it still attracts lots of misunderstandings and myths. John Hibbing has a Top Ten List of misconceptions about evolutionary political science (aka biopolitics, genopolitics, or evo-politics):

  1. Biology is genetics (biology also includes epigenetic, in utero, and developmental influences)
  2. Biology is deterministic
  3. Biology is reductionist
  4. It is useless to peer inside the body
  5. Political culture is too idiosyncratic to succumb to biology
  6. The study of biology and politics has a conservative bias
  7. The study of biology and politics has a liberal bias
  8. The study of biology and politics seeks to replace traditional political science
  9. The study of biology and politics is devoid of policy implications
  10. Political scientists are incapable of utilizing biological techniques and of appreciating problems with these techniques

I would add that there are other ones too. I hypothesize that such myths arise (at least partly) from ignorance and antipathy.


John R. Hibbing (2013). Ten Misconceptions Concerning Neurobiology and Politics. Perspectives on Politics, 11, pp 475-489. doi:10.1017/S1537592713000923.


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Raymond Geuss on Realism vs Non-realism

One of the great clashes among political theories is between realism and non-realism.

Raymond Geuss thinks so, regards non-realism as ascendant, but argues that realism is better. Here is how he distinguishes the two:

  • Non-realism: it starts from, and is mostly concerned with, what people ought ideally or rationally to do, or to desire, or to be. Non-realism is an “ethics-first” approach: for Rawls justice comes first, or for Nozick rights come first.
  • Realism: it starts from and is mostly concerned with “what really does move human beings” (9) and how institutions operate. A realist will “start from our existing motivations and our political and social institutions” (59). (Geuss mentions Lenin, Nietzsche and Weber in connection to realism.)

I would add one thing. That thing that really does move human beings, that set of existing motivations — it is human nature. Realism starts from human nature. Geuss really did not make this clear enough. This implies that realism is or should be Darwinian or evolutionary, for the best account of human nature by far is Darwinian.


Raymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton University Press, 2008).

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In Praise of Base and Superstructure

The base-superstructure idea may well be one of the most useful things from the Marxist conceptual canon. That’s because it’s a good way of thinking about primacy.

Marxism holds that society is like a building: its basis or foundation is the economy while the superstructure is everything else from law to politics to religion. The base has primacy, it conditions the superstructure, it determines in the last instance. The base has primacy because it is dynamic, and eventually must transform the whole. Changes in the base lead, sooner or later, to changes in the superstructure. All this applies on the epochal scale, it should be needless to say, not on the day-to-day scale.

That core claim—that the most dynamic part of a system has primacy—is clear and compelling.

Of course later reformulations allowed for increasing amounts of mutual influence between the two as well as plenty of relative autonomy to the superstructure.

I would like to pilfer the base-superstructure notion from the Marxist canon and put to other uses. After all, Marxists can hardly claim it as their own private property.

So, we can imagine a Darwinian version: the base is our genetic infrastructure and the superstructure is everything else. Naturally, the superstructure can affect the base. There is mutual influence, just as there is plenty of relative autonomy to the superstructure. But overall the base has primacy, it conditions the superstructure. Changes in the base eventually bring changes in the superstructure, likewise continuities in the base limit the scope for changes in superstructure. Again, all this refers to an epochal timeframe, not necessarily to day to day events.

Maybe one day others too will be talking of other bases and superstructures.


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Gene-Environment Mismatch

One of the most useful and illuminating ideas to emerge from thinking in evolutionary or Darwinian ways is the gene-environment mismatch. Genes adapted to an ancestral environment will be mismatched in a modern one.

If human nature is entirely malleable, a blank hard drive, then there can be no mismatch. Only if human nature is real, if our mental hard drives come preinstalled with apps, can there be mismatch.

Any major change in environment would lead to mismatch. The advent of agriculture probably brought a mismatch—until presumably the most mismatched genes were selected out.

