What Professor Haidt Would Like to Have Said
by Robert Haston
(Author of The Origin of Political Species)
Jonathan Haidt talks about conservatives and liberals
Jonathan Haidt started his talk The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology by stating the "biggest question of all time" to Social Psychologists:
Why are there large cooperative societies at all, and why did they emerge so rapidly in the last 10,000 years? How did humans become ultrasocial?
Given the title and opening, this must be an evolutionary psychological take on politics; and why not? This is a wildly popular approach elsewhere - from love to religion to war (Clausewitz's politics by other means). We know that human culture changed our genes, giving us traits such as adult lactose tolerance. Surely just as our guts have adapted to agriculture, our minds have been adapting to human culture.
Haidt then describes the evolution of ultrasocial behavior, starting with ants and bees 100 million years ago. But these colonies are families with a single queen mother. Humans alone leaped from small troop socialism based on genes to large tribe ultrasocialism based on culture. Haidt says we did this by forming teams around sacred cultural objects and principles such as religions or political movements -- say for example Bill O'Reilly's "Traditional Warriors".
He then goes on for a thousand words how such tribal based moralities bind and blind us. He discusses the liberal taboos that prevent academic discussion about gender or race. Race taboos prohibit any serious talk about recent human evolution. Our modern moral tribes hold science in high esteem until a branch such as evolution or climatology threatens their sacred values. Then this branch is seen as not just flawed, but as part of a conspiracy suppressing the truth their tribe believes.
What most people don't realize is that professors are hemmed in from all ideological and economic sides. H.L. Menken said it best:
His whole professional activity is circumscribed by the prejudices, vanities and avarices of his university trustees, i.e., a committee of soap-boilers, nail manufacturers, bank-directors and politicians. The moment he offends these vermin he is undone. He cannot so much as think aloud without running a risk of having them fan his pantaloons.
The word I want you to focus on here is circumscribed. Just as Haidt is circumscribed within his community, his entire speech precisely circumscribes the taboo against speaking about the evolutionary roots behind our contemporary political tribes.
Then Haidt uses his own field as an example, asking: Has social psychology become a Tribal Moral Community since the 1960s? His point is that by making certain types of topics and opinion verboten, they drive away conservatives and prevent a broader more accurate view and scientific progress.
He did a powerful and precise job of describing how his field was dominated by liberals. But this is where the pundits took the ball and went south-for the very reasons Haidt was trying to elucidate. There wasn't a hint of forging a new post-partisan view or abandoning our taboos, particularly the one against "the biggest question of all time". The tribal moral communities on the left and right knew this one all too well. They could rely on centuries of tales spun by their side. They knew those songs by heart, so they gathered around their respective modern campfires (such as the NY Times) and sung them loud and clear.
They missed the point even though Haidt spent the last 700 words going into exacting detail about how human evolution accelerated 100 fold after the dawn of art, diplomatic trade and advanced culture 80,000 years ago. Haidt described our rapid evolution from "focus on the family" to "it takes a village" to "we are the world". Our modern culture wars don't look much different. Haidt wasn't the first to ask. Ralph Waldo Emerson said in The Conservative in 1841:
The conservative party established the reverend hierarchies and monarchies of the most ancient world. The battle of patrician and plebeian, of parent state and colony, of old usage and accommodation to new facts, of the rich and the poor, reappears in all countries and times. The war rages not only in battle-fields, in national councils, and ecclesiastical synods, but agitates every man's bosom with opposing advantages every hour. On rolls the old world meantime, and now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities.
Such an irreconcilable antagonism, of course, must have a correspondent depth of seat in the human constitution. It is the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason. It is the primal antagonism, the appearance in trifles of the two poles of nature.
I would like to add that moreover even if the effect is small, it acts over generations, shaping our culture like water shapes a canyon; and besides, we had to choose sides over something, and what would be more fundamental than the age old differences in our social personalities?
But everyone missed it, even though this is was six years after Alford & Hibbing's identical twin studies revealed that 40% of our political orientation stems from genes. They missed it years after the discovery of the "liberal gene" DRD47R. Unlike the "God Gene" (which was based on far less) which made the cover of Time, these were momentary flashes in the media pan. Haidt's bright post-partisan future is still shrouded by a dull old culture.
Bless their hearts, they mean well, but they are prisoners of their moral tribes. The idea that that much of politics stems from innate personality and the formative years before your first vote is alien, profane, and threatening, particularly to those with a good racket in the present game.
All sides hold one thing sacred above all else in politics. This is the idea that politics is an objective discussion among "rational men"; that our political personalities stem solely from our different experiences and environments; that if we could only live in each other's shoes, we would see the light of consensus. The idea is that if Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly were accidentally switched at birth, they would have become heroes of the opposing sides. Propose this for any other behavior and you would be laughed out of the hall. But for politics, we all confirm it sacrosanct via our silence. This is despite ample evidence, even regarding basic instincts. Conservatives have 41% higher fertility, and are clearly more territorial, hierarchical, and prefer war over diplomacy.
Here I would like to interject a concept that I haven't yet seen discussed, that nature seeks its own nurture. We choose start choosing different experiences, activities, friends, and education at a very early age.
This applies to Social Psychologists, particularly leaders like Haidt who generally really like what they do and are good at it. They think about how other people think; otherwise known as empathy. Liberalism was well defined by Jaron Lanier as the size of one's circle of empathy. Social Psychologists think about how social groups think. To be amazed at how Social Psychology is dominated by liberals is like being impressed by how fast all those girls on the track team are.
Here is my personal take on Lanier's circle. I turned it into a "sphere of empathy" by adding two axes to account for hierarchy and movement through time (traditionalism versus progressivism).
Here are the polar examples of one's "sphere of empathy".
That is the sort of thing that seems obvious once you stop thinking of politics only as rational arguments about the distribution of power and shared assets, and see it also as a clash of personalities, personalities based in part on a wide mix of genes, some of which are very old.
So while Haidt masterfully tiptoes exactly around the subject, please excuse my jumping in the middle of it. It won't threaten my day job. The roots of our politics are more about Cro Magnon than Karl Marx. The "biggest question ever asked" can be answered with a story that began about 80,000 years ago. This was the Origin of Political Species.