Food is one modern mismatch. The abundance, the pleasing taste, the sugars and refined starches, all are likely mismatched to our digestive systems and satiety-signalling systems. This is probably the root of the obesity epidemic of recent decades. Here’s an illustration of the differences:

Food motivation fulcrum

From: Whole Health Source

Utopian ideologies are another modern mismatch. The communal kibbutz turned out to be mismatched with the desire for family life. The idea that there could be a world communist order, a perfectly harmonious, cooperative society is mismatched with our known imperfections. The feminist idea that fathers should have the same desire to care for infants as mothers is a mismatch. Multiculturalism may turn out to be another mismatch.

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A free-access article on Evolutionary Political Science (EPS) make a distinction between two biological approaches to politics:

One that explains behavioral outcomes as a consequence of underlying genotypic differences across and between individuals in a population (e.g., a gene, or “allele,” present in some members of the population but not in others)

which the authors call a “heritability” approach

and another that explains behavior as a product of species-typical adaptations (e.g., psychological, neural, biochemical, etc.) shared by humans as a consequence of natural selection

which they call “adaptationist.”

This is a useful distinction. There is genetic variation, but also genetic commonality. Human nature and human natures. Both need to be kept in mind. (The names they give are a bit dubious though—heritability and adaptation feature in all kinds of EPS.)

But I am inclined to go further and say that there are several more forms of EPS. Two more are:

  • social evolutionary: how has politics evolved?
  • normative: what is natural right or evolutionary ethics?

There is a rich ecosystem of EPS, which is hard to reduce to just two or even a few approaches.


Lopez, A. C. and McDermott, R. (2012), Adaptation, Heritability, and the Emergence of Evolutionary Political Science. Political Psychology, 33: 343–362. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2012.00880.x

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Question of the Day

Today’s QOTD is from War of Ideas blog at Foreign Policy: “Questions you never thought to ask: is inbreeding bad for democracy?”

Well, actually I did think to ask that question (in pondering clannism). But it certainly has not been asked widely enough.

Here’s another unasked question: why have so few people thought to ask about the effects of cousin-marriage? My guess is that thinking in terms of genes, Darwinism, and the like is generally frowned upon, marginalized.

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How Darwinism was Censored

The two main enemies of evolutionary ideas are the culturalists (within academia) and the creationists (outside). They are two arms of a pincer squeezing and marginalizing evolutionary ideas from the social sciences.

One such pincer movement occurred in the 1920s.

The culturalist arm within academia was led in the ’20s by Franz Boas, a leading anthropologist, who insisted that anthropology and the human sciences generally are simply about “culture” (and did not involve biology in any way).

The creationist arm was also particularly energetic in the 1920s. William Bryan Jennings was railing against “Social Darwinism,” that universal bugbear. Religious activists turned their attention not just to biologists but also to social scientists. They castigated all forms of evolutionism, including the social evolution idea that contemporary societies had evolved from primitive ones over long timescales.

Michael Liensch shows that in response to their campaigns social science textbooks were censored, removed, and rewritten. American social science deleted Darwinism and de-evolutionized itself.

The most troubling response, however, came in the form of self-censorship, as social scientists began recasting, rephrasing, and in some cases simply removing references to evolution from their classrooms and textbooks. Here they followed a strategy similar to that used by authors of some of the most popular biology texts of the 1920s, who were at this time systematically replacing references to evolution with terms such as “change,” “development,” or “growth,” removing charts or diagrams that showed humans as part of the evolutionary process, and relegating discussions of evolutionary theory to the end of the book, or simply removing them altogether.

The author of one introductory sociology book responded to attacks by in later editions

deleting all discussions of human origins, playing down the importance of the fossil record, and describing primitive man as “essentially as he is to-day.”

Another author renamed a textbook from Social Evolution to Cultural Change and also responded by

deleting chapters on heredity, the struggle for existence, and natural selection; removing diagrams of Haeckel’s evolutionary embryos and photos comparing the hands of humans and chimpanzees; and adding a discussion of the differences between biological, psychological, and cultural development in which he made it clear that “each follows different laws of change.”

In general

over the course of the decade many of the most popular social science textbooks … would all see similar revisions.

That is how Darwin was deleted, and evolution was eased out. Darwinism was censored.


Michael Lienesch, Abandoning Evolution: The Forgotten History of Antievolution Activism and the Transformation of American Social Science Isis 103.4 (2012) pp. 687-709 DOI: 10.1086/668963 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/668963 (Ungated version here)


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